This is a tribute to one of my favorite Freedmen heroes, Mr. Harry Island. Mr. Island was a Black Creek Native American interpreter. He was born into slavery, around 1812, most likely somewhere in the southeastern United States. He passed away in 1872 at the age of 60. He lived in Muscogee, Oklahoma. Little is known of his early years nor of his personal life except that he was married to Maggie Cow Tom. He has been characterized as being “shrewd” in his dealings with the nation and the government. He evidently possessed uncommon intelligence, courage, and love for his people as he rose to be a leader in his community.

He served as one of the official U.S. Interpreters with the Muskogee Creek Nation. He was present during numerous official hearings during the 1860’s and 70’s after the Civil War. Island is said to have been among the strongest voices ensuring that the Freedmen were included among the Loyal Creeks. Some of these nation Creeks were trying to exclude their Black citizens from receiving benefits extended to the nation from the federal government. The attempts to disenfranchise Black citizens from the nation were like a dark cloud that hung over Black Freedmen for generations. Some attempts were subtle such as, during the Dawes era, two distinctly different rolls were developed. Names that appeared on the “by blood” roll were considered qualified to receive tribal benefits. Names that appeared on the “Freedmen roll” were automatically disqualified. Blood had no bearing, only skin color. Other attempts were more blatant such as the 1979 rewriting of the Creek Nation constitution which, in effect, wrote out the existence of Freedmen in the nation.

Historian’s perspective about Harry Island is that he “tricked” the Creeks by including benefits for Freedmen in all negotiations. Harry was himself a citizen of the Creek Nation. Creek Nation was his birthplace. He had spoken the language and practiced the customs his entire life. His character and attitude would not allow him to exclude his own people, who were a part of the same nation, from the benefits accorded to his nation. Island shared this challenge with other like-minded contemporaries of his time such as Ketch Barnett, Cow Tom, Sugar George, and Silas Jefferson. All these and more were African Creeks.

Harry Island is buried in Agency Cemetery which is known as an Indian cemetery. It exists west of Muscogee and north of the Arkansas River (Sec 9, TISN, R18E). The cemetery is landlocked with no real access road and is in dire need of upkeep.

Kenneth Ford (with the help of other sources)