Cow Tom, born into slavery in Alabama in 1810 and sold to a Creek Indian chief before his tenth birthday, possessed an extraordinary gift: the ability to master languages. As the new country developed westward, and Indians, settlers, and blacks came into constant contact, Cow Tom became a key translator for his Creek master and was hired out to US military generals. His talent earned him money—but would it also grant him freedom? And what would become of him and his family in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Indian Removal westward?
Cow Tom’s legacy lives on—especially in the courageous spirit of his granddaughter Rose. She rises to leadership of the family as they struggle against political and societal hostility intent on keeping blacks and Indians oppressed. But through it all, her grandfather’s indelible mark of courage inspires her—in mind, in spirit, and in a family legacy that never dies.
Written in two parts portraying the parallel lives of Cow Tom and Rose, Citizens Creek is a beautifully rendered novel that takes the reader deep into a little known chapter of American history. It is a breathtaking tale of identity, community, family—and above all, the power of an individual’s will to make a difference.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
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HIS MASTER’S VOICE, testy, from the direction of the main house. He had to obey, eventually, but pretended not to hear, giving himself time, sliding his hand along the stomach line from dewlap to udder, feeling for an unfamiliar bulge or irritated patch. Good. Nothing for worry. He was sure what awaited him was another meaningless chore, or errand easily assigned to one of the others. A task not worthy of a hilis haya. A healer. He was just turned twelve, mostly a man.
Hadjo chewed a lazy cud, her eyes calm, but he knew better than to believe she couldn’t just as well deliver a fast kick, whether hurt or merely displeased, and kept his body from her firing line. She still showed no sign of shakes, thank the Great Spirit. She was full of personality among her dimmer colleagues, a bit of a show-off. He’d named her himself, Hadjo, the Creek word for jokester. No one else would understand his choice of favorite. They’d choose the cow that calved often and gave the most milk, or one with big haunches for a tasty stew, or the strongest, or they’d refuse to pick at all, unable to see differences, as if one cow substituted for another. She might not fetch highest price if put to sale, but Tom preferred clever.
A week ago, when Hadjo refused her suckling, and turned from the grass at feed time, he worried she’d caught milk sickness. But now he thought it nothing more than a passing malady, without potential to hurt the tribe. He personally hand-fed Hadjo grain mixed with oil from the dried, ripe seeds of the flax plant, in the way of Old Turtle, and already saw improvement in both appetite and movement. Once sure she posed no danger, he would return her to graze with the others as she passed her time on this earth until her end, providing her milk for the tribe and her meat for the tribe, or until she was sold for currency held by Chief Yargee for the benefit of all. Once Tom ran her, he’d know whether Hadjo was infected with the slows. If her legs didn’t buckle, he would declare her well. If she weakened and fell to the ground, he would separate her from the others until she succumbed, and bury the remains deep so none could feast on her poison. He owed that much to the People. If beef of milk-sick cows was eaten, or milk drunk, the system of the People would be contaminated. He’d seen it before, in the time of his old master, before Chief Yargee. First came the person’s loss of energy for days or weeks, followed by the terrible shaking, followed by the final gasp of breath. And the cow long dead. Old Turtle taught him the connection.
He patted Hadjo on the rump, not daring to ignore the call again.
“Back directly,” he promised in Mvskoke, and then again in English. He practiced every chance, the words in both languages true on his tongue.
Hadjo continued about her business, unconcerned.
Tom sped cross-pasture and nudged Old Turtle where he nodded under a moss-draped live oak close to the sluggish stream.
“Chief Yargee calls,” Tom said. “I’m gone from the herd.”
“Humph.” Old Turtle tightened his lips and squinted hard at Tom. The intense sun and passing years had turned his skin leathery, burnished to the color of dried figs, his expression unyielding. “Don’t show too smart, boy. Mind your tongue around master.”
“He calls for his hilis haya,” bragged Tom. “Second healer,” he immediately corrected, not wanting to offend. “Next to you, best in the tribe.”
The advance of blindness and age slowed his mentor, but rheumy-eyed Old Turtle was still better in the healing of cattle than the most able-bodied man in Alabama, black or Indian. And Tom was the young hilis haya of the five hundred cattle in the herd, having watched Old Turtle minister to livestock on first Master McIntosh’s plantation, and now, among the Upper Creeks on Chief Yargee’s plantation.
“You and me, we’re as much slave on this place as the last, though the master be more tolerable here,” said Old Turtle.
“But we’re Creek too,” insisted Tom. He touched the red strings in his turban for luck.
“We are what we are. Owned by tribe’s not the same as tribe,” said Old Turtle. “Straight off now and see to what the chief wants. And don’t overstep.”
Tom followed the banks of the Alabama River, tromping through the tall grass in the direction of the chief’s house. He rounded the corner of the side yard’s vegetable garden.
Two unfamiliar horses lazed in front of his master’s logged cabin, a three-hand roan with a fancy horned leather saddle and a smaller paint with broad pinto spotting, draped with a coarse wool riding blanket. He knew now why he’d been called. Visitors.
Four figures stood in an awkward knot outside the house, waiting, a different flavor of annoyance written across each distinctive face, Indian, black, and white. He caught the eye of the other Tom on the plantation, a tall pecan-colored slave two years his senior, already sprouting the beginnings of a mustache on his upper lip, caught up in the net of the same name. The other Tom answered the call more quickly, most probably from the stable, where he shod the tribe’s ponies. They’d found themselves in this situation before, the two Toms, and after the briefest flicker of recognition, Tom concentrated on his master, figuring how much trouble he might be in for taking too long.
Chief Yargee threw up his hands when he saw Tom. He seemed more nettled that he had to deal with a white man than that he’d had to wait. His master didn’t take to strangers, especially English-speaking strangers. Yargee was full-blood, devoted more to old ways than new, and if the chief could have lived his life through without ever seeing a white face or being vulnerable to the confusing ways of the Wachenas, he would have died a man content.
“What took so long?” asked Yargee in Mvskoke.
“Cattle trouble,” said Tom. He thought of Old Turtle’s warning and said nothing more, holding his breath as he waited for Chief Yargee’s reaction.
Distracted, Chief Yargee skimmed past Tom’s delay and waved away the other Tom with an impatient gesture. “They talk crazy,” he said.
The two strangers looked uncomfortable. The short white man was smaller than the chief, dressed in a mishmash of clothing, some Indian, some store-bought cloth and American fashion, like Tom had seen before on the old plantation. The dark-skinned man wore a feathered turban, a blanket wrapped around his body Indian-style, and breeches with fur around the bottom.
“I am yatika.” The black stranger spoke in thick-tongued Mvskoke, so heavily accented he was difficult to understand.
“What’s he say, Tom?” Yargee asked.
The situation came clear. Chief Yargee had little tolerance for unfamiliarity with his language. Tom had thrown himself into mastering Mvskoke as well as Creek customs and dress when Yargee bought him into the nation as his property. This white man had the foresight to bring his own interpreter, but Yargee didn’t approve of the abuse of the language in the black man’s mouth.
“I am yatika for Chief Yargee,” Tom said in English.
He ignored the black man’s look of surprise and the mirrored expression of the little white man. Tom was used to doubt, to challenge, to underestimation, because he was twelve and looked younger still.
“Chief Yargee asks the reason for your visit.”
This time the white man spoke, in English. He too had an accent, but Tom made internal adjustments for his odd lilt and speech, and found him understandable.
“I’m passing through, writing about Indians in Alabama. For my own amusement. Yes?”
Tom wasn’t sure how much Mvskoke the black man really understood, so he mostly performed a straight translation of the white man’s words for Yargee without commentary or shading, but he left out the part about amusement. Chief Yargee wouldn’t respond well, and he wanted to keep the exchange going, fascinated that a white man brought his slave dressed Cherokee-style with him as he traveled through Alabama.
“We feed them,” Yargee said in Mvskoke to Tom, “then they go.”
“The chief invites you to sup,” Tom translated, “before going on your way.” The white man seemed grateful at the offer, so Tom added, “You and your estelvste.”
The black man straightened up at this last, his face suddenly flinty.
“I am not his,” he said in English, pulling his blanket tighter around his shoulders. “I am a free man, belonging only to myself. I have papers for proof. I travel without permission.”
This man was as dark as Tom, maybe even a shade darker, his hair kinky beneath his turban, his face broad without the slightest hint of Indian blood. Every black man, woman, boy, or girl Tom had ever known was owned by white or Indian. Masters differed in temperament and treatment, in wealth and in influence, but so far as he knew, any with one drop of Negro blood were slaves. He’d seen official papers before, sheaves of parchment his former master kept in a locked rolltop desk no one was allowed to touch, except to keep dusted. Master McIntosh used to pull these papers out each month and worry over them, scratching black ink across the pages with a goose-quill feather pen. He’d add new sheets to the stack whenever he made a sale or a purchase on the plantation. Tom wondered if the black man’s proof papers looked like those.
Tom wasn’t supposed to know how to read or write, but Master McIntosh sent his son to the white man’s school, and in the beginning, the boy showed Tom the individual squiggles of letters he said were the mortar and pestle of the white men’s books in his father’s library. Tom practiced them when alone. That was before the son outgrew their small-boy friendship and went on to embrace the life his father laid out for him, where Tom’s function was to serve, not accompany. But Tom could write his own name and pick out some words. Once he came to Yargee, the chief didn’t care one way or the other if Tom could read, so long as he performed his chores. Yargee had no knowledge of the written word, and cared about only the valuable cattle-tending skills gained for the tribe when he bought in Old Turtle and young Tom together.
Tom looked to Yargee, but his master had scant interest in an exchange in a language he didn’t understand and which promised to impact him little. Still, Tom translated the black man’s words, the freedom declaration.
Yargee didn’t comment, but didn’t laugh either, or protest the absurdity of the claim. A free black man. Sometimes you had to see a thing to know the possibility of it. He’d ask Old Turtle later.
“Mightn’t I ask Chief Yargee about his life as Upper Creek in Alabama?” asked the white man.
The chief grabbed up his bois d’arc bow and a full quiver of arrows. “Have cook lay supper and food for them to carry away,” he said in Mvskoke.
“Chief Yargee meets with Council now, but asks me to see you eat and drink to your fill.”
He’d get these men to himself before sending them off. If only he could learn how one came by freedom, with papers as proof. Or glimpse a world beyond an Alabama plantation.
The white man seemed particularly disappointed, but that didn’t burden Chief Yargee. He pulled Tom to the side.
“From now, won’t be two Toms,” Yargee whispered in Mvskoke. “Your name is Cow Tom, and his is Horse Tom, and you come soon as I call.”
“Yes, Chief Yargee.”
Yargee headed toward the woods without a backward glance, leaving Cow Tom to handle the visitors.
Later, alone, with the two men fed and on their way, Tom found the twinkle of the star that never moved in the northern sky to accept his nightly prayer. He conjured up his most precious memory. His mother, her callused hands so warm at the nape of his neck, humming some nameless, soothing tune as she tilted his head and spooned her concocted herbal brew between his lips as he lay sick of a childhood disease on a straw pallet. A pause to her crooning, and something cool on his forehead, and the timbre of her voice, rich enough to tame pain or hurt that he still played back the melody of it whenever he fell into sadness. “Come, boy,” she said then. “My Tom. Be well. You’re meant for special things. Be well now.”
He missed her.
His star called to him. First, he wished his mother safe. He wished she would come back. He wished for guidance on how to be special. And now he had something new to add to his list. He wished he was paper-free.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Citizen’s Creek includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
New York Times bestselling author Lalita Tademy brings a unique and important perspective to the American Dream in her multigenerational family saga Citizens Creek. Beginning in 1822 and ending in the early 1900s, Citizens Creek charts one family’s constant, and at times harrowing, struggle for independence, survival, and identity during some of American history’s harshest and uncertain times.
The story begins with Cow Tom, property of a stern yet sensible Creek Indian chief. Although a slave, Cow Tom is indispensable to the tribe for his abilities as cattle herder as well as a linguist. When not tending the herd, Cow Tom often translates several dialects for his chief, a skill that lands him with the military as it wages war with the Seminoles throughout the Florida swamps. Despite assurances of a short campaign, Cow Tom spends a year away from his young wife and their daughters. When he finally returns, he brings with him physical and emotional scars that will define him for decades to come, as well as a new family member.
Cow Tom moves his family often, dodging disease and raiding parties as the nation tumbles into the Civil War. Through hard work and business savvy, Cow Tom not only buys his family’s freedom, but also quickly prospers on a small ranch and is elevated to a leader among his peers. His pride and convictions even bring him to Washington DC to argue the inequities and duplicitous dealings upon tribal lands. As time begins to take its toll upon Cow Tom, his granddaughter, Rose, carries forward his legacy.
Relying on her grandfather’s wisdom yet forging her own identity, Rose establishes herself as a strong, independent woman. As Rose begins reconciling to life as a spinster, along comes rancher Jake Simmons. Ten years younger with high ambitions matched only by his wandering eye, Jake forever tests Rose’s patience and commitment with a series of infidelities both on the trail and under the family’s own roof. Rose’s mettle is continually tested as she manages to raise ten children, maintain a ranch, stay informed of the ever-evolving land laws, and honor a proud family legacy.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What was the extent of your knowledge about the relationship between Negroes and Native Americans? What was most interesting and/or surprising to you? How was this slave/owner relationship different than other histories and depictions in books, television, and film?
2. Were you familiar at all with the Trail of Tears? Did Citizens Creek inspire you to do any independent research? How would you describe this episode in American history?
3. In what ways is Cow Tom more than a translator? Is there a scene that you think best illustrates this? Would you consider Cow Tom a leader?
4. Do you think the Seminole Wars were justified? Why or why not? Can you think of any comparable conflicts in American or world history?
5. How did you interpret Cow Tom’s showdown with the Seminole brave? Were Cow Tom’s actions justified? How did his actions impact his life?
6. Pick three adjectives to describe Harry Island. How would you describe his relationship with Cow Tom throughout their lives? In what ways do they change? How do they complement each other?
7. What do you consider the key changes that Cow Tom and his family face when they are all reunited?
8. How would you describe Cow Tom’s attitude toward the Civil War and emancipation? What role does the government play—positive and negative—throughout the story?
9. “Twin” is a powerful force in Rose’s early life. How would you define this relationship? Does it have its positive and negative impacts? Why does Twin’s influence wane?
10. How are Cow Tom and Rose similar? Different? What values do they share?
11. How do you define the Creek view and approach to death? Can you think of any other cultures that follow similar rituals?
12. In what ways are Jake and Rose a good match? Were you surprised at the pairing and courtship? What was your reaction to Jake’s actions? Why do you think Rose tolerated them and, by extension, him?
13. Is Rose a good mother? What traits do the women of this family share?
14. What role do traditions play in the family? In the Creek tribe?
15. Did reading the author’s afterword help you better contextualize the story? Did it change your feelings toward the book at all?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit a local historical society with your book group to learn about your area’s history during the time period when Citizens Creek is set. Ask about tribes, slavery, pre– and post–Civil War changes, land expansion, farming, and any other theme or point of interest from Citizens Creek.
2. Traditions and customs are a recurring theme in Citizens Creek. Share a family tradition of your own with the members of your book group and then share a tradition you would like to start.
3. Pick a character from the book and write a one-page epilogue for him or her, or discuss in your book group where you see this character going.