Like most other people groups, the Cherokees for many years had only a common law. It was not written down but was well-known and understood by citizens of their nation. Around 1819, the Cherokees began to put their laws into writing and also began to create new laws for the new circumstances dealing with their non-Indian neighbors.

One of these new laws dealt with interracial marriage, specifically the marriage of a Cherokee woman to a white man. It had long been a practice of European and American traders to take an Indian wife out on the frontier to gain acceptance in her tribe, trade rights and even rights to tribal property. Some of these traders already had a white wife back home, making them bigamists.

The marriage law passed by the National Council and Committee in 1819 legalized marriage between white men and Cherokee women, but did not allow bigamy. It also stated that the man could not dispose of the property of the Cherokee woman without her consent and if he abandoned her, she would retain all of her property. This was radically different from American laws which rarely allowed women to own property. This law was amended in 1825 to disallow bigamy for Cherokee men as well.

Additional laws regarding marriage were passed in subsequent years. In 1825, a law gave the white spouse of a Cherokee citizenship in the nation. That citizenship would continue, however, only as long as the Cherokee spouse was alive or if the couple had Cherokee children.

In 1839, when the Cherokees established a united government at Tahlequah in Indian Territory, the 1825 law was amended to require that marrying couples secure a marriage license from the court clerk and pay a fee of $5. A certificate of marriage also had to be filed by the person performing the marriage ceremony. Anyone committing bigamy would be expelled from the nation as an intruder.

In additional amendments to the general marriage law, whites marrying Cherokees were required to meet certain requirements to get a marriage license. “Foreigners” who sought to marry a Cherokee would need to present a certificate of good moral character signed by 10 Cherokee citizens who had known the individual for longer than six months. The “foreigner” would also have to make an additional vow before the clerk issuing the license. That vow was an oath of allegiance to the Cherokee Nation and a disavowal of citizenship in any other nation.

The oath read: "I do solemnly swear, that I will honor, defend and submit to the constitution and laws of the Cherokee Nation, and will neither claim, nor seek, from the United States, or any other Government, or from the Judicial Tribunals thereof, any protection, privilege or redress incompatible with the same, as guaranteed to the Cherokee Nation by the United States in treaty stipulations entered into between them. So help me God."

Having taken this oath of allegiance, the non-Cherokee would be allowed to retain their Cherokee citizenship even if their spouse died and there were no children born of the marriage.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.