Henry Nail, a Freedmen Politician and Icon

Henry Nail, a Freedmen Politician and Icon

When discussing Freedmen in the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations we often hear one of three types of stories. The most popular of these stories is the Gunslinger who is ultimately with or against the law and all things associated with it. Another more relatable story is the direct ancestor who brought the storyteller into their lives and may or may-not have passed down cultural and familial knowledge directly to them. The third type of story is of the long-lost Dawes enrollee who represents a lost connection to a culture some never knew they had. 

What we hardly see is the discussion of political Freedmen who greatly impacted the worlds around them and possess still-relevant legacies that have been hidden behind decades of cultural erasure and Jim-Crow laws. While these figures are rare, they do not exist only in imagination or Hollywood-esque stories. 

Today we are going to celebrate the endurance, leadership and legacy of a man you have probably never heard of before. Henry Nail of the Choctaw Nation. 

In 1898 Poteau and Cameron were in a very bitter war over the ownership of the U.S. Court, and several powers in the Choctaw Nation were taking an interest in it. The South McAlester Capital seems to have favored Poteau and about the middle of that year it said: Poteau is making Herculean efforts to have the federal court moved from Cameron to their town.

As relayed by the Leflore County Sun, the Grand Jury members tasked with speaking about this struggle were: “S. S. French, Red Oak, E. W. Culberson, Oak Lodge, Gilbert Dukes, Talihina, R. P. Harris, Houston, Jackson Moore, Cache, G. A. Meyers, Talihina, Hiram King, Whitefield, Dick Burson, Cartersville, James Culberson, Leflore, B. F. Thompson, Bokoshe,  W. F. Stogner, Heavener, John H. Hinton, Pocola, Captain W. A. Welch, Talihina, David Robertson, Monroe, Henry Nail, the only negro on the panel, Talihina.”

McAlester’s paper on the same subject introduced him as “Henry Nail, of Talihina, one of the leading colored men of the Choctaw Nation.”

The approval for moving the courthouse was given in 1899 and it was officially moved in 1900. Although it was moved by Congress, Henry Nail still represents a solid and documented part of that push to move it, and was able to represent and voice his own interests and the interests of his town which he had two businesses in. (A grocery store called Nail & Son’s and an Ice Cream Parlor owned by his wife)

It is worth noting that among these men that Henry Nail is on the Grand Jury with, there is soon-to-be Choctaw Chief Gilbert Wesley Dukes who he was very close to and often operated with in tandem. In late 1896, Dukes was legal counsel for Henry Nail against the Choctaw Nation! William Anderson Welch was a famous territorial lawyer who oversaw NUMEROUS Freedmen interviews and legal proceedings. He is also known for helping raise Earl Welch, the first Native American Supreme Court Justice of Oklahoma, his grandson. Welch and Nail were regularly attending the same political events as delegates from Talihina indicating some level of cooperation. 

Henry Nail was so respected as a Choctaw citizen, his comings and goings were regularly published in pro-Choctaw newspapers from Atoka to Talihina. It is believed Henry Nail was laid to rest in July of 1899 in the integrated Old Talihina Cemetery within walking distance of William A. Welch and many of the town’s white and Choctaw founders who passed before and after him. He bears no grave-stone but his wife, Sophronia who was buried in that place in 1896 has a grave next to her with a large boulder on top, unmarked beside their closest friends and people whom they were regularly represented with as colleagues. 

Henry Nail took on many roles in leadership and tribal service, another of which being temporarily appointed Special Deputy Sheriff of Tuskahoma Precinct by Judge Thompson in April of 1895, an unprecedented feat that allowed him to carry and safe-guard a poll book of the Choctaw Nation.

This is such a major task because it’s not just that he was trusted with Choctaw Nation election documents; he was the sole protector of the tabulated votes and would transport them to be counted at the Council House in Tuskahoma. This was a document that he was charged to protect with his life.

He was in many conventions, delegations and political parties in Choctaw, Freedmen and white political spheres until his death in 1899 at the age of approximately 49. His intricate grasp of language and oration allowed him to excel at public speaking, a task with which he was paid to do by prominent politicians of the Nation. He is relatively unknown, even in the town of which he lived and represented, Talihina. 

If he is known, it is generally from his role as Superintendent of the Tushkalusa Academy, the only Freedmen boarding school in the Choctaw Nation. Throughout his five-year tenure as the leader of this revolutionary establishment he published several newspaper articles that document the struggles of aligning himself with the politics of the time while fighting for his rights and his children’s right to a future in the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribe. 

While the facility was ultimately closed, we have some surviving letters he published encapsulating this great struggle to carry himself, his students and his school to the edge of what was possible at that time. 

“No one in the family, in the school, in the civil district, in the country, in the State or in the Nation, has the right to do or say anything that interferes with the life, liberty, property, or happiness of another. Any act which interferes with the rights of others is an offense against the common good and the law.” H. Nail, Talihina News, 21, June 1894. 

This quote was published prior to the Atoka Agreement and the Curtis Act. Henry, like many other Freedmen, knew his rights had to be fought for and chose to be steadfast and give it his all. 

Photographed below is:

Believed to be Henry Nail and his son, Byington circa December of 1888 in front of the Miller Pharmacy in Talihina, Oklahoma. 

The Talihina Frisco Depot which was used as the primary method of transporting goods to the Academy and Henry’s own home and businesses. 

Tushkalusa Academy 1899 (Henry Nail was no longer Superintendent by this point)

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