Matilda Jane Tillman (family photo courtesy of Leisa Bush-Yillah)

An ancestor identified as black reportedly spoke a language of the Creek people. The family’s paper trail reflects the complicated history of the American West.

Dear Professor Gates:

I am seeking more information about my paternal grandmother Matilda Jane Tillman and her origins.

Matilda Jane (or Tilly) was born on Dec. 26, 1895, in Marlton (near Little Rock), Ark., according to her Social Security application and death certificate. She spoke Creek. Her parents were Sarah Smith/Thompson (born 1873) and Boss (Benjamin/Ben/Bass) Tillman (born May 1867). On April 2, 1891, Boss Tillman and Sarah Smith married in Conway, Ark. Matilda and her sister Pearl were the result of this union. Boss was married four times in all. 

I noticed that in the 1910 census, Boss, Matilda Jane and Pearl were listed as mulatto rather than black. I tried to locate Boss, Sarah and Matilda in the Dawes Final Rolls. I found a Sarah Thompson who was Creek and a number of Sarah Smiths listed under the other tribes, as well as a Matilda Thompson.

Can you help me learn more about Matilda’s mother, Sarah, and the family’s Native American origins? —Leisa Bush-Yillah


Following your lead, we found Boss Tillman and his daughters (including Matilda Jane) in the 1910 U.S. census when they were residing at Sadie, Sequoyah County, Okla. (via FamilySearch; free registration required). They were recorded as mulatto, as you noted. Keep in mind that the racial identity of a person listed in a federal census often relied on the personal interpretation of the census taker, based on assumptions made regarding skin color and other aspects of an individual’s appearance, regardless of what the occupant of the home said. Therefore, you should not infer too much from that variation in the way that your relatives were identified.

At the time of the 1910 census, Boss was married to a woman named Easter and had stepsons with the surname Shaw residing with him. You may be able to locate more information on this family by investigating the Shaws as well.

There is a marriage record for Bass Tillman and Easter Davis at Sequoyah, Okla., on Jan. 30, 1909 (; subscription required), which means that they were newlyweds in 1910. Though his stepsons had the name Shaw, Boss’ new bride had the name Davis at the time of their marriage, which gives you another name to search.


Working backward in time, in 1900 Bass Tillman was residing in Perry Township, Perry County, Ark., with his wife, Louisa, and five daughters: Missie (born in July 1887), Birdie (born in June 1891), Tilda (born in October 1893), Emeline (born in September 1895) and Pearl (born in October 1896). The family was identified as black.

It seems likely that your grandmother Matilda Jane is the “Tilda” recorded here, and the record also suggests that there was another daughter, named Emeline, born between Matilda and her sister Pearl. Since Emeline does not appear in the household in 1910, you may be able to locate a death record for her or search for her in another household that year.

The Arrival of the Creek in Your Family’s Home State 

The time frame during which the family apparently moved from Arkansas to neighboring Oklahoma is interesting, given that you say your grandmother “spoke Creek.” As we wrote previously in the column “Why Were My Freedmen Ancestors Split Between Tribes?” the Creek (also known as the Muscogee), along with the nations of the Cherokee, Chicksaw, Choctaw and Seminole, “had acquired the label of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes,’ in part because they had adopted plantation farming, Western education, Christianity and slaveholding, among other practices. With the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, nearly 50,000 Native Americans were relocated west along with the Africans they had enslaved.”


According to the Encyclopedia of American Indian Removal, by 1851 most of the Creek and the black people they enslaved had been removed to Indian Territory, west of Arkansas and Missouri, in what today is largely Oklahoma.

As we further noted in our previous column:

Following the Civil War, the five nations, all of which had members who fought for the Confederacy, entered into Reconstruction Treaty agreements with the United States. One of the concessions of these treaties was that the nations had to emancipate those they had enslaved and grant the “freedmen” tribal rights. The Cherokee, Creek and Seminole granted their freedmen tribal rights without any restrictions, whereas the Chickasaw and Choctaw each gave freedmen the option of adoption into the nation or removal from the area to settle elsewhere. Because of the 1866 treaties, freedmen were granted membership into the nation under which they were previously enslaved.


That one or more of your ancestors spoke Creek could have been the result of having Creek heritage or Creek Freedmen heritage or simply from living in or near a Creek community. If you have not already, we suggest that you take an autosomal DNA test to learn the percentage of Native American ancestry in your DNA. Companies such as 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA provide them.

Leads for Sarah’s Family in Arkansas

As you mentioned, your great-grandmother shows up in the marriage record for Bass Tillman and Sarah Smith on April 2, 1891, at Plumerville, Conway County, Ark. This record suggests that her surname was Smith and that she was 18 years old at the time of the marriage. She was recorded in the document as “Miss. Sarah Smith.” Conway County is adjacent to Perry County, where we know the family resided in 1900, suggesting that this is the area of Arkansas where we will want to look for more information about Boss and Sarah.


Ideally, you would check the closest census record to find Sarah and Boss residing with their families prior to their marriage in or around the location where they married. The struggle you are going to face is that the 1890 census does not exist for much of the country. One option would be to check tax records for Perry and Conway counties for the surnames Tillman, Smith and Thompson.

Even if your ancestors never owned land, they still would have had to pay taxes on their personal estates, so you may be able to make a list of possible parents of Sarah while also determining how soon Boss appears in the tax records. These records are available in microfilm through the Family History Library or from the respective county courthouses.

We searched for any families of color with the surname Tillman, Smith or Thompson in Perry County and its surrounding counties in 1880. Though we did not locate Boss Tillman in any records, we did note the family of George Tillman in Perry, Perry County, Ark. They were identified as black and had children in the household around Boss’ age. Perhaps these are close relatives.


In the 1880 census we also saw a Sarah Thompson residing with her parents, Stephen and Rebecca Thompson, at Perry, Ark., and siblings Enoch, Ada and Stephen. This family, too, was identified as black. Sarah M. Thompson is the right age to be your Sarah. What is interesting about this record is that her father’s birthplace was recorded as Arkansas, but his parents were both born in “Indian Ty,” likely an abbreviation for “Indian Territory.” Noting the other children in the household, you could search for more records of them to see if you can identify a connection to your Sarah that could prove she is the Sarah in this household.

For example, in looking at Sarah’s potential siblings, we see some telling signs that this is the correct family. Ada/Ida Thompson married Sam Tillman in Perry County on Aug. 29, 1897. This suggests that the Thompson and Tillman families intermarried. By 1930, Sam and Ada were residing in Holdenville, Hughes, Okla., and Ada is buried at the Buchner Memorial Cemetery in Holdenville. We know that your Tillman family also migrated to Oklahoma, so it is possible that this Tillman family did, too, because they were related to yours.

According to the Social Security Applications and Claims Index, Enoch Andy Thompson’s parents were Steve Thompson and Rebecca Paine. He was born Jan. 22, 1874, at Bigelow, Ark. Bigelow is in Perry County and gives you a specific town where you can search for more information on the family. There are also a number of records for the father, Stephen Thompson, in the United States, Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of the Superintendent of Education and of the Division of Education Records in Arkansas that could be for the same Thompson family, which may reveal more about their history.


Finding Creek Documentation

To determine a records connection to the Creek Nation, you could resume your search of the Dawes Rolls (also known as “the Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory”), including the additional names and information that we found, to narrow down the possibilities.

Also take a look at the 1860 Census West of Arkansas of the Creek Nation, which includes a Jesse Thompson born in Tennessee, an Amanda Thompson born in Indiana and a Mary Thompson born in Missouri. You could research these individuals further to try to establish a connection to your ancestors.


Good luck!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.