Texas Cherokee, Tuch-ee by George CatlinWoven into the fabric of personal history is the image of the American Indian. When I was a child my grandmother revealed to me, in a secretive voice, that I was of Cherokee-Irish descent; that my great-grandmother, Sarah Jane Kelly, was a full-blood Texas Cherokee. The revelation filled me with excitement and wonder. Only many years later did I realize that the secretive, almost conspiratorial tone, was shaped by generations of fear, for in Sarah Jane’s day, Indians were an undesirable element in Texas. Rather than leave her homeland, she passed for White. Her’s was not a migration from one place to another, but from one culture to another.
Tuch-ee, Texas Cherokee by George Catlin

Over the years I have sought to reclaim my Indian heritage. The lessons of history teach us that the loss of cultural traits, language, and land does not erase the sense of identity. Ethnic differences are rooted in one’s perspective on history. So, what is presented here is a brief history of the Texas Cherokee from the heart of one of their descendants.

The Search for a Homeland

The Cherokee call themselves Aniyunwiya, the Principal People. Their traditional homeland lay far to the east, in Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Georgia. They were a remarkable nation of Indians who were extremely adaptable and innovative.

One of the most renowned Cherokee, Sequoyah, single-handedly invented a syllabary for the Cherokee language. He is the only person in history to have accomplished such a task for his culture. Soon the Cherokee had books, libraries and schools. Their newfound literacy enabled them to translate portions of the Bible, and to publish a bilingual newspaper.

The Bowl or Chief Bowles led a band of Cherokee into battle with White immigrants on the Muscle Shoals along the banks of the Tennessee River in 1794.

The battle was called a massacre by the Whites and Chief Bowles knew it was fruitless to defend his actions against certain retaliation. From that moment on he was to lead his tribe across half a continent in search of a permanent home.

At first they settled in southeastern Missouri. The chief and his people were content on their new land and remained there until 1811. That year was marked by an earthquake of awesome proportions. Believing it to be an omen warning them to leave that piece of land, they relocated in Lost Prairie, Arkansas. Sequoyah joined Bowles’ tribe in Arkansas and it was here that Sequoyah diligently devised the Cherokee syllabary.

Misfortune befell the Cherokee again, this time in the guise of a team of surveyors. Bowles’ settlement was not on the land ceded to the Indians by the U.S. Government and they were forced to relocate once more.

Followed by sixty families Chief Bowles migrated to Texas in 1820. Among the group was the son of Sequoyah who married one of Chief Bowles’ daughters. Sequoyah, however, returned to the Cherokee nation in the east and introduced literacy to the people.

Although the Cherokee had written permission to emigrate to Texas, they did not have clear title to the land. Bowles knew all too well the importance of securing a legal document granting the land to the Texas Cherokee.

Their new homeland, between the Trinity and Sabine Rivers north of the old San Antonio Road, was much like their old lands to the east with tall pines, rolling hills, and clear streams. Their fortune was, indeed, too good to be true.

At this juncture it is imperative to take a close look at the personalities of a handful of men whose ambitious dreams destroyed one nation-the Texas Cherokee - while they simultaneously inspired the invention of another - the Republic of Texas. Foremost among them, is Chief Bowles, whose paramount motive for all of his actions was to secure a single piece of paper which would grant his people legal rights to their settlement.

John Dunne Hunter, once a captive of the Osage, grew into manhood as an Indian. An individual of remarkable abilities and energy, Hunter’s devotion to the Indian cause of unmolested freedom took him from Washington D.C. to England. He was, depending on who was doing the telling, famous or infamous. His dream of establishing an Indian Nation brought him to Texas in 1825. Here he conspired a revolution against Mexican authority a decade ahead of time.

Stephen F. Austin, a cautious political pragmatist, believed wholeheartedly in governmental authority, in this case - Mexican authority. Like many of his day he condoned slavery and the extermination of Indians.

Peter Ellis Bean was a violent conspiratorial soldier of fortune. His opportunistic tendencies eventually earned him the rank of colonel in the Mexican army, and in this position he also served as a spy for Austin and supported Austin’s motives at every turn.

Sam Houston was the pre-eminent frontiersman and friend of the Indian. An adopted son of the Cherokee, he was known as colon-neh or The Raven. His efforts to secure the Texas Cherokee a permanent home earned him the enmity of many Texans who accused Houston of favoring his "pet indians."

All of these characters were, in the truest sense of the word, men of destiny. Each possessed the genius of leadership coupled with an unshakable cause.

Like the five fingers of a fist they shaped the course of Texas history in ways none of them imagined or desired. Both Austin and Bean were content with Mexican domination until events shifted their pragmatic convictions. I was Hunter, however, whose ambitions for an Indian empire set in motion a tragic course of events which neither Chief Bowles nor Sam Houston could avert.

The Fredonian Rebellion

As soon as Hunter arrived in Texas he went straight-away to the Cherokee and immediately rose to a position of leadership and authority.

Although Austin had a deep-set prejudice against Indians of any stripe, he held the abilities of the Cherokee warriors in high esteem. In 1826 he wrote, "100 Cherokee are decidedly superior to 500 Comanches." And it was this same year that he sought the assistance of the Cherokee in an attack on the Wacos and Tawakonis who were molesting the settlers. Ever the astute politician, Austin took full advantage of the Cherokee’s desire to attain title to their lands.

"I am a friend of the Cherokees," he wrote to their chiefs", and wish to give them an opportunity of showing the Government what good soldiers and faithful citizens, they make, and I have no doubt if you turn out in this expedition and destroy the Tawakany villages on the head of the Navasota that it will be the means of securing you land in the country for as many of your nation as wish to remove here.

Although flooded rivers and creeks prevented the Cherokee form taking immediate and full advantage of the promise, they did on this and other occasions, defend the Texas settlements against the more independent Plains tribes. One of the most noted warriors in their cause was Chief Tachee or The Dutch.

Because of Hunter’s cosmopolitan air and worldly experience - he knew many of the most eminent American and British politicians on a first-name bases - he was soon enlisted by the Cherokee to journey to Mexico City and negotiate for title to their lands. Hunter was unsuccessful in this effort and the experience convinced him that there would be no peaceful means to secure their land from Mexico.

Hunter’s presence disconcerted many Texans who considered him either a British agent or a spy for the U.S. government. Hunter was a keen observer of people and he could quickly surmise which way the political winds were blowing. A spy he was not, a man with an almost messianic devotion to the Indian cause he was.

So when Hunter got wind of the troubles brewing on the Hayden Edwards Settlement, which included the very disreputable town of Nacogdoches, he wasted little time using the events to shape his dream of an Indian empire.

Edwards received in 1825 a contract form the Mexican government to settle eight hundred families in one of the most lawless regions of Texas. A portion of the Edwards grant was on Cherokee lands. Other portions had long been settled by Mexican who generally did not have titles to the lands they occupied. In an effort to establish his authority, Edward’s treatment of the settlers, particularly the Mexicans, led to the eventual annulment of his contract.

Those were the conditions that existed in 1826 when Hunter ventured into Nacogdoches. His sole purpose was to visit the embittered brothers, Haden and Benjamin Edwards, who were facing financial ruin, and propose to them a scheme which was as bold as it was ill-advised.

He proposed an alliance with the anglo Texans and Indians, with the sole purpose of declaring a war of independence from Mexico. Hunter, along with Chief Fields, the principal chief of the Cherokee at the time, promised to marshall that tribe and alliance of twenty-three other Indian tribes to the cause.

A Committee of Independence was formed on December 21, 1826, complete with a signed declaration. A flag of red and white, representing the row races, was created. Inscribed on the banner was the motto, "Independence, Freedom, and Justice."

The alliance, in the mind of Austin, threatened the existing order and promised anarchy. He called the proposed Republic of Fredonia "a small party of infatuated madmen."

Austin and Bean seemed to be of one mind and orchestrated their efforts to a single purpose: divide the Indian leadership by promising land to the Cherokees if they would assist in suppressing the Fredonian Rebellion.

In a letter to Hunter, Austin wrote, " I know the Cherokees can get their lands if legal steps are adopted, and if they take the wrong course they are lost." To the Cherokee chiefs he wrote, " The Cherokees are a civilized and honorable people. God forbid that we should ever shed each other’s blood. Let us be friends and live in peace and harmony."

Among the Anglo Texas, Austin characterized the Whites involved in the rebellion as " no longer Americans, for they have forfeited all title to that high name by their unnatural and bloody alliance with Indians."

Austin mobilized troops which joined the Mexicans in a move to suppress the revolt. In collusion with Bean, Austin formed a truly unnatural and bloody alliance with the Indians.

Again holding out the promise of a secure title to the Cherokee lands, Austin and Bean enticed Chief Bowles and Big Mush in a plot to assassinate Chief Fields and Hunter.

Bowles and Big Mush were trapped between a rock and a hard place. Without their support the Cherokee were seriously divided. Hunter was forced to rally at Nacogdoches with less than thirty warriors. Upon their arrival they found, instead of an army of determined revolutionaries, a drunken brawl. Disenchanted, over half of the Indians left for home.

While Hunter and Fields scoured the countryside for conscripts to the cause, they were slain, as planned, by warriors under the direction of Chief Bowles and Big Mush.

By way of payment for this part in suppressing the rebellion, Chief Bowles received from the Mexican government praise and the title of lieutenant colonel in the Mexican army.

Austin’s duplicity in his dealings with the Cherokee were clearly evident in a letter he wrote to the Mexican authorities protesting "the forced and unnatural accumulation of savages. And we further present to Your Excellency (Bustmente) the great danger and manifest impolicy of making any promises of concessions of lands, either temporary or perpetual, and of offering any other rewards or emoluments, whether it be military appointments or civic honors, on any of the chiefs or head warriors of these barbarous tribes - the friendship of savages is always treacherous - it is purchased today and lost tomorrow."

The Birth of a Republic

Although the insurrection failed, it planted the idea in the minds of Texans for independence. Meanwhile, The Edwards grant was up for grabs. Austin, in a series of letters to David G. Burnet, enticed his friend to relocate permanently in Texas and lay claim to a portion of the grant.

Conspiratorial schemes ran deep and wide in Texas during 1835. For example, in April of that year Austin wrote to Burnet, " The Mexicans have not been my worst enemies and now I do not know that any of them are my enemies." In October of the same year, in another letter to Burnet, Austin wrote, "I hope to see Texas forever free from Mexican domination of any kind."

Bean, evidently in collusion with the new band of Texas revolutionaries, advised the Mexican officials to withhold title to the Cherokee lands. He maintained they would bring vast numbers of barbarous Indians to the area. He advised, instead, to relocate them on the Texas frontier in Indian Territory.

Although Bean’s advice was hatched in the mid of Austin, its timing is significant. To achieve success in their struggle for independence the Texans could ill afford to fight a war on three fronts: the Cherokee to the north, the Comanche to the west, and the Mexicans to the south. By forcing the Cherokee to face off against the Comanche in the west, all the Texans would have to contend with would be the Mexicans. It was an ingenious plan which never transpired.

It’s alternate, however, was equally effective. In November 1835, at San Felipe de Austin, the colonial headquarters on the Brazos River, the Texas delegates gathered to declare their war for independence. At that time they drafted a " Solemn Declaration" which was signed by Henry Smith ( the provisional governor of Texas), Sam Houston and others. In February the following year the Provisional Government of Texas negotiated its first treaty - with the Texas Cherokee. Both documents assured the Cherokee clear title to their lands if they would remain neutral in the upcoming conflict with Mexico.

The following month, independence was declared and David G. Burnet was chosen interim president. One of Burnet’s first acts was to send an emissary to the Cherokee with $2,000 worth of presents to re-enforce the treaty, but not to make any further promises of land.

As is well known, the Republic of Texas won its independence in 1836. At that time the prospects for the Texas Cherokee never looked better as their friend, Houston, was elected president of the Republic.

An effort to further cement the bond between the Cherokee and the Texans prompted Houston to request Chief Bowles to venture into Indian Territory and negotiate a peace treaty with the prairie tribes. Bowles’ effort almost cost him his life, and he returned to Houston to report that all but the Comanches were willing to sign a treaty.

Betrayal and Expulsion

The Cherokee were shocked when, in December of 1837, the Texas Senate refused to ratify the first treaty of the government of Texas. The Cherokee were denied title to their lands as they formed part of the Burnet grant. Houston was succeeded as head of government by Mirabeau B. Lamar who vowed that "the sword should mark the boundaries of the republic."

[To understand Larmar's rise to power see THE TEXFILES: A Specific Inquiry Into the Republican Period of Texas: by CORK MORRIS / Supporting Sam Houston was a deadly serious business alienating Lamar and summoning the dread curse which possessed the advocates of annexation and invokes new meaning to the word "Allegedly."]

Bowles’ Cherokees and their allied tribes of Indians were desperate and furious. Bowles wrote, in a letter to Houston, that his people "from the biggest to the least have a little dread of their minds." In am attempt to save face, and the peace, Houston sent a survey team into Cherokee country to set a demarcation or boundary line. This act infuriated land speculators, citizens, empresarios and soldiers.

Nevertheless, Houston vowed to set the line "of I will give them my life or my land for I will not tell them a lie." The line was completed in 1838 by Alexander Horton, an able man appointed to the task by Houston.

"You may be sure that everything that art, villainy, corruption and treachery could invent were resorted to, to break down and destroy the expedition, but all in vain." Horton wrote to Houston, " We have succeeded and all are home safely and the Indians are all well satisfied and will remain in peace if the whites will let them alone."

Lamar responded to Houston’s actions in his presidential address of December 21, 1838 by saying, "It is not necessary to inquire into the nature and extent of the pledge given to the Cherokees by the consultation of 1835 and the Treaty of February, 1836… for the treaty was never ratified by any competent authority."

Lamar’s statement added insult and hypocrisy to betrayal. The struggle for independence was over and the attention of many Texans turned to the Indians in the north for the second stage in their manifest destiny.

Burnet was appointed to head up a commission to remove the Cherokee from their lands - an act in which Burnet had quite an interest as a portion of the Cherokee lands would fall into his hands. The appointment was re-enforced by President Lamar who wrote to the commissioners, "Recent events of which you are already apprised convince me of the necessity of the immediate removal of the Cherokee Indians, and the ultimate removal of all other immigrant tribes now residing in Texas and unless they consent at once to receive a fair compensation for their improvements and other property and remove out of this country, nothing short of the entire destruction of all of their tribe will appease the indignation of the white people against them.."

As could be expected, Bowles and the other immigrant tribes refused to relinquish their homes and farmlands. The attitude of the Whites in the states and Texas toward the Indians was clearly defined by the virtual simultaneous expulsion of the Texas Cherokee and their relatives in the east. This, despite existing laws and treaties to the contrary.

Villages were torched and Indians of every age and sex were slaughtered. Chief Bowles, in his 83rd year, made a stand in a clearing near the Neches River. His horse was shot out from under him, and as he attempted to walk from the field of battle he was shot in the back by Henry Conner.

Bowles sat wounded on the field facing the enemy. Captain Robert Smith approached the chief, extended his pistol to Bowles’ head and fired. Others in the party scalped the dead Indian and cut strips of flesh from his back to be used for bridle reins. General Douglas reported to the Secretary of War that Bowles had been killed and, "All Texans behaved so gallantly it would be invidious to particularize."

One might think that this horrid tale end here, in the long hot summer of 1839. But misfortune wasn’t finished with the Texas Cherokee.

Chief Bowles and Big Mush were dead. Those that could, escaped and finally rested on the banks of the San Saba River enroute to Mexico. There, they were again attacked. Many were killed and taken captive. The attack occurred on Christmas Day, 1839.

The Indians who escaped fled to Mexico where they were joined by Sequoyah who died there searching for his son and daughter-in-law. There the Cherokee were assaulted by the Mexicans, stripped of all their belongings and every article of clothing. Absolutely demoralized they returned to Bird’s Fort, Texas. These once proud people had to beg for clothes to hide their nakedness. On September 29, 1843 they signed their last treaty with the Texans.

The first article of the treaty stated: "Both parties agree and declare that they will live in peace and always meet as friends and brothers. Also that the war which may have heretofore existed between them shall cease and never be renewed." With this treaty the Cherokee were expelled from Texas.

One might ask why, in the face of such overwhelming opposition, the Cherokee resisted at all? To understand this one need only understand the Indian. In Cherokee the word for land, "Eloheh," also means culture, history and religion.

So they stayed and they fought. They Fought and they lost. They lost time and time again. What they didn’t lose, they gave up, or buried deep in their hearts.

Some of the Cherokee in the east disappeared in the mountains for years before venturing out and eventually establishing a reservation. In Texas many hid out, like the illegal immigrants today, in remote migrant camps. They intermarried with Whites, adopting new names, a new language, a new life. But they stayed with the land, and in a few instances passed on, however dormant, the roots of the Aniyunwiya in Texas. In the end many Cherokee hid in the blood of their decendants. 

Without any intentions of honoring or answering Houston and Bowles had advocated for the Cherokee people, such as allowing them a permanent home that was their own, the people of Texas took away the Cherokee's land and forced them into giving up their identity.