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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Texas Cherokees

by Clay Coppedge

We generally don’t give the Cherokees much thought in regards to the great Indian wars fought in Texas. Popular history affords them a reputation as a friendly and reasonable tribe. Compared to more warlike Texas tribes like the Comanche, Apache and Kiowa, they were.

That doesn’t mean that the Texas Cherokees weren’t divided on major issues of the day, like whether it was nobler to inflict slings and arrows on the white settlers or the Mexican soldiers who were fighting them, or both.

Nor does it mean that the Cherokees weren’t treated in the same shabby manner as other friendly and hostile tribes alike. Treaties promising peace and property were invariably broken but promises of removal, violent or otherwise, were promptly carried out.

The great Cherokee chief Duwali (or Chief Bowl or Bowles as he is often referred) led a band of what would come to be known as the Texas Cherokees across the Red River in the early 1820s. They settled along the banks of the Sabine, Neches and Angelina rivers in East Texas, welcomed by Mexico as a buffer against white settlement.

The presence and prominence of Sam Houston, an adopted Cherokee, boosted the tribe's early dealings with the Anglo settlers. When Mirabeau Lamar succeeded Houston as president of the Republic, relations between the Cherokees and Texas changed in a hurry.

Lamar suspected Duwali and the tribe of doing what they were actually doing, which was promising allegiance to both Texas and Mexico. For his part, Duwali tended to side with the Texans, believing that Houston would see to it that a treaty of 1836 setting aside land for the tribe would eventually be honored; it wasn’t.

Many of the younger warriors thought Duwali was the Cherokee equivalent of an old fuddy duddy. This more militant faction was all for throwing in with the Mexicans and getting rid of the upstart Texans once and for all. A certain number of these Cherokees did join forces with the Mexicans and with other tribes to fight the Anglos.

Lamar didn’t understand the intricacies of Cherokee custom, which allowed not only for dissent but for what Lamar called disobedience and the Cherokees viewed as respect for the individual; if the warriors wanted to go off and fight with Mexico, Cherokee custom allowed them to do so.

After the Battle of San Jacinto, Mexico mounted various insurgencies, hoping to recruit the Indians to drive the settlers out before the victory at San Jacinto could be consolidated.

As part of the insurgency, Mexico sent Manuel Flores to Texas to enlist the aid of the Cherokees and other tribes in an armed rebellion against the Anglos. Flores carried with him a packet of communications from Mexico that offered land and other perks in exchange for military support against the Texans.

Flores’ contingent was overtaken at the San Gabriel River by rangers under the command of Lieutenant James O. Rice, who laid hands on the communications and sent them to Edward Burleson, commander of the First Texas Infantry, and Albert Sidney Johnson, Texas secretary of war.

Though Flores probably never communicated with Duwali or any of the other tribes, the communications provided further evidence to Lamar that the Cherokees planned to take up arms against the Republic. He sent an armed delegation to Duwali’s village with an offer to leave under conditions set forth by the Republic or be destroyed.

General Thomas J. Rusk met with Duwali, Shawnee chief Spy Buck and others on June 10, 1839, to assert Republic’s dim view of the Cherokees while outlining, in grim detail, how the Republic intended to deal with the tribe.

“We do not wish to injure you now,” Rusk told the delegates. “You are between two fires (and) if you stay you will be destroyed.”

The Cherokees wanted some kind of consideration in the matter but little was offered. With the devil in the details, no formal agreement was reached. The Cherokees stalled for time and were gone when Texas soldiers rode into the camp to carry out the promise of violent removal.

A regiment under the command of Gen. Kelsey H. Douglas pursued the Cherokees, who attacked Douglas’ soldiers and killed two but lost 18 of their own warriors.

Duwali mustered more than 500 warriors by enlisting Delawares, Shawnees and Kickapoos to the cause but it wasn’t enough. More than 100 Cherokees, including 83-year old Duwali, were killed in the Battle of Neches on July 16, 1839.

During roughly the same time this was happening in Texas, between 16,000 and 18,000 Cherokees were marched to Indian Territory from their ancestral homes in North Carolina and Tennessee. More than 4,000 died on the march, which came to be known as The Trail of Tears.

Most of the surviving Texas Cherokees were removed to Indian Territory where the arrival of another destitute tribe was not a cause for celebration. A few ragged bands of Cherokees stayed behind in Texas, and others took to conducting raids against the whites, using the reservation as a base of operations. A few fled to Texas during the Civil War but mostly the Cherokees faded into a smoky corner of the state’s history.

For more than 100 years after their expulsion from Texas, the Cherokees have lobbied for compensation for the lands that were taken from them, citing the 1836 Treaty as part of their case. The request has been denied each time it has come up in court, most recently in 1964 when state attorney general Wagonner Carr denied the validity of any claim against the state, ruling that the state was not liable for claims against the Republic of Texas.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" March 16, 2009 Column

Related Stories

The Battle of Neches by Archie McDonald, Ph.D ("All Things Historical")

The Tragedy of Chief Bowles by Bob Bowman ("All Things Historical")

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