1807, a small band of Cherokees established a village along the
Red River. That same year, the Cherokee,
Delaware, Kickapoo, Caddo and a few other tribes petitioned Spanish
officials at Nacogdoches
for permission to settle in northeastern Texas. Permission was granted,
and Cherokee immigration increased steadily over the next several
years, culminating in 1819 when Chief
Bowles, also known as Duwali, and his band of Cherokees established
settlements on the Neches and Angelina Rivers. Bowles, who eventually
became the principal Cherokee chief in Texas, was born of a Scottish
father and Cherokee mother in North Carolina around 1756. In early
1810, he and his band had moved west of the Mississippi River to
access better hunting grounds and escape the growing pressure of
white settlement in the southern United States. Their steady westward
movement continued until they reached Texas.
In 1822, Chief
Bowles sent Richard Fields, a diplomatic chief, to Mexico City
to negotiate with the Spanish for a permanent land grant. Although
the request was denied, the Cherokees continued to live in peace,
and in 1827, helped the Mexican government put down the Fredonian
Rebellion; an attempt by empresario Haden
Edwards to establish an independent republic in northeastern
Texas. In 1833, Chief
Bowles again appealed to Mexico for a land grant, but this time
the negotiations were interrupted by political unrest in Texas.
Then in 1836, Sam
Houston negotiated a treaty with the Cherokees, whereby they
agreed to remain neutral in the Texas Revolution in exchange for
official title to their land. The Cherokees kept their word and
remained neutral, but unfortunately the Texas Senate invalidated
the treaty shortly after the Revolution.
Since the Treaties
of Velasco had been repudiated by both the Republic of Texas
and Mexico, the countries were still technically at war; therefore,
during the years following the Revolution, it remained the policy
of the Mexican government to stir up as much Indian trouble as possible
along the Texas frontier. In northeast Texas much of the Mexican
efforts were centered among the Cherokees;
the promise being that the Indians would be granted full title to
their lands if Texas were to once again become a province of Mexico.
Apparently, the goal of the Mexican government was not only to regain
sovereignty over Texas, but also to
eventually establish an Indian nation as a buffer that would stand
between them and the United States.
On May 18, 1839, evidence of Mexican interference with the Native
Texans was uncovered when a company of Texas Rangers under the command
of Lieutenant James O. Rice surprised a party of Indians on the
San Gabriel River some twenty-five miles north of Austin.
The Rangers captured 600 pounds of gunpowder and lead and more than
a hundred horses, but more importantly, one of the men killed in
the attack was Manuel Flores, a Mexican agent. A letter found in
Flores’ possession told of a plan to unite all the Texas tribes
in one great attack that would be supported by a Mexican invasion
across the Rio Grande. The detailed plans had been penned in Matamoros
and included tactical advice. The Indians were to stir up trouble
then wait for the Texas militia to ride out before launching their
attack on the settlements. Another letter in Flores’ papers was
from a Mexican agent named Vincente Cordova who was busy preaching
rebellion among the Hispanic residents of Nacogdoches.
Cordova wrote of a promise by the Cherokees
to join the fight against the Anglos.
For a certainty, the Cherokees had held talks with the Mexicans,
but all the evidence pointed to the fact that in spite of the meetings
Bowles had no intention of joining a war against the Texans.
had lived in Texas for nearly twenty
years and had always been at peace with the whites. Their society
was agrarian and it was rapidly moving toward civilization. They
also remained in close contact with Sam
Houston. The only crime committed by the Cherokees
was to possess land that was both rich and bountiful and coveted
by the Texans. However, even more than that, the news of the Mexican
plot had quickly spread far and wide, and the idea of any Indians
residing within the boundaries of the Republic soon became intolerable
to the vast majority of whites.
In their plans, the Mexicans had made it perfectly clear that the
Indians would be free to slaughter the whites at will and take possession
of their property. As word of the Flores papers spread across Texas,
a wave of fear and indignation swept the Republic. President
Lamar’s Native American policy had always been one of either
expulsion or extermination, and now the discovery of the Flores
papers made it possible for him to carry out that policy by declaring
war on the peaceful Cherokees. General Albert Sidney Johnston, the
Secretary of War, assembled a force of approximately 900 men consisting
of several units of the Texas army reinforced by the Texas militia.
The combined force was placed under the command of militia General
Kelsey H. Douglas.
Albert S. Johnston
On July 12,
Lamar dispatched a peace commission to Chief
Bowles composed of Vice President David G. Burnet, James S.
Mayfield, I. W. Barton, Thomas J. Rusk and General Johnston to demand
the Cherokees voluntary removal from the Republic. Lamar also made
it clear that if the commissioners failed to bring about a peaceful
settlement, the Cherokees would be forcibly removed. The Indians
would be paid for any improvements left on the land but not the
land itself. During the negotiations, Chief
Bowles conducted himself with grave dignity, politely disagreeing
with the commission’s terms. The Cherokees
owned this land, he said, or should own it, by right of long-time
possession and improvement. Bowles went on to say that, although
he was sure his people could never defeat the more powerful whites,
he knew and understood their temper. They would fight though he
would advise against it. He then requested that the Cherokees
be permitted to gather their harvest before the commencement of
hostilities. The Texans refused.
On July 15, Chief
Bowles ordered the main Cherokee town evacuated, but the Indians
were attacked in the late afternoon as they retreated north. The
Texans advanced up Battle Creek, with Colonel Landrum’s regiment
crossing the Neches to block any attempt at reinforcement and to
cut off the Indians who tried to continue their retreat. Taking
cover on some high ground, the Cherokees opened fire on the advancing
Texans, but they were driven back under intense return fire and
retreated into a ravine. Landrum had been misled by his scouts and
failed to block their withdrawal. In the ravine, the Cherokees were
well entrenched behind a high creek bank with thick woods to their
rear to provide either a safe retreat or a good secondary line of
defense. Meanwhile, the Texans were faced with a stretch of open
prairie between them and their adversaries.
General Douglas ordered Colonel Rusk to advance his regiment across
the open field. They were joined by the men under Colonel Ned Burleson.
Douglas later wrote, “As we advanced, the lines were immediately
formed and the action became general.” A company under the command
of Captain Sadler took possession of a hill on the right and drove
into the ravine from that quarter, flanking the Cherokee position.
Firing from the ravine was intense as the Texans advanced. Both
sides suffered casualties that continued into the fading light of
the early evening. Many of the Texans finally dismounted and charged
into the ravine on foot, driving the Cherokees from the protection
of the creek bank. The Indians soon fled, carrying off their wounded.
Eighteen Cherokee dead were found on the battlefield while the Texan
losses consisted of two killed and six wounded.
retreated several miles during the night, but they were located
the following day by the Texas scouts near the headwaters of the
Neches River in present-day Van
Zandt County. Two Texas regiments under the command of Colonel
Rusk and Colonel Burleson broke camp at 10:00 AM and renewed their
pursuit. In his official report, General Douglas wrote “The effective
force of the two regiments this morning amounted to about 500.”
The Texans advanced toward the Delaware village of Chief Harris
with Burleson’s regiment on the right and Rusk’s to the left. The
village was located on a wooded hill just west of present-day city
Below the hill, heavily-timbered bottom land stretched away toward
As the Texans
were nearing the village about 11:00 AM, the scout company commanded
by Captain Carter came under fire from a small group of Indians
concealed in the trees. General Douglas ordered Burleson to advance
in support of Carter, and the Indians quickly fell back. The Texans
pursued them through the deserted village, only to encounter the
main body of Chief
Bowles forces, who had taken up a defensive position in a ravine
on the lower side of the hill. As the Texans scrambled to dismount,
concentrated fire from the ravine killed one man and several of
the horses. Douglas then ordered Rusk’s regiment to advance in support
of Carter and Burleson. The Texans put the village to the torch
as they rode through. Thick clouds of black smoke billowed high
into the noonday sky.
Rusk quickly put his men on line when they cleared the village and
ordered them to dismount. Every sixth man was left behind to tend
the horses, and the others advanced down the hill from the burning
village, taking up positions in the trees on the lower slope to
bring fire on the Indian forces barricaded in the ravine. Ignoring
their thirst in the sweltering heat, Rusk’s Texans made several
attempts to charge the ravine, but each time heavy counter-fire
from the Cherokees forced them to withdraw back up the slope into
the cover of the trees. Frustrated by the lack of success, General
Douglas ordered Burleson’s regiment down the slope and put them
on line with Rusk’s men. The combined charge finally overran the
ravine, and the Indians fell back in disorder toward the ripe cornfields
and open prairie along the river.
According to one of the Texans, “Chief
Bowles displayed great courage in the battle,” remaining on
horseback during the entire engagement. Bowles wore a military hat,
silk vest and a sword that was a gift from Sam
Houston. “He was a magnificent picture of barbaric manhood and
was very conspicuous during the whole battle, being the last to
leave the field when the Indians retreated.” Chief
Bowles tried valiantly to rally his forces after the Texan charge
scattered the Indians across the cornfields and open plain. Remaining
on horseback, he exposed himself to danger time and again. His horse
was hit seven times and Bowles was eventually shot in the hip. Suffering
from his wound, the valiant Cherokee chief finally dismounted his
dying horse and was limping away when he was struck in the back.
| Battle of the
Chief Bowles can be seen to the left of his horse
(with the permission of artist Donald M. Yena.)
Bell of the Nacogdoches Company later wrote that he and Captain
Bob Smith found Bowles “sitting in the edge of a little prairie
on the Neches River.” The resolute chief was still armed with a
knife and his pistols, but according to Bell he “asked no quarter.
Under the circumstances the captain was compelled to shoot him.”
Bell then witnessed Smith put his pistol to Bowles’ head and kill
him before taking his sword. The Texans took strips of skin from
Bowles arms as souvenirs, and his body was left where it lay
without burial. In addition to the chief, about 100 other Indians
lay dead on the Neches battlefield. The Texans suffered two killed
and thirty wounded, including Vice President Burnet and General
After the death of Chief
Bowles, the remaining Cherokees retreated across the Neches,
but the survivors returned at dusk to recover the wounded and the
bodies of the dead. All through the long night the Texans listened
to the Cherokee wails of mourning for their dead, but by sunrise
the mournful sounds had ceased, and the Indian camp was deserted.
had begun their sorrowful flight to Oklahoma Indian Territory in
the United States.
However, General Douglas was not content to simply drive the Cherokees
out of Texas. He recommended to President Lamar that the entire
Indian “rat’s nest” be burned out, and that all the villages and
crops of the east Texas tribes be destroyed. By July 25, the Delaware,
Kickapoo, Caddo, Shawnee, Creek, Muscogee, Biloxi, and Seminole
had been driven out of Texas along with the Cherokees.
Only the small and weak Alabama and Coushatta tribes were permitted
to remain, and they were removed to less fertile land on the confines
of a small reservation.
and a few other advocates for the eastern Indian tribes were sickened
by the slaughter and were openly critical of President Lamar for
his harsh Native Texan policies. However, the battle did put an
end to the Indian depredations that had terrorized the early settlers
of east Texas and provided
the Republic with a rich new source of land. In the brief but glorious
history of the Republic of Texas, the Battle of the Neches has been
described as second in importance only to the Battle
of San Jacinto as the most decisive conflict ever fought on
September 1, 2013 Column
for "The Battle of the Neches"
Glimpse of Texas Past"
More Texas People | Texas
Towns | Columns
for "The Battle of the Neches"
Whatley, Chief Bowles and the Texas Cherokees, (Norman: University
of Oklahoma Press, 1971).
The Texas Cherokees: A People between Two Fires, 1819-1840,
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).
T. R., Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, (Da
Cappo Press, 2000).
and Campbell, Randolph B., “NECHES, BATTLE OF THE,” Handbook of
Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qen02)
accessed July 20, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical
L., Savage Frontier: 1838-1839, (Denton: University of North