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  • "A Glimpse of Texas Past"

    The Battle of the Neches

    by Jeffery Robenalt
    Jeffery Robenalt

    In 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 Chief Bowles had no intention of joining a war against the Texans. The Cherokees 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.

    Mirabeau Lamar
    Mirabeau Lamar
    Wikimedia Commons
    General Albert S. Johnston
    General Albert S. Johnston
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

    Thomas Jefferson Rusk
    Thomas Jefferson Rusk
    Wikimedia Commons
    Henderson TX - Thomas Jefferson Rusk Statue

    Thomas Jefferson Rusk statue in Henderson
    Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, July 2007

    The Cherokees 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 of Tyler. Below the hill, heavily-timbered bottom land stretched away toward the Neches.

    Edward Burleson
    Edward Burleson
    Wikimedia Commons

    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 Neches
    Battle of the Neches
    Chief Bowles can be seen to the left of his horse
    (with the permission of artist Donald M. Yena.)

    Sergeant Charles 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 Chief 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 Johnston.

    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. The Cherokees 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.

    Sam Houston 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 Texas soil.

    © Jeffery Robenalt
    , September 1, 2013 Column
    jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com
    References for "The Battle of the Neches" >

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    References for "The Battle of the Neches"

  • Clarke, Mary Whatley, Chief Bowles and the Texas Cherokees, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971).
  • Everett, Diana, The Texas Cherokees: A People between Two Fires, 1819-1840, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).
  • Fehrenbach, T. R., Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, (Da Cappo Press, 2000).
  • Hampson, Gary, 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 Association.
  • Moore, Stephen L., Savage Frontier: 1838-1839, (Denton: University of North Texas, 2006).
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