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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Battle of the Neches |
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 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.
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.
September 1, 2013 Column
for "The Battle of the Neches"
"A Glimpse of Texas Past"
Texas | Texas People
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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).
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,
by Jeffery Robenalt