Houston supported them but not Lamar.
In 1838 Texas President Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar wanted nothing less than to make Texans masters of their own house by clearing the republic of American Indians. A blood feud had already begun between Texas and the Comanche Nation. But now Lamar decided to force out a people the previous president, Sam Houston, had trusted and lived with in peace—the Texas Cherokees.
Lamar, who had formerly been vice president under Houston, insisted that Texas could not battle Comanches to the west and the Mexican army to the south and have a people of questionable loyalty behind them. Lamar had learned that 83-year-old Cherokee Chief Bowles (also known as Bowl) had been in secret negotiations with the Mexican government for title to their lands around present-day Tyler, Texas. “The white man and the red man cannot dwell in harmony together” Lamar told the Texas Congress. “Nature forbids it. As long as we continue to exhibit our mercy without showing our strength, so long will the Indian continue to bloody the edge of the tomahawk, and move onward in the work of rapacity and slaughter.”
Bowles was in many ways responsible for this branch of the Cherokee Nation. The son of a Scotch-Irish trader, William Augustus Bowles, and a Cherokee mother, Bowles first won fame leading warriors against Tennessee boatmen near Muscle Shoals in June 1794. Although Cherokee chiefs feared a war with the United States over the fight, the Washington administration ruled that Bowles had been justified in protecting the interests of his men.
From 1795 to 1813, Bowles was the first chief of the Western Cherokees, who had settled in southeast Missouri. When the New Madrid earthquakes began in 1811, however, the tribe interpreted them as a bad sign and moved to northwestern Arkansas, far from Cherokee treaty lands.
Increased white settlers in Arkansas caused 66-year-old Bowles to lead 60 families into the Mexican province of Texas during the winter of 1819- 1820. Shortly after settling in the Tyler area, he lost leadership of the breakaway group to Richard Fields, also one-half Cherokee, who had supported U.S. forces in the War of 1812.
Over the next seven years, Chief Fields molded an alliance in northeast Texas made up of Cherokees, Shawnees, Delawares, Kickapoos and other Indian groups. Fields tried to obtain title to the lands from the Mexican government but only could obtain provisional ownership. Worse, the Mexican government in 1825 gave Benjamin Edwards a land grant that took in most of the Cherokee lands.
The Cherokees, though, had a lucky break when the new empresario, Hayden Edwards, started the Fredonian Rebellion in December 1826. His brother Benjamin Edwards and 30 men rode into Nacogdoches, declaring the new nation of Fredonia. Bowles cooperated with the Mexican government and kept most Texas Cherokees out of the rebellion, even though Fields joined the Edwards brothers. When the rebellion failed, Fields surrendered to Cherokee authorities and was executed on May 8, 1827. Bowles was reinstated as the principal chief of the 12-tribe alliance.
Although Bowles was made a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican army, he too could not get the Mexican government to recognize Cherokee land claims. The chief decided to join the independent-minded Texicans. A provisional Texas government sent Sam Houston to work out the details of a treaty, which he and Bowles signed on February 23, 1836, recognizing Cherokee lands and their boundaries—just as General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led a force to the Alamo in San Antonio.
After the revolution, President Houston was shocked when the Texas Senate rejected the treaty. The Senate claimed there was no clear title because former Texas Provisional President David Burnet had obtained a grant to the Cherokee lands and he refused to surrender title.
Meanwhile, Houston had sent Chief Bowles as peace commissioner to the hostile Plains tribes and had assured him that the Texas Cherokees would get title to their lands. Bowles often visited Houston’s home, and the president gave him a cane, a hat and a sword. Trusting Houston but not Texans, Bowles sent out feelers to the Mexican government about obtaining official recognition. Soon, Tejano Vicente Cordova led several hundred men up from Mexico; they raised a flag on an island in the Angelina River, hoping to start a rebellion within Texas. General Thomas Rusk and a small force charged into Bowles’ village in August 1838, and Cordova fled home. In May 1839, near Sequin, Texas, Texans killed a Manual Flores during a Mexican incursion, and papers on the body showed that Bowles was communicating with the Mexicans.
When Lamar took over the presidential reins, he charged the Cherokees had collaborated with Cordova’s abortive rebels. He sent Major B.C. Waters to build an army base along the Sabine River within striking distance of Cherokee towns, but Waters retreated when Bowles said he would fight to prevent it. Without an army presence, nine frontier families were murdered on their homesteads in the area. Cherokees, though there was no proof, were blamed.
President Lamar responded by having a 500-man army under local merchant Willis Landrum gather at Nacogdoches. The likes of David Burnet, Albert Sidney Johnston, Thomas Rusk and Edward Burleson were there along with Lamar’s personal messenger, John Reagan, and Texican Indian agent Martin Lacey. The army came to a halt a few miles south of Bowles’ village near the headwaters of the Neches River, and Reagan listed Lamar’s conditions for peace. Texas would pay for lost property but not compensate the Cherokees for their lands. Texas would also pay for the value of their crops and the costs of removal, but the Cherokees must go to the Red River under armed escort. Bowles protested that the land had been given to the Cherokees by Houston and asked for two days to consult with other chiefs. It has been debated if this was a genuine request or if Bowles was playing for time. The Cherokee army was larger but needed time to group; he might also have hoped that Kickapoo and Delaware forces would arrive to help him.
The presidential commission gave Bowles his two days, and when they returned the chief was ready to fight, even without the Kickapoo and Delaware warriors. He said he did not personally want war, but that his people would kill him if he did not fight. On July 15, 1839, a few miles west of Tyler, Cherokee forces lined up for battle. Wearing a silk vest and military hat, Bowles rode up and down the line waving the sword Houston had given him. That first day, he fought the Texicans to a standstill.
On the second day of the Battle of Neches, the Cherokee line had moved into the river bottom. Again Bowles rode back and forth encouraging his men, but this time the Texicans were more aggressive, and the warriors began an orderly retreat. Bowles had his horse shot out from under him and then was wounded in the thigh. As he tried to limp away, Major Henry Conner shot him in the back. Bowles was sitting up against a tree when Captain Robert Smith walked up to the old chief and shot him point blank in the head, killing him instantly. Smith’s father-in-law, Jesse T. Watkins, had been killed earlier by the Cherokees. A Texican newspaper noted, “Some rude chaps scalped the poor chief after his death.”
As the Cherokees fled for the Red River, Texicans paused to loot the various Indian villages before going home. Fighting continued, though, off and on. On Christmas Day 1839, Texicans under Colonel Edward Burleson attacked Cherokees led by John Bowles, the deceased chief’s son, and the Egg, formally second to Chief Bowles, camped at the mouth of the San Saba. The Cherokees retreated to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
Houston returned to Texas after a long stay with U.S. President Andrew Jackson and found himself elected to the Texas Senate. He condemned President Lamar for the expulsion of the Cherokees, stating their mistake had been that “they received a pledge from the provisional government of Texas…and were dupes enough to believe it!” He vowed to introduce bills in support of the Cherokees, but it was all in vain. Unwilling to test again the accuracy of Texan guns, the Texas Cherokees merged with their brethren coming into the West by way of the Trail of Tears.
Chief Bowles’ body remained where it fell on July 16, 1839. According to Tom Ingram, a Tyler resident of the time, the skeleton was seen along the banks of the Neches for years. As for the sword Bowles received from Houston, it was given to the Masonic Lodge in Henderson County. During the Civil War, it was loaned to a Colonel James Jones, but afterward, it was returned to the lodge. In 1890 the sword was given to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.