The Texas Cherokee War

texaslonestarTexas independence was never a simple matter of people refusing to conform to Mexican law.  It was, in fact, very complex, unsettling, highly contentious, lasting several years, and, I suspect, many sleepless nights among those who worked tirelessly to effect it.  It was a transition from the Spanish Empire to New Spain, to Mexican independence, to Mexican Empire, to a federalist republic, to state/provincial autonomy, and then finally, Texas Revolution.  The story of Texas is one involving human struggle, chastisement, disappointment, mixed loyalties, double-crosses, treason, the consolidation of a new Republic, and death —but even then, the story was far from over.

This story is about the Cherokee War in Texas, but before getting to that, a review of the sequence of events that led to war with the Cherokee nation.  None of the men who participated in the developing revolution in Texas suddenly appeared on the Texas scene to defend against angry Mexican soldiers.  One could argue that the timing of events after 1821 was pure chance, but each of these had significant consequences.

Facts with a bearing on these events include:

  • France and Spain controlled vast territories in the Americas
  • Most of these territories were exchanged, transferred, sold, or simply seized
  • New Spain was part of the Spanish Empire that extended from the Isthmus of Panama to the border of the present-day United States, and from North and Central America to East Asia
  • The people living in these territories for thousands of years were never a serious consideration
  • Texas was a relatively unsettled province of New Spain
  • Spain’s intention to do something about its “unsettled territory” is what initiated American immigration to Texas
  • The United States became interested in Texas before the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1819 [1].
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Jose Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara From Public Domain

In 1810, the territories of New Spain north of the Isthmus of Panama sought independence from the Spanish Empire; most people remember this in history as the Mexican War of Independence.  What many people do not know is that a number of Americans fought on the side of Mexico against Spain in a filibuster known as the Gutierrez-Magee Expedition [2], led by (self-appointed) General Jose Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara [3] and Augustus Magee [4].  After Magee’s death in 1813, Samuel Kemper [5] replaced him.  Initially, the expedition gained a series of victories against Spain’s military forces commanded by Governor Manuel Maria de Salcedo and Governor Simón de Herrera y Leyva.  After Salcedo and Herrera surrendered their forces to Gutiérrez on 1 April 1813, Gutiérrez had both men executed.  Five days later, Gutiérrez declared the independent Republic of Texas, published a new constitution, and declared himself President of the new republic. It wasn’t long after this that Kemper became disillusioned with Gutiérrez’ leadership; he and his American fighters returned to the United States.  This first republic came to an end on 18 August 1813 when the Spanish army crushed Gutiérrez and his remaining forces [6].

Mexico and all of its provinces gained independence from Spain in 1821.  It was during Mexico’s political transition that Stephen Austin led the first American settlers to Tejas, their right to immigrate having been guaranteed by the Spanish Royal governor.  After Spain ratified Mexican independence, Austin traveled to Mexico City to secure the support of the new government for his colonists.  Austin’s ill-treatment while in Mexico led to significant animosity between Mexican authorities and the newly arrived Tejas settlers [7].

In 1830, due to the controversy involving illegal slavery in Tejas, Mexican President Anastasio Bustamanteoutlawed any further American immigration to Texas.  Angered by the Mexican government’s interference in state matters, Texian impresarios held the Convention of 1832 —the first formal step of what would become the Texas Revolution.  At this stage, however, we might argue that Texas had already entered into the avenue leading to war [8].

Stephen F. Austin died from illness on 27 December 1836 while serving as the Republic of Texas Secretary of State.  By the time President Sam Houston moved the capital of Texas to a city named in his honor, five towns had already served in this capacity.  Houston’s replacement was Mirabeau B. Lamar [9] (who was never a friend of Houston); he promptly moved the capital to the newly constructed town of Austin in 1839.  This was not a minor issue, as it pointed to the fact that early Texas politics was divided into two factions: nationalists (led by Lamar), and Unionists (led by Houston).

President Lamar advocated the continued independence of Texas, expulsion of all Indians, and the expansion of Texas to the Pacific Ocean. Houston wanted Texas to become part of the United States, peaceful relations with the Indians, and had no expansionist ambitions whatsoever.

Whether Texians liked it or not, Indian populations did have an impact on Texas politics.  The main Indian opposition to the Texas Republic came from the Comanche, manifested by numerous raids on settlements, the capture, and rape of female pioneers, torture killings, and trafficking in white captives.  Houston’s administration sought peace with the Indians, Lamar favored their complete eradication —even to the extent of ordering the Texas Rangers to invade the Comancheria.  After peace talks ended in the massacre of 34 Indian leaders in San Antonio [10], the Comanche reciprocated by launching a massive raid, consisting of from 500 to 700 warriors that extended from the edge of the Comancheria to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, adding to the Republic’s problems, Mexico, in refusing to recognize Texas independence, launched several military incursions into Texas.  Mexican and Indian attacks intensified the conflicts between political factions but too did a number of domestic disturbances, which were mostly land feuds involving several Texas counties.  It was up to a very small legislature to manage these disasters and a president with limited powers.  The Texian Congress had fourteen senators and twenty-nine representatives in the House.

In those days, no person could vote or hold public office who was not a citizen of Texas, and citizenship also became a contentious issue. Not all inhabitants of Texas were granted citizenship; the Constitution of 1836 established major differences according to ethnicity: All persons living in Texas on the day of the Texas Declaration of Independence were citizens of the Republic, excepting Africans, descendants of Africans, and Indians.  New immigrants could become citizens after residing in Texas for six months, and upon taking a loyalty oath.  Black persons brought to Texas as slaves were to remain slaves —not even their owner could free them without the permission of Congress.

Having thus clarified the attitudes of early Texas politicians toward non-white citizens, we now turn to the title of this post.  The Cherokee War of 1839 was the culmination of friction involving, on one side, Cherokee, Kickapoo, and Shawnee Indians living in Northeast Texas and their white Texian neighbors.  According to Spanish law, these Indians had obtained “squatters’ rights” to their land, confirmed by the so-called Consultation [11].  On 23 February 1836, Sam Houston [12] offered a treaty to the Cherokee and their associated bands, giving them title to the lands between the Angelina and Sabine rivers, northwest of the old San Antonio road.  In 1837, the Texas Congress declared this treaty null and void.

In 1838, citizens of Nacogdoches uncovered an insurrection against the Republic of Texas.  Known as the Cordova Rebellion, it initially appeared to be an isolated incident by local malcontents, but on closer examination, investigators determined that the rebellion was actually a far-reaching conspiracy.  Before 1836, Texians worried about repression by the Mexican government, particularly since the population of Texian towns was more or less balanced among Anglo-Americans and Tejanos.  Most Tejanos remained loyal to Mexico [13].  After the revolution, thousands of Americans made their way to Texas, which made these townships more populated with whites than with Tejanos.  The older residents (Tejanos) resented this intrusion and, as loyal Mexicans, conspired with local Indians (principally Cherokee), to make a treaty with Mexico for a combined attack on Texas [14].  Sam Houston was aware of these treasonous attitudes as early as 1836 but took no action to address it.

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Thomas Jefferson Rusk From Public Domain

On 4th August, a party of several of citizens of Nacogdoches were searching for stolen horses when they were abruptly fired upon by a large party of Hispanics. Suspecting an illegal assembly of people, they returned to Nacogdoches to report their discovery.  Being informed on 7thAugust that at least 100 Mexicans led by Cordova were encamped on the Angelina River, Thomas J. Rusk [15] activated the town militia and sent word to nearby settlements for reinforcements.  On 8thAugust, President Houston issued a proclamation that prohibited unlawful assemblies, the reprehensible use of firearms, and ordered all illegally formed citizens to return to their homes.

Senor Cordova issued his own proclamation on 10 August, stating that he (and others) could no longer bear injury and white usurpations of their rights.  They had taken up arms, were ready to die in the defense of those rights and asked only that their families not be harmed.  On this same day, Rusk learned that local Indians had joined Cordova.  The number of insurrectionists now numbered four hundred.

Believing that Cordova and his band were moving toward Cherokee lands, Rusk ordered Major Henry Augustine [16] and 150 militia to follow and keep them under surveillance.  Then, ignoring President Houston’s order that he not cross the Angelina River, Rusk led his remaining troops against the Cherokee village of Chief Diwali Bowles [17], the ranking Cherokee living in Texas.  En route, Rusk learned that the rebellious forces had been overtaken near Seguin and defeated.  Local Indians disavowed any knowledge of the upheaval, so Rusk returned to Nacogdoches.  In fact, Cordova did not seek shelter among the Cherokee.

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Cherokee Chief Diwali Bowles From Texas State Library

President Houston trusted Chief Bowl’s loyalty; Rusk did not.  Because of Houston’s long-standing relationship with the Indians, there was nothing that President Houston could say that the Texians found credible in this regard.  In October 1838, Rusk led 230 militia in the pursuit of a band of Kickapoo [18].  Ultimately, Rusk destroyed their village, killed eleven warriors, including one Cherokee, and identified Mexican spies who were living among the Indians. Sporadic Indian raids continued through the end of 1838 and the Spring of 1839.  Lamar was elected President of Texas, assuming office in December 1838.

The insurrectionists who managed to elude capture went into hiding [19].  In May 1839, a letter was discovered, allegedly in the handwriting of Cordova, that outlined plans by the Mexican government to enlist Indians against Texian settlers.  Lamar, supported by overwhelming popular opinion, decided to expel the East Texas Indians.  In July, Kelsey Douglas [20] was placed in command of approximately 500 troops.  His three subordinate commanders were Colonel Edward Burleson, Captain Willis Landrum, and Thomas Rusk.

Lamar ordered Douglas to remove the Indians to Arkansas territory.  Douglas established his camp at Council Creek, six miles south of the primary village of Chief Bowles and on 12 July, sent a commission to negotiate with the Cherokee for their removal from Texas.  Bowles agreed to relocate providing that Texas guarantee the profit from their crops and the costs of removal, but after two days of wrangling, Bowles ultimately refused to sign the agreement because of the clause that required their physical removal under armed supervision.  On 14 July, Douglas’ representatives informed Bowles that if they refused to sign the agreement, soldiers would march on their village; anyone willing to sign the treaty and avoid violence should display a white flag. Meanwhile, Landrum was sent across the Neches River to block any possible reinforcements.  The balance of Douglas’ forces marched on the Village on 15 July.

The Battle of Neches took place a few miles west of Tyler, in present-day Henderson County. By sundown, three Texians had been killed and five were wounded.  Indian losses were eighteen killed.  The Cherokee eventually fled the village and Douglas camped for the night.  On the next day, James Carter’s scouting party engaged the Cherokee near the headwaters of the Neches River, now in Van Zandt County.  Initially, the Indians sought cover in an abandoned hut and surrounding cornfield, but after Rusk and Burleson reinforced Carter, the Indians abandoned their positions. A firefight lasting thirty minutes pushed the Cherokee into the bottomland where Bowles and a number of his warriors were killed.

On 21 July, the Texian militia marched toward the headwaters of the Sabine River along the same route taken by the fleeing Indians, destroying numerous huts and fields along the way.  The next day, several villages and more than 200 acres of corn were burned.  This sort of destruction continued throughout the pursuit of the Cherokee, which did not end until 24 July.  Most of the Indians fled to Cherokee lands outside Texas, but by the time the battle ended, more than one-hundred Indians had been killed or wounded.

During the winter of 1839-1840, a small group of Cherokee under Chief Egg and John Bowles, the son of Chief Bowles, attempted to reach Mexico by skirting the fringe of white settlements.  Edward Burleson, who was then on a campaign against the Plains Indians, intercepted the Cherokees and attacked them near the mouth of the San Saba River on 25 December 1839.  Egg, Bowles and several warriors were killed, and twenty-seven women and children were captured.

This was the last significant action involving Texas Cherokee Indians.

Sources:

  1. Everett, D. The Texas Cherokees: A People Between Two Fires, 1819-1840. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 1990.
  2. Sibley, M. M. The Texas Cherokee War of 1839, East Texas Historical Journal, Vol. 3, Stephen F. Austin State University, 1965.
  3. The Handbook of Texas, online, The Cherokee War.

Endnotes:

[1] The Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 ceded Florida to the United States and defined the border between the United States and New Spain, settling an on-going border dispute between the United States, Great Britain, and Spain.  The treaty is also significant because it came to fruition during the Latin-American wars of independence.  Florida had become a burden to Spain because it could not afford to establish populated settlements there, nor defend its territorial rights. Also settled was the dispute between the US and Spain concerning the border of Spanish Texas along the Sabine River, thus establishing a clear boundary between Texas and Louisiana.

[2] A filibuster (also freebooter) is someone who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution.  The term is used to describe citizens of the United States who fomented insurrection in Latin America (Texas, California, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Columbia), but may also apply to operations for US government approved, but publicly denied military incursions.

[3] Gutiérrez was obsessed with the idea of separating Mexico from Spain.  He recruited 21 men in Tejas, 130 Americans from the area around Nacogdoches and the Sabine River border area of Louisiana, and a number of Indians, marshaling a force of about 450 armed insurrectionists.

[4] Magee was an 1809 graduate of the US Military Academy with service under Major General James Wilkinson and Major General Zachary Taylor.  He resigned his army commission to recruit American soldiers to join with him in the Gutiérrez invasion of Mexico.  Magee’s death involves some controversy, as some sources attribute his demise to consumption or malaria, others claim he was poisoned by his men because of his stern treatment toward them.

[5] Kemper was born in Fauquier County, Virginia.  In 1801, Samuel, Reuben, and Nathan Kemper moved to southwestern Mississippi and West Florida where he was in constant trouble with Spanish authorities.  Kemper and his brothers led an abortive rebellion in West Florida in 1804.  He died from malaria while living in Louisiana in 1814.

[6] New Spain’s harsh reprisals against rebels in Tejas created a deep distrust of Spanish/Mexican authorities and several survivors of the Battle of Medina would later become leaders of the Texas Revolution in 1836.

[7] Austin’s settlement plan was thrown into turmoil by Mexico’s independence from Spain.  The new “rump” Congress refused to recognize the Spanish land grant.  Austin eventually persuaded the government to approve the grant made to his father, Moses Austin.  When Emperor Iturbide abdicated in 1823, the law recognizing the land grant was annulled. Austin again convinced the ruling legislature to grant him an empresario contract.  In 1824, the Mexican congress permitted individual states to decide their own immigration policies.  In March 1825, the State of Coahuila y Tejas approved a law that continued the system of impresarios.

[8] At this stage in the play, Texians far outnumbered Mexicans living in Texas.

[9] Lamar served as Vice President under Houston.  During the Houston administration, Lamar returned to his homeland in Georgia for nearly all of 1837.  Returning to Texas late that year, he founded the Philosophical Society of Texas and became aware that his campaign for the presidency was already long underway, sponsored chiefly by political opponents of Sam Houston.  By law, Houston could not succeed himself as president, so when the two other candidates (quite remarkably) committed suicide, Lamar’s election as President of Texas was assured.  When Lamar assumed office as president, Texas was in an unsettled situation.  Only the USA recognized Texas independence, Mexico was threatening re-conquest, the Indians were rampaging against Texians, the treasury was empty, the currency was worthless, and there were no commercial treaties.

[10] The Council House Fight, 1840.

[11] A meeting of Texas representatives in pre-revolutionary Texas, attended by those who opposed the revolution, in 1835.  The meeting had no official authority as a legislative body, was not representative of all Texians, there were no representatives from any of the embattled areas of Texas, and there was no complete agreement on any of its deliberations.

[12] Sam Houston had lived with the Cherokee for a number of years; his Indian policy seemed to favor them over his Texian constituency.  Many people believed that Houston was himself more red than white.

[13] Psychologically, Tejanos have continued to remain loyal to Mexico, even to the present day.

[14] The treaty called for a war of extermination, Indians would be granted title to their land in return for the allegiance.  Vicente Cordova, a wealthy Tejano, a resident of Nacogdoches, a former mayor, judge, and member of the town council, became the principal point of contact between the insurrectionists and the government of Mexico.

[15] Rusk was a lawyer, soldier, and statesman who migrated to Texas in 1835 while pursuing the men who embezzled him out of a sizeable sum of money.  During the battle of San Jacinto, Rusk found himself perilously surrounded by Mexican forces.  The man who rescued his party was the colonel of cavalry named Mirabeau B. Lamar.  He did not catch the thieves but decided to remain at Nacogdoches.  Learning of the despotism of the Mexican government, Rusk joined the Texian Independence movement.  He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and served as Texas Secretary of War in 1836.

[16] A pioneer, soldier and public official, founder of St. Augustine, Texas, and Texas senator.  In 1838, Augustine received an arrow wound that resulted in the amputation of his leg at the knee.

[17] Also known as Bowl, Bowles, Duwali, and Bold Hunter.

[18] The Kickapoo are an Algonquian-speaking tribe indigenous to Mexico and the southern portion of the United States.

[19] Cordova eventually made his way to Mexico.  Thirty-three members of the rebellion, all with Spanish surnames, were arrested and indicted for treason.  The capture of two Mexican agents produced additional evidence of an extensive Indian-Mexican conspiracy/alliance against Texas.

[20] Douglas was a merchant, a Texas congressman representing Nacogdoches, and militia officer. He died in 1840.  The town of Douglas, Texas is named in his honor.

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