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The Homeland of the Texas Cherokees (CEC)

The Homeland of the Texas Cherokees

The Texas Cherokee were a branch of the Cherokee Nation who had an ancestral homeland in the upper Tennessee River valley and Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. This people had a tumultuous relationship with European settlers, serving as both allies and enemies to first the British and later, the Americans. By 1755, one faction, calling themselves the Chickamauga, moved farther down the Tennessee and into northern Georgia. A disastrous war with American settlers lasted from 1775 to 1794 and convinced these Cherokees that life would be better by moving west. Several hundred migrated to Arkansas Territory in the early 1800s. Other Cherokees began to emigrate to Arkansas and by 1813, approximately 1/3 of the Cherokee were living west of the Mississippi.

The Texas Cherokees
Spanish officials reported Cherokees in Texas in 1807, when a small band, probably an offshoot of the Arkansas settlements, established a village on the Red River. That year, a delegation of Cherokees, Pascagoulas, Chickasaws, and Shawnees sought permission from Spanish officials in Nacogdoches, the easternmost town in Texas, to settle members of their tribes in that province. Spanish authorities agreed, intending to use the immigrant Indians as a buffer against American expansion. For several years a small number of Cherokees drifted in and out of Texas. Subsequently, between 1812 and 1819, increasing population pressure in Arkansas compelled more Cherokees to migrate south. In the spring of 1819, Cherokees began settling in Lost Prairie, an area between the Sulphur Fork and the Red River in what is now Miller County, Arkansas, and within a year some 200 Cherokees had settled there.

But they could not escape American competition for the land. By 1820 Anglo-Americans had established seven settlements in the valley of the Red River, and the Cherokees began to consider moving further south. In early 1820, Chief Bowl, a veteran Chickamauga warrior also known as Duwali, led some sixty Cherokee families into Texas. They settled first on the Three Forks of the Trinity River (at the site of present Dallas), but pressure from prairie tribes forced them to move eastward into a virtually uninhabited region north of Nacogdoches now in Rusk County. They carved out farms on land that had belonged to the Caddoes, now largely extinct from disease, warfare, and long interbreeding with Europeans. By 1822 the Texas Cherokee population had grown to nearly three hundred.

While the Cherokees were establishing their homes in East Texas, the government of Texas passed from Spain to Mexico. Mexican officials, like their Spanish predecessors, welcomed the presence of Cherokees in Texas. Cherokee headmen, having learned the importance of holding legal title to real property, repeatedly petitioned Mexican authorities for a permanent land grant. Richard Fields, a Cherokee diplomat, conducted negotiations with the Mexican government in the early 1820s, and although Fields claimed that his tribe had been granted land north of the Old San Antonio Road between the Trinity and Sabine rivers, the Mexican government denied the claim. While the government delayed granting the Cherokees clear title to the land, the population of East Texas swelled. By the mid-1820s, Americans were drifting into the region south and east of the Cherokee settlement. Distrust developed between the two peoples as each felt its security threatened by the other. By the late 1820s the rapid influx of American settlers to Texas alarmed Mexican officials, who feared losing the province to the growing United States. The Law of April 6, 1830, prohibited further American immigration to Texas. At the same time, Mexican authorities resurrected their policy of using the Cherokees as a buffer against immigrant Americans. By 1830 the Cherokee population of Texas was approaching 400. The tribe was congregated in at least three but possibly as many as seven towns north of Nacogdoches along the Sabine River and its tributaries, including a stream now known as Cherokee Creek. In order to secure Cherokee aid, Mexican officials proposed giving the Cherokees the long-sought title to their land, but the Indians lacked the money and legal expertise to complete the complicated procedure. However, lingering hopes of securing legal rights to their land kept the Cherokees loyal to the Mexican government when Anglo-Texans began to protest Mexican rule in 1832. When the Texas Revolution erupted in 1835, the Cherokees still had not obtained title to their land, and their loyalty to Mexico placed them in a doubtful position with the revolutionary government in Texas. The Cherokees addressed the problem by declaring themselves neutral in the conflict between Texas and Mexico.

The Texas revolutionary government, anxious to ensure Cherokee neutrality, sent Sam Houston to counsel with the tribe in the fall of 1835. Houston, the newly elected commander of the Texan forces, was an adopted member of the Cherokee tribe and became an influential advocate of the Cherokee people. In November 1835 the Consultation, acting on Houston’s recommendation, pledged to recognize Cherokee claims to the land north of the Old San Antonio Road and the Neches River and west of the Angelina and Sabine Rivers. The government also appointed John Forbes, John Cameron, and General Houston as commissioners and empowered them to negotiate a treaty with the tribe. The resulting agreement established a reservation for the Cherokees in East Texas, and although it considerably reduced their landholdings, the Cherokees agreed to the accord because they believed it finally gave them a permanent home. The reservation included the future Smith and Cherokee counties as well as parts of Van Zandt, Rusk, and Gregg counties. Eight Cherokee leaders, including Duwali and Big Mush, signed the agreement in 1836. But the treaty was never ratified by the Texas government. Although a majority of the Cherokees had agreed to peace with the Texans, a militant faction of the tribe remained pro-Mexican, a fact that greatly complicated Texan-Cherokee relations.

After the battle of San Jacinto in 1836, Sam Houston was elected president of the new Republic of Texas. He advocated peace with all Texas Indians and worked diligently to enlist the Cherokees as allies in his attempts to negotiate with the warring western tribes. In the fall of 1836 the Cherokees agreed to provide a company of twenty-five rangers to patrol the frontier that lay west of their settlements. The following year the aging Cherokee leader Duwali consented to serve as the republic’s emissary to the Comanches. Texas-Cherokee relations deteriorated again in 1838, however, when attacks on settlers in East Texas were blamed on a combined Cherokee-Mexican force. Before leaving office, Houston attempted to preserve peace between Texans and Cherokees by establishing a boundary line separating their territory, but the line only angered Anglo-Texans who were clamoring for land and saw the Cherokees as allies of their enemies, the Mexicans. Houston’s successor as president, Mirabeau B. Lamar, wanted the Cherokees removed from Texas. He sent troops to occupy the Neches Saline in Cherokee country, and when Duwali blocked the advance of the Texans, Lamar notified the old chief that his people would be moved beyond the Red River, “peaceably if they would; forcibly if they must.” The president then appointed commissioners who were authorized to compensate the Cherokees for land and property they would leave behind. The Cherokees decided to fight for their land, and the resulting conflict came to be known as the Cherokee War. In the summer of 1839, a force of several hundred warriors led by Duwali met Texas forces in the battle of the Neches near the site of present Tyler. More than 100 Indians, including Duwali, were killed, and the remaining Cherokees were driven across the Red River into Indian Territory.

Carol Lipscomb

Adapted from:

Handbook of Texas Online, Carol A. Lipscomb, “Cherokee Indians,” accessed June 22, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/bmc51.