Battle of the Neches


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On July 16, 1839, the last major battle between Texas forces and the Cherokee tribe along with other tribal bands took place.  The Cherokee had first come to Texas shortly after the turn of the century, long before the Texas Revolution, and had settled near the Red River.  Much of the time thereafter, their leader was Chief John Bowles, pictured in the image above, also known as Diwal’li.  There are other variations of his name, but we will refer to him as Chief Bowles.  The Chief was thought to have been born around 1756 to a Cherokee mother and a Scotch-Irish father.  He is said to have had the features of both parents including reddish hair, Cherokee features and freckled skin.

Chief Bowles had negotiated with the Spanish to try and obtain a land grant in 1822 but his request was denied, although the Cherokee continued to live in East Texas.  The tribe was well known to Sam Houston, whose wives included a Cherokee woman by the name of Talihina (Tiana) Rogers, though the couple was not formally married in an Anglo ceremony.  Some accounts state that Tiana was a daughter of Chief Bowles, but to the best of our knowledge, she was not directly related to the Chief and her ancestry is fairly well known.

Sam Houston was generally considered to have had a conciliatory, sympathetic stance towards the Cherokee and other tribes and was personally acquainted with Chief Bowles.  Over the years, Houston is said to have given the chief articles of clothing including a sash, a hat and a sword which Chief Bowles wore.  Bowles had also made Houston and honorary chief of the tribe although Bowles later rescinded this out of frustration after Houston was not able to forge a treaty giving them title to the land where they lived.

During the years of his leadership, Sam Houston had negotiated a number of agreements and treaties with the tribe.  One such agreement would have given the tribe title to land that generally located in parts of Smith, Cherokee, Van Zandt, Rusk and Gregg counties.  The agreement was signed by tribal leaders and individuals representing the Republic, but it was never ratified by the Texas government.

The Mexican government desired to enlist the various tribes as allies against the European settlers’ encroachment before and after the Texas Revolution.  The Cherokee and Comanche tribes had aligned themselves with the Mexican government in putting down the Fredonian Rebellion in the Nacogdoches area in late 1826 and early 1827.  The Republic of Texas officials were aware of the continued effort on the part of the Mexican government and used this as a wedge to influence the public against the Native American tribes, although the Cherokee had declared themselves to be neutral in the Texas Revolution.

With the administration of Mirabeau B. Lamar as the second president of the Republic of Texas, the policy of the Republic became more aggressive toward all Native American tribes, including the Cherokee.  Specific to the Cherokee, the sentiment was in favor of their entire removal from Texas, despite the fact that they had resided in the same general area for several decades, but supported by the fact that the tribe had never been able to secure title to the land on which they lived.

Earlier in the month of July, 1839, Lamar had sent a group to essentially try and force an agreement which would have included Cherokee removal from the area that the tribe had occupied for many years.  When Chief Bowles and the tribe declined to accept the agreement, citing that they needed to harvest their growing crops, Lamar sent Texas militia led by Ed Burleson, Albert Sidney Johnson and others to force them out.  In anticipation of an armed conflict, Chief Bowles ordered the main Cherokee settlement to be evacuated.  The Cherokee were attacked as they retreated up the Neches, culminating in a series of battles that occurred generally west northwest of the current city of Tyler, just into what is now Van Zandt County.

Over the span of about two days, the Cherokee forces (including some Shawnee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Quapaw, Choctaw, Biloxi, Ioni, Alabama, Coushatta, Caddo of the Neches, Tahocullake, Mataquo and possibly other groups) were defeated.  Chief Bowles was first wounded and eventually killed after being captured in the battle, along with many others.  The end of this battle could rightfully be called a massacre of the Cherokees and other fighters, though at the time, the participants may have felt that they had justification for their actions.  This became the last major battle with the Cherokee tribe and effectively ended their residence in the area.  About ten days later, their village was destroyed and the crops burned by General Kelsey Douglas at the direction of President Lamar.

When Houston was elected for his second term as President of the Republic, he was again able to sway the official policy towards negotiating peace with the remaining tribes and in 1843 and 1844 various treaties were enacted.

Almost a century later, in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Texas Revolution, the State of Texas erected a marker thought to be close to the location of Chief Bowles’ death.  In addition to the marker, there are large rocks each engraved with the names of the various tribal bands that also took part in the Battle of the Neches.  The American Indian Cultural Society maintains the grounds, located in southeastern Van Zandt County.  It is on private property, but the public is welcome during daylight hours.  Compared to some more elaborate Texas memorials, there is not a great deal to see, but I spent some time reflecting on the events that occurred there now almost 180 years ago.  Despite its violent past, it is now peaceful and serene.  Even though it is not far from the main highway, it is almost silent there, except for the sound of the birds and the wind in the trees.

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