"Mountain Voices " 2/28/01

Chief John Bowles and the Texas Cherokee are rarely remembered

By Gary Carden

On a little plain above the Neches River some 12 miles outside Tyler, Texas, a lone monument stands like a forgotten sentinel. The inscription reads: On this site the Cherokee Chief Bowles was killed on July 16, 1839, while leading 500 Indians of various tribes against 500 Texans - the last engagement between Cherokees and whites in Texas.

Nothing else marks the site - no baroque sculpture of heroic figures with eloquent gestures and tragic faces, just this singular shaft, a grassy field and a distant wood. The memorial seems austere, a grudging acknowledgement by the state of Texas of a troublesome enemy.

What perverse destiny brought John Bowles (the Cherokees called him Diwali or Bowles) from the fog-shrouded mountains of Nantahala to this solitary field in Texas? It is an incredible journey, marked by tragedy, chance and hardship.

One of 12 children, Diwali was born in Cherokee County in 1756, the son of a Scottish trader and a full-blood Cherokee mother. This mixed-blood parentage gave him a remarkable physical appearance: sandy hair and gray eyes in conjunction with a Cherokee's coloring and physique. As a result, Diwali was the epitome of that generation of mixed bloods that James Mooney felt combined the remarkable traits of both races; men who became the catalysts in changing Cherokee history - men such as Sequoyah, John Ross, Major Ridge and William Hicks.

Bowles' parents were killed by white settlers when he was 14. The young boy developed a pronounced hostility for white people from North Carolina. Following the death of his parents, Bowles moved to a small town on the Tennessee River called Running Water where he quickly became a leader and a spokesman. In 1792, on the death of the noted Cherokee Chief Dragging Canoe, Bowles became town chief. He was about 32 years of age. Two years later, he became involved in an incident that would change his life forever.

Accounts are filled with contradictions, but most versions begin with the signing of a treaty with the U. S. government in 1785. After much bureaucratic delays, the Cherokees finally received a cash settlement at the Tellico Blockhouse in eastern Tennessee in the fall of 1793. Following the disbursement of money, Chief Bowles camped on the Tennessee River. Several boats carrying immigrants bound for Louisiana stopped near the Cherokees and two white traders came ashore and initiated trade with the Indians. Bowles' band eagerly bought glass beads, trinkets and whiskey. The money was quickly gone.

Angered by the trickery and deception of the traders, Bowles gathered the bartered goods and returned them to the traders asking that the money, or a fair portion of it, be returned. In the ensuing argument, fighting broke out and the white traders and several Cherokees were killed. According to the testimony of several immigrants, Chief Bowles and his warriors told the survivors that they would take the women, children and slaves down the river to safety. Arriving at the mouth of the St. Francis River, Bowles provided them with food and boats and sent them downstream to New Orleans.

At this point, Bowles learned that rumors were rampant. The Cherokee government had been informed that Bowles had attacked and massacred a large party of defenseless travelers, robbing them of their possessions. Both the Cherokee and federal government had issued orders for his arrest, declaring him an outlaw since he had broken the treaty of 1785. Chief Bowles had no choice but to flee. He and his band traveled first to French territory in Missouri where he remained until 1811. When a series of natural disasters (earthquakes and floods) struck this area, Bowles migrated to Arkansas where he remained until 1819 when a government survey evicted him. Thus began a year of wandering as Chief Bowles led his tribe to a series of locations near the Texas and Arkansas border, finally settling near Nacogdoches. Here he vowed to remain.

Eventually, a series of investigations proved Chief Bowles to be innocent of any wrongdoing in the alleged "massacre" on the Tennessee River. The final report concluded that Bowles had been the victim of one of the many rumors circulating during this period. However, stung by the rejection of the Cherokees, Bowles chose not to return. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time that he would be falsely accused of deception and murder.

Once established in Texas on a tract of land that resembled the valleys of Tennessee and North Carolina, Bowles began a vigorous campaign to acquire legal rights to the land he occupied. Gradually, his tribe - called the Texas Cherokees - grew, and became noted for their industriousness, excelling in farming and raising cattle. Indeed, at a time when Texas was filled with warring factions, Bowles' tribe was unique. Early government agents noted the contrast between the Texas Cherokees and the open hostilities attending the struggle between Mexico and the American invaders with a bewildering cast of tribes with uncertain (and everchanging) alliances.

Repeatedly, Bowles and his council members traveled to Mexico City to acquire recognition from the prevailing government. However, each time that recognition was promised, the governor would be defeated, overthrown or assassinated before official sanction could be granted. A dozen petitions were lost or disavowed by a new governor. Yet, Bowles persisted. When he was repeatedly approached by both American and Mexican representatives asking that he pledge alliance in the coming war, Bowles remained stubbornly neutral - a position he maintained largely due to his friendship with Sam Houston. Houston assured him that when the war was over, he would personally move to see that the Texas Cherokees received official recognition by the Texas Republic. In fact, Houston had the Cherokee land surveyed as proof that full rights were forthcoming.

However, Houston did not foresee the extensive resistance he would get to such an act. Rumors again circulated, and although the majority were quickly proven false, they persisted for decades. Bowles was said to have secret alliances with the Mexicans, and even after the war for Texas was over, the new Republic of Texas continued to give credence to the rumors. Atrocities committed by other tribes were credited to Chief Bowles, including the infamous Kilough Massacre in which 18 members of a white family of settlers were killed. No doubt, Bowles remembered another unfounded rumor many years before!

When Houston's successor, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, took office in 1838, he immediately announced his intention of ridding Texas of the Cherokee menace. Lamar had been a major factor in the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia and was known to have a long-abiding dislike for Indians. Despite Houston's vigorous attempts to protect Bowles and his people, the tragedy seemed predestined. Lamar found all previous petitions and commitments to the Cherokees null and void. He ordered the Cherokees out of Texas and sent armed forces to expedite the order.

On a hot July morning in 1839, Chief Bowles mounted his sorrel horse for the last time. After refusing to accept the conditions of the removal of his tribe (to be escorted by an armed guard and with the gunlocks removed from their rifles), the 83-year-old chief arrayed himself for battle. He held a cherished sword given to him by Sam Houston, and an ancient black military hat was on his head. As he rode to the field, he saw 500 armed Texan militia approaching. This is the end as recorded by Mary Whatley Clarke, quoting an eyewitness: Throughout the battle, his voice could be heard urging his warriors on .... He was a magnificent specimen of barbaric manhood ... His horse was shot several times, fell to the ground, throwing off his rider. The chief slowly rose to his feet and as he walked away he was shot in the back by Henry Conner. Bowles took several steps and fell, then rose to a sitting position.. He was approached by Captain Smith ... I said, "Captain Smith, don't shoot him," but as I spoke, he fired, shooting the chief in the head. Bowles' body was mutilated by the Texans. He was scalped, and several soldiers cut strips of flesh from his back for horses' reins. His unburied body lay for several years on the spot where he fell.

It is difficult to understand this atrocity today for we are far removed from the bitter racism and violence of Texas in the 1830s. It was the time of "Manifest Destiny", and Native Americans, regardless of tribe or culture, were perceived as a barbaric menace that must be driven from the Republic.

Bowles' treasured sword survived. After a brief stint in the Civil War, it ended up in the Masonic Lodge in Tahlequah, Okla.

Bowles' son, John, who was killed shortly after his father's death, attempted to reunite the Texas Cherokees. When killed, he was wearing his father's hat. Apparently, he had returned to the battlefield the night after Bowles had been killed and retrieved the hat (which was returned to Sam Houston, an act that angered him since he perceived it as a taunt by his anti-Cherokee compatriots. It probably was).

In time, Bowles, identified by historians as the Cherokee Moses, became a topic of interest to Cherokee scholars and little-known facts about his life began to emerge. His daughter married one of Sequoyah's sons, and Sequoyah was known to have visited the Texas Cherokees. In fact, Sequoyah allegedly died in 1843 in the little town of San Franando where his son lived. For the rest of his life, Sam Houston continued to denounce the government that he felt was responsible for the death of Chief Bowles. In a fiery speech delivered before the Texas assembly in 1840, Houston noted that Bowles was a better man than his murderers. As a consequence, Houston received a number of death threats and was repeatedly denounced by Gov. Lamar.

Now, the only justice left is the judgment of time.



Back to The Republic of Texas >