Thursday, September 25, 2014

Battle of the Neches

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

Chief Bowl
Sam Houston
Last week Karon accompanied me to Van Zandt County, where we sought out the site of the Battle of the Neches. Since the 1970s I had taught Texas History classes about the Cherokee in East Texas under Chief Bowl and about the Cherokee War. Through the years I have seen several historical markers about the Cherokee, Chief Bowl, and the Battle of the Neches. A visit to the climactic battle site was long overdue.

Gen. Edward Burleson
Gen. Thomas J. Rusk
Born in 1756 in North Carolina, Chief Bowl led his Cherokee band west of the Mississippi River in 1810, seeking better hunting grounds and attempting to escape the encroachments of white settlers. Bowl’s Cherokees were in Missouri for a time, then northwestern Arkansas, before moving into East Texas above Nacogdoches in 1819. Soon there were several Cherokee villages in the area, represented by Bowl as their peace chief. Chief Bowl tried to negotiate for a large land grant from the Spanish government in 1827 and from the Mexican government in 1833. With the outbreak of the Texas Revolution in 1835, Mexican agents tried to incite the Cherokee to war against the Texans. But in February 1836 General Sam Houston, an adopted Cherokee son, led negotiations with Chief Bowl, a longtime acquaintance. Houston presented Bowl a sword, and promised lands from the new Republic of Texas. Now safe from a war with the Cherokee in the north, General Houston took up action against Santa Anna in the south.

Vice President David G. Burnet
Secretary of War Albert S. Johnston

After Texas won independence from Mexico, President Houston could not persuade the Senate of the Republic of Texas to ratify the treaty. Houston was succeeded in December 1838 by President Mirabeau B. Lamar, a lifelong Indian hater who ignored the 1836 treaty and ordered the Cherokee and other nearby tribes to leave Texas. Negotiations toward this goal were arranged by the government with Chief Bowl in July 1838. Intending to negotiate from strength, Chief Bowl gathered the Cherokee, as well as allies from smaller tribal bands, in a large encampment. There were more than 700 warriors.

A Texas army of 500 soldiers, led by Generals Thomas J. Rusk and Edward Burleson camped nearby. Chief Bowl, now in his 80s, dressed in a silk vest, military hat, sash, and the sword presented by Sam Houston. The Texas government offered to compensate the Cherokee, who were industrious farmers, for whatever property was lost during the move, but not for the land they had worked for two decades. Negotiations broke down and Chief Bowl led an evacuation of the encampments on July 15, heading north on the west side of the Neches River.

The Texas army soon organized a pursuit, and late in the day caught up with the Indians in northeast Henderson County, several miles west of present-day Tyler. Chief Bowl established a defensive position on what became known as Battle Creek, while the women and children were sent to the north. Rusk and Burleson launched attacks at the front and rear of the warrior position, but the action was indecisive. Darkness soon fell, and Chief Bowl fell back to a position in a wooded ravine, near the headwaters of the Neches in Van Zandt County.

The Texas force pursued at dawn, and when the Indian position was located, a three-pronged attack was launched. Among the Texan leadership were David G. Burnet and Albert Sidney Johnston, serving the Republic respectively as vice-president and secretary of war. Cherokee raiders nearly succeeded in stampeding the Texas horse herd, before another major assault dislodged the warriors, who scattered into the woods. Chief Bowl was the last Cherokee to leave the field, riding away with a wound in the thigh. But his horse was shot down, and when Bowl tried to limp away, he was struck in the back. Defiantly he sat up to face his attackers. An officer walked over to give a merciless coupe de grace, firing a pistol ball into the back of his head. The rationale of the attacker was that the twice-wounded old man had not surrendered nor asked for quarter, and he was still armed – with the sword that was a gift from Sam Houston.

There were at least 100 Indian casualties, while five Texans were killed and two dozen wounded.  The Cherokee survivors and their allies retreated beyond the Red River into Indian Territory. The American Indian Cultural Society identified 13 tribes that contributed warriors to the Battle of the Neches: Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Quapaw, Choctaw, Biloxi, Ioni, Caddo, Alabama, Coushatta, Tahocullake, and Mataquo.

To find the battlefield, Karon and I drove west on Highway 64 out of Tyler. Ten miles past Loop 323 a sign on the right side of the highway indicated that we should turn right at the next road. We followed this blacktop for 2.5 miles, then a sign indicated a turn to the right on a dirt road. At the end of this road is a parking area, and from there we followed a path about 200 yards to the state marker. The wooded path was lined with stones, each of which carries the name of a tribe which participated in the battle. The site is secluded and, for history buffs, well worth a visit.

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