This week we’re going to take a “bunny trail” (detour) from the specific (Athens and environs) to another aspect of the history of Texas and into one area in particular. And that’s how a “civilized” Native tribe had an important part of the settlement of Texas and often without acceptance and even credit. This was of course the Cherokee.
There were of course other Indian tribes who already lived in what is now Texas when Europeans first arrived to explore and then to settle. So Texas was originally part of the Spanish empire, then became part of Mexico, then the Republic of Texas and eventually part of the U.S. And all these settlers – including the Cherokee – were immigrants.
Calling themselves “Ani-Yunwiya” – which in their language means “The Principle People,” the Cherokee in the early 1800s were a major Native nation at the time living in the southwestern U.S. However, they were far being “savages” but instead were a settled agricultural people living in an established social and ceremonial system. Their towns – each about forty households - were an important part of their government structure and each town sent representatives to a regional council that dealt with issues of war or diplomacy.
At first contact with Europeans in 1600s Cherokee adopted various aspects of European culture to their own society, enough so that later they became known as one of the five “civilized tribes.” One adaptation was a legislative system and also creation and admiration of education. They even had a lettering system of their own language, created by Sequoyah.
Yet all this meant nothing to the arriving settlers from the U.S. who invaded Cherokee lands, often displacing them and at the same time weakening their group identity. So to avoid these contacts from 1790 to 1820 many Cherokees on their own moved west to settle in Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. However, those who remained were soon removed forcibly relocated in what is now Oklahoma – a national calamity we known as the Trail of Tears.
Meanwhile, the Cherokees who had drifted into Texas naturally sought official permission to settle from the early Spanish government. The Spanish authorities in their time approved the Cherokee settlements – hoping they would serve as buffer between the Anglo Americans who were also expanding into the Texas territory. However, apparently there was no official approval with the Cherokees.
By 1822 there were about 300 Cherokee in Texas living with no official acknowledgment of their land rights, and by 1835 their working with the Mexican government for that recognition meant their Anglo neighbors were suspicious of them.
Then in that fall of 1835 the temporary Texan government sent Sam Houston, new commander of the Texan army, to meet with the Cherokees since at one time he had been an adopted member of the tribe when he lived in Tennessee. He recommended that Cherokee land claims be recognized and after commissioners were appointed a treaty was drawn up. This agreement set up Cherokee reservations in East Texas and though it was not as much land as they desired the Cherokee agreed because it finalized their claims. However, this agreement was never ratified by the Texans at that point.
After San Jacinto as the Republic of Texas took shape newly installed president Sam Houston advocated peace with all the Native tribes and sought Cherokee assistance in this effort. In 1837 Cherokee chief Duwali agreed to represent the republic in discussions with the Comanche but there continued to be military conflicts.
Houston wanted to establish boundary lines between lands of the Texan Anglos and the Cherokee but the Anglo Texans opposed because they wanted more land. Then Houston’s successor, Mirabeau B. Lamar, demanded the Cherokees leave Texas and move beyond the Red River, and even sent troops to enforce his order. However, Duwali blocked the troop advance and as the Cherokee War began it culminated in what became known as the Battle of the Neches near what is now Tyler. In the battle Duwali was killed and many of the remaining Cherokee were removed into the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). However, some Cherokee remained in Texas where they continued to oppose the Texas Republic as fugitives while others resettled in Mexico.
Then as Sam Houston was reelected in 1841 he established policies to deal with possible future hostilities with immigrant tribes and the result were treaties with the remaining Cherokees in Texas in 1844.