Trail of Tears

Ruth Smith set out to enshrine a Cherokee battleground and started a war of her own

The mission statement is accompanied by a sweeping five-year plan, which lists as goals a museum, sponsorship of youth scholarships, publishing, housing and health-care benefit assistance, group and individual counseling, health screening, team sports, career planning and job placement, retail outlets, and financial counseling, among other things.

In the early 1990s, the center fulfilled part of that vision by providing Native American dancers, storytellers, and other performers for occasional school or city cultural festivals. The center also gave assistance to people trying to trace their Indian ancestry and organized a clothing drive for the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation in Livingston, Texas, before the reservation developed its own program.

Smith gave talks to local community groups and sent information to school children who were researching papers on Native Americans. Each year since its inception, the center has sponsored an art contest for Native American children, with the first-place winner receiving $100, and the entries exhibited at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library downtown.

For all its good works, the center was operating on a shoestring; in 1992--its third year in operation--it raised only a little more than $3,000 in contributions and another $2,000 from the consignment arts and crafts shop it ran out of its office, according to a center financial statement. To keep the doors open and help support herself, Smith often worked for a temporary clerical agency in the evenings.

Though Ruth Smith frequently signs her correspondence and newsletters "Born Running Turtle," she is more of a lone wolf in the Indian community.

"She hasn't developed a rapport with any of the Indian organizations in Dallas, and there are 23 of them," says Frank McLemore, who, among other things, founded the Tribal American Network, a consortium of local Indian groups including the Dallas Inter-Tribal Center and the American Indian Coalition and Business Council, a Native American chamber of commerce.

In the early spring of 1993, Ruth Smith greatly expanded the reach--if not the grasp--of her organization when she set her sights on buying the land where Chief Bowles died.

Clifford P. Dodson, the land's owner and a man of advancing age, contacted several Indian organizations in the hopes that one of them--because of the land's historical significance--would want to buy it, recalls a former center volunteer. Dodson's wife, Agnes Ruth, had inherited the land from her mother; Mrs. Dodson's niece, Alice Jett, says she inherited an adjacent 130-acre tract.

Alice Jett says she made an offer to buy the 66 acres from her uncle for about $50,000, but Dodson told her he thought he could get more from the Indians. He was asking in excess of $150,000--a price Alice says she thought was much more than it was worth. (Alice Jett says she eventually made another offer to her uncle of about $75,000 after she heard about AIHC's plan to build a "tourist attraction with buffalo" next door to her property. Her uncle turned her down.)

Ruth Smith was immediately interested in Dodson's offer. But first she wanted to see the land. Center volunteers Greg Howard and Morgan Jackson accompanied her to the site. Smith does not drive because, she has told people, a car accident left her partially paralyzed. It was an emotional experience for them all, recalls Howard, who teaches the Cherokee language at East Texas State University in Commerce and has a small Indian book and language tapes publishing company. "You feel a terrible sadness down there--undoubtedly because of what happened," he says.

Remembered for his dignified bearing and a Gaelic countenance--red hair, light eyes, and freckles--Chief John Bowles was a half-breed, born in North Carolina to an Irish-Scottish father and a Cherokee mother, according to several books and articles on the subject, including the 1966 Smith County Historic Historical Society article "The Cherokee War 1839" by Morris Burton, former president of the society, and The Battles of Texas by Seymour Conner.

The first chief of the Western Cherokees, he and his tribe migrated from Missouri to Arkansas in the early 1800s only to find that the land on which they settled was outside the boundaries determined by a treaty between the Cherokees and the United States.

In 1820, they moved again, this time to East Texas, which was then governed by Spain. For a short while, the Cherokees knew a peace that had long eluded them. It lasted even after the Mexican overthrow of Spain.

The Cherokees and the Mexican government were negotiating land rights in East Texas when the Texas Revolution erupted in 1835. The Cherokees maintained a position of neutrality in the war that some historians believe contributed to the Texas victory.

After the Texans won, Bowles began negotiating for land with then-President Sam Houston, who had a Cherokee wife and was generally sympathetic to the plight of Indians. Houston signed a treaty with Bowles in 1937, giving him land along the Angelina River. But the Texas Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and Houston's successor, Mirabeau Lamar, who despised both Houston and the Indians, ordered the Cherokees and their allied bands off Texas soil. "The white man and red man cannot dwell in harmony together," he would later say. "Nature forbids it."

No one is sure how many people fought during the two-day Battle of the Neches, nor how many died. The granite marker on the site claims Bowles, then in his 80s, led 800 Indians, but many of those were women and children who, some histories hold, were given time to flee to safety before the battle began. About 500 Texans supposedly fought, but all of them were seasoned veterans of the Texas Revolution.

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