Trail of Tears

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

While Ruth Smith would later tout in her fund-raising literature that 800 Indians died here--including scores of women and children--such a large number of dead is a gross exaggeration. According to Donaly Brice, archivist with the Texas State Archives, approximately 118 Indians were killed during the two-day battle. What is true, however, is that Chief John Bowles, dressed in the sash, military hat, and silk vest given him by Sam Houston, rode back and forth on a paint horse across the battlefield trying to rally his men. He was the last to leave the field as his followers retreated.

A thigh wound crippled him. As he sat on the ground, defiantly facing his enemies, a Texan soldier came up and shot him in the head.

Ruth Smith's first visit to the Bowles site had a particularly strong impact on her, recalls Greg Howard. "She told me she thought she was Chief Bowles," Howard recalls. "She pointed to a place near this small tree by the creek and said, 'This is where I was killed.' I thought to myself, 'Sure, Ruth, whatever you say.'" (On another occasion, Howard says, Smith told him people could tell she was Cherokee by the way she walked.)

Smith appointed Howard to be the project director for Renew the Dream. In August of 1993, Howard picked up a copy of a contract from Dodson stipulating that the center would buy the property for $175,000, with $25,000 down and payments of $45,000 due in December 1993 and April 1994. A final payment of $60,000 was due August 1, 1994. If the center could not meet the payments by that date, the contract granted them an additional three years.

According to the Van Zandt County Appraisal office, the contract price was much higher than what the property was worth. "The market value of the land is $36,300," says Marcy Bourquin. "It is extremely bad land. It is wooded, hilly, and a major portion of it is in a flood plain." When she heard that a group was trying to buy it from the owner for $175,000, Bourquin told the Observer, "Sounds like he's taking them for a cleaning."

Smith and Dodson signed a contract in August, says Howard.
In the fall of 1993, Smith and Howard started to raise the money. Smith dropped names of people she said were interested in funding the center, such as Ross Perot. She told Howard and Morgan Jackson, who was working on the project, that she had lined up Willie Nelson to do a benefit concert and a bunch of celebrities for a golf tournament, neither of which ever happened.

"She always had something going on somewhere, some big deal she was working on," says Howard. "Nothing ever came through."

A more modest idea did meet with success. The center sold donors square-foot portions of the land for $10 apiece. For $250, their name would be inscribed on a Walk of Honor that would be built on the property. By now, Smith had begun showing people plans for a heritage center to be built on the site. "It was actually plans for a civic center that had been drawn for some other location, and the name had been scratched out and our name drawn in," says Howard. "Most of the land slopes down to the bottom lands. The thing wouldn't even fit there."

As soon as money began trickling in, Howard wanted Smith to set up a separate account for the donations made to the land, with a portion earmarked for fund raising and publicity, such as fliers, which he had been personally subsidizing. Smith kept putting off opening a separate account, which made Howard nervous, especially because Smith kept refusing to give him an accounting of the funds. He had donated $100 of his own money, and the national distributor of his books kicked in $200.

"I felt an obligation to keep them posted, but I never could," says Howard. "Finally things got so foggy and confusing, I just wanted out of it."

After volunteering almost full time for the center for a year and a half, Howard finally left in the spring of 1994.

In the winter of 1994, Smith addressed a meeting of the Smith County Historical Society in Tyler. The response was overwhelming. Nancy Thomas, a secretary at an oil company in Tyler, was so enthusiastic about Smith's campaign to preserve the Bowles site, she resigned from several local boards to devote almost all of her free time to helping Smith.

But before thoroughly embracing the project, Thomas, who claims some Cherokee blood, requested some financial documents on the center's budget and the status of fund raising on the Bowles project; instead, she got a mission statement and a letter describing the awards for which Smith had been nominated.

Smith's letter went on to profess her close working relations with various unnamed tribal headquarters throughout the United States. (The names of theses tribes are confidential, according to the center's written responses to the Observer.)

Even without answers to her questions, Thomas decided to volunteer with the center. She helped organize a group of gung ho East Texas volunteers, which would grow to include several descendants of Chief Bowles.

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