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Tragedy of Chief Bowles

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
Few historical figures are as tragic as Chief Bowles, the 83-year-old Cherokee Indian chief who died on a Neches River battlefield near Tyler 164 years ago this month.

The battle of the Neches, fought on July 15 and 16, 1839, was the principal engagement of the Cherokee War, an event discolored by shame akin to the Trail of Tears, the forced march of the Cherokees from their homeland in the Southeast to Oklahoma in 1838 and 1839.

Bowles -- also known as The Bowl, Duwal'li, or Bold Hunter -- was born in North Carolina around 1765, the son of a Scottish father and a Cherokee mother.

As the leader of a village, he led his people from North Carolina to the St. Francis Valley in Missouri in 1810 to escape growing pressures of white settlers in the South. He later led the tribe to Arkansas and then into East Texas.

In February of 1836, when Texas revolted against Mexico, Sam Houston negotiated a treaty with the chief that would guarantee the Cherokees possession of 1.5 million acres of land in East Texas.

But after the Texas Revolution, the Senate of the Republic of Texas invalidated the treaty because the Cherokees had been briefly allied with Mexico in an effort to secure their lands in East Texas before the revolution. Indian and Mexican attacks on settlers in East Texas also complicated the Cherokees' position.

When Mirabeau B. Lamar replaced Houston as president of the Republic, he ordered Bowles and his people to leave Texas. Negotiations failed and Bowles put the question to the Cherokees, as well as other tribes sharing the lands.

Would they stand together in an effort to hold their land? The decision was made to fight.

President Lamar sent his troops to the Neches River and the first day's battle was fought in what is now Henderson County. The second day's fighting occurred in what is now Van Zandt County.

The Texan Army numbered only 500, compared to 700 to 800 Indians, but Bowles' warriors were routed, and pursuit continued until July 24. The old chief, wearing a handsome sword and sash given him by Sam Houston, remained in the field on horseback for two days. On the last day, he signaled retreat, but few of his men were left to flee. Bowles was shot in the leg and his horse was wounded. As he climbed from his mount, he was shot in the back.

As the Texas militia approached him, he sat down, crossed his arms and legs facing the soldiers, and waited for his death. The captain of the militia walked to where Bowles sat, placed a pistol to his head, and killed him. The Texans took stripes of skin from his arm as souvenirs. His body was left where it lay. No burial ever took place.

The battle of the Neches was the largest single massacre in East Texas with more than 800 men, women and children of the associated tribes killed. While a state historical marker stands on the battleground, no funeral was held for Chief Bowles until 1995 -- the 156th anniversary of his death -- when descendants of the tribe met to honor the chief and those who died with him.

Today, the American Indian Heritage Center is raising money to purchase 70 acres of the 1.5 million acres promised to the Cherokees and other tribes in the l830s as a memorial to the old chief and his people.


All Things Historical July 4, 2004 column
A syndicated column in over 70 East Texas newspapers
Published with permission
Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman of Lufkin is a former president of the Association and the author of 30 books on East Texas history and folklore.
Bob Bowman's East Texas >

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