By Jeff Guinn
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Armed with a lawn mower and the desire to illuminate history, a Cherokee descendant fights to expose the truth about the Battle of Neches and build a fitting memorial to Chief Duwa'li Bowles.
VAN ZANDT COUNTY -- Anyone visiting the 70 acres of wilderness now owned by the American Indian Cultural Society will appreciate its fierce, wild beauty -- brush-tangled flatland and sloping hills, the Neches River gurgling nearby, woods teeming with armadillos and deer, a few javelinas and slithery copperhead snakes.
Those who follow the correct narrowly mown paths will eventually discover a single granite monument marking the spot where, 166 years ago, militia sent by the new Republic of Texas government killed 83-year-old Cherokee Chief Duwa'li Bowles and drove his tribesmen off the land they'd occupied and farmed for almost 20 years.
But so far, 52-year-old Eagle Douglas of DeSoto, who heads the Cultural Society, is one of the few who comes to interact with the spirits of all the Indians who fell during the pitched battle of July 15 and 16. Douglas, a Cherokee descendent, plans to change that.
"This is historic, sacred ground," Douglas says. "We are working to get this land the recognition and respect it deserves. The spirits here deserve respect, too. I've had people who've come here tell me they've felt their presence, and I know I always do. That's why I leave them food, beans and rice, never forgetting candy for the children."
American Indian culture, Douglas says, emphasizes interaction with spirits. That's why, should his plans come to fruition, the battle site property will eventually house a "wellness center" as well as a trading post, "because many of our people have to go to [the Cherokee Nation in] Oklahoma to find health facilities focused on American Indian needs. We'd have a place here that honored spiritual beliefs, with a staff ranging from medical doctors to shamans."
To make that possible, Douglas says, the public needs to know more -- about the site itself and its real history, which he says is radically different from the terse message on the marker placed by the state during Texas' centennial year of 1939.
Marker erected by the American Indian Cultural Society explains the Cherokee viewpoint on the 1839 battle.
It reads: "On this site the CHEROKEE CHIEF BOWLES was killed on July 16 1839 while leading 800 Indians of various tribes into battle against 500 Texans -- the last engagement between Cherokees and whites in Texas."
"What it doesn't say is that of the 800 Indians, 400 to 600 were women, children and elders," Douglas says. "The Texicans were a fully armored militia unit. The Indians only had a couple dozen rifles and pistols."
Bowles and his people weren't around afterward to correct any misconceptions. Those who survived the so-called "Battle of the Neches" were too busy fleeing for their lives.
"It's true that history is written by the winners, and the Indians did not win that one," says Max Lale, past president of the Texas State Historical Association. "To say the least, it's high time the real facts were more widely known."
A long hike to history
Chad Corntassle Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, came to Texas a few years ago to see the Neches battle site for himself.
"It's hard to find," he says.
That's true even now. From Tarrant County, the first leg is a 90-minute drive east on Interstate 20 to Canton, then a right turn and 25 more miles southeast on Texas 64. Just past the hamlet of Redland, a brown historic marker directs travelers 2.4 miles left on twisty Farm Road 4923, the kind of crater-pocked throughway that gives farms a bad name. Even then, it's tricky to pick out Douglas' handmade sign on the right announcing the final half-mile to the battle-site marker down a rutted dirt road. You have to park your car halfway and walk the rest through tangled brush split only by a narrow path that Douglas has hacked with his lawn mower. ("Burned out a couple of engines on it over the years," he notes.) Then comes a clearing -- cleared by Douglas, of course -- and the state marker indicating where Bowles died.
To its immediate right is a tiny tree planted reverently by Smith, when he visited.
But during the summer of 1839, the Texican militia was in no danger of getting lost. Everybody in the fledgling Republic knew exactly where the Cherokee village was. They'd farmed there since the winter of 1819-20, as one of more than a dozen offshoots of various American Indian tribes who'd moved to what was then colonial Spanish land. They had been trying to escape the spread of well-armed, Indian-hating American settlers who were swarming west and south. As national control of Texas changed hands from Spain to Mexico to the Republic of Texas, Bowles tried each time to renegotiate title to the land on which his people lived and farmed. Mexico was agreeable; it wanted its vast Texas colony populated by peaceable tribes. When the Texican rebellion overturned Mexican authority in 1836, Cherokee-loving Sam Houston (he'd lived with the tribe for several years) became president. He promised Bowles' people the land was still theirs, but the newly formed provisional government never ratified the treaty.
Indian-loathing Mirabeau Lamar succeeded Houston as president in December 1838, and immediately announced the Cherokee "have no legal or equitable claim to any portion of our territory." In another speech he added, "In my opinion the proper policy to be pursued toward the barbarian race is absolute expulsion from the country.... Our only security against a savage foe is to allow no security to him."
Lamar's message was applauded by white citizens of the republic, Lale says.
"There were always rumors of plots and alliances between the Indians and Mexicans to take Texas back," Lale says. "And, of course, though Bowles' people were peaceable, there were other tribes who were not. Whites did not differentiate between them. The general attitude was: 'All Indians are bad.'"
Bowles and the leaders of other tribal settlements in the area -- Delaware, Alabama, Shawnee, Kickapoo, Choctaw and Caddo among them -- were ordered to leave Texas immediately. The Indian families refused to go, correctly noting they had lived in Texas longer than most of the whites telling them to get out. Lamar authorized Albert Sidney Johnson to raise a militia; Sam Houston had mostly disbanded the Texican army. Final negotiations in early July 1839 broke down. First, Bowles asked if his tribe could stay on the land until fall so they could harvest their crops before joining another Cherokee band to emigrate to California. That request was denied. Then Bowles told government representatives that he fully understood his people would lose any war, but they would not, could not, unconditionally give up their land and become homeless nomads. Johnson marched his troops into East Texas.
On July 15, Bowles' son arrived under a flag of truce. He told Johnson the Cherokee were ready to move. Johnson said it was too late. His militia attacked the village, and the rout was on. The Texicans pursued the fleeing Cherokee for miles, finally cornering them the next day near a Delaware village. Bowles led a poorly armed force of warriors from several tribes in a brief last stand. The old chief's horse was shot out from under him. He remained on the battlefield and tried to direct a further retreat. Already wounded in the leg, Bowles finally tried to escape, but was shot in the back. Badly hurt, he sat facing the approaching white militia. One of them ran to his side and shot him point-blank in the head. The area was littered with the bodies of Indians -- men, women and children.
Those who survived fled in every direction.
White farmers moved onto the former Cherokee land. The militia who had defeated Bowles "were treated as conquering heroes," Lale says. "There was little doubt among them that, even if those particular Indians hadn't committed any atrocities yet, they certainly would have at some point in the future. You cannot underestimate the hatred of Indians by whites in the region at that time."
Gradually, the "Battle of the Neches" faded in public consciousness. During the Texas Centennial, markers were placed at various historic sites, and the spot where Bowles died was one.
Sometime in 1994 -- he's not sure exactly when -- Eagle Douglas was watching a program about American Indians on The History Channel. The locksmith from DeSoto found himself unexpectedly mesmerized by details of various atrocities committed against Indians, and decided to involve himself in "whatever events there might be to bring these things more to light." He learned of a nascent effort in Dallas to acquire the Neches battleground and build some sort of educational facility there that would present the Indian side of things. Eventually, Douglas became the leader of the effort, establishing the American Indian Cultural Society as a nonprofit organization. Through various fund-raisers, memberships and digging into his own pocket, Douglas and his wife, Jeena, said they were finally able to raise more than $50,000 and gain title to the property.
In some ways, that was the easy part. The land itself had become wildly overgrown. Working on weekends, Douglas took his lawn mower and began cutting 6- to 8-foot strips through the brush, trying to make it possible for visitors to find their way to the Bowles monument. Unhappy with the description of the battle it provided, Douglas set up his own series of signs giving the Indian view of "the massacre."
"The blood of our fallen people is in this place," he says. "That, and my sweat." But Douglas discovered, as he labored, that just being on the land brought him a sense of serenity he'd never before experienced.
"It calms me to be here," he says as he fans sweet-smelling smoke from a smudge pot filled with a mixture of tobacco, sage, cedar and grass. "I felt the presence of the spirits. When we had some gathering scheduled here and I'd be mowing the day before and it got dark, I'd tell them I needed a little more time, and it would get pitch black and the moon would somehow be shining just where I needed to mow. They're here. We must respect them by giving this land the care it deserves."
Douglas' serenity extends to all aspects of nature. Standing by the original Bowles monument, a bee lands on his hand and begins crawling on his fingers, dragging its stinger like a conquistador hauling a rapier.
"It won't sting me," Douglas says. "My beliefs in the spirits won't let that happen." Sure enough, the bee buzzes off. Then a yellow jacket dive-bombs Jeena Douglas, who is not of Indian descent but does share her husband's spiritual beliefs. Douglas extends a hand toward the nearby brush. "Go there," he suggests to the flying insect. After a few more moments of circling the human interlopers, it zooms in that general direction.
"Spirits," Douglas says again, his long, thick braid bobbing as he nods enthusiastically.
But it will take more than spiritual intervention to help the Cultural Society to carry out its plans. For years, its emphasis was on acquiring the land. Now there are things to be done with it. Douglas talks about "a trading post with the works of Indian artisans, because people who come to historical sites want souvenirs. And we could use any proceeds to keep on improving the place." There's also the wellness center, where Douglas envisions shamans working side-by-side with doctors, and possibly a "meditation garden," where visitors could calmly, quietly commune with the spirits.
All that requires lots of money, and Douglas is pretty much tapped out. He talks often to potential donors, many of whom declare themselves ready to get on board.
"We've been promised more than a girl in the back seat on a prom date," Douglas says. "People show up, listen, promise help and then we never hear from them anymore."
He estimates the Cultural Society has about 60 members who pay varying annual dues between $15 and $35. They stage memorial programs on the battle site, selling bottled water and soft drinks but not charging admission. Now that the property is secured, he hopes to begin applying for grants, but he won't approach the state for help.
"If they're too involved, they start telling you how to do things," he says. "We don't want to become just another state park."
Douglas does have the support of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Chad Corntassle Smith says his tribal government fully endorses Douglas' efforts.
"This is one of those rare instances where someone sees something that needs to be done to preserve history and goes out and does it," Smith says. "Because of Eagle Douglas and his wife and organization, a tremendous story will not be lost."
Though his tribal government "gets lots of people coming to us to ask for support for things that won't ever work," Smith says he is convinced some, if not all, of Douglas' dreams for the battle site will come true.
"It's inevitable," Smith declares. "He has gone through so much to get to where they are now, he'll keep finding ways to get things done. That property in the next decade may not have grandiose facilities, but it will be developed somehow."
Two for Texas history buffs
There are innumerable markers throughout the state that would be of particular interest to anyone wanting to know more about the history of American Indians in Texas. Two of the most interesting are at Spanish Fort, just south of the Oklahoma-Texas border, and Brackettville in far South Texas.
Spanish Fort, sometimes described as a ghost town, actually still has several dozen residents. Located on County Road 103 about 10 miles north of Nocona, in 1759 it was the site of a pitched battle between Taovaya and Comanche Indians and Spanish dragoons. The Spanish had traveled north on an expeditionary raid to punish the Comanche for wiping out one of their settlements at San Saba. Armed with muskets and cannon, the Spanish expected an easy victory. But when they reached the Indian encampment, they found it had been built into a near-impregnable fortress. The American Indians routed their attackers, who fled south and later claimed they'd won. A huge bas-relief marker now commemorates the battle.
How to get there: Spanish Fort is about a 90-minute drive from Fort Worth. Take Interstate 35 north to Gainesville. Turn west on U.S. 82 to Nocona. Turn north on County Road 103.
There are two places of special historic interest in Brackettville, a small town about halfway between Uvalde and Del Rio on U.S. 90. It's the home of the Seminole African tribe, who joined the U.S. Army as scouts after the Civil War. Though their service was honorable -- four scouts earned the Medal of Honor -- the tribe was evicted at gunpoint from their longtime village on the grounds of Fort Clark in 1914 when the military no longer required their services. A plaque marks the spot at Fort Clark where the village was located, but the unique reminder of Seminole African history is the small tribal cemetery three miles away. Four special grave sites honor the Medal of Honor recipients.
How to get there: Brackettville is an eight-hour drive. Follow U.S. 377 through Stephenville, Brownwood, Brady and Junction. Turn south on County Road 674 at Rock Springs. You're about to enjoy some of the most rugged, lovely scenery in Texas. Follow County Road 674 into Brackettville.
To reach the Bowles battle site, take I-20 80 miles west to Canton. Turn right on Texas 64 and go through Midway and Redland. Turn left on Farm Road 4923 where indicated by a large brown historic marker and go 2.4 miles. The site is on the right, just before the Tyler Fish Farm.
How to help
Contact the American Indian Cultural Society Inc. at (972) 228-8184 or [email protected].