Cherokee Indian Chief Bowles (Duwali) and his tragic quest for land

Chief Bowles (Duwali)

Chief Bowles (Duwali)

Cherokee Indian Chief Duwali or Di’Wali, also known as John Bowles or Bowl, was born around 1756, possibly in North Carolina. He is thought to have been the son of a Scotch or Scotch-Irish trader and a Cherokee woman. It is claimed that Bowles’ father was killed by white settlers when Bowles was a boy, and that the son killed his father’s murderers in revenge when he was 14. Bowles never learned how to read or write, and could not speak English. Late in his life, he was described as being “somewhat tanned in color,” and having “neither the hair nor the eyes of an Indian. His eyes were gray, his hair was of a dirty sandy color; and his was an English head.” (1)

Early life

In 1792, John Bowles became chief of the Chickamauga tribe of Cherokees in the town of Running Water (now Whiteside), Tennessee. Two years later, Bowles was involved in a murderous altercation with some white men, known as the Muscle Shoals massacre. Bowles and his warriors fled up the St. Francis River to southeastern Missouri, where they were joined by other Cherokees. They lived in the St. Francis valley until 1811, when the area was struck by a large earthquake. Taking this as a sign from the Great Spirit to leave the area, the tribe moved into territory between the Arkansas and White Rivers in present-day Arkansas. Unfortunately, Bowles settled on land that was not part of the territory retained by the Cherokees in treaties signed with the United States in 1817 and 1819. He had to move again.

Move to Texas

In the winter of 1819-20, Chief Bowles, along with sixty of his men and their families, journeyed to Texas, which was then part of Mexico and under Spanish rule. They eventually settled about fifty miles north of Nacogdoches, in land traditionally populated by the Caddo Indians (see my post about Dehahuit). They were soon joined by other Cherokees. A Mexican census taker reported in 1821 that the Caddos “are rivals of the Cherokees; they were jealous of the influence that these were going to acquire; and in all their conversations with the Mexicans, they manifest their disgust at the introduction of foreign savages.” (2) Horse thefts and revenge killings kept the two bands on the verge of war for at least a decade. This is the environment in which Napoleon smokes the peace pipe with Bowles in Napoleon in America.

Bowles shared leadership of the Texas Cherokees with Richard Fields, another less than full-blooded Indian who served as the tribe’s diplomatic chief. Though the Cherokees had permits from Spanish officials allowing them to live in Texas, they did not own their land. After Mexico achieved its independence, Fields led a Cherokee delegation to the provincial capital, San Antonio, seeking a land grant from Mexican officials. Texas Governor José Félix Trespalacios proved sympathetic. In November 1822 he signed an agreement that allowed the Cherokees to remain on their land in exchange for guarding against American incursions and smuggling. Trespalacios wrote to the area’s commandant:

The Cherokee Nation, according to their statement, numbers fifteen thousand souls; but there are within the borders of Texas only one hundred warriors and two hundred women and children. They work for their living, and dress in cotton-cloth, which they themselves manufacture. They raise cattle and horses and use firearms. Many of them understand the English language. In my opinion, they ought to be useful to the Province, for they immediately became subject to its laws, and I believe will succeed in putting a stop to carrying stolen animals to the United States, and in arresting those evil-doers that infest the roads. (3)

Trespalacios gave Fields and five other Cherokees permission to travel to Mexico City to request written title to their land from Mexican Emperor Agustín de Iturbide. Soon after their arrival, Iturbide was overthrown. Although the new Mexican government gave a vague verbal promise to uphold the treaty signed with Trespalacios, the Cherokee delegation had to return to Texas without written title.

In 1825, American empresario Haden Edwards was granted land that included territory claimed by the Cherokees. Fields supported Edwards’ efforts to secede from Mexico and form a separate Republic of Fredonia, based on an agreement that land would be divided between the Indians and the Anglo-Americans. Bowles doubted Fields’ judgement and refused to take part in the uprising. After the rebellion collapsed in 1827, he and other Cherokee leaders had Fields executed for putting the tribe at risk.

Chief Bowles continued to seek title to Cherokee land, without success. An 1833 petition addressed to the Secretary of State of Coahuila and Texas noted:

The tribe at present numbers about 150 families, the total number of persons being about 800. The property of the Cherokees, consisting of about 3,000 head of cattle; about the same number of hogs and 500 or 600 horses. The subscribers inform you that the said tribe lives chiefly by tilling the soil and raising cattle. (4)

The Texas Revolution: Hopes raised and dashed

Map showing the territory in Texas set aside for the Cherokees according to an 1836 treaty. Source: Albert Woldert, “The Last of the Cherokees in Texas, and the Life and Death of Chief Bowles,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 1, No. 3 (June 1923).

Map showing the territory in Texas set aside for the Cherokees according to an 1836 treaty. Source: Albert Woldert, “The Last of the Cherokees in Texas, and the Life and Death of Chief Bowles,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 1, No. 3 (June 1923).

When the Texas Revolution began in 1835, both the Mexicans and the Texans sought to draw the Cherokees to their side, or at least keep them neutral. In February 1836, Texan General Sam Houston signed a treaty with the Cherokees that promised them land between the upper Sabine, Angelina and Neches Rivers, an area smaller than they actually occupied. Two months later, Texas won its independence from Mexico.

Although Houston became president of the Republic of Texas, the Texas senate refused to ratify his treaty with the Cherokees. Mexican agents promised the Cherokees land and plunder if they would attack the Texans. Though Chief Bowles tried to maintain good relations with both the Mexicans and the Texans, a strong pro-Mexico faction arose among his people. In 1838, the Texans captured papers that compromised Bowles and other Cherokee chiefs. Later that year, a band of Cherokee warriors massacred a group of white Texan settlers. When Mirabeau B. Lamar became president of Texas, he ordered the Cherokees out. They were instructed to move north of the Red River, to Indian territory in the United States, “peaceably if they would, by compulsion if they must.” (5)

John H. Reagan, who was present when Chief Bowles gave his response to Lamar’s message, writes:

Bowles stated that his young men were for war, and that they believed that they could whip the whites. He said all the council was for war except himself and Big Mush, one of his chiefs. He said he knew that in the end the whites would whip them, but, he added, ‘It will cost you a bloody frontier war for ten years.’ ….

Bowles asked time for his people to make and gather their crops, but was informed by [the Indian agent] Mr. Lacy that he had no authority to act outside of the letter of the President. Bowles said if he fought, the whites would kill him; and if he refused to fight, his own people would kill him. He added that to him personally it mattered little, that he was eighty-three years old, and by the laws of nature could live but little longer; but that he felt a great interest in the future of his wives (he had three of them) and his children. His tribe, he said, had always been true to him, and though he differed with them in opinion, he would stand by them. The council ended with the understanding that war was to follow. (6)

The Battle of the Neches, which pitted about 500 Texans against 800 Indians, took place on July 15 and 16, 1839, between present-day Tyler and Ben Wheeler, Texas. Reagan, who fought on the Texan side, provides this account:

Chief Bowles displayed great courage in these battles. In the second engagement he remained on the field on horseback, wearing a military hat, silk vest, and handsome sword and sash which had been presented to him by President Houston. He was a magnificent picture of barbaric manhood and was very conspicuous during the whole battle, being the last to leave the field when the Indians retreated. His horse, however, was now disabled, and he dismounted, after having been wounded himself. As he walked away he was shot in the back and fell. Then, as he sat up with his face toward us, I started to him with a view to secure his surrender. At the same time my captain, Bob Smith, with a pistol in his hand, ran toward him from farther down the line. We reached him at the same instant, and realizing what was imminent, I called, ‘Captain, don’t shoot him.’ But he fired, striking Bowles in the head, and killing him instantly. (7)

Chief John Bowles (Duwali) died on July 16, 1839. His body was left on the battlefield. In 1936, a marker to Chief Bowles’ memory was placed on a plain above the Neches River about 13 miles west of Tyler, Texas. The inscription reads: “On this site the Cherokee Chief Bowles was killed on July 16, 1839 while leading 500 Indians of various tribes against 500 Texans – the last engagement between Cherokees and whites in Texas.” You can see photos of the site on Paul Ridenour’s website. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission website provides an image and transcription of a letter Bowles sent to Sam Houston, dated August 16, 1836.

You might also enjoy:

Caddo Indian Chief Dehahuit

The Extinct Karankawa Indians of Texas

Texas Governor José Félix Trespalacios

Indian Interpreter Gaspard Philibert

Frontier Colonel James B. Many

Texas entrepreneur Ben Milam

Jim Bowie before the “gaudy legend”

When the Great Plains Indians met President Monroe

  1. John H. Reagan, Memoirs with Special Reference to Secession and the Civil War, edited by Walter Flavius McCaleb (New York and Washington, 1906), p. 35.
  2. David LaVere, The Texas Indians (College Station, 2004), p. 165.
  3. Emmet Starr, History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore (Oklahoma City, 1921), pp. 189-190.
  4. Albert Woldert, “The Last of the Cherokees in Texas, and the Life and Death of Chief Bowles,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 1, No. 3 (June 1923), p. 192.
  5. Memoirs with Special Reference to Secession and the Civil War, p. 29.
  6. Ibid., pp. 30-32.
  7. Ibid., p. 34.

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He was a magnificent picture of barbaric manhood and was very conspicuous during the whole battle, being the last to leave the field when the Indians retreated.

John H. Reagan