WHEN SAM HOUSTON LEFT HIS TENNESSEE home in 1809 to live with the Cherokee, it might have been one of the most important political moves he ever made. Houston was just a teenager at the time, and Texas, where Houston would one day serve twice as president, was still part of the wild Mexican frontier. But Texas’ future, along with Houston’s and the Cherokee’s, would soon be remarkably intertwined.
For the moment, however, Houston was content to sit beneath a tree and read the Iliad rather than to work or go to school. He preferred the freedom of life among the Cherokee and quickly picked up their language and participated in their customs such as the green corn dance and ball play, the Cherokee national pastime. The tribe’s chief, Oo-loo-te-ka, took such a liking to Houston that he adopted him as his son and gave him the name Co-lon-neh, meaning “the Raven.”
Three years passed before Houston rejoined the bustle and trappings of the white man’s world. Perhaps driven by his own sense of heroic destiny, he couldn’t stay away from the political whirlwind that was stirring the fledgling United States. During the next ten years, Houston would work as a schoolmaster, a soldier in the war against Britain, a government-appointed subagent to the Cherokee, and a lawyer. In 1823, at the age of 30, Houston won a seat in the House of Representatives, and at 34, he became the governor of Tennessee. Houston had reentered the white man’s world, but not permanently.
After a brief marriage, which failed in 1829, to Eliza Allen, Houston resigned as governor of Tennessee and rejoined Oo-loo-te-ka’s Cherokee, who had since moved to Arkansas. Houston embraced the tribe’s lifestyle with renewed enthusiasm. He grew his hair out and braided it, and he often wore the Cherokee-style turban, leggings, and ornately embroidered shirts. Houston married Tiana Rogers, a reportedly beautiful and distinguished Cherokee woman who would die of pneumonia some years later.
Houston spent three years with the Arkansas Cherokee, during which time he traveled twice to Washington, D.C., as part of a Cherokee delegation. He first arrived in Washington in January 1830 to ask that the government honor the unfulfilled provisions of an 1828 treaty. Houston’s powers of negotiation rested in his Cherokee citizenship, which he obtained in October of 1829, and in his long-standing friendship with President Andrew Jackson. Despite having such a well-connected ambassador, the Cherokee’s petition for land grants went unanswered because the Cherokee refused to consider further removal of their people from land in the East.
Houston made a second trip to Washington in 1832, this time to discuss both the Western Cherokee’s concerns about further removal and the possibility of consolidating the tribe with the Eastern Cherokee somewhere west of the Mississippi. Inevitably, this delegation failed as well, but the Cherokee did not lose hope that Houston would some day help them secure land permanently.
Long before Houston arrived in Texas in December 1832, rumors were circulating in Washington that he planned to conquer the territory with an Indian alliance and declare himself “Emperor of Texas.” Houston did have an Indian alliance in Texas, but it was one that would benefit all Texians fighting for independence, not just himself.
The Cherokee established their first permanent settlements in Texas in 1819 as a group of some sixty Cherokee families led by a chief named Bowles who had been uprooted in both Tennessee and Arkansas. Bowles and his people wanted a permanent home, and the chief believed a deal with Mexico was the way to get one. Upon arriving, the Cherokee initiated a frustrating series of land negotiations with Mexico. Matters became more complicated when Santa Anna seized the presidency of Mexico in 1833, sparking Texians to want independence. As revolution grew imminent, both Texas and Mexico began vying for Cherokee allegiance. This is when Houston’s prodigal teenage antics in Tennessee would prove most useful.
He knew the Cherokee wanted a land grant as much as the Texians wanted independence. As Texian troops gathered at the Alamo, Houston set out on a diplomatic mission to ensure that Texas could count the Cherokee as allies.
On February 23, 1836, a little less than two months before the Texas victory at San Jacinto, Houston and a small group of emissaries signed a compact with the Cherokee, assigning them a specified tract of land and asking them to cede any land outside the designated territory. With their boundaries clearly defined by a written land guarantee, Bowles and his tribe finally felt content.
Houston was inaugurated as Texas’ first president on October 22, 1836. He began working almost immediately to ratify the Cherokee’s treaty. However, the Texas Senate refused to acknowledge the document, saying it “was based on premises that did not exist,” and that it would be detrimental to the interests of the Republic and a violation of citizens’ rights.
Following the treaty’s rejection, word of a possible Cherokee alliance with Mexico filtered back to Texas officials. Though no concrete evidence ever proved the conspiracy, the rumors were enough to convince certain Texans that the Cherokee no longer belonged in their state.
Houston’s presidential successor and nemesis, Mirabeau B. Lamar, began a swift campaign to purge the state of Indians. He refused to tolerate Houston’s lenient policy toward the Cherokee, who he saw as a threat to the new Republic. In 1839 Lamar ordered Major B. C. Waters to establish a military installation on the Neches Saline, part of Cherokee territory. Angered by the intrusion, Chief Bowles warned Waters that his tribe would not hesitate to forcefully remove the Texas troops from Cherokee land. Lamar responded to Bowles’s defiance with a venomous letter explaining that the Cherokee would never establish a permanent home in Texas, and that any attempt by the Cherokee to harm its citizens would be met by “a prompt and sanguinary war.” Lamar had not made an idle threat. On July 15, 1839, a battle between Bowles’s Cherokee and Texan soldiers decimated the tribe. Lamar forced the few Cherokee who remained to cross the Red River into Indian Territory.
In the end, the destinies of Houston and the Cherokee proved irreconcilable. Houston’s respect for Indian culture was shared by few, and while his life ended peacefully in Texas, the Cherokee did not share the same fate. Sam Houston came to mean many things to many people, but to the Cherokee, he was perhaps the most sincere champion they would ever know. Chief Oo-loo-te-ka once said of his adopted son, “The Raven . . . has walked straight. . . . His path is not crooked. . . . He is beloved by all my people.”