- Sydney Young
Not the Single Story: #IAmHouston, his forgotten tribe, and their Removal Story
Living in the times we do, hopefully most of us realize that stories are told with many different viewpoints. We watch national events take place on our TVs and before 24 hours is over, each side has its own, completely different spin. What this does to me is makes me cut the rhetoric and go to the source. I don't want to believe anything, I don't want to be fed anything, that is a spin. I want the truth.
And yet, it took me awhile to realize that I had buried the truth that was talked about in my own family. This is the story of how I came to learn and write the fictionalized version of a forgotten story:
How Sam Houston was adopted into a Cherokee tribe, helping them "voluntarily" remove after the War of 1812, and then later found them in dire straights in New Indian Territory, so that he took up his pen (and mouth) for them.
When he did this, you can bet he made some enemies for the stand he took. Those enemies eventually ended up launching a Congressional Trial against him which he used to gain National Fame. (So the fame battle that recently happened in the Senate isn't the first, and won't be the last, for a politician to launch a nationwide platform).
And this is why Sam Houston had a big enough name to command his "one battle in them" troops against Santa Anna, and change the course of the entire country.
Here are my family stories:
We purpotedly had at least one Cherokee Ancestress ; Her name was Sarah Elizabeth Mhoon. There are some other claims in the family, connected to Dawes and Henderson rolls, but until I feel 100% sure of those claims, I am not going to make them. I will only say that it is because of those stories that I dug very deep and found this amazing story.
She smoked a pipe. (We all rather like this about my ancestress, though it was probably quite common back then. Jeanie, in I AM HOUSTON, smokes a pipe as a nod to great, great, great, great grandma.);
The story goes that her family had tried assimilation, building a nice home and active farm, and that it didn't matter in the end.;
My aunt told me of Sally Hughes, who participated in lawsuits against Andrew Jackson for the removal. Sally must have been some woman. She successfully operated a ferry for many years before removal. There are many stories about Sally Hughes. There needs to be a fictional book about her. This is not that story, but my hope is that it paves the way for it.
The family lore was that our ancestress did not participate in the Trail of Tears removal. She removed another way.
It was this last bit of information that I found preposterous.
Everyone knows the Cherokee removed via the Trail of Tears, except those who managed to hide out long enough.
So, I ignored this for a long time. Then, I moved to an area that is very close to the Oklahoma border. My siblings and I are first generation Texans on this side of the family, so I decided, being so close to Oklahoma, to do a little research on my ancestress. At the time, I was writing a fantasy novel which included Choctaws and the truly awful removal they went through. Their removal is all but ignored in history and modern lore.
And guess who I kept coming across?
Being a self respecting Texan, I knew that Houston was in Texas by 1836, and helped save the rebels from annihilation by defeating Santa Anna (the Commander for the Mexicans who ordered no quarter at the Alamo). Houston helped spur the Texians on to victory against Santa Anna and Mexico with the Remember the Alamo! and Remember Gilead! war cries.
But why was he in New Indian Territory in the early 1830s?
Turns out it was because he had been adopted into a Cherokee Tribe when he was a teen. The tribe was led by a Chief whose "white name" was "John Jolly." I learned that Jolly moved his tribe west after the War of 1812.
That war is a very confusing war to most Americans, and I was no different. I knew it was a huge naval win for America, and involved Canada, and also Jackson in New Orleans (who saved that city from British invasion). And also, that is when Dolly Madison saved the picture of George Washington from the British (when they invaded what was then known as Washington City and set fire to the President's Home). I also knew there was a Creek rebellion that was quashed during that time, but I really didn't understand it (or care).
That is right. I found it hard to care. Ancient history, history that was ignored in school. But it is history that I now find vital, as it sheds more light on the removals.
I found that Houston's tribe, and also friendly Creek and Choctaw, fought for America (under Jackson) and this is why the Creek rebellion was so quickly defeated, during the midst of the greater War with the British. Also, that the British purportedly helped incite the natives during war time, as a way of conquering due to fractures from within. I learned that Houston was the only surviving officer in his regiment (the advanced guard) during the final battle with the Creek. And he likely would have been wiped out had the tribes not taken matters into their own hands and attacked the Creek from behind.
Houston's tribe not only saved his life, they saved Jackson's troops.
And what did Jackson do? He got all the tribal chiefs to sign an agreement that they would remove from the land. Not just the rebelling Creeks, but the friendly tribes as well.
Jackson was a General at this time, not a President. (It is his military career, begun with this win, that eventually launched him to the Presidency). He was following policy that his Tennesseans supported, but it was not policy that he created (though I am sure he pushed for it).
A different politician eventually abandoned George Washington's "assimilation" policy. (And yes, that term did actually exist and was widely used at the time. Hence the reason for James Fennimore Cooper's best selling novel: THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, which made the huge point that assimilation was wiping out the tribes, bit by bit.).
Who was the President who began endorsing the policy that Jackson implemented?
It was Thomas Jefferson, long a believer in Washington's policy. He changed his mind.
But the further truth is that Chief Jolly had been considering moving West for some time. He and his people had suffered greatly already. Thus, he refused to speak English and also had "put down the drums," creating a peace town for any to reside. And, his brother had already gone West, along with Chief Bowl (whom Houston also loved and who plays a large part in early Texas history).
Alright, so, after the War of 1812 Houston was too injured to fight anymore and he became an adjunct for Jackson. Because Houston could sign and communicate well with the tribes, Jackson ordered him to be the subagent in charge of getting the tribes to make good on their promises in the removal treaties. Lucky for Houston, he only had to try to convince them to voluntarily remove and then help them do it. Most refused, of course.
Except Houston's Chief, John Jolly, and his people.
So Houston was in charge of removing his beloved tribe, from their, his, beloved home: Hiwassee.
His actions show he suffered some turmoil over this. But he did it, and he did so without loss of life.
Then, the tribe arrived at their destination. There they ran into grave trouble.
The US had not sought the permission of the warring Osage for an invasion of their land by the Cherokee of the West.
But they stayed and made a home in the Arkansas territories, which is where Jolly's brother had already explored. But in the late 20's they were once more removed a bit further, into what would become Oklahoma. And Jolly officially pronounced, basically: that's it, we are not moving again.
So Jolly's tribe was fortuitously there when old Sam Houston ran into trouble and had to resign as Governor of Tennessee and flee from a mob (a whole other story).
This was a time of great torment for him. He had championed Jackson through a failed bid for Presidency and then a successful bid for Presidency. And he was to be Jackson's successor as the next President. Instead, since Houston had to flee, Martin Van Buren stepped in as Jackson's right hand man, and you know his name, right? (Hint, he was President after Jackson. See?!).
In the meantime, Old Sam was safe with his tribe in New Indian Territory. They'd been devasted by their wars with the Osage. And, they weren't being paid as the US had promised, so they were in dire straights. This near crippled the ruined Houston with regret. So he did what "old troopers" do: he began fighting for them. Indeed, he helped all the removed tribes try to get from the US Government what it had promised him. Note that most Cherokees had refused removal, so they were still East, and the infamous forced removal known as the Cherokee Trail of Tears would come for them in 1836.
That is how Houston came to be in the right place at the right time to know a region that would soon be facing threat from a despotic general in Mexico who had begun calling himself "The Napoleon of the West." And it is how the Trail of Tears, is not the only Removal Story.
So important to know, and I would have never come across it if I had continued to discount my family stories.
What stories are in your closets? What Americans do you know about who have not been included in the history books? I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk about this idea. There is not a single story, ever. There are only the told stories, and the stories as yet told, or forgotten.