My doctoral dissertation focused on Dooley’s Ferry, a crossing on the Red River that was part of the mid-19th century landscape of cotton production in southwest Arkansas. Dooley’s Ferry, as a community of some coherence, is very much a 1840s-1890s phenomenon. It was not, however, the first kind of community in its location, nor was it the last. The Caddo maintained a presence there many centuries ago, and one of the earliest communities in the American period was a group of immigrant Cherokees, who arrived in 1819.
Though I never really focused on it in my doctoral research, as I had other priorities, the presence of a Cherokee community was fascinating, though it was short-lived. We know, from several historical sources (e.g. Sabo 1992) that the Cherokee settlement on the Red River, in an area known as “Lost Prairie,” only lasted one winter, and was violently broken up by neighboring whites in 1820. Claude McCrocklin, an avocational archeologist who used to work in the Red River Valley, believed he found some of the footprint of the settlement in the 1990s (McCrocklin 1990). Still, we do not have a good handle on what, outside of racist, exclusionist concepts of civilization, progress, and property rights common to the early 19th century, drove the events that forced the Cherokees away.
I spent a little time researching it this morning, looking through old Arkansas Gazette stories. What follows is far from the last word on the subject, and is limited by working with the period white accounts, but it does illuminate the period a bit.
Background: The Bowl on the Red River
Some of the first stages of Removal pushed tribes like the Cherokee out of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and into the Arkansas Territory. The first land allotted the Cherokee was up on the Arkansas River Valley, in the vicinity of modern-day Dardanelle. Within a few short years, however, the U.S. government sought new treaties that would change those land allocations.
The Treaty of 1817 called for the Cherokees to give up land south of the Arkansas River, a condition that many went along with. Many, but not all. Duwali, also known as “The Bowl,” “Chief Bowles,” or “John Bowles,” objected, as he and his closest associates had established homes along the Petit Jean River, south of the Arkansas. Rather than move north, putting them in close contact with tribal members with whom they had significant political differences, Duwali’s followers instead relocated to the Red River, establishing a small community along what would become the Miller County side of Dooley’s Ferry, an area known as “Lost Prairie.”
The area around Lost Prairie was thinly-settled by Americans in 1819. The first stages of migration from the eastern seaboard, which would bring both European and enslaved African Americans to the Red River Valley, was just beginning. A few farms and plantations were in operation, and these mostly centered along rivers, which were the main arteries of commerce and communication with the wider world (Goodspeed 1890).
There were not many white residents, somewhere around 2,250 for all of southwest Arkansas. These were people who were both trying to make a new home for themselves and trying to keep their families safe. For them, part of those processes involved establishing law and order over growing Southern communities. This was a social system where whites were in power, blacks were enslaved, and Indians had no real place. Indians posed a particular problem within this worldview, as they were “a fierce and savage enemy” (Arkansas Gazette, 7 Oct 1820) who should be “removed to the lands allotted to them in [Oklahoma]” (Arkansas Gazette 15 July 1820) and were unlikely to do so amicably, as their “resentment has already been raised to the highest pitch, and who… calculates on glutting his vengeance… for unjuries [sic] which he has sustained in his native country” (Arkansas Gazette 7 Oct 1820).
We see from these period accounts that there was no concept of making a place for Indian communities within white-dominated society, and that Indians were fierce, merciless, and already-provoked by injustices done to them back east. It is an image of angry, violent Indians, not of Indians as families, communities, or cultures. It is in this template that Duwali’s followers were trying to find a place.
The Red River Valley, 1820
They did not find a hospitable set of neighbors. A letter to Governor James Miller noted the event by calling it “to the great annoyance of the inhabitants of Hempstead county” (Arkansas Gazette, 15 Jul 1820). Soon, allegations of horse-stealing and “other depredations” were being lodged against the Cherokees and some remaining Caddos, referred to as “these faithless savages” (Arkansas Gazette, 26 Feb 1820).
Fanning the flames of anti-Indian outrage, the Arkansas Gazette, in February 1820, printed a laundry list of actions committed by Indians against white settlers, and includes a reference to an 1819 incident in which a party of 10-12 Caddos stole thirteen horses from Pecan Point on the Red River. They were pursued by Captain Nathaniel Robbins and a small party of whites, but when the Caddos stood to give a fight, Robbins and his men decided they did not have the numbers to win, so returned home (Arkansas Gazette, 26 Feb 1820). The other incidents listed in the long enumeration printed by the Gazette could have done little more than offer a laundry list of grievances meant to heighten anti-Native sentiment.
That sentiment would have been added to by incidents in May of the following year. On the 22nd, another raid on Pecan Point resulted in another theft of horses. Again, Captain Robbins and a small party set out after the robbers, pursuing them 100 miles before overtaking them. Apparently, they were able to capture one Cherokee, whose name they record as “Hog in a Pen,” who identified himself as one of Duwali’s followers. Robbins’ party set off towards home with Hog in a Pen, but were waylaid by a party of 40 Cherokees and Caddos, who set Hog in a Pen free “by force of arms” (Arkansas Gazette, 15 Jul 1820).
The following month, the Gazette ran a copy of a letter to Governor Miller stating that the Cherokees on Red River reported “a difference” that took place between them and local whites, which resulted in the death of one of their number and that “the balance, or nearly so, are in confinement” (Arkansas Gazette, 18 Jun 1820). It is unclear from context what the difference was, though it would not be surprising if some kind of retribution for the events of the preceding month took place, and whether the “confinement” mentioned was indication that the Lost Prairie Cherokee community was rounded up in preparation for expulsion from the territory.
So, this is a brief retelling, but it adds some detail to an under-studied event. Also, I find it fascinating that there are clear indications of Caddo-Cherokee collaboration during this period, a subject to be further investigated. The Red River Valley during what Goodspeed (1890) refers to as the “Squatter Period” (1804-1840) definitely deserves a lot more research.
1890 Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Southern Arkansas. Goodspeed Publishing Company, Chicago, Nashville, and St. Louis.
1990 Three Historic Sites on Red River. The Arkansas Archeologist: Bulletin of the Arkansas Archeological Society 31: 31–41.
1992 Paths of Our Children: Historic Indians of Arkansas. Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville.