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May 1st, 2013
Bartee Haile: Cherokees send “savior” to Happy Hunting Grounds

This Week in Texas History:
A column

With a death sentence hanging over his head, John Dunn Hunter spent another sleepless night on May 7, 1827 praying for a last-minute reprieve that would spare his life.

More often than not, the blame for the clumsy attempt to seize East Texas from Mexico is pinned on the brother empressarios, Haden and Benjamin Edwards. But in truth the brains behind the sloppy scheme was none other than a former Cherokee captive, whose dream of a tribal homeland wound up costing him his life.

With the 1824 publication of his best seller Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Indians of North America, John Dunn Hunter caught the public fancy on both English-speaking sides of the Atlantic. Claiming he was kidnapped in childhood by the Cherokees, Hunter described in gripping detail his years among the exotic aborigines. Thousands of readers in the United States and Great Britain read the spellbinding saga from cover to cover.

At the peak of his popularity, Hunter suddenly stepped out of the limelight in order to save his former keepers from savagery, or so he said. He soon disappeared on his mysterious mission of mercy.

For Richard Fields, the half-breed chief who led the tribe to Texas in 1820, the white messiah could not have come at a better time. Maybe the famous author could convince hard-headed Mexican officials to recognize the Indians’ right to a chunk of Texas.

Hunter spent most of 1826 on the Mexico City merry-go-round pleading the Cherokee case before an endless series of bored bureaucrats. By revealing his personal plan for the relocation of several transient tribes to the northernmost province, he inadvertently painted himself into a political corner. The last thing the apprehensive authorities wanted was another wave of homeless warriors.

The discouraging report from Hunter was the last straw for Fields and his restless braves. Buying much needed time to solicit support, he persuaded his red brethren to postpone going on the warpath for two more weeks.

As expected, Hunter found the Edwards brothers extremely receptive to his harebrained proposal. From their point of view, an armed uprising offered a sure-fire way to prevent their eviction from Texas and to establish a private empire.

Promising the Edwardses the backup of a horde of Indian allies, Hunter encouraged them to strike hard and fast.

Benjamin Edwards and 30 followers took Nacogdoches by storm on Dec. 16, 1826 and defiantly declared the Republic of Fredonia. Four days later, Hunter showed up with Fields and an assortment of lesser chiefs, and a pact was signed which formalized the united front.

John Dunn Edwards (inset) and the flag of Fredonia

John Dunn Edwards (inset) and the flag of Fredonia

But the revolt never got off the ground. Under the firm leadership of Stephen F. Austin, Anglo-American colonists condemned the reckless rebellion. The press in nearby Louisiana took the same critical line and effectively dammed the flood of volunteers counted on by the Edwardses. Throughout East Texas, the brothers’ high-handed conduct in past disputes came back to haunt them as their neighbors wished them only the worst.

Hunter fared no better with the Cherokees, who had come under the influence of the ambitious chiefs Bowles and Big Mush. Mustering a mere 30 braves, Hunter hurried back to Nacogdoches, where half went home in disgust after finding the drunken Fredonians fighting among themselves.

Working overtime to avoid needless bloodshed, Austin and the U.S.-born Mexican agent, Peter Ellis Bean, coaxed the central government into granting amnesty to the conspirators. Bean wrote to the rebels, “It is not too late. We have it in our power to forget past errors.” Displaying more bravado than good sense, the doomed insurgents spurned the peace offering.

The cagey Bean knew better than to put all his diplomatic eggs in one basket and secretly slipped into the Cherokee camp behind the backs of Hunter and Fields. A private talk with Bowles and Big Mush set the stage for a slick double-cross.

Returning for a final frantic appeal for reinforcements, Hunter and Fields were taken prisoner. With their Indian comrades out of the picture, the handful of Fredonians fled across the Sabine River. The rebellion was done for.

As for Richard Fields, his fate was sealed. Only over his dead body could the rival chieftains climb to the top of the tribal pecking order. Hunter, however, posed a unique problem because the Cherokees were understandably hesitant to execute a white man.

All doubt was dispelled, when the Mexicans insisted justice had to be color blind under the unusual circumstances. Hunter was hauled before a Cherokee court, convicted of a convenient charge and condemned to death.

On May 8, 1827, the Indians handed their self-appointed savior a one-way ticket to the happy hunting grounds, and the muddleheaded mastermind of the Fredonian Rebellion was put to death by his fickle friends.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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