Alabama-Coushatta to the Rescue: Aid to the Refugees During the Runaway Scrape (1836)
by Victor Vergara
After learning of the defeat at the Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836, General Sam Houston dispatched a message for the retreat of his troops and advised settlers to follow. As Santa Anna’s army quickly approached east, waves of families fled leaving their homes and properties behind. Throughout the escape, refugees endured an overwhelming low morale due to disease, starvation, and inadequate shelter that reduced them in numbers. While the settlers continued to flee east (reaching as far as Louisiana), the Alabama and Coushatta tribes aided the runaways in their escape to safety from the powerful Mexican army. Thus, the participation of these tribes during the events of the Texas Revolution earned them privileges and rights that were denied to other groups of Native Americans in the new republic. In gratitude of their generous and hospitable deeds, the tribes earned state recognition both under the provisional governments of Sam Houston and successor Mirabeau B. Lamar. Throughout an extensive period, the peaceful Alabama-Coushatta tribes experienced sporadic relocation, beginning with the occupation of British soldiers before the American Revolution. Progressively, they traveled further from what is now present-day Alabama, reaching parts of Louisiana and East Texas. Once arriving within the Spanish and French-American borders, the tribes were prone to the inevitable wages of Spanish-Franco conflict, the Mexican War for Independence, and later the Texas Revolution. Although the tribes remained separate, their common upbringings allowed the two tribes to cooperate and eventually settle together. Through their efforts in the Runaway Scrape, the Alabama-Coushatta determine their significance in the shaping of Texas history, thus creating opportunity for them to appeal to land.
Seeking new refuge, the Coushatta tribe sought to follow their neighboring Alabama allies to the southwestern territories of Louisiana and Texas where the groups hoped to make their new home. Upon the arrival of the Coushatta, the Spanish gladly opened their borders to the tribe. The Coushatta were then able to cooperate as a line of defense alongside the Eastern Texas border. By doing so, the Spanish were able to strengthen their borders and watch for any invaders that were constantly seen smuggling and wandering. Interestingly, Coushatta loyalties would later shift. Texas still under Spanish rule, the tribe engaged their efforts in the fight for Mexican Independence. On March 29, 1813, under the command of Samuel Kemper, thirteen hundred men stood in awe of the sight of twenty-five Coushatta charging towards the Spanish line before the signal was given. The Battle of Rosalis ended in a victory for the Mexican supporters as Spanish troops retreated back to San Antonio. The Coushatta would thus develop a record of faithful service to Texas that would never be fully repaid.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Alabama-Coushatta again experienced the consequences of western expansion and again, the tribes were forced to relocate further west, where they settled in the Trinity and Neches Rivers. Under Chief Colita, the Coushatta erected three different villages along the Trinity where they remained until their relocation in 1845 after Texas became the 28th state of the United States. Once Texas was opened to American settlers, conflict between the Mexican government and the Americans ensued. Loyalties would again be tested despite the call for neutrality. In the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, fear of retaliation and possible alliance with the Mexican forces, led General Sam Houston to ensure the neutrality of the Alabama-Coushatta and surrounding tribes:
“The parties declare, that there shall be a firm and lasting peace forever, and that a friendly intercourse shall be pursued, by the people belonging to both parties.”
In order to ensure peaceful relations, Houston appoints a representative (agent) to each tribe whose job it was to oversee governmental affairs and see that relations with neighboring Anglo settlers do not cause an outbreak, or rather see that no “injustice” is done to the members of the villages. By establishing a friendly Indian policy, he became a favorable government figure for many tribes, including the Alabama-Coushatta, whom in 1859 appraised his role as Texas Governor, describing him as a “great and good man, a friend to the Indians”. Though he had previously asked the tribes to remain neutral, their support and loyalty to the cause managed to serve him and the Anglo settlers well during the Texas Revolution.
Upon receiving the news of the defeat at the Alamo, Houston then demands for settlers to evacuate their properties and flee to the eastern borders. In an account written by historian Henderson Yoakum, he describes the ill conditions the refugees experienced in the run for their lives during the Runaway Scrape:
"On every road leading eastward into Texas, were found men, women and children, moving through the country over swollen streams and muddy roads, strewing the way with their property, crying for aid, and exposed to the fierce northers and rains of the spring. The scene was distressing indeed: and being witnessed by the small but faithful army of Texas, whose families and wives they were, thus exposed and suffering, nerved their arms and hearts for the contest then not distant."
As principal chief of the Texas Coushattas, Colita was an instrumental figure in maintaining peaceful relations between the tribe and their Anglo counterparts. Evidently, in the events of the Runaway Scrape, he and the Coushatta assisted the fleeing settlers by providing them food and shelter, and personally helping them cross the Trinity River. Through their efforts in the Runaway Scrape, the Coushatta once again showed where their loyalty stood. Their participation in the Texas affairs thus prompts the tribes to appeal for land grants in the 1850's through their respective agent, James Barclay.
Native American ownership of black slaves came about as a way for Native Americans to illustrate their societal sophistication to white settlers.
How would slave ownership prove civilization? In capitalism-crazed America, slaves became tokens of economic success. The more slaves you owned, the more serious a businessperson you were, and the more serious a businessperson you were, the fitter you were to join the ranks of “civilized society.”
#BlackHistory #RealHistory DAY 11
HOW NATIVE AMERICAN SLAVEHOLDERS COMPLICATE THE TRAIL OF TEARS NARRATVE
"When you think of the Trail of Tears, you likely imagine a long procession of suffering Cherokee Indians forced westward by a villainous Andrew Jackson. Perhaps you envision unscrupulous white slaveholders, whose interest in growing a plantation economy underlay the decision to expel the Cherokee, flooding in to take their place east of the Mississippi River.
What you probably don’t picture are Cherokee slaveholders, foremost among them Cherokee chief John Ross. What you probably don’t picture are the numerous African-American slaves, Cherokee-owned, who made the brutal march themselves, or else were shipped en masse to what is now Oklahoma aboard cramped boats by their wealthy Indian masters. And what you may not know is that the federal policy of Indian removal, which ranged far beyond the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee, was not simply the vindictive scheme of Andrew Jackson, but rather a popularly endorsed, congressionally sanctioned campaign spanning the administrations of nine separate presidents.
These uncomfortable complications in the narrative were brought to the forefront at a recent event held at the National Museum of the American Indian. Titled “Finding Common Ground,” the symposium offered a deep dive into intersectional African-American and Native American history.
For museum curator Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche), who has overseen the design and opening of the widely lauded “Americans” exhibition now on view on the museum’s third floor, it is imperative to provide the museum-going public with an unflinching history, even when doing so is painful.
“I used to like history,” Smith told the crowd ruefully. “And sometimes, I still do. But not most of the time. Most of the time, history and I are frenemies at best.” In the case of the Trail of Tears and the enslavement of blacks by prominent members of all five so-called “Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole), Smith went one step further, likening the ugly truth of history to a “mangy, snarling dog standing between you and a crowd-pleasing narrative.”
“Obviously,” Smith said, “the story should be, needs to be, that the enslaved black people and soon-to-be-exiled red people would join forces and defeat their oppressor.” But such was not the case—far from it. “The Five Civilized Tribes were deeply committed to slavery, established their own racialized black codes, immediately reestablished slavery when they arrived in Indian territory, rebuilt their nations with slave labor, crushed slave rebellions, and enthusiastically sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War.”
In other words, the truth is about as far a cry from a “crowd-pleasing narrative” as you could possibly get. “Do you want to hear that?” Smith asked the audience. “I don’t think so. Nobody does.” And yet, Smith is firm in his belief that it is a museum’s duty to embrace and elucidate ambiguity, not sweep it under the rug in the pursuit of some cleaner fiction.
Tiya Miles, an African-American historian at the University of Michigan, agrees. At the “Finding Common Ground” event, she meticulously laid out primary-source evidence to paint a picture of Indian/African-American relations in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Native Americans, she said, had themselves been enslaved, even before African-Americans, and the two groups “were enslaved for approximately 150 years in tandem.” It wasn’t until the mid 18th-century that the bondage of Native Americans began to wane as Africans were imported in greater and greater numbers. Increasingly, where white colonists viewed Africans as little more than mindless beasts of burden, they saw Native Americans as something more: “noble savages,” unrefined but courageous and fierce.
Perversely, Native American ownership of black slaves came about as a way for Native Americans to illustrate their societal sophistication to white settlers. “They were working hard to comply with government dictates that told native people that in order to be protected and secure in their land base, they had to prove their level of ‘civilization,’” Miles explained.
How would slave ownership prove civilization? The answer, Miles contends, is that in capitalism-crazed America, slaves became tokens of economic success. The more slaves you owned, the more serious a businessperson you were, and the more serious a businessperson you were, the fitter you were to join the ranks of “civilized society.” It’s worth remembering, as Paul Chaat Smith says, that while most Native Americans did not own slaves, neither did most Mississippi whites. Slave ownership was a serious status symbol.
Smith and Miles agree that much of early American history is explained poorly by modern morality but effectively by simple economics and power dynamics. “The Cherokee owned slaves for the same reasons their white neighbors did. They knew exactly what they were doing. In truth,” Smith said, the Cherokee and other “Civilized Tribes were not that complicated. They were willful and determined oppressors of blacks they owned, enthusiastic participants in a global economy driven by cotton, and believers in the idea that they were equal to whites and superior to blacks.”
None of this lessens the very real hardship endured by Cherokees and other Native Americans compelled to abandon their homelands as a result of the Indian Removal Act. Signed into law in the spring of 1830, the bill had been rigorously debated in the Senate (where it was endorsed with a 28-19 vote) that April and in the House of Representatives (where it prevailed 102-97) that May. Despite a sustained, courageous campaign on the part of John Ross to preserve his people’s property rights, including multiple White House visits with Jackson, in the end the influx of white settlers and economic incentives made the bill’s momentum insuperable. All told, the process of removal claimed more than 11,000 Indian lives—2,000-4,000 of them Cherokee.
What the slaveholding of Ross and other Civilized Nations leaders does mean, however, is that our assumptions regarding clearly differentiated heroes and villains are worth pushing back on.
“I don’t know why our brains make it so hard to compute that Jackson had a terrible Indian policy and radically expanded American democracy,” Smith said, “or that John Ross was a skillful leader for the Cherokee nation who fought the criminal policy of removal with every ounce of strength, but also a man who deeply believed in and practiced the enslavement of black people.”
As Paul Chaat Smith said to conclude his remarks, the best maxim to take to heart when confronting this sort of history may be a quote from African anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral: “Tell no lies, and claim no easy victories.”