Elias Cornelius Boudinot provides the first full account of a man who was intimately and prominently involved in the life of the Cherokee Nation in the second half of the nineteenth century and was highly influential in the opening of the former Indian Territory to white settlement and the eventual formation of the state of Oklahoma. Involved in nearly every aspect of social, economic, and political life in Indian Territory, he was ostracized by many Cherokees, some of whom also threatened his life.
Born into the influential Ridge-Boudinot-Watie family, Boudinot was raised in the East after the assassination of his father, who helped found the first newspaper published by an Indian nation. He returned to the Cherokee Nation, affiliating with his uncle Stand Watie and serving in the Confederate Army and as a representative of the Cherokees in the Confederate Congress. He was involved with treaty negotiations after the war, helped open the railroads into the Indian Territory, and founded the city of Vinita in Oklahoma. He also became a political figure in Washington, DC, a newspaper editor and publisher, and a prominent orator.
About the Author
James W. Parins is a professor of English and the associate director of the Sequoyah Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is the author of John Rollin Ridge: His Life and Works (available in a Bison Books edition), coauthor of bibliographies of Indian writers and guides to Native publications, and editor of works by Indian writers, including Ke-ma-ha: The Omaha Stories of Francis La Flesche, also available in a Bison Books edition.
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Elias Cornelius Boudinot
A Life on the Cherokee Border
By James W. Parins
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Background and Boyhood
An examination of Elias Cornelius Boudinot's life is important if only for the
light it sheds on Cherokee history. Boudinot was a leading figure in a turbulent
era of that nation, one in which the tribe was forced from their traditional
homeland by white encroachment to a new world west of the Mississippi, a
country they eventually lost to the inexorable advance of Manifest Destiny.
Much as his father had been embroiled in the controversy over Cherokee
removal in the eastern Cherokee Nation, Elias Cornelius Boudinot was intimately
involved in the events that led to the demise of the Cherokee Nation
in the West. From early on the younger Boudinot predicted the outcome of
the struggle between the Native American nations of Indian Territory and the
amalgam of economic, social, and political forces that buffeted them.
Perhaps more importantly, Boudinot's life is also worth viewing from the
perspective of the twenty-first century, a time in which Native Americans'
problems have not changed. The struggles of Boudinot's day-over sovereignty,
taxation, citizenship, treaty rights, tribal factionalism, and the exploitation
of Native American natural and economicresources-continue in our own.
During his lifetime, Boudinot was enmeshed in major events that influenced
these issues. For much of his life, for example, he advocated the dissolution
of tribal sovereignty in Indian Territory and championed a territorial government.
Sovereignty remains a major issue today in Native Americans' dealings
with local, state, and federal governments. Further, he favored the extinction
of tribal titles to land, to be replaced by individual allotments for Native
Americans. Many of the arguments in that controversy recur in twenty-first-century
discussions of tribal termination. In what was probably the first "Indian
smoke shop" case, Boudinot was involved in one of the most important
tax disputes between federal and state governments and American Indians. In
response to charges by white competitors that he had an unfair advantage,
his tobacco factory in the Cherokee Nation was closed for selling untaxed
goods to people in surrounding states. In addition, he was a figure in various
tribal citizenship disputes involving both Cherokees and their former black
slaves while at the same time he lobbied in Washington to make all Native
Americans U.S. citizens. Citizenship has continued to be a hotly debated issue
in many Indian nations to the present. Boudinot was a principal in a Cherokee
factional struggle that can be traced to the present day. As a leader of the Ridge-
Boudinot-Watie party, he waged relentless war against the Ross faction; the
Boudinot/Ross dichotomy is mirrored in many "progressive" versus "conservative"
tribal disputes today. Boudinot, like his father, was involved with treaty
making for a time, but by about 1870 he had come to believe that all the treaties
signed by the federal government and the Native nations were not worth the
paper they were written on, a stand that reverberates today in Indian Country
as Native Americans fight to preserve their rights. Finally, this Cherokee orator,
editor, lawyer, and lobbyist was also an inveterate businessman, involved in
numerous schemes to extract wealth from the land, minerals, and markets
of Indian Territory. Boudinot drove the first railroad spike in the Territory,
initiated a "colonization" effort in the tribally owned Cherokee Outlet, and was
instrumental in opening what is now Oklahoma to white settlement. Today,
of course, economic considerations are at the heart of many controversies
involving Natives and the larger society, from fisheries in the Northwest to
mining in the Southwest to grazing rights in the Great Plains.
Over the years, the question of Cornelius Boudinot's reputation has been
problematic. At his funeral, for example, speaker after speaker stood before a
packed and distinguished audience in Judge Isaac Parker's ornate courtroom
to praise the deceased. Later, in the early twentieth century, various proposals
were offered to name an Oklahoma town and a county in honor of Boudinot.
This is in stark contrast to a period of his life when he was warned to stay out
of the Cherokee Nation on pain of death. More than a hundred years after
Boudinot's death, the Sons of the Confederacy named its Sallisaw, Oklahoma,
chapter after him and plans to erect a monument over his grave in Fort Smith.
But the controversy over whether Boudinot was a greedy charlatan or a patriotic
Elias Cornelius Boudinot was born into an important Cherokee family at his
Nation's capital, New Echota, in present-day Georgia. His father, the well-educated
Elias Boudinot (Gallegina, or Buck Watie), even as a young man was
regarded as a leader in the Nation and as a person who would help his people
resist the increasing encroachment of white settlers. The elder Boudinot was
the son of David Watie (Oo-watie) and the nephew of Major Ridge, a man
prominent in Cherokee affairs. In 1818, David Watie and Major Ridge made a
decision that had far-reaching implications for their sons and for the Cherokee
Nation: they chose to enroll their sons in the American Board of Commissioners
for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) school in Cornwall, Connecticut.
Longtime advocates of education, Watie and Ridge had earlier arranged
schooling for their children in local schools provided by white missionaries.
They saw the whites' schools as important for the advancement of not only
their own families but the entire Nation. Missionaries had conducted schools
in the Cherokee Nation in parts of what are now North Carolina, Georgia,
and Tennessee since April or May 1801, when Abraham Steiner and Gottlieb
Byhan started a Moravian mission and school at Spring Place, in present-day
Georgia. In 1805 John Gambold and his wife arrived at the mission, bringing
new enthusiasm and energy to the school. In 1803 Gideon Blackburn had
opened a Presbyterian mission and school near the Hiwassee River, having
secured approval for his enterprise from the federal government, the principal
chiefs of the Nation, and Colonel Return J. Meigs, the American agent to the
Cherokees. John and Nancy Ridge attended the Spring Place school in 1810,
with Buck Watie joining them in the following year. The children did well
under the Gambolds' tutelage, but in 1815 Major Ridge and his wife, Susanna
(Sehoya), decided to withdraw their children because young John was ailing
with a "scrofulous" hip. The Ridges hired an itinerant teacher to teach the
Ridge and Watie children at home, but the experiment failed when the new
schoolmaster turned out to be an incompetent drunk. After three months,
Buck Watie returned to Spring Place, taking his brother Stand with him. The
Ridge children, however, were sent to Cyrus Kingsbury's new Brainerd School
on Chickamauga Creek in Tennessee, some sixty miles from their home.
During this period, the federal government was pressing the Cherokees to
remove to western Arkansas, where land taken from the Osages had been
set aside for them. Cherokee leaders, among them Major Ridge, offered a
proposal in the form of a petition asking the government to provide more
aid to education in the Nation. The carefully prepared proposal documented
the need for the aid and also showed that the Cherokees were sincere in their
efforts to accept white civilization. The strategy of depicting themselves as
civilized-or at least well on the road to civilization-was an important part of
the Cherokees' defense against forced removal and the encroachment of white
settlers into the Nation. Just as the petition was being drafted, an agent from
the ABCFM, one Elias Cornelius, arrived in the area.
Cornelius was impressed by the Cherokees' plan, so much so that he asked
the Cherokee National Council for permission to expand ABCFM efforts among
their people. As part of this initiative, he proposed to enroll promising Cherokee
students in the new ABCFM boarding school at Cornwall. The school,
established as a means of educating "foreign youth," had already enrolled one
Abnaki, two Chinese, two Malays, one Bengali, one Hindu, several Hawaiians,
two Marquesans, and three white Americans. The school's founders were
now seeking to add representatives from southern Native American groups.
Cornelius invited Buck Watie, John Ridge, and Leonard Hicks, son of the
Cherokee assistant principal chief, to travel with him to Connecticut so they
could assess the suitability of the school. Accordingly, they set out in May
1818, stopping at Monticello to meet Thomas Jefferson and at Washington to
greet President Monroe. In addition, Cornelius introduced the boys to Elias
Boudinot, president of the American Bible Society and former president of
the Continental Congress. The elder statesman took an interest in Buck Watie
and urged the Cherokee to adopt his name. When the young man entered
Cornwall School, he did so as Elias Boudinot, the name by which he was
known for the rest of his life.
A contingent of Cherokee students including John Ridge, John Vann, and
David Steiner (Darcheechee) left for Connecticut in September 1818, arriving
in late November. They were joined later by Elias Boudinot. The new students
did well at their studies, which consisted of Latin, natural science, geography,
history, surveying, and rhetoric. In addition, the students received "instruction"
in agriculture, a large part of which involved working on the school farm,
and religious training, a staple in any mission school. Cornwall's headmaster,
Rev. Herman Daggett, identified Ridge and Boudinot as his best students.
Although Ridge was doing well at his studies, his health was not improving.
As the lymphatic condition of his hip worsened, he was moved out of
the school's attic dormitory into a private home and put under the care of
Mrs. John Northrup and her fourteen-year-old daughter, Sarah Bird. Ridge
slowly regained his health, but as he did so it became apparent to everyone
that the Cherokee and the younger of his nurses had fallen in love. Sarah's
family reacted by sending her to stay with her grandmother in New Haven.
Undaunted, John wrote to his parents asking for permission to marry Sarah,
but his mother, after consulting the missionaries at Brainerd, refused to give
her consent. Ridge persisted, however, and his parents reluctantly gave in to
his wishes. With one hurdle cleared, he proposed to Sarah, but found her
family clearly opposed to the union; Sarah's parents, perhaps hoping that a
separation would cool off the relationship, suggested that Ridge return to his
people in the South, regain his health fully, then return to pursue his suit if he
was still so inclined. Accordingly, he left Cornwall at the end of the summer of
1822 and did not return until December the following year. When he arrived
he found the Northrups reconciled to the idea of the marriage, but now opposition
was forthcoming from other sources: the couple was denounced by
area newspapers and castigated on racial grounds by members of the clergy. A
published denunciation of the marriage quoted some outraged Cornwallians
as saying that "the girl ought to be whipped, the Indian hung, and the mother
drown'd." Apparently, many Cornwall citizens did not want one of their
white daughters carried off by an Indian, no matter how civilized he was. The
ceremony took place on January 27, 1824, but the couple was forced to leave
Cornwall immediately because they were in danger of being mobbed. John and
Sarah Bird Northrup Ridge headed south to take up residence in the Cherokee
The controversy did not end with the pair's departure, however. Isaiah
Bunce, editor of the Litchfield Eagle and longtime opponent of the mission
school, made sure that the controversy was kept alive. Announcing that Sarah
Bird had "made herself a squaw" and had been taken "into the wilderness
among savages," he denounced "intermarriages" with Indians and blacks. He
went on to blame the situation on supporters of the school, many of whom
were clergymen and other prominent citizens. One of the men with connections
to the school was Colonel Benjamin Gold, who had entertained many
of its students in his home and whose family had corresponded with people
in the Cherokee Nation. Gold took it upon himself to respond to Bunce's
denunciations in a letter sent to the editor. When it was not published in the
Eagle, Gold sent a copy to the New Haven Connecticut Journal, where it did
appear. The letter categorically denied Bunce's assertions as "base fabrications"
and challenged the editor to make public the names of those local citizens
who Bunce claims are outraged by the situation at the school. The letter was
published on August 19, 1824; a short time later, Gold's daughter Harriet asked
her father for permission to marry Elias Boudinot.
Boudinot had returned to the Cherokee Nation in 1823; from there he
had carried on a correspondence with the girl he loved. By summer of the
next year, the couple had decided to marry. Harriet tried to reason with her
shocked family, pointing out that she intended to become a missionary to
the Cherokees and that this vocation would be greatly enhanced by marriage
to one of the Nation's leading citizens. The Golds were adamant in their
opposition, citing the family's community standing and reputation as reason
enough to reject their daughter's betrothal to a relative stranger, an outlander,
and an Indian to boot. Determined to put a halt to what they considered an
unfortunate state of affairs, Harriet's parents sent a letter of refusal to Boudinot.
At that point the young woman's health began to fail, and as time went on
she became weaker and weaker. Her physician, cousin Dr. Samuel Gold, was
called in, but he seemed to be powerless; after a short time he doctor feared
for Harriet's life. As soon as it became apparent to the family that the patient
had lost her will to live, they rescinded their prohibition of marriage and sent
a second letter to Boudinot that outlined their new position.
Harriet's health improved after this, but the family kept news of the impending
wedding secret until the family could be prepared for what was certain to be
a vociferous reaction. Harriet's brother-in-law, General Daniel Bourbon Brinsmade,
met with fellow members of the Cornwall School board to announce
the news. Shortly after, one of the board members, Rev. Joseph Harvey, gave
Harriet an ultimatum: If she would inform the board within three days that
she had given Boudinot up, the members would keep her secret and the matter
would be dropped. If she did not comply, the board would publish the banns
of their marriage in any way they saw fit. A defiant Harriet Gold refused to give
in to Harvey's threat, and the banns were published on June 17, 1825. In their
statement, the board castigated the Gold family: anyone condoning the Gold-Boudinot
connection they declared "criminal," offering "insult to the christian
community" and violating the "sacred interests" of Cornwall School.
Once the news was out, quiet Cornwall erupted to such an extent that it was
considered unsafe for Harriet to remain at home. From a window of the home
of the Clarks, a friendly neighbor with whom she had sought shelter, Harriet
could see a mob forming on the village green, where they displayed paintings
of a young woman and an Indian. As the sun went down the church bell began
to ring, tolling as if for the soul of someone who had died. Harriet watched
as the effigies of herself and Boudinot were thrown on a barrel of burning tar,
the fire having been lit by her brother Stephen. After the paintings had been
burned, the bell continued to ring far into the night. But Harriet Gold stood
firm, enduring the scorn and animosity of former friends, fellow churchgoers,
and even family members. In a letter to her brother-in-law, Harriet expressed
her complete bafflement at the behavior of many of her townspeople: his was
not "done merely by the wicked world," but "professed Christians attended
and gave their approbation."
Excerpted from Elias Cornelius Boudinot
by James W. Parins
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
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