I was driving on Izard County Road 13, a dirt road between Boswell and Calico Rock, when I paused at a plot of land with two signs and a single grave. The plot was about a mile from where Piney Creek flows into the White River. The town of Athens, the crossroads of north Arkansas has vanished except for these two scant signs and a single grave.
The first permanent Courthouse was just 20 by 20 feet surrounded by a Tavern, Blacksmith Shop, General Store and a Grist Mill. It was here where Izard County’s first officials administered justice, conducted the county’s business and maintained law and order. Matthew Adams was the County Judge, John Adams was the County Sheriff and John Houston was the County Clerk. I might add that four generations of McVay’s lived in Izard County and I have been visiting there for more than 70 years.
Most likely, you never heard of John Houston but there is a 65 foot tall statue of his younger brother in Texas. In fact, John’s brother was the only person ever elected Governor of two different states in America. He also lived three years with the Cherokee Indians and spoke fluent Cherokee. He was the 1st and 3rd President of Texas the 7th Governor of Texas, a U.S. Senator from Texas and the 7th Governor of Tennessee. He was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a Major General in the Texian Army.
John’s brother Samuel is probably best remembered for his role in bringing Texas into the United States as a constituent state. His victory at the Battle of San Jacinto secured the independence of Texas from Mexico in one of the shortest decisive battles in modern history.
John Houston was commissioned in 1825. He had served earlier as clerk of Blount County in Tennessee during the years 1808 to 1812. In 1812 Sam Houston founded a one room school house in Blount County and taught there at age 19.
Sam Houston School was the first school built in Tennessee. In 1823 John was in Little Rock and advertised in the Arkansas Gazette as an attorney at law. In 1827 Major Jacob Wolf was the first Representative to the Fifth Territorial Assembly and had been influential in the formation of Izard County. He persuaded John P. Houston to come to Izard County and serve as the first clerk of the newly formed county and help with its establishment.
Also in 1827 at age 33, Sam Houston was elected Governor of Tennessee. He planned to run for reelection; however, his marriage to eighteen-year-old Eliza Allen fell apart under mysterious circumstances and Houston resigned his office on April 16, 1829 as a result of this domestic turbulence.
A few days later, Houston left Tennessee for the wigwam of his adopted father, the chief of the Cherokees, in Arkansas. Traveling in disguise by the steam packet Red Rover, by flatboat, and by steamboat to Arkansas Territory, Houston arrived in Little Rock on May 8, 1829. Houston had apparently heard rumors that he was contemplating an unauthorized military incursion to foment or support a Texas revolution and flatly denied them in a letter; he was, however, in good enough spirits to try to mend bridges between Andrew Jackson and Colonel Robert Crittenden, the acting governor, and to report that he intended to engage in a summer buffalo hunt.
Houston then took passage upriver aboard the Facility and landed at Tahloneeskee, near Webbers Falls, where he was allegedly told by Chief Jolly, “My wigwam is yours—my home is yours—my people are yours—rest with us.” Jolly’s “wigwam” was in fact a plantation house. John Jolly was Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation–West when the 1828 constitution was adopted.
Jolly was a wealthy merchant and planter who spoke no English, and dressed in buckskin with a hunting shirt, leggings and moccasins. Jolly had followed his brother Tahlonteeskee to the Arkansas Territory. Tahlonteeskee served as the third Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation—West. Upon the death of his brother, in 1819. Jolly became the fourth Principal Chief.
The Capital of the Charokee Nation was named for Jolly’s brother and eventually the Capital was moved from Tahlonteeskee to Talequah. Tahlonteeskee is the oldest governmental capital in Oklahoma and is a ghost town on private land in Gore, Oklahoma today.
During Jolly’s term of office, the Cherokee Nation—West adopted a constitution establishing a tripartite government, much like that previously adopted by the Cherokee Nation—East. Jolly established a capital city, Tahlonteeskee, named in honor of his brother. That same year, most of the western Cherokee were moved from Indian Reserve areas in the Arkansas Territory to the newly established Indian Territory.
In his role as leader, Jolly frequently raised issues of security and treaty rights with both U.S. government officials in Washington D.C. and with Arkansas territorial authorities. Shortly after being named president, Jolly wrote to Arkansas governor George Izard in alarm over rumors that the governor was about to broach the subject of the sale of Cherokee lands in Arkansas. Jolly advised the governor that the Cherokee had no lands whatsoever that they wished to sell and that, furthermore, the U.S. government was in arrears in meeting its financial obligations left over from the previous treaty of 1817. For a decade, he used diplomatic means to fend off pressures from American settlers and government representatives to restrict Cherokee lands in Arkansas and eventually to force the Arkansas Cherokee to move again out of Arkansas and into Indian Territory.
During June and July, Houston visited in the region, served as Jolly’s representative at a conclave where he was unsuccessful in preventing a declaration of war between the Cherokee, Pawnee and Comanche, and wrote Jackson and others in the government on behalf of several of the tribes.
In August and September 1829, when Houston was prostrated with malaria, it seems clear that he at least briefly considered going to Natchez, Mississippi. He wrote Jackson: “Your suggestion on the subject of my location in Arkansas has received my serious attention, and I have concluded that it would not be best for me to adopt the course. In that Territory there is no field for distinction—it is fraught with factions; and if my object were to obtain wealth, it must be done by fraud and peculation upon the Government and many perjuries would be necessary to its effectuation!”
The following month, on October 31, 1829, Houston received his citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. While among the Cherokee, Houston wore native dress and allegedly refused to speak English. Houston’s attempt to use his Cherokee citizenship to avoid licensing as a trader, however, was rejected by the U.S. government.
In the spring of 1829, Houston traveled to Washington DC as a representative of the Cherokee. It was at this time that Dr. Robert Mayo later claimed that Houston was organizing an expedition against Texas, having settled among the Indians in order to cloak his true intentions. Whatever the truth of this, Houston failed to get the contracts on which he bid, and he returned to Arkansas Territory in June 1830. He built a log house, “Wigwam Neosho,” took an influential Indian wife, “Talihina” Diana Rogers Gentry, and set up as a trader.
Between June 22 and December 8, Houston wrote a series of five articles for the Arkansas Gazette dealing with the status of the removed tribes and attacking the activities of their Indian agents, using the pen names “Tah-Lohn-Tus-Ky” and “Standing Bear.” These constitute the first defense of Native American rights and exposure of government corruption written by a well-known Westerner.
In December, Houston accompanied a second Cherokee delegation to Washington, meeting Alexis de Tocqueville on the way and becoming caught up in the speculation on Texas lands. His caning of Congressman William Stanbery for slanderous remarks concerning Houston and Indian contracts led to legal proceedings in Congress. Jackson asked Houston to treat with the Comanche, leading to Houston’s arrival in Texas in December 1832. It has been claimed that when Talihina refused to accompany him so Houston left her with the title to their house, property, and two slaves. He did, however, return again to the territory in May 1833 for a meeting between the Comanche and U.S. commissioners at Fort Gibson. After this fell through, Houston obtained a power of attorney from Talihina on June 27 and spent most of the rest of his summer in Hot Springs recuperating from an old shoulder wound.
Many of Houston’s basic attitudes were formulated during his sojourn in Arkansas Territory: “Houston’s contributions to the Indian administration are…among his most significant achievements. Reforms instituted in the Agency system…were basic and long-lasting. Treaties and agreements negotiated with Houston’s assistance provided a stable basis for Indian-White relations along the Southwestern frontier.” There is also recurring evidence for the premise that Houston’s accomplishments in Texas grew out of his initial plans for an Indian-backed empire.
Houston was active in the Texas Revolution of 1835–36 and, as commander-in-chief of the Texan army, was responsible for the stinging Mexican defeat at San Jacinto and the capture of Santa Anna. As a result, Houston was elected president of the Republic of Texas in 1836 and reelected in 1841 after a constitutionally required hiatus. When the republic was annexed to the Union in 1845, Houston served as one of the state’s first U.S. senators from 1846 to 1859. Defeated in a run for governor in 1857, he was elected to that office in 1859, and his name was even bruited about for president of the United States in 1860.
In 1861, following Texas’ secession from the Union, Houston and other officials were ordered to pledge their loyalty to the Confederacy. He wrote his “fellow citizens” that “in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled on” and “in the name of my own conscience and my own manhood…I refuse to take this oath.” Houston was peacefully removed from the governorship and died of pneumonia in Huntsville, Texas, on July 26, 1863 at age 70. Historians might simply say Sam Houston was a School Teacher who became Governor of Tennessee?
Sam’s older brother John lived in Izard County for nine years and passed away in 1836 at age 46.
Thank you for reading.