During the early 1940s, the Reader's Digest began publishing an article entitled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.”
It became one of the most popular features of the magazine and many of us who subscribed turned to that section first. Historians have covered most of the more prominent past citizens in northeastern Oklahoma, both the famous and infamous, individuals like Stand Watie, John Ross, Ned Christie, Zeke Proctor or Belle Starr.
But there are a myriad of others who have “flown under the radar” those interesting pioneers who shaped the territory and settled the region in the 19th century.
Wilson Suagee was one of these.
Wilson’s introduction to the new Cherokee Nation mirrors that of others in many respects. Born near Spring Place, Georgia, a mission established by Moravian missionaries, not much is known of his early life.
According to the Delaware County History, he first appears in 1838 along with his two brothers, Thomas and David, and a sister Elzie as probable members of Richard Taylor’s detachment of refugees who took the Northern Route on the Trail of Tears. Taylor left Calhoun, Tennessee on September 20, 1838 traveling across Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois as far north as Rolla, Missouri before turning south to enter Indian Territory at present day Westville, Oklahoma.
Reverend Daniel Butrick accompanied the detachment, providing day by day documentation in a diary regarding the trials and tribulations of that journey involving 1029 souls including 54 that died.
There’s not much information on Wilson’s early years in Indian Territory but some time later the Suagee siblings are found to have located in the general vicinity of Courthouse Hollow south of present day Grove.
Wilson is now married to Darkess Van Ketcher, a widow with several children. Sometime in the mid-1840s the couple built a log cabin home located on land that today would be east of Honey Creek Park and south of present day Grove.
Now, to this point the saga of Wilson Saugee would mirror hundreds if not thousands of Cherokee who had been displaced from Georgia, but there are three recorded incidents that set him apart as somewhat unforgettable.
One involves Wilson and a bear. Bears frequented the region and while returning from from Grove Springs, a popular wayside stop for western bound travelers, Wilson encountered the bear.
Probably carrying a pistol, Wilson unloaded all six shots into the bear but it didn’t die, instead charging Wilson and grasping him in a bear hug. After a struggle, Wilson finally killed the bear with his hunting knife.
Seemingly unruffled by the encounter, he walked to the village of Saugee and explained his encounter with some acquaintances who didn’t believe him.
Unflappable, he returned to the scene of the scuffle, loaded the bear into a wagon, showed his friends, skinned the bear and took the meat home. Just another day in the life of an early pioneer…at least in the life of Wilson Saugee.
The fact that Wilson, a Confederate sympathizer was highly regarded by others is revealed by the apparent respect he was shown by Stand Watie. When the Civil War seemingly became inevitable, during the summer of 1861, Watie organized a regiment called The First Cherokee Rifles at Fort Wayne.
Among the first officers selected to serve in his command for Company A was a man named Buzzard as First Lieutenant and Wilson Saugee as Second Lieutenant.
Wilson served with Watie throughout the war and the following incident is one recorded about him taken from an interview conducted with William C. Woodall by journalist James Carselowey in 1938, The exact time and place was not recorded in the interview, but Woodall related the following story about Wilson who could only speak broken English and how he narrowly escaped being shot by the enemy.
One day, during the war, he met Federal troops on the road dressed in their Union uniforms. The captain dismounted, approached Saugee and asked if he had ever seen men like these pointing to their uniforms. Wilson said, “Yes, I killed six already.” “Who are you?” the captain asked. Wilson replied, “Stand Watie, he first, Buzzard, he second, me, I’m third.” “Let him go’” said the captain, “He’s crazy.”
Broken English didn’t always serve him so well. Following the war, Wilson returned home and resumed life with his family. Woodall continued the 1938 interview by relating the following story. Wilson obtained a license to practice law. Early on, he was prosecuting a case involving a man who allegedly had stolen a hog. The attorney for the defendant was Stand Watie.
When Saugee got up to make his case, speaking in broken English he said, “Defendant can’t make it, nothing but guilt.” “Stand Watie he talk it all in two language.” At this point, Ben Landrum who was sitting in court as an observer, laughed. Wilson lost the case to Watie, but, according to Woodall, he was so mad at Landrum for laughing at him, “he tore up his license and quit the lawyer business.”
We all remember classmates, family members, friends or acquaintances that, in one regard or another, provide memories of bygone years.
While the famous and infamous are frequently featured in historical accounts, we must remind ourselves that we as well as our acquaintances are also a part of history.
Everyone has interesting stories to relate and they should be recorded because all are an important part of the fabric of history providing Echoes From the Past.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.