From the time the first pilgrim set foot on Plymouth Rock, Europeans began efforts to transform Native Americans to their own culture. As decades passed, increasing waves of migrants overwhelmed the tribes, attempting to “acculturate” them through a variety of tactics. Finally, in 1920 the last phase, a congressional act, gave them full citizenship. However, the Cherokee Nation began efforts to adapt to change shortly after the Revolutionary War. By the 1820s intermarriage with Europeans had an impact, missionary schools and churches became appealing to some and a system including a constitution, patterned after the United States government, had been initiated. Under the leadership of John Ross and others, the Cherokee Nation substantially transformed and when they were forced to move to Indian Territory, they re-established that same form of government and continued in many ways to mirror European culture. Unfortunately, the decision to join the Confederacy instead of the Union, or to remain neutral during the Civil War eventually accelerated the undoing of the Cherokee Nation. In the process, one individual, Elias Cornelius Boudinet, became particularly influential. Whether it was self-serving, idealistic, or belief in his nation’s best interest has been the subject of debate.
Elias Cornelius Boudinet was born August 1, 1835 in Georgia. His father, Elias Boudinet, originally known as Buck Watie, a brother of Stand Watie, was one of those who signed the controversial Treaty of New Echota that eventually became the document forcing the Nation to move to Indian Territory. That move, compounded by the horrific Trail of Tears, led some citizens to seek revenge after they arrived, resulting in the assassination of some “Treaty Signers,” among them Elias Boudinet. Consequently, his children were sent to live with their grandparents in New England.
That move proved to be transforming regarding the schooling of young Elias Cornelius. In 1856, graduating from law school at the age of 21, he moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to practice. Obviously talented, he also became editor of the True Democrat and later chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Central Committee. When war broke out, he joined his uncle Stand Watie’s Mounted Rifles, rising to the rank of colonel and serving until 1863 when he was elected as a member of the Confederate Congress. After the war at the age of 31, he was appointed as a member of the Cherokee delegation to Washington. It was then that Boudinet first became a subject of controversy among his fellow citizens, arguing that Indians should become citizens of the United States, protected by government laws. He also believed that Indian land should be allocated by individual ownership, not common land owned by all, as had been the Cherokee practice for centuries. In an ironic twist of fate, his argument regarding citizenship was used against him. In 1867 Boudinet and Stand Watie opened a tobacco factory near Maysville, Arkansas, but in nearby Indian Territory so the tobacco could be sold tax free. Shortly thereafter, the factory was seized by United States government officials. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court who ruled against Boudinet citing his own opinion, since Indians were not citizens of the United States they were not protected by federal laws.
In the meantime, Boudinet’s reputation grew in Washington, both as a lawyer and as a lobbyist for among others, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (MK&T). When Congress approved the construction of railroads through the Cherokee Nation and the MK&T successfully reached the northern border it was Boudinet who was given the honor of driving the first spike in the Cherokee Nation. The next year he founded Vinita leading his Indian detractors to further complain that his real motive in promoting railroads was to get rich.
If Boudinet’s position on United States citizenship had proven to be controversial among some Cherokee citizens in 1866, an article he wrote, along with a map, published in the Chicago Times in 1879, must have created solid opposition among the rest. The article drew attention to what he labeled as “Unassigned Lands,” in Indian Territory that consisted of 2,950 square miles in the middle of present-day Oklahoma. It was Boudinet’s opinion that the land should be occupied by white settlers to increase the likelihood of the territory becoming a state. The article immediately gained traction in Congress, and also attracted the attention of a resident of Kansas, David “Boomer” Payne. In 1880 Payne organized his first caravan to the Unassigned Lands and made frequent forays into the disputed territory that were systematically repulsed by federal troops for the next several years. Meanwhile, Congress stepped in, passing the Dawes Act that eventually did exactly what Boudinet had also recommended 23 years earlier, allocating Indian land by individual ownership. Ultimately the combination of Boudinet’s article were followed by a series of congressional actions reflecting the acceptance of his recommendations. On April 22, 1889, the first of six Oklahoma Land Runs was initiated and within little more than a decade, the movement began to dissolve Indian Territories and admit Oklahoma as a state. Elias Cornelius Boudinet, futurist, opportunist or both?
Author's Note: Snapshots of Cherokee Country is now available on Amazon. Com or BARNES AND NOBLE.com
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.