Trading with the Cherokee

Beginning as early as the 1830s, settlers coming into Texas from Illinois, Missouri, and the southern states most likely traveled along what was known as “The Trail of Tears.” The Trail of Tears was made up of over 5000 miles of land and water trails taken by native American tribes during the US government’s “Indian Removal” project. This massive undertaking starting with The Removal Act of 1830, forced the relocation of the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole (among others) to a newly-declared Indian Territory just west of the Arkansas border in what is now Oklahoma. During this removal process, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 native Americans were relocated and that some 15,000 died along the trail, thus the name—“The Trail of Tears” or as the Cherokee called it, “the trail where they died.”

In my new historical novel, Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper, 1856-1861, my main character—Sara Darnell— and her new husband join a wagon train traveling across Arkansas along “The Trail of Tears” to Fort Smith, located on the Arkansas/Texas border, and then southwest into Indian Territory, and down the Texas Road to the Red River. This route carries them through Indian territory and across land belonging to several of the Civilized Tribes—who lived much like the settlers would live in Texas. Small farms lined the road and many tribal members supplemented their livelihood by selling supplies to the travelers. I want to share a brief excerpt from Gone to Dallas to give you a taste of an experience travelers might have had on the Texas Road to the Red River.

To set the stage for this scene, let’s read a paragraph from earlier in the book:  At Fort Smith, Arkansas, Lieutenant John Thomas Hill told them, Youll certainly see Choctaws and Chickasaws on your trip. Youll also touch the edge of the Cherokee Nation as you leave Fort Smith. Young Cherokee bucks will follow you for a while . . . Theyll show up in costume asking to trade. Seems like its a game to them. Thats fine, but they are notorious livestock thieves. They lurk along the Texas Road, all the way to the Red River, stealing horses. Best to guard your horses and milk cows.”


Before setting out from Tennessee, Morgan and Sara knew that the trail to Texas would take them through Indian Territory. A merchant selling them supplies had said, “Once you’re in Indian Territory, chances are you’ll be visited by Indians, especially the Cherokee, who want to trade. Best to have somethin’ to trade.” Lieutenant Hill had echoed this when they met him at Fort Smith. Sure enough, they were startled one morning when the wagon line ahead of them came to a sudden stop. Young Daniel Pollard came running down the line. “Dozens of Indians ahead, Pa says to stay calm. Most likely want to trade, like we heard.”

Sara felt her heart pounding in her chest. Dozens of Indians? She forced herself to take a few deep breaths and unclench her fists. Morgan saw her fear. “It’s okay, honey. You heard what Daniel said, they’ll just want to trade . . . like the couple with the berries.”

“Somehow this feels different. I guess because there are so many.”

In a few moments, they heard Captain Pollard call for the wagons to circle. After the wagons pulled into place, the men stood by their wagons. “Stay calm and no brandishing of weapons,” Pollard called out. Most of the women disappeared into their wagons. Sara stood by Morgan.

“Get in the wagon, honey, where you’ll be safe.”

“No, I’m not about to miss this.”

Everything went quiet as the Indians approached. Sara could hear the soft thud of their unshod horses’ hooves as they rode closer and closer to the circled wagons. A light wind swirled the dust around the horses’ feet as they came forward. The only other sound was a murder of crows cawing in the trees. Out of the corner of her eye, Sara saw Captain Pollard step outside the circle to face the approaching Indians. One of the Indians rode forward to engage Pollard. He dismounted, and Sara heard him say, “Trade,” as he gestured toward the wagons and pointed back to the waiting Indians.

Pollard nodded and said, “Yes, trade.” Sara exhaled without realizing she had been holding her breath.

As the remaining Indians started toward the wagons, Pollard and the Indian walked into the circle. The Indian wore a blue US Army coat with no buttons over a bare chest partially covered with what Sara thought might be a breastplate. Made of rows of small, tubular bones strung together horizontally, the garment extended from his shoulder blades almost to his waist. His legs were clad in deerskin pants with decorative beadwork along the outer side seam. Ornate beadwork also covered his moccasins. He wore three feathers in his long, braided hair, which Sara thought looked greased. His skin was the color of oak, and his silver earrings dangled at least four inches and swung as he looked around the circle. He turned and motioned the rest of the Indians forward. A dozen or more scattered to the various wagons.

A short Indian, dressed in a fringed buckskin shirt and breeches, approached Morgan at the front of the wagon. Hearing a noise, Sara looked back to see another Indian rummaging through things in the back of their wagon. She turned and ran to the rear of the wagon to face a big man with braids down to the middle of his chest. He was wearing a torn frock coat, derby hat, and loincloth. He had a different but not unpleasant smell. Cinnamon . . . He smells like cinnamon. Embarrassed by his partial nakedness, Sara was speechless for a moment.

Meanwhile the Indian had pulled a hand mirror out of an open box. He waved it at Sara, then held a large, cloth sack of what looked like blueberries out to her. “Trade?”

Sara’s momma had given her the mirror for her sixteenth birthday. Sara shook her head vigorously and reached for the mirror. “No, something else.”

He frowned. “Trade!” he said more forcefully, holding the mirror out of her reach. Tucking the mirror under one arm, he took a berry out of the bag, ate it, and pushed the sack at Sara, indicating she should taste.

Ignoring the berries, Sara looked for something else to barter with. Holding up one of Morgan’s shirts, she offered, “Trade?”

The Indian shook his head and began looking at himself in the mirror.

Reaching into a small box which had been tucked into a back corner, Sara pulled out a large, pleated paper fan. She unfolded it, revealing colorful painted flowers. She fluttered it back and forth, generating a bit of breeze. Then she held it in front of her face, peering over the top. She definitely had his attention. Folding it back up, she dangled it in front of him. “Trade?”

“Trade,” he agreed, setting the mirror down. He then handed the sack of berries to Sara. He turned, opened the fan, and walked away fanning himself. Sara tasted the berries. Mmm, sweet. Well have cobbler tonight.

Sara returned to the front of the wagon just as Morgan had concluded his trade. “A package of tobacco for these deerskin moccasins. I think they’ll fit you, honey.”

Morgan was right. Soft and colorful, the beaded moccasins were a perfect fit. Sara was touched that Morgan had bartered for something for her instead of for himself. He can be so thoughtful. Sara hooked her arm around his waist and looked up at him, “Thank you.”

A few days later, a second visit by a group of Indians started much the same but ended differently. Trading was underway when old man Thornton, the grandpa of the Thornton family, flipped his false teeth out of his mouth and into his hand. As Sara watched, the young brave, who had been offering him a buffalo bone necklace as his barter item, took one look at the teeth, shrieked, and ran for his horse. Eager to expand the joke, old man Thornton then began to hold the teeth, clicking them open and closed as he walked among the Indians. It only took a few moments for this to cause minor hysteria among the Indians, who mounted their ponies and dashed away in a cloud of dust. At the end of the day, an older Indian  appeared, asking to see the “didanawidgi.” Sara was in the group that gathered to hear his conversation with Captain Pollard. It took a while for Pollard to explain that old man Thornton was not a medicine man and the false teeth were not magic, just an invention of white men for those who had lost their teeth. Old man Thornton made the rounds of all the wagons that night reliving the incident and announcing that it was the high point of his life.

And that ends a brief reading from Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper 1856-1861 by Laurie Moore-Moore.  Gone to Dallas is available as both an ebook and paperback on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ingram Spark, Smashwords. and Kobo.

This has been the Texas Brave and Strong podcast. It’s the best little podcast in Texas. Ya’ll come back!

Moving West: Squirrel on the Menu

One morning this week I sat with my coffee looking out a window into our backyard as two squirrels raced around and around and around the trunk of a big cedar elm tree. It reminded me of the time I ate squirrel stew. I can almost hear you. “Squirrel stew? Yuck!”

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Braggin’ Rights

Texans can claim an impressive list of things to brag about—what we call braggin’ rights. Things like the biggest, the first, the only, etc. . . Let’s take a look at six things for which Texans rightly brag.

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The Big State of Texas is Getting Bigger!

Texas has a strong history of growth since the final boundaries of the state were agreed upon in 1850 and the US Census Bureau began counting Texan’s heads and collecting place of birth information. An in-migration magnet since 1850, Texas now ranks number two in attracting newcomers, number one in population growth in 2019. The first 2020 statistics are just starting to filter in. So let’s look at a complete set of statistics from 2019.

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The Crash at Crush

It all began with two 35-ton steam locomotives, a town that existed for just one day, and a railroad promoter with a grandiose idea. The end result became a Texas legend: The Crash at Crush.

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The Bone Business

In the early 1800’s buffalo (also called bison) roamed the American and Canadian West in the tens of millions, and the lives of the Plains Indians centered around the massive beasts. The buffalo provided food as well as skins for clothing, blankets, tents, and other leather items. Their dried manure was used for fuel. Indians followed the herds, taking what they needed and teaching the next generation to hunt. Theirs was a buffalo-based culture.

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The man who would not die!

Josiah Wilbarger was born in the United States in 1801. At age 26 he moved to Mexican Texas from Missouri as part of Stephen F. Austin’s colony. Wilbarger married and in 1830 was granted a league of land. For those of you who don’t measure land in leagues, that’s 4,428 acres. Wilbarger’s league was located on the Colorado River near Austin, where the town of Bastrop is now located. However, at the time, the Wilbargers were on the very edge of the frontier, their nearest neighbor 75 miles away.  By summer of 1832, anther settler, Ruben Hornsby, had moved his family to a nearby land grant. 

The following year, Josiah Wilbarger, (who was known as a land surveyor) and four young men who were staying with Hornsby— Strother, Standifer, Christian, and Haynie—rode out together to look at Texas land.  Encountering an Indian, the men gave chase, but didn’t catch up with him.  Instead they stopped for their nooner (or midday meal) in an area of brush and small trees. Wilbarger, Christian and Strother unsaddled and hobbled their horses. Haynie and Standifer simply staked their saddled horses out to graze.

Before the men finished their meal, they were under attack by a group of Comanche. The men dashed into the trees for cover. Strother was killed almost immediately and Christian was struck by a ball and his thigh bone broken. Wilbarger had an arrow though his calf and a flesh wound in his hip, but he managed to pull Christian behind a tree. As quickly as he had regained cover behind a small tree and begun to fire, his other leg was pierced by an arrow. Seeing Strother dead and Christian and Wilbarger seriously wounded, Haynie and Standifer ran for their saddled horses. Pursuing as best he could, Wilbarger ran to overtake them, asking to be mounted behind one of them.  His pleas went unanswered. Instead he was struck by an Indian’s shot which penetrated the center of his neck and exited on the left side of his chin. He fell, unable to move, but conscious.  The Comanche believing he was dead, stripped him of his clothes then cut and ripped the scalp from his head. He lost consciousness. He later said that he felt no real pain from the scalping, but it made a sound like distant thunder. 

 Later that night he came to and realized he was naked, losing blood, and alone in the wilderness.  The Indians had slit the throats of Strother and Christian. Their assumption that Wilbarger was dead apparently had saved his life.Thirsty, he crawled into a small pool of water and lay there. Later he crawled out of the water and slept. When he awoke, he drank again from the pool and ate some snails crawling near by.  He realized maggots had infested his head wound and decided he must to try to travel back to Hornsby’s cabin. Unable to crawl more than a few hundred yards, he collapsed under a large post-oak tree. Meanwhile, the two men who fled had returned to Hornsby’s cabin and reported Wilbarger and the others dead.

Here’s where it gets interesting—in addition to still being horrifying, I suppose. 

That night, Hornsby’s wife, Sarah, woke him in the night to tell him she saw Wilbarger in a dream. “He is not dead,” she insisted. Instead, she told her husband that Wilbarger was under a large oak tree—naked, scalped, and bloody. Sarah convinced Hornby and the others to search for Wilbarger and find and bury the two dead men. Sure enough the next day, the searchers found Wilbarger alive under an oak tree matching Sarah’s description of the tree in her dream. They took him back to Hornby’s and nursed him.

Wilbarger told them while he lay under the oak tree, he had a vision of his sister, Margaret Clifton, who lived more than 700 miles away in Missouri. She told him that he was too weak to go farther and should remain under the tree and friends would come to take care of him. Only weeks later did Wilbarger learn that his sister had died the day before he was wounded.

Wilbarger’s throat and thigh wounds healed but the scalping left him with an exposed skull.  His wife made him a special hat to help cover his bare  skull. I suspect it took a bit of bravery to face the world with his bony skull exposed. He lived for eleven years after the scalping, even fighting in the Texas Revolutionary War. He died in 1845 as a result of hitting his head on a low door frame. 

His experience being scalped and the fact that he not only survived it, but lived on for eleven years, earned him the title of “The Man Who Would Not Die.”  A tale of a brave, resilient Texan—Josiah Wilbarger.