Chronicles of Oklahoma

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Chronicles Homepage
Search all Volumes
Copyright 2001
Purchase an Issue

Table of Contents Index Volume List Search All Volumes Home

Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 16, No. 3
September, 1938
Chief Lewis Downing and Chief Charles Thompson (Oochalata.)

By
John Bartlett Meserve.

Page 315

The church exerted a compelling influence in the political life of the Cherokees in the West. This was particularly true of the Baptist churches, the membership of which far exceeded that of all other religious sects and whose ordained spiritual advisers became recognized counsellors in the political affairs of the Cherokee Nation. Chief John Ross, although himself a Methodist, was attentive to the counsel of Evan Jones, his son John B. Jones, Jesse Bushyhead, Lewis Downing, and Charles Thompson, each of whom was an ordained minister of the Baptist faith. Downing and Thompson served as chiefs of the Cherokee Nation, the latter being succeeded by Dennis W. Bushyhead, a son of Rev. Jesse Bushyhead. This influence was unfailing in its fidelity to the highest purposes of the spiritual, political, and social welfare of the Cherokee people.

1The influence of Evan Jones and of his son John Buttrick Jones forms an arresting chapter in the history of the Cherokees. Evan Jones, the famous Baptist missionary, was born at Brecknockshire, Wales, on May 14, 1788, where he married Elizabeth Lanigan and came to America, arriving at Philadelphia early in 1821. He had been a communicant of the Church of England, later a Methodist, but very shortly after his arrival in America became a member of the Baptist church. A month later, he enlisted as a Baptist missionary to the Cherokees arriving at Valley Town, North Carolina in September, 1821, where he taught in a mission school. He was ordained to the Baptist ministry and became a most potent factor in shaping the spiritual lives of the young Cherokees. Through his patient efforts, many of his pupils became native ministers among the tribe, not least of them being Jesse Bushyhead and Lewis



Page 316

Downing. His wife died at Valley Town on February 5, 1831, and later he married Pauline Cunningham. Evan Jones joined with Rev. Jesse Bushyhead in leading a contingent of the Cherokees in their removal to the West. This party departed from the East on October 9, 1838, reaching their destination near where today is situated the town of Westville, Adair County, Oklahoma, on February 23, 1839. The Baptist Mission was established by Evan Jones and Bushyhead, some four miles northwest of Westville and here Jones resumed his spiritual labors among the Cherokees until his death on August 18, 1872. His wife died September 17, 1876, and both rest in the cemetery at Tahlequah where their graves are suitably marked. Evan Jones was a close friend and confidant of Chief John Ross and enjoyed an intimate acquaintance with the celebrated John Howard Payne.

John Buttrick Jones, a son of Evan Jones and Elizabeth Lanigan, his wife, was born at Valley Town, North Carolina, on December 24, 1824, and came with his father to the old Indian Territory in 1839. He graduated from the University of Rochester, New York in 1855, where he was ordained to the Baptist ministry on July 14, 1855, and where he married Jennie M. Smith in October 1855. The young graduate immediately joined his father at the old Baptist Mission near Westville and thereafter devoted his life to missionary work among the Cherokees until his death at Denver, Colorado on June 13, 1876. Both he and his wife are buried in the Riverside Cemetery at Denver where their graves are marked. The young missionary became an interpreter for his father and enriched the spiritual lives of the Cherokees by his Bible translations. He served as chaplain of the Third Regiment of Indian Home Guards, a Cherokee regiment in the Union army in the Civil War, and, as a delegate from the Cherokees, signed the 2Treaty of Washington of July 9, 1866. John B. Jones was the dominant spirit in forming the Keetoowah Society in 1859 and in directing its activities. This organization, composed mostly of full blood Cherokees, became a potent factor in the political affairs of the Cherokee Nation for many years.



Page 317

Lewis Downing

Evan Jones and John B. Jones, his son, were highly influential in the political concerns of the Cherokee Nation from 1839 to 1867. That influence lingered thereafter until Cherokee tribal affairs were finally closed up. They were able to marshal behind them the full blood members of the tribe who were vastly in the majority during those years. Their influence was exercised in a purposeful way and for the best interest of the Indians and to the sterling character of these two unselfish leaders, the Cherokees are indebted. They and their families were admitted into full tribal membership by act of the Cherokee Council, in 1868.

The Valley Town Mission over which Evan Jones had presided from 1821 to 1839 became the Baptist Mission near Westville from 1839 to 1867 when it was removed to Tahlequah by Rev. John B. Jones. In 1885, the Mission was again removed to Muskogee, its name changed to Bacone University and is today continuing its splendid service.

Lewis Downing (Lewie-za-wau-na-skie) was born in Eastern Tennessee in 1823, being a son of Samuel Downing and Susan Daugherty, his wife. She was a daughter of Cornelius Daugherty, an Irishman, and his full blood Cherokee Indian wife. Samuel Downing was a son of John and Jennie Downing and this John Downing was a son of Major Downing and his Cherokee wife. Major Downing was a British army officer and supervised the manufacture of powder for the troops.

Young Downing came west with the party led by Jesse Bushyhead and Evan Jones in 1839 and settled near the old Baptist Mission near Westville, in Goingsnake District and in what is today, Adair County, Oklahoma. He attended school at the Valley Town Mission and later at the Baptist Mission under the tutelage of Rev Evan Jones. Early in life, he became a convert of the famous missionary and subsequently was ordained to the Baptist ministry. Reports of his spiritual activities reach back to 1842 when he was but nineteen years of age. On August 3, 1844, he was unanimously chosen pastor of the Flint Baptist Church, succeeding the Rev. Jesse Bushyhead who had passed away shortly before. The ef-

Page 318

forts of Lewis Downing during those early years were devoted to his Baptist ministry in which he was aided by Rev. Evan Jones.

The young minister was a strong adherent of the Ross faction in Cherokee Nation politics and as such was elected senator from Goingsnake District on August 4, 1845. He later removed to a farm on Spring Creek, Saline District and in what is today the southeast corner of Mayes County, Oklahoma, where he was elected to the senate on August 4, 1851, and again on August 1, 1859. He was sent as a delegate from the tribe to Washington in 1851. His political activities ran contemporaneously with his spiritual labors.

Came the Civil War with its potential menace of tribal dissension among the Cherokees and the rather halting assent of Chief John Ross to an alliance with the Confederacy. The smoldering embers of discord lingering from the Ridge-Boudinot assassinations of 1839 seemed ready to burst forth anew but were promptly suppressed by the astute Chief when he formed the First Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles for the Confederate service at Park Hill on October 4, 1861. Lewis Downing was named chaplain of companies F and S of this regiment of which Col. John Drew was the commanding officer. The members of this regiment were mostly full bloods, were not slave owners and, at heart, were abolitionists. They were probably mostly members of the Keetoowah Society. This regiment fought in the Confederate service at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, on March 7-8, 1862, but with the advance of the Union forces into the Territory in July, 1862, and the departure of Chief John Ross for Philadelphia, its members began to waver in their allegiance to the South. With few exceptions, among them being Col. John Drew, the members of this regiment began to abandon the Confederate service and, on July 11, 1862, at Flat Rock Creek, joined in forming the Third Indian Home Guards for service in the Union army. This contingent was composed of three regiments consisting of 1480 men, of which Lewis Downing was named Lieut. Colonel and the Rev. John B. Jones was designated its chaplain, in the brigade of Col. Wm. A. Phillips. Rev. John B. Jones and his father, who were

Page 319

abolitionists, had been influential in provoking this change. The cleavage so created resulted in the formation of dual governments in the Cherokee Nation, each striving to control its political affairs. The Union Cherokee government, which recognized John Ross as chief, held its meetings at Cowskin Prairie where, in July, 1862, allegiance to the Confederacy was renounced and on February 21, 1863, laws of emancipation were enacted and future slavery abolished. Chief John Ross being absent in the East, the political affairs of the Union Cherokees were managed by a coterie of leaders, of whom Lewis Downing was the presiding spirit. This duplication in Cherokee tribal governments obtained from July, 1862, until the conclusion of the war.

Lewis Downing, who was president of the Union tribal council, went to Washington, in 1863 to enlist the attention of the government in the Cherokee situation. After the conclusion of the war, a preliminary intertribal peace conference with the United States commissioners, was held at Ft. Smith. This meeting was opened on September 8, 1865, by prayer offered by Rev. Lewis Downing. It was at this meeting that Lewis Downing protested against the refusal of the commissioners to accord recognition to John Ross as the chief of the Cherokees. Ross returned to Tahlequah for a brief period in the fall of 1865 but returned to Washington the next year to urge his protest against the approval of section nine of the treaty of June 19, 1866, wherein the Cherokees were required to adopt their former negro slaves into tribal membership. The provisions of this disputed section were approved by the Rev. John B. Jones who accompanied the old chief as a delegate and who signed the treaty as such.

Chief John Ross passed away at Washington on August 1, 1866, and Lewis Downing automatically became chief of the Cherokee Nation serving as such until October 19, 1866, when William Potter Ross was chosen by the council to fill the vacancy.

Much bitterness lingered between the contending elements among the Cherokees, following the cessation of hostilities. These sentiments were not entirely indigenous to the Cherokee Indians,

Page 320

but extended throughout the country. The problem of "binding up the Nation's wounds" became one which lay in the years ahead. Among the Ross faction of the Union Cherokees were many who insisted upon the exclusion of the Confederate Cherokees from all participation in tribal affairs. There were sentiments that the penalties for their Southern activities had not been entirely exhausted. Already, many drastic, illogical things had been done. Lewis Downing was opposed to any discriminating policies and at this initial point, his sentiments of tribal unity were crystalized by the formation of what was to become known as the Downing Party, in the political life of the Cherokee Nation. Rev. John B. Jones threw his power and influence among the full bloods, behind the Downing movement which was to rehabilitate the Southern Cherokees and align them with the erstwhile Union Cherokees, without favor or discrimination. The success of the movement was reflected in the tribal election held on August 5, 1867, when Lewis Downing was elected chief of the Cherokees, having behind him the support of both factions. Faithful John Buttrick Jones rendered no greater service to the Cherokees than he did in the summer and fall of 1867. The Downing party thereafter controlled the political affairs of the Cherokee Nation until Statehood save for the regime of Chief Dennis W. Bushyhead of from 1879 to 1887.

The tenure of Chief Lewis Downing were the years of reconstruction among the Cherokees. In his efforts, he enjoyed the full confidence of all factions as he strove to harmonize the discordant elements. Indicative of his attitude toward the Southern Cherokees are the words from his first message to the Council in the fall of 1867, wherein he says,

"By the treaty of 1866, Canadian District was set apart as a sort of land of refuge for that portion of our people who sided with the Confederate States in the late war. In making this arrangement, some important distinctions were made between the rights and remedies of the people of this district and those of the rest of the Nation. These distinctions were made at the earnest and persistent solicitation of certain gentlemen sent to Washington as the representatives of the Southern Cherokees. The reason assigned for these distinctions was, that the South-

Page 321

ern Cherokees could not with safety reside among the rest of the people, or get justice in their Courts, on account of the part they had taken in the late war. But all the Southern Cherokees know now that all such fears are groundless, for notwithstanding the setting apart of Canadian District as above named, a large majority of the Southern Cherokees have returned to their Old Homes in the other districts and live there among the rest of the people in peace and security. The very great importance of the entire unity of our Nation cannot have escaped your attention. Our laws should be uniform, the jurisdiction of our Courts should be the same over every part of our Nation and over every individual citizen. It is for the interest of the people of Canadian District as well as for the interests of the people of other Districts, that every line of distinction be blotted out. That we should be one in our laws, one in our institutions, one in feeling and one in destiny. I, therefore recommend that the Council adopt immediate measures for bringing about the removal of all such distinctions."

These words are reflective of the Christian leadership of Chief Lewis Downing and were uttered at a crucial period.

Lewis Downing signed the 3Treaty of April 27, 1869, at Washington and also represented the Cherokees at Washington as a delegate in 1869 and in 1870. The re-election of the chief on August 7, 1871, was an evidence of the satisfaction of his people with his regime. He died in office at Tahlequah, on November 9, 1872, and is buried in the old Ned Adair cemetery southeast of Choteau, near his old farm home on Spring Creek and in what is today, Mayes County, Oklahoma.

The chief was married three times, his first wife being Lydia Price after whose death he married Lucinda Griffin. A touch of romance colored his third marriage. Upon one of his numerous trips to Washington, the chief formed the acquaintance of Mary Eyre, a white lady and a widow of some reputed means. The famous Cherokee was rather handsome and attractive, or at least so thought the Washington lady, because she came west and established her home at Tahlequah, although she was well aware that he had an Indian wife and children with whom he was living. She patiently nursed her infatuation, awaiting the turn of the



Page 322

Fates in her favor. The Indian wife of the chief passed away and, a year later, he wedded the persistent widow in whose companionship he spent the last two years of his life. She died two years later and is buried in the cemetery at Tahlequah.4 Truly, the old Cherokee capital has a wealth of romance and history.

Lewis Downing was a convincing public speaker wherein he used the Cherokee tongue although he well understood and spoke the English language. He bore himself with dignity but with a poise that was pleasing and an approach that was easy. His fine judgment accomplished the reuniting of the discordant Cherokee factions growing out of the Civil War. Chief Lewis Downing was one of the noblest characters in Cherokee history.

One of the most unusual and engaging characters of the political life of the Cherokees, was Oochalata, who in his later life adopted the name of Charles Thompson. Intimate details of his early life are still fugitive. He was born in the Cherokee country in the East sometime during the early decades of the last century, his father being a full blood Cherokee Indian. The mother of Oochalata was a white woman but who spoke and understood only the Cherokee language. This anomalous situation suggests that her residence among the Indians was occasioned by the tragedy of her abduction by some wild band of Cherokee Indians in the East during those early days of settlement by the whites. Not infrequently were children of tender years torn from the arms of pleading mothers and borne away never again to be seen by the stricken parents. The faithful mother of Oochalata never knew from whence she came. She was reared by and subsequently married among the people who had enforced her adoption. She came with her son in one of the numerous removal caravans of the Cherokees to the old Indian Territory in 1839 and settled at the head waters of Brush Creek in what is today, Delaware County, Oklahoma.

The educational advantages of the young Indian were limited to a brief attendance at the Baptist Mission near the present town



Charles Thompson

Page 323

of Westville where he was taught by the Rev. Evan Jones and where he became a member of the Baptist church. The influence of Evan Jones and his son John B. Jones left a lasting impress upon the young man. The efforts of these two famous missionaries among the Cherokees were to promote an interest in political affairs as well as in spiritual matters. They aroused the Indian to an active interest and participation in the concerns of his tribal government. It was a policy of making good citizens as well as good Christians. Oochalata joined the noted Keetoowah Society upon its organization in 1859 by Rev. John B. Jones. Among the early principles of this society was that of the abolition of slavery.

When the Civil War came, Oochalata enlisted in the First Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles at Park Hill, on October 4, 1861, for service in the Confederate army. Col. John Drew was the commanding officer of this regiment. Oochalata later joined with other members of this regiment in renouncing this enlistment and at Flat Rock Creek on July 11, 1862, enlisted in the Third Indian Home Guards of which Col. Lewis Downing was Lieut. Colonel, for service in the Union army. He was a corporal in this contingent and served faithfully until the conclusion of the war.

Soon after the war, Oochalata removed to lands on the Spavinaw near the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek and in the proximity of where is today the inland town of Eucha, in Delaware County. Here among the picturesque hills, he constructed a log cabin home and engaged in farming and stock raising after a modest fashion. His interesting mother passed away shortly thereafter and rests in an unmarked grave near the old home place. The cabin fell into decay many years ago, but has been rehabilitated and is today the summer home of a Tulsa citizen. A copious spring flows from a cave above the home and because of its approach was called Powderhorn Spring. The reconstructed summer home is called Powderhorn Place. Oochalata established a trading post at this place and evidenced much thrift in his operation. Oochalata also engaged in occasional practice before the tribal courts but his alliance with the legal profession was to embarrass him later in his

Page 324

religious ministerial activities. The spiritually minded Cherokees, at that time, did not evidence much confidence in practitioners at the bar.

The political life of Oochalata had its inception in 1867, when he was elected as senator from the Delaware District to the Cherokee National Council. He served in this position until 1873. When he entered the political arena, he assumed the name of Charles Thompson, taking the name from Dr. Jeter Lynch Thompson whom he succeeded to the senate, and by that name he was known until his death. He assumed a prominent place in the Cherokee senate and was designated by that body to act as Chief during the days of the last illness of Chief Lewis Downing.

William Potter Ross was named by the council to fill out the unexpired term occasioned by the death of Chief Downing but at the election of August 1, 1875, Ross was defeated in his efforts for reelection and Charles Thompson was chosen. Thompson was the candidate of the Downing party and had the backing of John B. Jones, the Baptist missionary. He served the four year term, being succeeded by Dennis W. Bushyhead. The political experience of the new chief was rather limited as was also his scholastic training. He was, by nature, shrewd, frugal, and honest and these qualities reenforced the conservative judgment which he possessed. These natural attributes of his untrained character give one pause in thought of his interesting mother. His tenure as chief was uneventful and no perplexing conditions confronted him. There were some sporadic acts of lawlessness but these were usually committed by white intruders and a safe disposition of them usually was made by Judge Isaac Parker at Ft. Smith. The white intruders, however, engaged the thought of Chief Thompson as is evidenced by his expression to the Council in his message in the fall of 1876,

"There is another element in our midst that is also a fruitful source of crime and trouble. I have reference to that population who are here apparently without any right whatever, among the number we may enumerate those white families who have come from different States with all their stock, in violation of the intecourse laws and claim to be here under permits from the Cherokee Nation, but by careful examination you will find nine tenths of them have no permits at all."

Page 325

Thompson home

Upon his retirement from office, the Chief returned to his home on the Spavinaw and resumed his trading operations. He preached, each Sabbath, at the old Indian church at the Eucha settlement. Chief Thompson, in his public speaking, used the Cherokee language, although he well understood and spoke English. He became totally blind, in the autumnal years of his life and passed away at his home on June 22, 1891, and is buried in the old Indian cemetery at Eucha where his grave is marked.

The Chief was a devout Baptist, had preached to a considerable extent but had been denied the robes of ordination because of his legal profession. When he became chief, these alleged disqualifications were ignored and he was duly ordained to the Baptist ministry. He married Rachel Sudee, a full blood Cherokee Indian woman, who survived him.

In the eccentric chief, we glimpse the Cherokee Indian of the Oklahoma Ozarks who dominated the political affairs of the Nation during that early period. The early Indians of that section were a patient, God-fearing people with a laissez faire attitude toward their political concerns. Today, among the hills of Delaware and Adair Counties may be found the remnants of an heroic past, among the stoical full blood Cherokees, who are now loosely referred to as the "Night Hawks" and who attend the Baptist church each Sabbath, and lead cloistered lives in a near communion with nature.5



Return to top


Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site