By John Bartlett Meserve.1
The interesting Chief Joel Bryan Mayes of the Cherokees passed away at Tahlequah on December 14, 1891, having entered upon his second term but a few weeks previously. Henry Chambers, the Assistant Chief, had preceded him in death by four days and as a consequence a young man by the name of Thomas M. Buffington, being then president of the senate, automatically became chief and served as such until December 23, 1891, when Colonel Johnson Harris, the newly elected National Treasurer, was selected by the council to fill the vacancy.
Our curiosity lingers to know the new chief who was a son of William Harris, a white man of Scotch-Irish descent and Susan Collins, his wife. William Harris was born in Georgia in 1805 and died at his plantation home near Marietta, Georgia, in 1865. Susan Collins was a daughter of Parker Collins and Nannie Cordrey, a one-half blood Cherokee Indian woman, his wife and a granddaughter of Thomas Cordrey, a white man. She was born in Georgia on February 14, 1818, and died near Warner in what is today Muskogee County, Oklahoma, July 4, 1888.2 Colonel Johnson Harris was born near Marietta, Cobb County, Georgia, on April 19, 1856, and came with his mother to the old Indian Territory in the early seventies of the last century and settled in the Canadian District. Other members of the family had come west during the preceding years. His earliest educational advantages were the public schools in Georgia and later he attended the Cherokee Male Academy at Tahlequah after which he taught school for several terms in the Cherokee tribal schools. He became a highly successful stockman and
1Judge John Bartlett Meserve is making a study of the Chiefs of the Five Civilized Tribes. He lives at Tulsa.
2Emmett Starr, History of the Cherokee Indians (Oklahoma City, 1921); Morris L. Wardell, A Political History of the Cherokee Nation (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938).
rancher in the Canadian District near Warner, where he married Nannie E. Fields, a daughter of Richard Fields and Rachel Elizabeth Goss, his wife, on April 12, 1877. She was born on October 7, 1849, and died on November 14, 1887. After her death he married Mamie Elizabeth Adair, a daughter of William Penn Adair and Sarah Ann Adair, his wife, on March 4, 1891. She was born on June 12, 1864, and died on November 11, 1902. He thereafter married Caroline Alice Collins, nee Hall, a widow.
Colonel Johnson Harris entered the political life of the Cherokee Nation in 1881 when he was elected senator from the Canadian District and served in that capacity until 1885, was president of the Cherokee senate from 1883 to 1885 and was dispatched as a delegate from the tribe to Washington in 1889 and 1895. He was elected National Treasurer of the Cherokee Nation on the Downing ticket on August 3, 1891, and on December 23, 1891, was selected by the council as chief to fill the vacancy occasioned by the death of Chief Joel B. Mayes whom he had served as secretary during his first term. The advancement of Colonel J. Harris to political preferment in the Cherokee Nation was quite rapid.
The tenure of Chief Harris was the years of the initial activities of the famous Dawes Commission. The Federal Government was awakening to a sober sense of its responsibility toward its Indian parishioners in the old Indian Territory, prompted by meager reports which drifted into Washington. More detailed reports made under authorization of Congress reflected alarming conditions. A special Senate Committee visited the Territory in April, 1894, to investigate conditions among the Five Tribes. In the report of the committee, the Indian governments were declared to be "non-American . . . radically wrong" and becoming worse. The Dawes Commission rendered its first report in November, 1894, and stated, "Corruption of the grossest kind openly and unblushingly practiced has found its way into every branch of the tribal governments." The Commission further stated that a few able and energetic Indians, nearly
all mixed bloods and adopted white citizens, were dominating the tribal governments and monopolizing the best land to the detriment of the full blood Indians. Obviously, the whites from the States had become the Nomads, rather than the Indians, during those early formative days.
Under authority of the Cherokee council, Chief Harris appointed a committee to confer with the Dawes Commission but who were instructed to insist upon the observance of all treaty obligations which guaranteed self-government for the Cherokees. The committee was expressly forbidden to enter into any negotiations for the allotment of the tribal domain. Chief Harris during his term continued to parry the efforts of the Commission to reach any definite conclusions with the Cherokee government. An intertribal conference was called by Chief Harris to meet at Checotah, Creek Nation, on February 19, 1894, to consider the demands of the Dawes Commission but nothing was accomplished. It was not until the regime of Chief Samuel H. Mayes who succeeded Chief Harris that the Commission was able to secure a favorable response from the Cherokee government. Chief Harris bitterly opposed the allotment policy of the Government.
Occasioned by some minor disagreement with the council, impeachment charges were lodged against Chief Harris by the lower house on December 14, 1893, but were repudiated by the senate after a trial, on December 28, 1893.3
The engaging effort of his administration was the collection and per capita disbursement of the monies derived four the Government from the sale of the celebrated Cherokee strip. The matter was deferred and some dissension provoked because of claims made by the Delawares, Shawnees, and freedmen in whose interests suits had been filed in the Court of Claims at Washington. The chief summoned the council in extra session in April, 1894, to consider the situation and after an exhaustive delineation of conditions concluded his message,
"If our internal dissensions are not allayed, but fostered by legislation tending to array one class of our citizens against another, our fight against the advocates of those seeking a change in our present form of government, will be much more difficult. Many of us may differ as to what rights the various classes of our people have, yet it must be conceded that, if we would resist allotment of our lands and consequent disruption of our political autonomy, we should legislate to cement our whole people into one loyal citizenship, with common interests and a common destiny . . . . The interest of our people demand your early and earnest consideration of all necessary action in arranging for an immediate distribution of the money now in readiness and subject to the order of the Cherokee Nation."4
The disbursement of this fund amounting to $6,640,000 was made in the summer of 1894 by per capita payments in the sum of $265.71. Much disorder was occasioned at the various places where the payments were made and this in spite of the proclamation of Chief Harris warning his people against crooks and sharpers and urging temperance and good order and exhorting them not to gamble or waste their money but save it and improve their farms.5
The chief was not a candidate to succeed himself in the fall of 1895 but passed on the robes of office to Chief Samuel H. Mayes as his successor. Chief Harris established his residence at Tahlequah in 1887 where he continued to reside until his death on September 25, 1921. He rests in the old Tahlequah cemetery where his grave is covered by a solid concrete casement with rounded top but which bears no inscription, not even his name.
Chief Harris was a member of the Methodist Church, South and of the Masonic and Odd Fellows societies. He was a large man standing six feet and weighing over 200 pounds. He was very erect in carriage and had dark hair and grey eyes.6
5S. W. Harman, Hell on the Border (Ft. Smith, 1898), pp. 702-6; T. H. Ballenger, Around Tahlequah Council Fires, pp. 83 et seq.; Charles F. Meserve, The Dawes Commission and the Five Civilized Tribes, pp. 15 et seq.
6The writer acknowledges indebtedness to Hon. C. J. Harris, a son of Chief Harris, who resides at Pryor, Oklahoma, for much valuable information. Mr. Harris is now (1939) and has been for several years the County Clerk of Mayes County.
The chief was a clean, high class gentleman but rather modest and retiring. He manifestly was unwilling to compose himself to the potential changes in the communal land ownership of the Cherokees which was being demanded by the Government though the Dawes Commission. Although himself possessing but a minor fraction of Indian blood, his vision upon the all engrossing questions was more in accord with the full blood members of the tribe. He felt that allotment of the tribal domain was being prematurely undertaken. The chief understood and spoke very little of the Cherokee tongue and addressed the more primitive members of his tribe in English through an interpreter. His name appears upon the approved rolls of the Cherokee tribe opposite roll number 14110 as shown by census card number 5895 and to him was allotted his distributive share of the tribal domain. The years of his tenure as chief of the Cherokees were highly important years in the affairs of that tribe.