Boudinot, Elias - Biography

AKA:  Buck Waite
AKA:  Galagnia (Kiakeena)
Born:  Circa 1804 - Cherokee Nation
Father:  Oo-watie
Uncle:  Major Ridge  or ("The Ridge" )

Background Information:

At the time of European contact, the Cherokees numbered about 22,000 and controlled more than forty thousand square miles of land. Their homeland consisted of parts of eight present states: the Carolinas, the Virginias, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. The original holdings were gradually eliminated by more than three dozen land cessions with the British and the United States between 1721 and 1835. By 1819, Cherokee territory included only the adjacent mountainous areas of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. In December 1835, the Treaty of New Echota ceded the last remaining territory east of the Mississippi. In exchange the Cherokees received equivalent holdings in what is now northeastern Oklahoma.
Elias Boudinot (or Boudinott; he was also known as Buck Watie or Galagina [Kiakeena]epitomizes the generation of Cherokee leaders who guided their people through a profound cultural transformation. Born at Oothcaloga in the Cherokee Nation, now northwest Georgia, in about 1804, Boudinot entered a world that already was changing. His father, Oo-watie, and uncle, the Ridge (or Major Ridge, as he later would be known), had left their compact, traditionally organized town of Hiwassee in about 1800 to settle on widely dispersed farms. This decision reflected a shift away from the communitarian values of traditional Cherokee society to a more individualistic worldview. Oo-watie and the Ridge had taken one of the first steps toward the "civilization" that U.S. Indian policy promoted from the 1790s to the late 1820s. This policy encouraged native people to become culturally white—that is, to cultivate the soil like white men, to learn to read and write English, to convert to Christianity, and to establish a republican government with written laws.

Oo-watie and the Ridge took another step when they sent their children to a Moravian mission school. Buck Watie, as Boudinot was known to the missionaries, enrolled in school in 1811, and he proved so apt that a representative of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, an interdenominational organization headquartered in Boston, invited Buck, his cousin John Ridge, and another boy to attend the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. Oo-watie agreed, and Buck went north with American Board representatives in 1818. On their way to Connecticut, they stopped in New Jersey to visit a man named Elias Boudinot, who had served in the Continental Congress and presided over the American Bible Society. Young Buck Watie was so impressed with their host that he enrolled at the Foreign Mission School as Elias Boudinot (although he often spelled his last name "Boudinott" to distinguish himself from the elder Boudinot).

Boudinot's intellect and (after his conversion in 1820) piety so impressed the faculty at Cornwall that they arranged for him to enter Andover Theological Seminary in 1822, but poor health prevented his enrollment. He returned home, but he had left his heart in Cornwall. In fact, both Boudinot and his cousin John Ridge had fallen in love with New England women. In 1824, Ridge's marriage to the daughter of the school's steward provoked a firestorm of protest because the bride, as the local newspaper editor wrote, "has thus made herself a squaw, and connected her race to a race of Indians." When Elias Boudinot married Harriet Ruggles Gold, the daughter of a Cornwall physician, in 1826, agents of the school described the marriage as "criminal" and closed the Foreign Mission School. This experience in Connecticut marked both men: though committed to "civilization" and Christianization, they also doubted that a white society obsessed with race would ever accept Indians as equals.

As white pressure for the Cherokees to move west mounted, Boudinot became one of the most eloquent defenders of Cherokee rights. The Cherokees, he wrote, "live on the land which God gave them—they are surrounded by guarantees which this Republic has voluntarily made for their protection and which once formed a sufficient security against oppression. If those guarantees must now be violated with impunity for purposes altogether selfish, the sin will not be at our door, but at the door of our oppressor and our faithless Guardian." He found the arrest of Worcester for violation of a Georgia law requiring white men in the Cherokee Nation to take an oath of allegiance to the state particularly galling. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Worcester's favor in 1832 brought hope, which Georgia's refusal to comply with the decision dashed. At this point, Boudinot began to have misgivings about the Cherokees' refusal to negotiate a removal treaty.

Sentiment in favor of negotiation coalesced around the leadership of Boudinot, John Ridge, and Major Ridge. Because most Cherokees opposed removal and it was feared that whites might interpret any dissent as weakness, the Cherokee government prohibited debate of the issue in the Phoenix. Boudinot indignantly resigned. He did agree to serve on delegations to Washington in 1834 and 1835, however, in order to try to convince Principal Chief John Ross to negotiate. Despite the suffering of the Cherokees at the hands of invading whites, Ross remained steadfast in his opposition to negotiation. In December 1835, members of the party advocating a treaty met in Boudinot's house at New Echota and signed a treaty that provided for the exchange of the Cherokee country in the east for lands west of the Mississippi. Although these men lacked any authorization from the Cherokee government, the U.S. Senate ratified the document—the Treaty of New Echota—and in 1838-39 the Cherokee people moved west in an agonizing journey known as the Trail of Tears.

Denounced by most Cherokees, Boudinot moved west in 1837 and settled at Park Hill, Cherokee Nation (modern-day northeastern Oklahoma). In 1839, a party of unknown men attacked and killed him as he walked from his home to a nearby mission to get them medicine. His cousin and uncle died the same day. All paid the prescribed penalty for violating the Cherokee law prohibiting the unauthorized cession of land. Despite his ignominious demise, however, Elias Boudinot had helped foster adaptability and resilience among the Cherokees, qualities that enabled his nation to survive the trauma of removal, to rebuild in the West, and to endure to the present.

Credits/Source:  Author/Editor: Theda Perdue, Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983). (Theda Perdue - Univ. of Kentucky)

2004 (All Rights Reserved).