Elias Cornelius Boudinot was born in the chaos of the fall of the Southeastern tribes and in the infighting of Cherokee politics.
His father was a Cherokee leader, and his mother was a white woman from Connecticut, and he rose to remarkable heights in a time when his Native American heritage was shunned by so many. In his later years, that promise would come crashing down.
Boudinot was born in August 1835 at the Cherokee capital of New Echota in Georgia. It was a time of great upheaval among the Cherokee people as they faced forced removal from their lands. His father, also named Elias, had been a prominent leader in the Cherokee Nation, even publishing the first newspaper in the Cherokee language.
In 1839, his father was assassinated by a number of his fellow Cherokees for signing the treaty. His uncle, Stand Waite, survived the assassination attempt, and would later become the principal chief of the Cherokees during the Civil War. Boudinot and his siblings were quickly sent to live with his mother’s family in Connecticut to avoid any further violence.
He ultimately studied engineering at a small academy in Vermont while he was a teenager before he decided to return to the area in 1853. Now 18, he settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas, not far from Cherokee lands.
By 1856, he had become an attorney. In an early case, he cleared Stand Waite of a murder charge.
Eventually, Boudinot became the first Native American allowed to try a case as an attorney before the U. S. Supreme Court. In 1859, he was elected to the Fayetteville City Council and co-founded a newspaper, The Arkansian.
Boudinot joined the secessionists in 1861, following many other prominent Arkansans. He was named secretary of the secession convention and became editor of a Little Rock newspaper, the Little Rock True Democrat, as he defended the aims of secession.
Once Arkansas pulled out of the Union, he worked with Waite and prominent attorney Albert Pike to persuade the Cherokees to side with the Confederacy in a new treaty in 1862. Most of the Cherokees sided with the Confederacy, ironically siding with many of the same politicians who had called for their removal to the Indian Territory years earlier.
Many Cherokees would fight in the war, often as cavalry. Boudinot would eventually become the Cherokee delegate to the Confederate Congress in Richmond. He would also rise to lieutenant colonel during the war, serving at Pea Ridge in March 1862 and acting as an aide to Gen. Thomas Hindman at the Battle of Prairie Grove in December.
After the Civil War, he became part of the Cherokee delegation to Congress in Washington, DC, while he worked to heal the deep divisions among the Cherokees. He continued to work as an attorney, and after 1868, he became a lobbyist for the railroads. Boudinot called for Native Americans to be granted U. S. citizenship in order to be protected under law, but his call would not be heeded until 1924.
Nevertheless, as a lobbyist and in his public speeches, he increasingly called for more federal lands for railroads and for railroad routes through tribal lands. He founded the city of Vinita in what is now Northeast Oklahoma in 1870, which would also become an important railroad junction.
In 1874, he became the private secretary for U. S. Rep. Thomas M. Gunter of Fayetteville, a fellow Confederate veteran, as he ascended to Congress. He served ably in the position until Gunter retired from office in 1883. Impressed with his work for Gunter, U. S. Senator James D. Walker then hired Boudinot as his secretary.
In the post-Civil War years, he became consumed by his own greed and ambition. He played into the long-standing prejudices against Native Americans in order to pursue his own gains with the railroads and other political aims. He traveled across the country on speaking tours, often espousing the breakup of the tribes and opening up reservation lands for farming.
In 1879, he wrote in an open letter that the open lands of the Indian Territory should be open for settlement, including Cherokee lands. The tribes did not use all of their lands, he said, and this meant seizing the lands given to them by federal treaties. His comments spearheaded an effort to strip away the reservation lands from the tribes in favor of new settlers. And railroads pushed to be given more of these lands to build new routes and to lease or sell the excess.
This would lead to the seizure of hundreds of thousands of acres of tribal land with the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.
When Grover Cleveland became president in 1885, he hoped to be named Commissioner of Indian Affairs within the new administration but was passed over. He married in 1885 and settled in Fort Smith. He steadily drifted further from the cause of the tribes, even though he was widely applauded in many circles for his stances.
In 1887, he became a vocal defender of the Dawes Act, which would break up the reservation lands in favor of individual plots owned by individual members of the tribes. His support of the Dawes Act, however, won him few supporters with either his fellow Native Americans or the federal government. The Dawes Act would strip away what remained of tribal control of reservation lands and destroy what was left of tribal culture.
He fell ill and died at his home in September 1890 at age 55.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.