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Cherokee Families of Rusk County, Texas

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Biographical Sketch of the Family of Thomas Starr (1813-1890)

By Phil Norfleet


A white man named Caleb Starr (1758-1843) was the patriarch of the Starr family. He was of Quaker parentage and had immigrated from Pennsylvania to the area of Cherokee Nation (now southeastern Tennessee) after the end of the Revolutionary War. In about 1794, Caleb married a 1/2 blood Cherokee woman named Nancy Harlan, and in so doing he became a member of the Cherokee Nation. Caleb and Nancy had twelve children, including Ezekiel Starr (1801-1846), James Starr (1796-1845) and George Harlan Starr (1806-1879).  Caleb Starr and his sons became leaders within the Cherokee Nation and were involved with the Cherokee Treaties of 1816 and 1819, and with the final removal Treaty of December 1835.

By the early 1830's, the Starrs became convinced that removal of all Cherokees to new lands west of the Mississippi River was the only way to keep the Cherokee Nation from being completely destroyed by the Government of the State of Georgia, aided and abetted by the Federal Government led by President Andrew Jackson.  Even so, most Cherokees were opposed to removal.  In 1828, an anti-removal party came to power in the Cherokee Nation who attempted to preserve their remaining eastern lands.  John Ross was elected principal chief of the Nation. Ross and his followers strongly opposed removal. However, during the 1817-1837 time frame, many Cherokees voluntarily emigrated to the lands west of the Mississippi and became known as the "Old Settlers."

Caleb Starr and his sons supported emigration. Ezekiel Starr and his family traveled to the west in 1834. James Starr became a leading member of the Treaty Party, On 29 December 1835, James Starr and 19 other Cherokee leaders, signed the controversial Treaty of New Echota, which required the Cherokees to move west within two years after U. S. Senate ratification of the Treaty.  The treaty was ratified on 23 May 1836 - thus the removal deadline for the Cherokees was 23 Mayfield 1838.  James Starr and his family removed to the Cherokee portion of Indian Territory in 1837.

The majority of the eastern Cherokees, under the leadership of Chief John Ross, fiercely resisted removal and were were forcibly removed to the west in 1838-1839 time frame.  During this removal, they suffered severely on what came to be called the "Trail of Tears."

Upon arrival in the Indian Territory, the differences between the Anti-Treaty or Ross Party and the Pro-Treaty or Ridge Party erupted into violence. On June 22, 1839, three leaders of the Treaty Party - Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot - were assassinated by members of the Ross faction. James Starr and Stand Watie were due to be killed the same day, but they found refuge at Fort Gibson. John Ross was elected principal chief of a new, "unified" Cherokee government in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory.

In the Cherokee election of 1841, Ezekiel Starr was elected to the Cherokee legislature from the Flint District, and his brother, James Starr, was elected to serve from the Goingsnake District. However, the supporters of Chief Ross were still eliminating the supporters of the removal treaty and many murders were being committed by both sides. James Starr's son, Thomas Starr (1813-1890), reacted to attempts on his father's life with violence. He was accused of attacking and murdering the Ross supporter and trader, Benjamin Vore and his family, at their home near Fort Gibson in 1843. This Cherokee civil war included murderers perpetrated by both sides to the conflict, but the majority Ross faction labeled Tom Starr an outlaw. A reward of one thousand dollars was offered for his capture.

In 1845, Ross followers decided that James Starr would be held accountable for the actions of his son, Tom, and on November 9th they acted. Thirty-two armed men raided the home of James Starr in the Flint District. Starr was gunned down on his front porch, as was his crippled son, Buck. Both were dead. Starr's other three sons barely escaped the massacre. According to Tom Starr, in retaliation, he killed every one of the thirty-two men except for those who became sick and died in bed before he could get to them. A truce was called in 1846, and a resulting peace treaty between the two factions included a special clause that "all offenses and crimes committed by a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.......are hereby pardoned." It was the opinion of many Cherokees that the pardon was for Tom Starr.

Tom moved to land in the southern portion of the Canadian District of the Cherokee Nation, near present-day Briartown. Tom Starr served in the Civil War as a scout for General Stand Watie and was acquainted with William Clark Quantrill.  After the war, some of Quantrill's former guerrillas frequently came to visit Tom, including Cole Younger and some of his brothers. As a result, that part of the Canadian River near Tom's ranch became known as "Younger's Bend." Tom raised eight sons, including Samuel Starr (1857-1886).  In 1880, Sam Starr married Mrs. Myra Belle Shirley Reed, widow of an outlaw named James C. Reed. She henceforth became known as "Belle Starr."


Interview with a Former Neighbor of Tom Starr

On 15 September 1937, John Henry West (born 1866) was interviewed by a Historical-Indian Research Worker, Mr. James S. Buchanan. The interview covered many topics, including West's boyhood recollections of his infamous neighbor, Tom Starr.  Pertinent excerpts from that interview are as follows:

I, John H. West, was born July 31, 1866 two miles west of the present site of Briartown, on the Canadian River.

My father was John C. West, the son of John W. West, an Irishman who came with the Cherokees from Tennessee to the Indian Territory in 1832. His wife was a Cherokee by the name of Ruth Fields.

My grandfather, John C. West was considered the most powerful man in the Cherokee tribe. During the prime of his life the Cherokee Council passed a law forbidding him to hit a man with his fists for they were considered deadly weapons.

My mother was Margurette Elizabeth Hickey West. She was part Cherokee, the daughter of J. H. Hickey, a white man who married a Cherokee woman and came to the Territory with the Indians in 1832. ...

... When I was about three years of age, father established a new claim at the foot of the mountain, three-quarters of a mile southwest of where the town of Porum was later established. It was at this place that I, my brothers and sisters were reared. The old settlers of that community and neighbors were Tom Starr and his family, Sam Campbell and his family, Charley Lowery and his family, and the John Robertson family.

It has been written by misinformed writers that Tom Starr, during his early life, was a common outlaw and guilty of many crimes, which is untrue. Tom Starr was not guilty of anything except what he was driven to in the defense of his people or himself. I never knew a better man nor had a better neighbor. I knew Tom Starr from my earliest recollections until his death, which occurred when I was about twenty-three years of age.

All of the old settlers in this part of the country in those days were good people because they had to be good if they were able to stay here long enough to be Old Settlers.

In the early part of my life this was a wonderful country. It was sparsely settled, open range for stock, and the prairies covered with blue stem grass as high as a horse’s back. All kinds of game such as deer, turkey, prairie chicken, etc. were here. Wild fruit and nuts grew in abundance and the Indians and early settlers put forth every effort to protect those natural resources ...


Interview with Dr. George Washington Culledge re Tom Starr

The Grant Foreman Collection contains a 1937 interview with a certain Dr. George Washington Culledge who practiced medicine in Briartown in 1894. He graduated in medicine from Vanderbilt University in 1885 and served as a intern assisting his brother-in-law, Dr. Robert Niddly at Silcam Springs, Arkansas, until June, 1886.  He had this to say about his practice at Briertown in Indian Territory and his acquaintance with Tom Starr:

I decided to embark on my own career in Indian territory, I rode horseback from Washington County, Arkansas, via Tahlequah, over the old stage road through Ft, Gibson to Muskogee, crossing the Arkansas River on a ferry at the mouth of Grand River,. Leaving Muskogee, I started south with Briartown as my intended destination. When I had ridden a distance over the open country which I thought should be near my destination, I saw a cabin near the trail so I decided to inquire as to the distance to Briartown. I rode up to the house and saw a man lying on a pallet by the door of the cabin. I asked him to tell me the distance to Briartown. He raised up and looked at me in amazement and said, "Mister you are right in the middle of Briartown."

To my surprise I learned that Briartown was a community, instead of a village as I had visualized it. This man, Lacy Crane, was my first acquaintance at Briartown. The Briartown post office at that time was in the home of Isaac Mooney, the postmaster. His place was situated about three quarters of a mile northeast of the present site of Briartown. I was fortunate on my arrival to finding lodging and board in the home of Jim McClure, about two and one half miles east of the present site of Briartown.

The country at that time was very sparsely settled and I was the only practicing physician in the territory between Texanna, Muskogee and Webber Falls. The few roads through the country were nothing more than trails. Many of my calls were several miles over which there was not even a trail. I practiced medicine there for two years, then I returned to Arkansas to marry Martha Williams.

Immediately after our marriage we started back to Indian Territory in a two-horse wagon. We were thirteen days making the trip of two hundred miles, which we enjoyed as our honeymoon. On my return to Briartown we boarded in the home of a Cherokee Indian by the name of Bill Phillips a short time, then moved to the home of Jeff Surratte where we boarded for three years. I continued my practice here until 1894.

I then returned to Vanderbilt where I studied for one year. I returned to Indian Territory, this time stopping at Whitefield, across the river from Briartown. I stayed one year in this community, then moved to the little town of Starvilla about three miles east of where Porum now stands. I lived and practiced Medicine there until 1901, then moved back to Briartown and continued my practice there until 1919.

I discontinued my medical practice and farmed in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas until 1931, when I returned to Briartown and resumed my medical practice until the present time (1937).

Tom Starr was one of my closest friends and I made professional calls to the home of "Uncle Tom" as he was familiarly known. Dr. Lindsey, who was a physician at Texanna for many years was Uncle Tom's family doctor. During the time I was located in Whitefield, I made many calls to his home.

There have been many exaggerated stories about the early life of Tom Starr. I would like to brand as false any story that gives the impression that Tom Starr was an outlaw at heart or that he had any criminal or cruel characteristics. I knew Tom Starr well, I never knew him to make a false statement. He told me of his early life and troubles after they moved to Indian Territory from the old nation in Georgia. The murder of his father, James Starr and his little brother, the burning of his mothers home etc. (The story Dr, Culledge told was much the same as told in the book, Belle Starr, so I won't repeat it here.) But Dr Culledge emphasized, "I am confidant that what he related was true."

Dr, Culledge went on to tell more about Tom Starr. He said Tom Starr was a very clever character, he also had a great sense of humor. He seamed to have a great influence over the superstitions of the Indians. On one occasion one of Uncle Tom's fat hogs that he was intending to kill for meat, suddenly disappeared. He waited three or four days, in his characteristic way of silently figuring things out, and yet the hog did not show up.

Finally Uncle Tom strolled over to the cabin of an Indian, who lived a short distance away. When he came in view of the cabin, where he was sure to be seen, he stopped and stood erect in the trail, looking toward the sky, taking long drafts from his pipe and blowing the smoke in the direction of the cabin. He repeated this several times before he reached the door of the cabin. The Indian had been watching and wondered what he was doing.

The Indian asked him in, Tom entered the cabin in a slow and mysterious way, took a seat near the cellar door in the floor of the cabin. He continued to take an occasional draw at his pipe. Finally he broke the silence by saying "The medicine I make through my smoke say to me my hog is in the cellar"

The Indian, in a state of superstitious fear confessed to killing the hog and begged to be permitted to pay for it. Uncle Tom at that time was fencing some land. He let the Indian make one thousand fence rails at $1.00 per hundred and every thing would be forgiven. Tom never lost any more hogs.

One trait I admired in Tom was that he would never speak ill or slander any woman, nor would he engage in conversation with anyone who was doing so. If he was talking to his closest friend and the friend happened to make an ill remark about some woman, Tom would immediately walk away from him. I remember one day when a bunch of men had been standing around in idle conversation, and some one made remark about a woman, Tom turned to me and said, "No man should speak evil of any woman, our mothers were women."


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