The Mount Tabor Indian Community is an American Indian tribe located in Texas and recognized by the state government but not by the federal government. Although generally regarded as a Cherokee community only, the Mount Tabor Indian Community also has important Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek (Muscogee) roots and shares with these indigenous peoples historical roots in the U.S. Southeast and an experience of colonization and removal from their original homelands.
Beginning with its establishment during the 1840s, the Mount Tabor Indian Community has been located in the Rusk County area of East Texas ever since. The community was founded approximately six miles south of Kilgore in Rusk County in 1845. As of 2016 the community counted slightly more than 500 enrolled members; about 300 were living in Rusk, Smith, and Gregg counties, mainly within about twenty miles of Kilgore. Many of the community’s members live near the town of Troup in extreme southeastern Smith County, near the Rusk County line. The community consists of the “lineal descendants of the six remaining extended families” (Thompson-Martin, Bean, Harnage, Thompson-McCoy, Jones, and Berryhill families) of “Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Muscogee-Creek Indians” who have maintained permanent residence in “rural Rusk, Smith (and after 1873 Gregg) counties…from historical times to present day,” and community citizenship is limited to those lineal descendants.
Although Cherokees were first reported in Texas in the early 1800s and a significant population had established a settlement in East Texas by the early 1820s, the Mount Tabor Indian Community’s deepest indigenous roots reach back to the Southeast and to the U.S. government’s policies of assimilation and removal beginning in the 1830s. During the 1840s, just as the Republic of Texas was moving towards annexation to the United States, East Texas became a refuge for some Cherokees and other indigenous peoples of the Southeast who were fleeing the violence and chaos that followed in the wake of the Trail of Tears. Removal and the Trail of Tears also involved the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. However, in a historical twist of irony and paradox, the tragedies of Indian removal also led to the founding of the Mount Tabor Indian Community near Kilgore. Ultimately composed of Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek people of the “Civilized Tribes” who were removed or fled from their homelands, the Mount Tabor Indian Community formed in phases, as families and individuals sought refuge in East Texas.
In Texas, Mirabeau Lamar’s policy of Indian removal and the ensuing Cherokee War in 1839 also played a role in the development of Mount Tabor. Following the battle of the Neches in July 1839 and the expulsion of the Cherokees under Chief Bowl from Texas, some Cherokees who did not flee northward to Indian Territory settled in other parts of Texas and south to Mexico. One group of Texas Cherokees was led by Chicken Trotter, whose English name was Devereaux Jarrett Bell. Bell’s indigenous ancestors were originally from the Cherokee Nation’s Lower Towns, in what is now northeastern Georgia. His mother Charlotte Adair was the daughter of a Cherokee woman of the Deer Clan and John Adair, an Irish trader to the Cherokees. In 1800 Chicken Trotter’s mother and his grandfather John Adair were living near the Tugaloo River on the southwest “frontier” between the United States and the Cherokee Nation. Forty years later (circa 1840) and much farther west, Chicken Trotter and other refugee Cherokees from the Republic of Texas were living near Monclova in northern Mexico. Simultaneously, Chicken Trotter’s brother John Adair Bell and his Cherokee wife Jane Martin were living on the Arkansas/Cherokee Nation border and had recently moved to Indian Territory on the Trial of Tears. John Adair Bell had been one of the “Ridge” Party Cherokees who signed the Treaty of New Echota in late 1835, exchanging what remained of the Cherokee Nation’s lands in the Southeast (especially Georgia) for lands in Indian Territory.
As the Cherokee Nation was being forcibly removed from the Southern Appalachians, three distinct groups were coming back together in the new Cherokee Nation (West). First in time were the “Old Settlers,” or those Cherokees who had moved west prior to the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. Some of these were Arkansas Cherokees who had moved to the Missouri Territory along the Arkansas River between 1810 and 1820. Second in time to Indian Territory were the Treaty Party Cherokees, a minority faction that—under extreme duress—decided that the only way to survive removal and to save the Cherokee Nation from total destruction was to sign the Treaty of New Echota. Like their leader Major Ridge and Chicken Trotter’s brother John Adair Bell—who belonged to the same matrilineal Deer Clan as the Ridge—they signed the treaty and moved west. Third in time were the Ross Party Cherokees, the majority faction of the Cherokee Nation under the leadership of Principal Chief John Ross, who resisted all attempts by the federal government to remove the Cherokee people from their sacred homelands.
As violence escalated among the Cherokee factions, a state of near civil war ensued, and both the Old Settlers and the Treaty Party Cherokees petitioned U.S. President James K. Polk to divide the Cherokee Nation, with the southern half going to the Old Settlers and Treaty Party, and the northern half going to the Ross Party. President Polk rejected this request but did issue an executive order instructing those Old Settlers and Treaty Party members who desired to go to Texas to find lands suitable there. In the early spring of 1844, John Adair Bell, along with John Griffith Harnage and other Treaty Party members, together made an extended “exploratory” trip down into Texas. Near present-day Waco, they met with Cherokees who were part of the community that had earlier taken refuge in Monclova, Mexico.
At the same time, since Texas was not yet part of the United States, the Republic would not allow Indians to own lands within its borders. For this reason, Benjamin Franklin Thompson, a white man whose wife was Annie Martin, sister of John Adair Bell’s wife Jane Martin, purchased 10,000 acres of land in Rusk County. This land was located near the site of one of the Texas Cherokees’ former villages. With Thompson’s land purchases, a community began to take root, and private ownership ensured that the community’s residents could be legally secure in their title and tenure in the land. Following the annexation of Texas by the United States, American Indians could legally own land, and the community began to expand. By 1850 families of Yowani Choctaws and McIntosh Party Creek Indians—the latter a Creek political group similar to the Ridge Party—had settled just to the south of Thompson’s lands near present-day New London, Texas.
The 1850 census for Rusk County contains the names of several of the Mount Tabor Indian Community’s founding members, including John Bell, husband of Charlotte Adair of the Deer Clan. These were the parents of John Adair Bell and Chicken Trotter Bell. Living with their father (age sixty-eight) were two of Chicken Trotter’s younger siblings, Charlotte and James Madison, both of whom had been born in the Cherokee Nation during the 1820s. Another of the Bell siblings was Sarah Caroline Bell, wife of Buck Oowatie’s brother Stand Watie, who had also signed the Treaty of New Echota.
The first mention in written records of the Mount Tabor Indian Community is found in a letter from John Adair Bell to his brother-in-law Stand Watie in 1854. Bell wrote: “I call my place Mount Taber [sic],” and he listed his address as “Mount Taber, Texas.” Both the 1850 and 1860 U.S. census records for East Texas show all of the community’s families living within an area south of present-day Kilgore to an area north of present-day Troup. While the community’s Cherokee families were spread throughout this region, its Choctaw families were clustered together in an area just south of present-day Overton and north of Troup. Another 1854 letter from Nancy (Bell) Starr to her sister Sarah Caroline (Bell) Watie indicated that the community was prospering in East Texas and that members had no desire to return to the Cherokee Nation.
During the Civil War the community grew substantially as families of Confederate Cherokees fled to Rusk County to avoid the bloodshed that engulfed the United States and Indian Territory. Most Cherokee men joined the Second Cherokee Mounted Volunteers, Confederate States of America, and served with Brig. Gen. Stand Watie. One of these men was William Penn Adair, who eventually became Watie’s second-in-command. John Martin Thompson organized his own regiment and mustered his men at Bellview, a town that was formed out of the Mount Tabor Community. This group was composed of a few Cherokees, a larger group of Choctaws, and a few intermarried whites. The name “Mount Tabor” fell into obscurity for a few years, although it remained tied to one of three tribal cemeteries. Instead, Bellview was the community’s unofficial capital until after the war. The Civil War brought years of considerable suffering for the community and the loss of many of the community’s men in battle.
In 1866 the Cherokee Nation passed a law that gave those Cherokees living in Texas the right of return to the Nation. Citizenship for those who left Texas was restored. As a result, more than 80 percent of the population of the Mount Tabor Indian Community living in Texas left between 1866 and 1895.
By 1900 the community consisted of the families who had remained in Texas and whose descendants would still reside in the area in the twenty-first century. This included most of the descendants of Annie Martin-Thompson; the families of Caleb Starr Bean and his brother John Ellis Bean, who remained near Kilgore; and the descendants of George Harnage, who remained near Overton. All of the community’s Cherokee families were eventually listed on the Old Settler Roll (1851) or on the Guion-Miller Roll (1906). These two rolls documented their Cherokee ancestry.
While the Cherokees from the community were welcomed back with open arms into the Cherokee Nation, the community’s Choctaws had a different experience. With the end of the tribal nations in Indian Territory and the creation of the state of Oklahoma, citizenship was required in order for one to be included on the Dawes Roll. If a person was listed on the Dawes Roll, he or she could then receive an individual land allotment from the communal tribal estate. William Clyde Thompson led groups of Choctaws to Indian Territory during the allotment era. They settled in the Chickasaw Nation near present-day Marlow, Oklahoma. Initially all Texas Choctaws were not entered onto the Dawes Roll. They were denied citizenship in part because they had separated from the Choctaw Nation many decades earlier and had never returned to the nation.
In addition, because they were from Texas, they were discriminated against by the Choctaw Nation, which was concerned only about re-admitting Choctaws who were finally moving westward from Mississippi. Many of the Choctaws from Rusk and Smith counties also were of Chickasaw blood, but only one family applied for citizenship in the Chickasaw Nation. All of the Mount Tabor Indian Community’s members in the W.C. Thompson, et al. v. Choctaw Nation lawsuit identified themselves as Choctaws only. In the end, Thompson’s fight for citizenship eventually succeeded, and some seventy Texas Choctaws were admitted as Citizens by Blood in the Choctaw Nation. This incorporated both Mount Tabor Choctaw families—the Thompson’s descendants of Margaret McCoy-Thompson and the Jones family, descendants of Nashoba, also known as Samuel Jones. The Jones family were Choctaws only, whereas the Thompsons were both Choctaws and Chickasaws.
As to the Muscogee-Creeks, most left the Mount Tabor Indian Community either during the Civil War or shortly thereafter. A few returned to the Creek Nation, but others scattered throughout Texas. Only a few descendants of the Berryhills through intermarriage with the white Posey family remained within the community in the 2010s.
By the late nineteenth century Caleb Starr Bean, the local “Community Chief,” saw to it that all eligible residents were able to apply for the Guion Miller Roll. He initially sought to get many descendants enrolled on the Dawes Roll, but enrollment was limited to people who were living within the official borders of the Cherokee Nation. Those residents of the Mount Tabor Indian Community who had remained in Texas after the Civil War were not eligible for citizenship and being included on the Dawes Roll. Between the end of the Civil War and the Dawes Roll era (1890s), the community had evolved into a separate band, although ties to the Cherokee Nation remained strong. These close connections are supported by documents showing that Mount Tabor Indian Community Cherokees who sold their lands in Rusk County often did not receive funds from the sale of their lands. Instead, the money went to the Cherokee Nation. In fact, the Mount Tabor Indian Community continued to consider itself a part of the Cherokee Nation (as a part of the Texas Cherokees and Associate Bands [TCAB]) even after the federal government unilaterally dissolved the nation in 1906. That continued to be the case until the Cherokee Nation adopted a new constitution in 1975 and was revived.
Following Caleb Starr Bean’s death in 1902, his younger brother John Ellis Bean took over leadership of the Mount Tabor Indian Community. “Chief Bean,” as he was referred to locally, held the community together during hard economic times. He remained in that capacity until his death in 1927. Even more difficult times followed his death, as the Great Depression gripped the United States and hit the Mount Tabor Indian Community especially hard.
During the Depression era, the community’s leadership became somewhat fluid. Martin Luther Thompson was the leader of the community’s Choctaws, while J. Malcolm Crim led the community’s Cherokees. A nephew of John Martin Thompson, Crim also became the first mayor of Kilgore. His leadership was solidified in the finding of oil in Rusk County in 1930.
The Texas Cherokees and Associate Bands (TCAB) initiated litigation against the state of Texas for compensation for lost land throughout the twentieth century, but increasingly the Mount Tabor Indian Community was discounted and its leaders living in East Texas were no longer being included in important decisions.
Judge Foster Bean replaced Malcolm Crim in 1931 and also served for twenty years as mayor of Kilgore. Serving as “Chief” of the Mount Tabor Indian Community until 1988, Bean never used that title as those before him had. Known as “Judge Bean,” he kept the community together during a time when its cultural roots began to wither. The oil money that community members received beginning in the 1930s was a double-edged sword. The sudden wealth helped to pull many community members out of despair, but oil money also altered the community’s traditional culture, and these major changes still resonated in the 2010s. From 1972 until his resignation in 1988, Judge Bean was the only chairman of the TCAB.
In 1988 J. C. Thompson became the next chairman. Thompson began a federal acknowledgment project for the community in 1990, but this effort was put on hold in 1992 in part due to internal struggles within the community and a misunderstanding of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s complex criteria for federal recognition. Thompson served as chairman until 1998, when Terry Easterly replaced him for a short period of time. Easterly was the first female to lead the TCAB. A descendant of Arthur Thompson, the brother of William C. Thompson, she was also the first leader who was not of Cherokee descent. Instead, her heritage was Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek. In 2000 Easterly was succeeded by Peggy Dean-Atwood, a descendant of Archibald Thompson and also someone who was not of Cherokee descent. She resigned in 2001. J. C. Thompson returned as chairman and remained in that capacity in 2018.
The Mount Tabor Indian Community holds annual membership meetings to vote on specific tribal issues. At the 2015 annual meeting in Troup, Texas, the community once again voted to restart the federal acknowledgment project and sought recognition as an indigenous community by the state of Texas but was unsuccessful in 2015. However, Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 25, which officially recognized the Mount Tabor Indian Community, was passed unanimously in both houses of the Texas legislature in April 2017 and signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott on May 10, 2017. The community considered this acknowledgment by the state of Texas as one of the first steps towards federal recognition.
The year 2015 was celebrated as the 170th year since the Mount Tabor Indian Community was founded in East Texas. Although lands were purchased in 1844, it wasn’t until the following year that families began to relocate and settle in Rusk County.
During the community’s annual meeting in Kilgore in 2016, members voted to revise their constitution and made changes to the earlier 1999 constitution. The community believed that these changes would be more acceptable to the Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the community began the process of petitioning for federal acknowledgment. The new constitution provided for a three-tier government. Along with retaining a five-member executive committee and a three-member tribal court, the new constitution divided the community into five districts and established a seven-member tribal council composed of five representatives from each of the districts and two at-large representatives.
Traditionally the community was divided between Methodists in the southern area and Presbyterians among the families living near Kilgore. In the beginning, this divide followed ethnic differences, with Cherokees being Presbyterians and Choctaws being Methodists. In the 2010s the community was quite diverse in terms of its members’ religious beliefs.
The Mount Tabor Indian Community also maintains two of its three traditional cemeteries, where many of its members’ ancestors are buried. Located just south of the Kilgore city limits, the Thompson Cemetery is next to the home of Benjamin Franklin Thompson and was still in use in 2018. The community’s Asbury Indian Cemetery is part of the larger Asbury Cemetery and includes an African American section and a section where many non-Indian whites are buried, located just west of the graves of some of the original Mount Tabor family members. Originally known as Standing Pines, the community dedicated the first of five memorials there in October 2016. These memorials honor the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee, and Cherokee families who are interred there. The community’s third cemetery is the original Mount Tabor Indian Cemetery, which was destroyed by oil field workers in 1966. The community is currently working to get the land back and to restore the cemetery in honor of those who are buried there, including Chicken Trotter and his father John Bell.