I often find that traveling the Missouri Ozarks back roads can lead me to the most interesting places. Those places seem to be untouched by time and are occasionally discovered to be the resting places for closely held secrets. If you take the back road traveling southwest from the small southwest Missouri town of Southwest City heading to Grove, Oklahoma you will find one such place; a place that holds so much significance for one person, Nancy Brown.
I recently heard some talk about a man who was considered to be an iconic figure. The man, who had a connection to Southwest City, had a strange sounding name which I had never before heard, Stand Watie. Always interested in the discovery of ideas for a new story I pursued the matter and learned that a woman by the name of Nancy Brown may be of some help.
I contacted Nancy and told her I was interested in learning more about a famous and historical figure. Before I finished my sentence Nancy blurted out, “sure, I know all about Stand Watie, I am a descendant of his.” I began the start of a question about the man but once again Nancy interrupted me. “If you want to know about Stand Watie and hear his story I suggest we meet at a cemetery, Polson Cemetery, located between Southwest City and Grove. Once there, the story will come to life.”
The story would come to life in a cemetery? Those words smacked of irony however you may think me somewhat ghoulish when I say that I relish the thought of walking the grounds of an old and isolated cemetery so I eagerly accepted the invitation. I asked for directions to the place where the story would be told and Nancy said in a rather matter of fact tone, “just turn onto Cherokee Street in Southwest City and drive about three miles. You can’t miss it.” Can’t miss it, I recalled some directions I had received in the past, “ go a ways down that old road and it’s just a piece past where the old Wilson’s barn once stood before the tornado of 1964 blew it away.” I took Nancy’s words, “You can’t miss it,” as gospel and arranged to meet her at the cemetery the following day.
I got to the old cemetery a little early, and quite by design, so I could have some time alone to walk the rows of grave markers. A metal sign stood at the entrance of the grounds and near the top it read “Polson Cemetery.” The bottom of the metal structure had two words, “Ridge” on one side and “Watie” on the other.
A stone slab bit of rock with the look of a monument rose almost six feet above the ground, and stood at the entrance. The scribed words on the piece read “Stand Watie, Degataga OO-Watee.” As I stood there reading the words etched into the stone a car came to a stop and as I silently watched a woman exited and walked toward me. “Hi, are you Stan?” “Yes,” I replied, “and you must be Nancy.” “Yes, have you been waiting long?” “No, not long,” I replied.
“This marker tells a brief story about my ancestor, Stand Watie” I listened without interrupting as Nancy spoke. “He was a very prominent member of the Cherokee tribe and fought for the confederacy during the Civil War. His Cherokee name, Degataga OO-Watee, is inscribed on the stone. In English it means ‘He Stands.”
As Nancy and I walked the grassy rows between the grave markers we talked and she gave to me the story of Stand Watie. Stand Watie was born in Oothcaloga, Cherokee Nation land in Georgia on December 12, 1806. Watie’s father was Uwatie, The Ancient One, and his mother was Susanna Reese. Stand Watie spoke only the language of the Cherokees until the age of twelve when he learned to speak English at a Moravian mission school.
In 1837 Watie and others of the Cherokee tribe left Georgia and established homes in eastern Oklahoma. This migration was to precede the infamous “Trail of Tears” in which the Cherokees who remained in Georgia were forced off their lands by the U.S. government. Over 4000 lost their lives during that tragic journey.
Stand Watie was one of several Cherokee leaders who signed the Treaty of New Echota which relinquished ownership of the tribe’s Georgia land. Some however, considered that act to be of the most treacherous in nature. Revenge was planned and three of the treaty’s signatories were murdered including Stand Watie’s brother, Elias Boudinot, uncle, Major Ridge and cousin, John Ridge. Watie later shot and killed one the attackers and after a brief trial was acquitted of the act.
As Nancy and I walked the cemetery grounds my guide directed my attention to the eight foot high obelisk which memorialized the life of the Cherokee and the lives of several family members. The slender block of stone stood but a few feet from the place where Stand Watie was laid to rest. In addition to the name of Brig. Gen. Stand Watie the four sided marker was also inscribed with the names of his wife, S. (Sarah) Watie, brother, C. E. (Charles) Watie, and daughter Jesse Watie. Nancy pointed to some stone markers a few feet away and said, “Major Ridge is buried there and John Ridge lies next to him.” Following a moment of silence and as if Nancy was trying to remember she pointed to some trees not far from the cemetery and said, “John Ridge was murdered in a clearing by that stand of trees.”
With the outbreak of the hostilities between the north and south on April 12, 1861 Watie, and others of his tribe, found that their loyalties were with the confederacy. In 1861 Watie was commissioned as a colonel in the army of the Confederate States of America and organized a cavalry regiment that came to be known as the “Cherokee Mounted Rifles.”
Stand Watie rose to the rank of brigadier general and heroically led his men in battle at such places as the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Battle at Cabin Creek. Watie and his predominately Cherokee staffed force fought in more battles west of the Mississippi River than any other unit serving in the confederate army. His men thought of him as invincible as he could often be seen defiantly riding his horse in range of enemy fire. He is recognized as the last southern general to surrender and signed a cease-fire agreement two weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
As the nation struggled to heal in the years following the great and terrible conflict Stand Watie served for a time as a Cherokee chief and traveled to Washington, D.C. where he spoke on behalf of his people. Watie remained a citizen of the Cherokee Nation until his death in 1871 when he died of natural causes.
The more Nancy and I walked the more quickly she talked. It was if the words couldn’t be formed rapidly enough and she had so very much to say and there was very little time. She sometimes smiled and occasionally I thought I detected a bit of sadness as she talked about Major Ridge and others. It was as if she had once known these long ago departed ancestors.
As Nancy and I said our goodbyes she said, “My grandfather began caring for the cemetery grounds in the early 1900’s. With his passing in 1966 my father inherited those responsibilities and when he passed away in 1995 I became the hallowed ground’s caretaker.” As Nancy looked away from the cemetery grounds and out over the rolling fields and tree filled woods she said, “This land is sometimes called ‘Peter’s Prairie’ named for a man who was once, and long ago, a slave. This place has been important to my family for a long, long time.” Nancy’s words were spoken with honesty and sincerity and as she looked back at the cemetery grounds once more she said, “Good-bye.” I wasn’t sure if that last goodbye was meant for me or for the old Cherokees that quietly rested there in the ground.
I appreciate the subtle nuances that the back roads offer; the narrow lanes, the curves, hills and valleys, the fields of grazing cows, the diverse and sometimes peculiar style of homes and that yet undiscovered treasure that may lie just around the bend in the road. The treasure I recently found was called Polson Cemetery.
With the passage of seven and sixty years I have come to a place in my life where I find that the road offering the quickest route to my destination is far less interesting and I choose not to take it. The less direct and less traveled path is so much more appealing to me and it offers the prospect of meeting the nicest and most interesting people, like Nancy. That longer road frequently affords me the opportunity to hear the most fascinating stories like the one of the Cherokee, Stand Watie.
The story of the Cherokee Stand Watie is now carried on the breath of “Oonawieh Unggi, The Oldest Wind.”