Cherokee Registry

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Reverend Jesse Bushyhead


Jesse Busyhead born in the old Cherokee Nation in East Tennessee in September 1804, was called Unaduti by his Indian friends. His father was Capt. John Stuart of Scotland He was given the name Bushyhead by the Cherokee because of the appearance of his bushy blond hair.

Jesse's first wife bore him two children while his second wife Eliza Wilkinson (spelled Wilkerson by some of her descendants) a half-blood Cherokee, of Georgia, was the mother of nine children.

The Busyhead home was in a small Cherokee settlement on Mouse Creek, about three miles north of the present town of Cleveland, Tennessee.

In 1832 Busyhead was living 75 miles from Hiwassee and among the missionaries he was considered "a noble-minded man." He spoke both English and Cherokee and his interest in religion was created by reading the Bible before he came into contact with any religious teachers. He became a missionary in the service of the Board in 1833 and he and a full blood Baptist minister named Oganaya were appointed to go to Washington to try to settle the trouble the Indians were having with the State of Georgia.

In 1836 Mr. Bushyhead held a series of religious meetings at his home. He fitted up his barn with a pulpit and seats for seventy people and provided for their entertainment. The next year he visited the Valley Towns and sixteen persons joined the church during his meetings.

In the autumn of 1837 Mr. Bushyhead was appointed a member of the deputation of Cherokee who were selected to mediate between the United States Government and the Seminole Indians.7 Due principally to his influence the Seminole came in under a flag of truce; to the everlasting disgrace of a high officer in the army the Indians were thrown into prison in the old fort at St. Augustine. One can only surmise the feelings of a man of Bushyhead's character at such an outrageous proceeding.

During the council at Red Clay (July 1837) the Cherokee firmly opposed the Treaty of New Echota but their affairs were carried on with decorum and three or four thousand Indians attended religious services on Sunday to listen to a sermon by the Rev. Evan Jones. His sermon was delivered in English and Jesse Bushyhead translated it into Cherokee: "Bushyhead entered with all his soul into the spirit of the discourse. He is a large, noble looking man, and the best interpreter in the Nation." He is said to have been very earnest in his preaching and his gestures were forcible and elegant. At times his emotions almost prevented his continuing his address.

The following year Evan Jones tells of their terrible anxiety and grief over the determination to force the Indians from their homes and on June 16 he writes from Camp Hetzel, near Cleveland: "The Cherokees are nearly all prisoners . . . our brother Bushyhead and his family, Rev. Stephen Foreman . . . and several other men of character and respectability, with their families, are here prisoners . . ."

Upon General Scott's decision to postpone the emigration of the Cherokee until the following autumn Evan Jones and Jesse Bushyhead visited members of the nation who had fled to the mountains to evade deportation from their native land. As a result of their eloquence and persuasion these poor folk came in and surrendered to the United States troops.

Church service was held at Brainerd Mission for the last time August 19, 1838, and shortly afterward the Cherokee Nation was on the march, men, women, and children with their hearts torn at leaving their homes, churches, schools, and orchards, but most of all, the graves of their loved ones.

The people were divided into companies and they were fortunate in being led by some of their most respected men such as Evan Jones, Jesse Bushyhead, and Stephen Foreman. The journey to the West required four or five months and one-fourth of the Cherokee people died during the emigration.

Bushyhead, instead of heading a party of his close friends and neighbors volunteered to conduct a portion of the people from a distant part of the nation where there was no competent leader. His contingent followed the one led by the Rev. Evan Jones and their route led north through Tennessee and Kentucky; they crossed the Ohio River at Golconda, Illinois, and the Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

They departed from the old nation October 5 and arrived at their destination in Indian Territory February 23, 

1839; they were delayed one month because of floating ice in the Mississippi River and no words can describe adequately the hardships endured by these exiles. It was soon after the perilous crossing of this great stream that Mrs. Bushyhead gave birth on January 3, (1839) to her daughter who was given her mother's name Eliza, followed by that of the baby's native state—Missouri.

Bushyhead established a camp near the Arkansas line upon his arrival in Indian Territory and from the rations that were issued to poor emigrants it was given the name of "Bread Town" which it bore until the mission was started when it became known as Baptist Mission.

After living nine months in a tent the Bushyhead family must have been happy when they were able to move into their new house near old Fort Wayne.

Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock describes Bushyhead in a letter from Tahlequah, December 21, 1841, as being between 35 and 40 years of age. He reports him as speaking English fluently and as the best interpreter in the nation. "He is universally respected and beloved. His mere opinion in the Nation has great weight and his persuasions upon almost any subject can win the people to his views. He is a fair-minded sensible man and if he can be satisfied the Nation ought to acquiesce. If he is not satisfied, it may suggest a doubt whether some concessions may not be proper." From this description the Rev. Mr. Bushyhead would seem to have had an ideal temperament for the position he was then holding, that of chief justice of the Cherokee Nation. Bushyhead was elected chief justice to succeed John Martin who died October 17, 1840. He also served as clerk of the council of the nation.

William Gammell in his History of American Baptist Missions writes of Bushyhead as "the ablest and most successful of the native preachers, and one of the ablest and most energetic men of the nation to which he belonged. He was one of its earliest pioneers in civilization, and one of the noblest exemplifications of Christian character it has ever produced . . . through many trying periods of national affairs, he was always distinguished for his wise administration of even-handed justice."

"His disinterestedness in the feudal and political troubles among his people gained for him the peculiar distinction of being the only man of any consequence among the Cherokees who habitually traveled among his people in the troublous period of 1839-46, unarmed, except, as he said, with his Bible."

In addition to his other labors Bushyhead is said to have translated the book of Genesisand after his arrival in the West he held meetings to try to suppress the sale of liquor to his people. The Baptist Mission established by Bushyhead was a potent factor in the development of the Cherokee Nation and it was unfortunate that his noble work was cut short by fever which caused his death July 17, 1844.

It was in these Christian and enlightened surroundings that Eliza Missouri Bushyhead was reared, first attending school at the Baptist Mission. Mrs. Narcissa Owen recounts that she "went to school with Eliza, who is much younger than myself. . . . As a child I boarded with the widow of the Rev. Mr. Bushyhead and attended the mission school (about 1843)." She also states that the mother of Jesse Bushyhead lived near the Baptist Mission and that she made "for her son Charles a most beautiful Indian belt, plated out of bright-colored yarns, interspersed with beads, and finished with handsome tassels. The belt I thought one of the most beautiful I had ever seen." Eliza had strung the beads when her grandmother made the belt.

The late Spencer S. Stephens of Wagoner, Oklahoma, wrote an account of the Bushyhead family in which he had been reared. Having been left an orphan he was taken into the home of Mrs. Lizzie Bushyhead in 1853 and attended school at the old Baptist Mission. He describes the Rev. Mr. Bushyhead as: "One of the ablest and most successful of the native preachers of the Baptist Church . . . and a noble example of a Christian character, an intelligent, conscientious, patriot in the fortunes of his nation . . . He enjoyed an unequaled honor among his people . . . .

"Through his influence A. D. 1825, the Cherokees established regular Courts, changed their Council into a legislative body and took action looking to the adoption of a constitution . . . prominent in the affairs of his people—his influence with Chief John Ross, bringing about the first called Council after the act of union of Eastern and Western Cherokees."