Dennis Wolfe Bushyhead, I, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

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Dennis Wolfe Bushyhead, I

Also Known As: "Tsu lo hv s gi"
Birthdate: (71)
Birthplace: Old Cherokee Nation, Alabama, United States
Death: February 4, 1898 (71)
Cherokee Nation, Indiana Territory (Present Oklahoma), United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Rev. Jesse Bushyhead and Eliza Bushyhead
Husband of Elizabeth Alabama Bushyhead and Eloise Perry Bushyhead (Butler)
Father of Dr. Jesse Crary Bushyhead; Mary Elizabeth Triplett (Bushyhead); Sarah Catherine Bushyhead; Dennis Wolfe Bushyhead, Jr.; James Butler Bushyhead and 1 other
Brother of Charlotte Mayes; Eliza Missouri Alberty (Bushyhead); Ned Bushyhead, Chief of Police, San Diego, California; Daniel Bushyhead; Jennie Bushyhead and 1 other

Managed by: Gene Allen BRYAN
Last Updated:

About Dennis Wolfe Bushyhead, I, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

Dennis Bushyhead (born March 18, 1826, died 1898) was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. He served from 1879 to 1887. Bushyhead was born in the state of Tennessee, the oldest son of Rev. Jesse Bushyhead and Miss Eliza Wilkinson, a Georgian and half-breed Cherokee. He went to school in 1833 at Candy Creek mission School, Tennessee, under the charge of Rev. Holland. In 1835 he went to the Mission School at valley river in North Carolina and remained there for one year. In 1838 his father Rev. Jesse Bushyhead conducted a detachment of Cherokee, numbering 1000 people from the old nation to Beattie's prairie in the Delaware District (Indian Territory), and Dennis was among the party. In the following year, he attended Mission School at Park Hill, Cherokee Nation, under the charge of Rev. Samuel A. Worcester. He remained there for one year, after which, in 1841 he was sent to college in New Jersey.

In March 1841 he joined Chief Ross' delegation to Washington to attend the inauguration of General Harrison as President of The United States. Bushyhead remained in New Jersey for three years, completing his education in August 1844. In November 1871 he was elected treasurer of the Cherokee nation and held the position for four years, and was reelected to the post in 1875.



See an article on Bushyhead in Chronicles of Oklahoma (Vol. 14, No. 3, Sept 1936) by John Bartlett Meserve, available at

Dennis Wolfe Bushyhead, eldest son of Rev. Jesse Bushyhead and Elizabeth Wilkinson, his wife, was born on Mouse Creek about three miles north of the present town of Cleveland, Tennessee in what is today Bradley County of that State, on March 18, 1826. His initial school was the Candy Creek Mission in charge of Rev. Holland, his subsequent enrollment being at a mission school conducted by Rev. Evan Jones at Valley River, North Carolina, in 1835. As a lad, young Bushyhead came West with the contingent of Cherokees led by his father in the early spring of 1839 and in the succeeding year he attended school at Park Hill under the tutelage of Dr. Samuel A. Worcester. He was sent to school at Lawrenceville, New Jersey in January 1841 where he remained in attendance until he completed his scholastic course in July 1844. In his departure for Lawrenceville in January 1841, he accompanied a Cherokee delegation headed by Chief John Ross, to Washington, where he was privileged to witness the presidential inauguration of Gen. William Henry Harrison. He graduated from Lawrenceville and had entered the Sophomore class of Princeton University when his father died and he returned home. The young graduate upon his return from school entered the mercantile establishment of Lewis Ross as a clerk in October 1844 where he remained until the summer of 1847. The initial political recognition of young Bushyhead came in his election as clerk of the Cherokee National Committee (Senate) in October 1847 which post he capably filled for one year.

The discovery of gold in California about this time provoked an unparalleled surge of American emigration to the Pacific coast. Utopian, were the dreams of the pioneer who crossed the prairies and threaded the steep defiles of the Rockies with ox team and covered wagon. It was a period which engages our particular interest. Those were the twilight years of a later era which Mark Twain called "The Gilded Age." They were our National character-forming years—years of individual adventure which defied the untamed forces of nature, but which gave us the sturdy, unafraid pioneer-days of glorious adventure and of the great American dream.

Young Bushyhead became a "forty-niner" and joined the caravan of adventurous crusaders to the West, leaving his home near the old Baptist Mission, in what is today Adair County, for California on April 10, 1849. The daring venture was made overland by way of Ft. Scott, Kansas, Westpoint, Missouri and over the old "California Route" up the Platte River and through the South Pass of the Rockies, arriving at Lassen's Ranch on the Sacramento River in California, late in September 1849. The group of which he was a member consisted of thirteen Cherokees, ten of whom died of cholera, enroute, a short distance beyond Westport. Young Bushyhead with his two remaining associates joined other gold seekers and continued the journey. Shortly after his arrival in California, a flagrant scourge of small pox broke out in the mining camp and he aided and cared for the many victims, most of whom died, without taking the disease himself. The environs in the placer camps were vile beyond safe description, and in 1851, young Bushyhead went to San Francisco to join a group of his Cherokee friends and return home by steamer. Upon looking the steamer over, he questioned its safety and so declined to accompany them and returned to the mines. The ill-fated schooner upon which his friends shipped was lost at sea with all on board. He remained in California until 1868, living in Calaveras County, where he engaged in placer mining, but with rather indifferent success, from 1852 until his return to the Cherokee country. He departed from San Francisco by boat for home on February 18, 1868, returning by way of Panama, New York City, St. Louis, Kansas City and Ft. Scott, arriving at Ft. Gibson on March 31,1868. He immediately assumed the mercantile business at Ft. Gibson which had been established by his brother Jesse who had been killed on December 24, 1867 and continued its operation until June 1871. He again entered Cherokee politics and was chosen treasurer of the Cherokee Nation in November 1871, was subsequently reelected and served until November 1879. He was a pronounced adherent of the Ross faction out of the remnants of which he formed the National Party in Cherokee Nation politics. Dennis Wolfe Bushyhead was elected chief of the Cherokees on October 4, 1879, served with distinction and was easily reelected on October 6, 1883, serving for eight years.

Dennis W. Bushyhead succeeded the picturesque Charles Thompson as chief of the Cherokees and his elevation to the position at that particular time, was one of the fortunate ironies of Fate. He came from one of the oldest and most highly respected families among the Cherokees and his own life had been enriched by his association with the grim white settlers in the West. He had been absent from the Nation for 18 years during his sojourn in California and, as a consequence, had been entirely out of touch with the Civil War period among his people. He saw no military service in either army. Obviously, he was not involved in any of the hangover controversies from that struggle which created a cleavage among the Cherokees. John Ross, the stormy petrel of Cherokee politics had passed away and hence had ceased to be a political issue or the target of political foes. The political situation among the Cherokees became pretty well composed, when in November 1879, Dennis W. Bushyhead took over the executive reins of the Cherokee Nation. He brought to the position a varied experience and complete divorcement from the petty jealousies which, at times had embarrassed the orderly processes of the tribal government.

The eight years tenure of Chief Bushyhead was entirely free from domestic dissension, and a judicious poise was maintained with the Federal authorities. The influx of white intruders continued and in later years was to become a provoking menace. The presence of the whites among the Cherokees created the anomalous situation of two peoples, racially different, occupying the same territory but each accountable to a different jurisdiction for offenses committed. The white man was not responsive to the tribal laws or courts but answerable alone to the Federal Court at Ft. Smith, Arkansas for the infractions of laws passed by Congress. This most unusual court presided over by the famous Judge Isaac C. Parker from May 10, 1875 until September 1, 1896 performed a remarkable service to the tribal government. The chieftains of the Cherokees without exception coordinated with the unafraid judge in his twenty-one years of service. In fact, Judge Parker enjoyed the respect, esteem and confidence of the peaceful members of the tribe and of the law abiding intermarried whites. Quite naturally, the elements of vice hated his court, but as the years elapsed, defiance gave way to fear and a semblance of law and order began to evidence itself. Little cared the judge what the outlaws though of him and not unlike Byron's grim Corsair,

"He knew himself detested, but he knew The hearts that loathed him, crouch'd and dreaded, too."

The greatest epic of the old romantic West was the movement of vast herds of longhorn cattle from Texas north over the famous Chisholm trail. This trail crossed the old Indian Territory from south to north, extending from Red River Station on the Red River to shipping points in Kansas where railroad facilities were available. The movement of these herds involved the unauthorized use of what was then known as the Cherokee Outlet or "Strip."5 The Cherokee Strip was a rather detached domain belonging to the Cherokees, extending westward along and contiguous to the southern boundary line of Kansas, to what is today known as the "Panhandle" of Oklahoma. It was approximately ninety miles in width and embraced about 6,000,000 acres of unoccupied lands as the Cherokees had never undertaken to colonize it. For many years the Texas cattle men had made use of this Strip for grazing purposes and had done so without any pretense of remuneration to the Cherokees. The Cherokee Strip Live Stock Association was formed on March 6, 1883 and a plan was inaugurated, on a more enlarged scale, to appropriate the use of the Strip as a cattle range. It was at this pont that Chief Bushyhead stepped vigorously into the picture and, on July 5, 1883, entered into a contract on behalf of the Cherokees, with the Stock Association, whereby the Strip was leased to the new company for a term of five years at an annual rental of $100,000. The Stock Association then subleased the lands to various individuals and corporations for range purposes. This action stimulated the cattle industry in the Indian Territory and concluded the contentions and bickerings between the individual range holders and the tribal authorities. Chief Bushyhead saw to it that this annual lease payment was promptly paid. Differences of opinion with regard to the rights of the adopted and intermarried white citizens arose initially in the Cherokee Nation in 1883 when the tribal authorities began to make the per capita payments to its citizens out of the Cherokee Strip lease money. Bushyhead caused a careful census to be made of all Cherokees by blood and adoption, and this roll of membership constituted the basis of distribution of the tribal monies. At that time, the adopted whites were excluded from participation. The Bushyhead census or roll of tribal membership with necessary amplifications and deletions as the lapse of years required was employed in later distributions of tribal monies and formed the working basis when a final roll of tribal membership was undertaken by the government.

An incident which threatened serious race difficulties was averted by the prompt intervention of Chief Bushyhead in the summer of 1881. Billy Cobb, a Cherokee Indian living near Wagoner, was slain by a party of Creek negroes near Gibson Station. The incensed Cherokees immediately formed a company of 100 Cherokee Indians under the leadership of William Jackson, who had been a captain in the Confederate service. This company marched to Gibson Station and made demands for the surrender of the negro culprits, which demand was refused. While these preliminaries were in process, word was conveyed to Chief Bushyhead at Tahlequah of the ominous situation and the chief, with William P. Adair, the second chief, hastened to Gibson Station to intervene. The Indian Agent also joined the peace party. Bushyhead fortunately encountered Capt. Jackson and his company as they were en route to attack the negroes and succeeded in influencing the enraged Cherokees from taking the law into their own hands. Through the intervention of Chief Bushyhead, the Creek Chief caused the murderers to be arrested and turned over to the Cherokee authorities. The negroes were tried, convicted and hung at Tahlequah and the incident was closed.

The tribal election held in October 1887 was bitterly contested. Chief Bushyhead being ineligible for another consecutive term, Rabbit Bunch, the second chief became the nominee of the National Party and, of course, had the support of the Chief. Joel B. Mayes was offered by the Downing Party and apparently, was elected, but the National Council which met in November adjourned the following month without making a canvass of the election returns as required by law. Under the constitution, Chief Bushyhead remained in office until the Council should certify the election of his successor. Bushyhead offered no claims for a continuance in office, but militant Downing Party adherents forcibly took charge of the executive office at Tahlequah in January, 1888 and installed Mayes as Chief. Chief Bushyhead gracefully retired with the observation that he was awaiting the demand of his duly elected successor. The National Party never returned to power in the Cherokee Nation.

The retirement of Chief Bushyhead from the executive office did not conclude his public service to the Cherokees. In 1889 and 1890, he served as a delegate to Washington and in November 1890, was one of three commissioners who negotiated with the Government in the sale of the Western Reservation. He attended an inter-tribal meeting held at McAlester, on November 12, 1896, called for the purpose of agreeing upon some concerted action in regard to the allotment of the tribal lands and the extinguishment of the tribal governments as demanded by the Government. As chairman of the Cherokee delegation, he joined with the representatives of the other tribes, in signing the resolutions of the meeting, which opposed this contemplated action without certain reservations and other positive provisions to secure the future status of the tribes.

Chief Bushyhead married Elizabeth Alabama Adair nee Schrimsher, a daughter of John G. Schrimsher, at Ft. Gibson, in September 1870. She was born in Alabama in 1835. Their children were Jesse C., now a physician at Claremore, Oklahoma, Eliza, Catherine and Dennis W. jr., of Westville, Oklahoma. Mrs. Bushyhead died at Ft. Gibson on October 31, 1882, and on October 31, 1883, he married Eloise Perry Butler, of Tahlequah, a daughter of James L. Butler. She was born at Tahlequah on August 14, 1859 and is a niece of the late Senator Butler of South Carolina and a grand niece of the famous Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Mrs. Bushyhead was educated in the Cherokee National schools and completed her studies in Philadelphia. Two children were born of this second union, James Butler and Francis Taylor. The Chief was a large man, standing about six feet and weighing perhaps 200 pounds. He had the dark Indian complexion, was erect in his carriage and imposing in his posture and appearance. He was an affable individual and enjoyed the esteem and respect of the whites although he was at all times unafraid in defense of the rights of his people. The Cherokees believed in him and with every reason and today pause in memory of his splendid character. He was a consistent supporter of the Baptist Church. His biographer, the late W. P. Boudinot, wrote of him: "He was a Christian in every respect, except being called one" and "He died rich in everything except money."

Dennis W. Bushyhead met the responsibilities of his office most capably and courageously. The Cherokees had no more devoted friend and advocate. Under his directing hand, they approached, with a better understanding, the onus of complete American citizenship which lay in the years ahead. He was a towering figure among his people, embodying the higher and nobler impulses of examplary leadership. Reflective of his erudite leadership were the thoughts expressed in his first message to the National Council, delivered on November 10, 1879, wherein he thoughtfully concludes,

"In conclusion, I would counsel a spirit of harmony and good will among our own people. In our councils, let us avoid hasty legislation. Let every bill presented for your consideration and action be closely scanned in order to perfect the good and eliminate the evil that may appear, and may the welfare of our Nation and our people be your highest consideration. Then, with a firm trust and reliance upon the Ruler of nations, an abiding faith in the people and government of the United States and, above all, in ourselves, let us to the best of our abilities govern the Cherokee Nation wisely and well; thus helping all in power to a peaceful, harmonious and just solution of the intricate and deeply important Indian question, so far as it relates to the Cherokee Nation."

These were the well chosen words of a statesman and such was Dennis W. Bushyhead.

Such is the career Chief Bushyhead folded up and left for us. Re passed away at his home in Tahlequah, on February 4, 1898 and rests in the cemetery at that place where his grave is suitably marked.


4"Autobiography" by Dennis W. Bushyhead, among "Ross Manuscripts and Papers" in Phillips Collection at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma; "Handbook of the American Indians," Vol. II, p. 866; "The Indian Territory, its Chiefs, Legislators and Leading Men," by O'Beirne, p. 117; personal interview with Mr. George W. Mayes, Oklahoma Cty, Oklahoma.

The writer is indebted for valuable information, to Mrs. Dennis W. Bushyhead, relict of the late Chief. Mrs. Bushyhead is now (1936) living at Tahlequah in the same house in which she lived when she married Chief Bushyhead in 1883.

5"The Cherokee Indians" by Parker, pp. 86 et seq.

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Dennis Wolfe Bushyhead, I, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation's Timeline

March 18, 1826
Old Cherokee Nation, Alabama, United States
June 29, 1870
Age 44
December 13, 1873
Age 47
October 8, 1876
Age 50
April 11, 1880
Age 54
September 27, 1884
Age 58
Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory (Present Oklahoma), United States
February 4, 1898
Age 71
Cherokee Nation, Indiana Territory (Present Oklahoma), United States
Indian Territory (Present Oklahoma), United States