One wonderful result of writing books is hearing from people who read them. Recently I heard from Jim Terry who was reading my collection of stories about 19th century murders in Washington County, Arkansas – Murder in the County. He wanted to know why a murder involving one of his ancestors wasn’t in the book. Once he gave me more information, it became clear that the murder involved members of the Cherokee tribe. That’s why it wasn’t in my book.
During those early years of Washington County, a steady traffic of bad actors flowed back and forth across the Arkansas-Indian Territory border. Cherokee lawmen attempting to make arrests in Indian Territory had no jurisdiction if the outlaw stood on the Arkansas side of the line. Similarly, federal marshals authorized out of Fort Smith were the only whites who had any jurisdiction in Indian Territory. Local lawmen like the Washington County sheriff couldn’t arrest anyone on Indian land. This made Evansville, Cane Hill, and other Washington County border towns hot spots for outlaw activity.
Jim’s ancestry includes a Cherokee outlaw named Isaac Gann, brother to a woman in Jim’s direct lineage. Not only that, Jim is directly descended from Susannah Harnage, an adopted child of the Harnage family, one of Washington County’s earliest settlers who was subsequently murdered. There’s an irony here and an interesting little story.
The earliest days of our county were fraught with the crisis of the Cherokee people, a powerful detached tribe of the Iroquoian family, formerly holding the whole mountain region of the south Alleghenies, in southwest Virginia, western North Carolina and South Carolina, north Georgia, east Tennessee, and northeast Alabama, and claiming even to the Ohio River. By the turn of the 19th century, increasing pressure by white settlers led to efforts by the federal government to force their move. Despite winning a case in the U. S. Supreme Court confirming they held an inalienable right to their lands, the Cherokee were forced to leave by President Andrew Jackson.
Previous to their removal, Cherokee had adopted much of the cultural amenities of the whites and intermarried with European settlers. This was the case of Ambrose Harnage, later a Washington County resident in the area near Cane Hill. Harnage, an ambitious, educated Englishman with clear leadership skills, married a Cherokee woman and built a large dwelling that served as a residence, public inn, and tavern. Located on the north Georgia federal road, the inn was built around 1805 and was designated a federal post office in 1819, earning the location its name of Harnageville.
After the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Harnage and others faced increasing pressure to abandon their property. He and other white men who had intermarried with Cherokee women negotiated for the best possible terms and made the move to new land in what is now Oklahoma. Upon their departure, Georgia passed a law to establish Cherokee County where Harnage’s tavern was chosen as a meeting place to conduct the business of court and county government.
In 1815, another white man, William H. Hendricks, had built his homestead near the Harnage home and married a full-blood Cherokee woman named Sokinny. She and her brother Youngdeer were orphaned at an early age and Sokinny was later adopted by the Harnage family where she was given the name Susannah Harnage. Whether this is the same Harnage family as Ambrose is not proven.
In 1832, William and Susannah/Sokinny Hendricks and the Ambrose Harnage family moved west, part of the first wave of Cherokee accepting the government’s offer to relocate in exchange for logistical and financial assistance for the move. Typically, extended families and neighbors moved to new territories as a group suggesting a close connection between the Ambrose Harnage family and Susannah/Sokinny. After 1836, the Cherokee who had initially refused the removal order (Indian Removal Act of 1830) were forced west on the so-called Trail of Tears.
Also among Jim Terry’s ancestors was a woman named Ruth Gambold Gann, sister to Isaac Gann and two other siblings. Thanks to Jim’s research into his heritage, the rest of this odd irony comes to light.
In June 1847, twenty-year-old Isaac Ferguson Gann mustered in as private to Captain Enyart’s Company, Arkansas Mounted Infantry, at Fort Smith. Military service provided a small monthly stipend as well as regular meals, and was the fallback option for many young men without other opportunities. His military records include one from January 12, 1848, that states “deserted from camp near Mier, Mexico, taking holsters and pistols belonging to the government.” Also, the muster roll for June 23, 1848, at Camargo, Mexico, lists him as “deserted.”
Thereafter, Isaac became an outlaw, partnering with a man named Ellis “Creek” Starr. They were active in the Cherokee Nation and Washington County, Arkansas.
Creek was among several members of the Starr clan, a Cherokee family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery in the Indian Territory. If the “Starr” name sounds familiar, it’s because by the late 1800s, the family name had become famous for its association with Belle Starr, originally Maybelle Shirley.
In 1880 [after the death of her first husband Jim Reed], she [married] a Cherokee man named Sam Starr and settled with the Starr family in the Indian Territory. There, she learned ways of organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers, as well as harboring them from the law. Belle’s illegal enterprises proved lucrative enough for her to employ bribery to free her cohorts from the law whenever they were caught.
In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested by Bass Reeves, charged with horse theft and tried before “The Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker’s Federal District Court in Fort Smith, Arkansas; the prosecutor was United States Attorney W. H. H. Clayton. She was found guilty and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Detroit, Michigan. Belle proved to be a model prisoner and during her time in jail she won the respect of the prison matron, while Sam was more incorrigible and was assigned to hard labor.
In 1886, she escaped conviction on another theft charge, but on December 17, Sam Starr was involved in a gunfight with Officer Frank West. Both men were killed, while Belle’s life as an outlaw queen—and what had been the happiest relationship of her life—abruptly ended with her husband’s death.
Jim Reed and Belle at their marriage 1866
Belle’s first husband Jim Reed was killed in Texas in the aftermath of the Civil War. Reed was friends with the Starrs which was how Belle became acquainted with them. After Belle’s murder in 1889, her daughter Rosie “Pearl” Reed-Starr built a tidy little home at Winslow where she sojourned in between stints at operating her houses of ill repute in Van Buren and Fort Smith.
Long before the heyday of Belle or Pearl Starr, Ellis “Creek” Starr alongside Isaac Gann pursued their own outlaw ways. An 1848 write-up in the Cherokee Advocate, Tahlequah, provides more insight into the efforts of the Cherokee Nation to address such criminal gangs:
We learn that a meeting composed of the persons engaged in the recent killing in Flint District, and a numbers of others, was held at the Court House of said district, some days since, for the purpose of adopting certain measures in relation to that affair.
A series of resolutions, commendatory of what has already been done, and urging the importance of freeing the country of the following persons, to wit: — Thos. Starr, Jas. Starr, Creek Starr, Wm. Starr, Ezekiel Rider, Shadrach Cordery, Isaac Gann, and Tre-gi-ske and Ult-tees-kee, were passed.
Writs have been taken out for the above-named persons. Several companies were organized to cooperate with the whites. These companies are actively engaged in scouting the country. We learn that a deputation was sent down, on last Tuesday, to advise the Executive upon the late proceedings, also with a reply to his protest. A second meeting has been held since this interview with the Executive, and we learn that the whole matter will soon be laid before the public.
From the evidence before us, we are under the necessity of disapproving, heartily, a part of the proceedings of our fellow citizens. Ellis Starr, Wash Starr, and John Rider, it is true, were once engaged openly in the most fiendish deeds that ever characterized any set of men, but by the treaty of 1846, though out-laws, they were pardoned—and by that act were again placed upon an equality with other citizens. And if they have since been guilty of misdemeanor, the law should be pushed against them, — and if, after the most ample opportunity has been afforded to test its efficacy, it should prove inadequate, then, though extremely humiliating to a regularly organized Government, the people may take upon themselves the management of affairs.
We learn that one of the companies above named surprised Creek Starr and Isaac Gann, the supposed murderers of the woman who was killed near Evansville [Washington County, Arkansas] on the 27th ult., at a dance in Washington Cove [probably a misprint of Washington County], Ark., some days since. Gann was killed in the attempt to arrest him. Creek Starr was made prisoner. On the return of the party with him, to the Nation, he made his escape—was fired upon, but supposed, only slightly wounded.
Another source, the Van Buren newspaper Arkansas Intelligencer, reports on this murder in their June 12, 1848, edition.
Foul Murder – Creek Starr and Isaac Gann, half-blood Cherokees, killed a Cherokee woman near Evansville, on the 27th. Gann is a deserter from Capt. Enyart’s company of volunteers, now in Mexico.
This was the murder not included in my book.
This is where the murder of Ambrose Harnage joins the story. Evidently with a history of seeing himself as a liaison between the Cherokee nation and whites, Harnage gave incriminating evidence against men accused of participating in the notorious 1839 Wright family murders at Cane Hill where a nighttime assault killed the father and several children and burned the family cabin to the ground. Initially, these murders were blamed on Indians. But Harnage overheard conversations between white neighbors that he reported to a committee investigating the murders. Several white men some believed innocent were subsequently hanged.
Whether Harnage’s report led to his murder is not known. No one saw his murder and all “evidence” was based on supposition leading to the accusation of a Cherokee named John Work for the crime. Many loose ends about Work’s supposed guilt for Harnage’s murder remain unresolved.
Harnage was also a close friend to Major John Ridge, a Cherokee leader who had signed the federal agreement to remove to new lands in Indian Territory, thereby earning the enmity of those in the tribe who didn’t agree with the removal act. In June 1839, Ridge spent the night at Harnage’s home before traveling south along the Line Road. En route, Ridge was assassinated.
Harnage’s friendship and influence on Ridge may have earned him a death warrant among the Cherokee. In the investigation of Harnage’s murder, which occurred in 1841, one line of inquiry yielded possible evidence of Gann’s involvement.
[John] Work wished to kill Dr. F. and John [George Ambrose] Harnage and leave the country. In watching the movements of Dr. F., he learned that he fed a lot of hogs near a thicket once every day about the same hour. He told Jake to steal the doctor’s fine mare and a bridle and saddle and to bring them to him a certain night, that he would kill the Dr. the next day and leave the country, leaving Harnage to Mat Feating or Isaac Gann.
Major John Ridge
Whether it was Gann or the man ultimately arrested for the offense, John Work, who killed Harnage, the point is the peculiar heritage of Jim Terry. In his person, he juxtaposes the lineages of Gann and the adopted daughter of Harnage.
Was Ambrose Harnage’s murder a result of his close involvement with the Cherokee chief John Ridge or revenge for the Wright family murder hangings? Was Gann his killer?
Because Gann and Starr’s murder of the Cherokee woman fell under tribal jurisdiction, the records never appear in Washington County archives. No one can say how many other similar murders there might have been. This is just one of many stories whose tangled details have forever vanished with the passage of time. My thanks to Jim Terry for bringing this particular episode to light.
 Cherokee Advocate, June 19, 1848.
 “A Man Named John Work,” Murder in the County. Denele Campbell 2017. 77