Native American Heritage Month Collection Spotlight: James Ludwell Davis Sylestine and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas

Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation, about 1970 to 1980. Color slides and transparencies,1991/077-110-8. Texas Tourist Development Agency Photographs and Audiovisual Materials. TSLAC. View in the TDA.

November is National Native American Heritage Month and the State Archives is spotlighting a collection that offers an in-depth profile of the Alabama-Coushatta Indians of Southeast Texas. James Ludwell Davis Sylestine (1925-1990) was the son of former Alabama-Coushatta Chief Bronson Cooper Sylestine (1879-1969) and compiled over the years research materials about the history of the combined tribes, as well as the contemporary conditions, traditions, and lifestyle of his people during the latter part of the twentieth century.

Table of contents, manuscript, undated. Alabama-Coushatta Indians, drafts. James Ludwell Davis Sylestine Papers. TSLAC.
Page one, manuscript, undated. Alabama-Coushatta Indians, drafts. James Ludwell Davis Sylestine Papers. TSLAC.

Sylestine wrote essays and historical pieces about the Alabama-Coushatta and was working toward writing a full history that he unfortunately never completed. His research notes and drafts are available in his papers. Sylestine’s records include publications, correspondence, minutes of tribal meetings, information related to federal and state oversight of the tribe, documents from the Indian Presbyterian Church, and a scrapbook of newspaper clippings. The finding aid describes the contents of folders contained in each of the three boxes that comprise the collection.

Sylestine interviewed members of the tribe and compiled their stories in a notebook. He also included a section on Indian medicines where he typed the various incantations used for treating wounds, crying babies, heart disease, and friendship. Recordings of stories and songs are part of his collection and have been digitized for research access.

Image: Pamphlet, Texas Indians: The Story of Indian Village and the Alabama Indians in Polk County, Texas on the Alabama-Coshatti Reservation by Anna Kilpatrick Fain, Livingston, Texas 1960. James Ludwell Sylestine Papers. TSLAC.

James Ludwell Davis Sylestine Papers [finding aid excerpts]

Biographical Sketch
James Ludwell Davis Sylestine was born on the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation, near Livingston, Texas. He was an Alabama Indian, the son of former Chief Bronson Cooper Sylestine and Mossane Sylestine. He entered the military in 1943, served 31 months and fought in several Pacific engagements, including the battle for Luzon. After the war he attended college (Austin College in Sherman and the University of Texas at Austin) then entered the Austin Presbyterian Seminary. He withdrew from the seminary after several years and re-entered the military, where he spent more than 20 years before retiring. He died on January 29, 1990, at the age of 65 and was buried at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

Because James married a non-Indian (Mildred), he was not able to live on the reservation after his retirement (bylaws of the tribe state that if marrying a non-Indian you could not live on the reservation but were maintained on the off-reservation rolls). He maintained close contact with the tribes, serving as the secretary or chairman at some council meetings. He was also very active with the Indian Presbyterian Church, serving as an elder of the church. He periodically wrote articles concerning the tribes or reservation which were published in local newspapers, and he frequently wrote Congressmen or pertinent officials concerning legislation which would affect the tribes. He was a life-long student of the history of his people and spent a number of years compiling information to write a history on the Alabama-Coushatta, but he did not complete it before his death.

Folktales of the Alabama-Coushatta Indians by Howard Martin [1946]. James Ludwell Sylestine Papers. TSLAC.
“Constitution and By-laws of the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes of Texas,” August 19,1938. James Ludwell Sylestine Papers. TSLAC.

Scope and Contents of the Records
These records are the research files and writings of James Sylestine. They reflect historical and contemporary topics concerning the Alabama-Coushatta tribes and the reservation, including early interaction with white men, establishment of the reservation, tribal land claims, state and federal legislation affecting the tribes and/or reservation, state and federal trusteeship of the tribes, religion-including the work of early missionaries and establishment of the Indian Presbyterian Church, folklore, education on the reservation and in off-reservation schools, alcohol and health problems of the tribes, housing, tribal politics, military service of tribal members, oil and gas revenue, increasing the self-sufficiency of the tribes, and current issues facing other Indian tribes.

Minutes, tribal meeting, November 5, 1956. James Ludwell Davis Sylestine Papers. TSLAC.

These records consist of published and unpublished reports (some written by Sylestine, others by various authors), theses; correspondence, primarily between Sylestine and various state and federal officials and agencies; bylaws and charter of the Alabama-Coushatta tribes; minutes of Council meetings; articles, clippings, brochures and other printed materials; transcripts of historical documents; biographical sketches of several individuals (most are non-Indian and are connected to the Indian Presbyterian Church) maps and sketches of the reservation; transcripts of deeds; Attorney General opinions; church records; census rolls; copies of legislation; and reel-to-reel tapes of songs recorded in 1932 and stories told in 1962 by tribal members.

Report, “History and Present Way of Life of the Alabama and Coushatta Indians of Texas,” 1963. James Ludwell Sylestine Papers. TSLAC.

The last item in the collection is a compiled volume of documents and reports, containing transcripts of letters concerning the Alabama and/or Coushatta Indians; transcripts of early incidents on the reservation; reminiscences of tribal members; excerpts of the histories and lives of the Indians by Sylestine and others—including the condition and needs of the reservation, progress made, the 1936 elections, etc.; and minutes of the tribal and general council meetings.

Off-print, Senate Journal, February 25, 1936, cover. James Ludwell Davis Sylestine Papers. TSLAC.
Senate Resolution 204, tribute to Tic-Ca-Itche, Chief of the Alabama Indians after his passing in 1969. James Ludwell Davis Sylestine Papers. TSLAC.

Throughout his files he refers to the tribes by both the current tribal names—Alabama and Coushatta Indians—and by the more historic or “Indian” names—Albamo and Kossati Indians. These records date from the 1700s to 1989. Most files concern the period from 1900 to the mid 1980s.

Review the Detailed Description of the Records to learn more about the contents of the collection.

Researchers interested in access to the James Ludwell Sylestine Papers or other materials at the State Archives may contact the reference staff at or 512-463-5455.

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