Major Ridge, Cherokee Chief

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Major Ridge
Major Ridge
Cherokee Chief

The father of Ridge was a full-blooded Cherokee, who, though not distinguished in the council of the nation, was a famous hunter, and had once taken the scalp of an Indian warrior on the Kaskaskia River. The subject of this notice was the fourth son of his parents, but the first who reached the years of maturity; and of two brothers and a sister younger than himself, but one survives, who is the father of Elias Boudinot. His mother was a respectable Cherokee woman of the half blood, her father being a white man, of whose origin or history we have not been able to collect any information.

The most prominent feature in the early reminiscences of Ridge, refers to the distressed situation to which the Cherokees were reduced by the invasions of the white people, who burned their villages, and killed their people. When his father, wearied of these hostile incursions, resolved on flight, he took his family in canoes down the Highwassie to the Tennessee River, and ascended the smaller branches of that stream to the Sequochee mountains, in whose deep glens and rock-bound fastnesses they were secure from pursuit. Here the game abounded, and the young hunter received his first lessons. His father taught him to steal with noiseless tread upon the grazing animal to deceive the timid doe by mimicking the cry of the fawn or to entice the wary buck within the reach of his missile, by decorating his own head with antlers. He was inured to patience, fatigue, self-denial, and expo sure, and acquired the sagacity which enabled him to chase with success the wild cat, the bear, and the panther. He watched the haunts, and studied the habits of wild animals, and became expert in the arts which enable the Indian hunter at all seasons to procure food from the stream or the forest.

Having continued in this primary and parental school until he reached the age of twelve, the young Indian was considered as having made a proficiency which entitled him to be advanced to a higher grade of studies; and a superstitious rite was required to be performed to give due solemnity to the occasion. The usages of the nation made it requisite that his martial training should be preceded by a formal dedication to the life and business of a warrior, and an invocation to the Great Spirit to endue him with courage and good fortune. For this purpose his parents solicited the assistance of an aged warrior, whose numerous achievements in battle had established for him a high reputation; and whose sagacity and valor gave him, in the estimation of his tribe, the envied rank of a Ulysses. The assent of the war-chief was conveyed in the brief avowal that he would make him dreadful The ceremony took place immediately. The hoary brave, standing upon the brink of a mountain stream, called upon the Great Spirit to fill the mind of the young warrior with warlike inclinations, and his heart with courage. He then, with the bone of a wolf, the end of which terminated in several sharp points, scratched the naked boy, from the palm of one hand along the front of the arm, across the breast, and along the other arm to the hand and in like manner lines were drawn from the heels upward to the shoulders, and from the shoulders over the breast downward to the feet and from the back of one hand along the arm, across the back, and to the back of the other hand. The lines thus made each covered a space of two inches in width, and consisted of parallel incisions which penetrated through the skin, and caused an effusion of blood along their entire extent. He was then required to plunge into the stream and bathe, after which the war-chief washed his whole body with a decoction of medicinal herbs; and, in conclusion, he was commanded not to associate with the female children, nor to sit near a woman, nor, in short, to suffer the touch of one of that sex during the space of seven days. At the end of this term the war-chief came to him, and after delivering an address to the Great Spirit, placed before the young candidate food, consisting of partridges and mush. The partridge was used on this occasion, because, in its flight, this bird makes a noise with its wings resembling thunder while in sitting or walking it is remarkably silent, and difficult to discover and thus were indicated the clamor of the onset, and the cautious stealth which should govern the movements of the warrior at all other times. It is thus that the Indian is made in early life, the subject of superstition, is taught to believe himself supernaturally endued with courage, and is artificially supplied with qualities which might otherwise never have been developed in his mind.

When Ridge was fourteen years old, a war party was made up at Cheestooyee, where his parents then resided; the warriors danced the war-dance, and sung war songs to induce the young men to join in the expedition. These martial exercises had such an effect upon young Ridge, that he volunteered against his father’s wishes, and in despite of the tears of his mother; and went, with two hundred of the tribe, against a fort of the Americans in Tennessee, which was assaulted without success. In this expedition he endured, without a murmur, great hardship and dangers.

In the same year the whites made an irruption at a place called the Cherokee Orchard, and retired after killing one Indian. The Cherokees, expecting that their enemies would return, arranged a force of about two hundred men in an ambuscade, near the Orchard, and had spies posted to watch the fords of the river Tennessee, where it was expected the white people would cross. It was soon reported that thirty horsemen, and six men on foot were approaching. The Cherokees were divided into two parties, one of which was to attack the whites in front, while the other was to throw itself across their rear, to intercept their retreat. The whites being taken by surprise, were beaten, and sought safety in flight. Those on foot were taken and killed, while the horsemen plunged into the river, where they continued to maintain the unequal conflict with great obstinacy. A few who rode strong and fleet horses, escaped by clambering up a steep bank, and the rest were slain. One of the Cherokees having overtaken a white man who was ascending the bank, after recrossing the river, grappled with him in deadly fight. The white man being the stronger, threw the Indian, when a second came to the assistance of the latter, and while the gallant Tennessean was combating with two foes, Ridge, who was armed with a spear only, came up and dispatched the unfortunate white man, by plunging his weapon into him. This affair vas considered highly creditable to Ridge, the Indians regarding not courage only, but success, as indicative of merit, and appreciating highly the good fortune which enables one of their number to shed the blood of an enemy, in however accidental or stealthy a manner.

Soon after this affair, he conducted his father, who was sick, to a place more distant from the probable scene of war, and then joined a large army composed of the combined forces of the Creeks and Cherokees; the latter, led by the chiefs Little Turkey and White Dog, and the former by Chinnubbe. The object of this enterprise was to take Knoxville, then the chief place in Tennessee; but it was not successful. In consequence of a disagreement among the chiefs, they returned without attacking the head-quarters of the white settlements, after capturing a small garrison near Marysville. In another affair Ridge was scarcely more fortunate. He joined a company of hunters, and passed the Cumberland mountains into Kentucky, to chase the buffalo and the bear. While thus engaged, their leader, who was called Tah-cung-stee-skee, or the Remover, proposed to kill some white men, for the purpose of supplying the party with tobacco, their whole store of which had been consumed. Ridge was left, with an old man, to guard the camp; the remainder of the party set out upon this righteous war, and after a brief absence, returned with several scalps, and some tobacco which had been taken out of the pockets of the slain. This incident affords an example of the slight cause which is considered among savages a sufficient inducement for the shedding of blood. We know riot who were the unhappy victims; they might have been hunters, but were as probably the members of some emigrant family which had settled in the wilderness, whose slumbers were broken at mid-night by the war-whoop, and who saw each other butchered in cold blood by a party of marauders, who sought to renew their exhausted store of tobacco! We are told that Ridge was so greatly mortified at having been obliged to remain inactive, far from the scene of danger, that he actually wept over the loss of honor he had sustained, and that his grief was with difficulty appeased.

He returned home after an absence of seven months, and found that both his parents had died during that period, leaving him, still a youth, with two younger brothers and a sister, to provide for themselves, or to depend upon the cold charity of relatives, whose scanty subsistence was derived from the chase. Under these depress ing circumstances, he spent several years in obscurity, but always actively engaged either upon the war-path, in predatory excursions against the whites, or in hunting expeditions to remote places where the game abounded. On one occasion, when he was about seventeen years of age, he, with four others, killed some white men upon the waters of Holston, during one of those brief seasons of peace which sometimes beamed on the frontier, like sunny days in the depth of winter a peace having been declared during the absence of this party. That unfortunate act was the cause of a new war. The enraged whites collected a force, invaded the Cherokees who were holding a council at Tellico, and killed a large number of their warriors. This event affords another illustration of the brittle nature of compacts between the inhabitants of the frontier, accustomed to mutual aggression, and ever on the watch to revenge an insult, or to injure a hated foe; while it shows also that the beginnings of these wars are often the result of the most fortuitous causes growing more frequently out of the mistakes, or lawless acts of individuals, than from any deliberate national decision.

Ridge and his companions, having been detained by the sickness of one of their number, did not arrive at the encampment of the tribe, at the Pine Log, until after the consequences of their rash act had been realized in the slaughter of some of the principal men of the nation by the white people. They were coldly received : the relatives of the slain were incensed, arid disposed to take revenge for their loss, upon the young men who had occasioned the misfortune, nor were there wanting accusers to upbraid them openly as the authors of a great public calamity. Having no excuse to offer, Ridge, with a becoming spirit, proposed to repair his error as far as possible, by warding off its effects from his countrymen. He raised the war-whoop, entered the village, as is customary with those who return victorious, and called for volunteers to march against the enemy but there was no response; the village was still, no veteran warrior greeted the party as victors, and those who mourned over deceased relatives, scowled at them as they passed. The usual triumph was not allowed, and the young aggressors, so far from being joined by others in a new expedition, fell back abashed by the chilling and contemptuous reception which they met. One old man alone, a conjurer, who had prophesied that when these young men should return, the war-pole would be ornamented with the scalps of their enemies, felt disposed to verify his own prediction by having those bloody trophies paraded upon the war-post, and he exerted himself to effect a change in the public mind. At length the voice of one chief declared, that fallen relatives would be poorly revenged by shedding the blood of friends, and that if satisfaction was required it should be taken from the pale-faces. He then commenced the war-song, at the sound of which the habitual thirst of the Indian for vengeance began to be excited; the young men responded, and volunteers offered them selves to the against the common enemy, among whom Ridge was the first. The party proceeded immediately against a small fort on the frontier, which they took, and murdered all the inmates men, women, and children. Ridge has since frequently related the fact, that the women and children were at first made prisoners, but were hewn down by the ferocious leader Doublehead, who afterwards became a conspicuous man, and a tyrant in the nation; he spoke of this foul deed with abhorrence, and declared that he turned aside, and looked another way, unwilling to witness that which he could not prevent.

We pass over the events of the border wars which succeeded, and continued for two years to harass this unhappy region, embracing a vast number of skirmishes and petty massacres, which gave scope to individual address and boldness, but produced no military movements upon any extended scale, nor any general battle. The last invasion by the whites was conducted by General Sevier, who penetrated to the head of Coosa, and then returned to Tennessee. Two years afterwards a general peace was concluded with President Washington by a Cherokee delegation, sent to the American capital, at the head of which was the celebrated Doublehead. They returned, bringing a treaty of peace, and accompanied by an agent of the American government, Colonel Silas Dinsmore, who took up his residence in the Cherokee country, and commenced instructing the Indians in the use of the plough, the spinning-wheel, and the loom.

The government of the Cherokee nation was, at that time, vested in a council, composed of the principal chief, the second principal chief, and the leading men of the several villages, who made treaties and laws, filled the vacancies in their own body, increased its number at will, and, in short, exercised all the functions of sovereignty. The executive and more active duties were performed chiefly by the junior members, a requisite number of whom were admitted for that purpose. At the age of twenty-one Ridge was selected, we are not told at whose instance, as a member of this body, from the town of which Pine Log was the head man. He had no property but the clothes he wore, a few silver ornaments, and a white pony, stinted, old, and ugly, which he rode to the council. The Indians are fond of show, and pay great respect to personal appearance, and exterior decoration. On public occasions they appear well mounted, and are ostentatious in the display of their wealth, which consists in horses, weapons, trinkets, and the trophies of war and hunting; and this pride is the more natural as the property thus exhibited consists of the spoils won by the wearer. A mean appearance is, therefore, in some degree, an evidence of demerit; and when Ridge presented himself before the assembled nation, wretchedly mounted and in meager attire, he was held in such contempt, that it was proposed to exclude him from the council. But the old men invited him to a seat near them, and shook him by the hand, and the younger members one by one reluctantly extended to him the same sign of fellowship. During the first council, he did no more than listen to the speeches of the orators, seldom indicating any opinion of his own. The powers of the mind are but little exercised in an Indian council, especially in a season of peace, when there is nothing to provoke discussion, and these assemblages are convened rather in obedience to custom than for the actual discharge of business. But the time was approaching when the public concerns of the Cherokees were to become more complicated and important, and its councils to assume a higher dignity and interest.

It would be difficult to point out with accuracy the primary causes, or to detect the first germs, of the partial civilization which has been introduced among the Cherokees. In the memoir of Sequoyah we briefly suggested several incidents which, as we sup pose, exerted a combined influence in the production of this benign effect. Referring the reader to that paragraph, we shall only remark here, that Ridge entered upon public life just at the period when a portion of his nation began to turn their attention to agriculture, and of course to acquire property, and to need the protection of law. New regulations and restraints were requisite to suit the novel exigencies of a forming state of society; while the less intelligent part of the people withheld from war, and not yet initiated in the arts of peace, remained in a state of restless and discontented idleness, but little in unison with the enterprising spirit of their leaders, and as little congenial with the growth of civilization. It was necessary, therefore, that those who executed the laws should be firm and vigorous men; and among this class Ridge was soon distinguished as one possessing the energy of character so import ant in a ruler. At the second council in which he sat, one of the ancient laws of the Cherokees was abrogated at his suggestion According to immemorial usage, the life of a murderer was at the disposal of the relatives of the deceased, who might put him to death, or accept a price for the injury. Blood for blood was the rule, and if the guilty party fled, his nearest relative might be sacrificed in his place. The nation was divided into seven tribes, each preserving a distinct genealogy, traced through the female line of descent : and these tribes were held sacredly bound to administer this law, each within its own jurisdiction, and to afford facilities for its execution when the aggressor fled from one tribe to another. And we may remark here, as a curious illustration of the principle of Indian justice, that the object of this law was not to punish guilt, to preserve life, or to prevent crime; neither the protection of the weaker, nor the conservation of the peace of society was its object; it was the lextalionis administered simply to appease individual passion its sole purpose was revenge. For if any one killed another by accident, his life was as much forfeited as if he committed a willful homicide, and if he could not be readily found, the blood of his innocent relative might be shed : the most inoffensive and respectable person might be sacrificed to atone for the crime or the carelessness of a vagabond kinsman. Ridge, in an able speech, exposed the injustice of that part of this law which substituted a relative for a fugitive murderer, and successfully advocated its repeal. The more difficult task remained of enforcing obedience to the repealing statute a task which involved the breaking up of an ancient usage, and the curbing into subjection one of the wildest impulses of the human bosom, the master passion of the savage revenge; and this was to be effected in a community newly re organized, still barbarous and unused to the metes and bounds of a settled government. But Ridge, having proposed the measure, was required to carry it into effect, and readily assumed upon him self that responsibility; taking the precaution, however, to exact from every chief a promise, that he would advocate the principle of the new law, and stand prepared to punish its infringement. It was not long before an opportunity occurred to test the sincerity of these pledges. A man who had killed another, fled. The relations of the deceased were numerous, fearless, and vindictive, prompt to take offense, and eager to imbrue their hands in blood upon the slightest provocation. They determined to resent the injury by killing the brother of the offender. The friends of the latter dispatched a messenger to Ridge, to advise him of the in tended violation of the new law, and implore his protection; and he, with a creditable promptitude, sent word to the persons who proposed to revenge themselves, that he would take upon himself the office of killing the individual who should put such a purpose into execution. This threat had the desired effect, not only in that instance, but in causing the practice of substituting a relative in the place of an escaped homicide, to be abandoned.

About this time the subject of this memoir was married to a Cherokee girl, who is represented as having been handsome and sensible who possessed a fine person and an engaging countenance, and sustained through life an excellent character.

The Cherokees lived at that time in villages, having corn-fields, cultivated by the squaws, and enclosed in a common fence, which, by excluding the idea of separate property, cut off the strongest inducement to industry. Their dwellings were rude cabins, with earthen floors, and without chimneys. Ridge determined, after his marriage, to build a house, and cultivate a farm; and accordingly he removed into the wilderness, and reared a mansion of logs, which had the luxury of a door, and the extravagant addition of a chimney

Nor was this all : a roof was added, of long boards, split from logs, and confined in their places by weight poles and thus was completed the usual log-cabin of the frontier settler, an edifice which ranks in architecture next above the lodge or wigwam. And here did the Indian warrior and his bride, forsaking the habits of their race, betake themselves to ploughing and chopping, knitting and weaving, and other Christian employments, while insensibly they dropped also the unpronounceable heathen names in which they had hitherto rejoiced, and became ‘known as Major Ridge and Susannah. It is hardly necessary to remark, that one of the first things which the Indian learns from his civilized neighbor, is his love of titles; and finding that every gentleman of standing on the frontier had one, and that neither a commission nor a military employment is necessarily inferred from the assumption of a martial designation, he usually, on taking an English name, prefixes to it the title of Captain or Major.

The residence of Major Ridge was in the Ookellogee valley, where he lived more than eighteen years, employed in rural pursuits, and gathering about him herds and other property. He seems to have entirely abandoned the savage life, and settled quietly down in the enjoyment of the comforts of civilization. His family consisted of five children, one of whom died in infancy, another was deficient in mind, and the other three were well educated. His son John, after attending the mission school at Brainerd, was sent to Cornwall in Connecticut, where he spent four years under the instruction of the Reverend Herman Daggett. He here fell in love with a beautiful and excellent young lady, Miss Northrop, who reciprocated his affection, and after an engagement of two years, they were married she leaving for him her parents, brothers, sisters, and friends, and identifying herself with the Cherokees, among whom she has ever since resided. This couple have six children. The influence of this lady has already been most benignantly exerted over the rude people with whom her lot has been cast; but the extent of her usefulness will not be fully known nor appreciated until it shall be seen in the exertions of her children, whom she is carefully training up in the precepts of the Bible. The daughters of Major Ridge were also educated. One of them married and died early; the other is an accomplished young lady, of superior mind, who has traveled through most of the states of the Union, and who devotes herself, with a Christian and patriotic ardor, to the improvement of her countrywomen. The whole family are professors of religion, and are exemplary in their lives.

The interesting domestic avocations in which Major Ridge was now busily engaged, did not withdraw him from his public duties. He continued to be an active member of the council, in which he gradually rose to be an influential leader, and he was the orator usually chosen to announce and explain to the people the decrees of that body. He was also engaged in riding what was termed the judicial circuit. To enforce the laws among a barbarous people required a vigorous administration, and this office was assigned to twelve horsemen, persons of courage and intelligence, who were the judges, jurors, and executors of justice. Major Ridge was placed at the head of this corps, whose duty it was to ride through the nation, to take cognizance of all crimes and breaches of law, and to decide all controversies between individuals. In the un settled state of the community, the want of forms, and the absence of precedent, much was left to their discretion; and after all, these decisions were enforced rather by the number, energy, and physical power of the judges, than through any respect paid to the law itself.

In addition to these arduous duties as a magistrate, Ridge was active and useful in his example as a private man. He encouraged the opening of roads, and caused some to be made at his own expense. He advocated all public improvements, and endeavored to inculcate a taste for the refinements of civilization. He built a house, planted an orchard, and went forward in the march of improvement, until his farm was in a higher state of cultivation, and his buildings better, than those of any other person in that region, the whites not excepted.

About the close of the administration of President Jefferson, the question as to emigrating to the west of the Mississippi, began to be agitated among the Cherokees. Enolee, or Black Fox, the successor of Little Turkey, was head chief of the nation. He, with Tah-lon-tus-kee, Too-chay-lor, the Glass, the Turtle at home, and others, began to advocate the removal; the public mind became greatly excited, and those who possessed oratorical talents, employed them in popular harangues. While the people were discussing the subjects, the chiefs had matured their plan, and were proceeding to carry it into effect without the public consent, which the usages of the nation required, but for which they intended to substitute a hasty vote of the council. Accordingly, at a council held at a post within the limits of Tennessee, Black Fox, and a few other leaders, acting in concert with Colonel R. J. Meigs, the agent of the United States, brought forward a project for sending a delegation to Washington, to exchange their country for lands further west. The deputies were already nominated by the head chief; his talk to the President of the United States was delivered to Tah-lon-tus-kee, the leader of the deputation; and a vote of the council was only wanting to sanction what had been done, and to authorize the making of a treaty under which the nation should be removed to a far distant wilderness. That talk was in substance as follows: “Tell our Great Father, the President, that our game has disappeared, and we wish to follow it to the west. We are his friends, and we hope he will grant our petition, which is to remove our people towards the setting sun. But we shall give up a fine country, fertile in soil, abounding in water courses, and well adapted for the residence of white people. For all this we must have a good price.” This bold and artful movement had the desired effect; the people who had discussed the subject, without reference to a decision so sudden and conclusive, were not ready for the question : they were taken by surprise, and as it was not expected that any one would have the moral courage to rise in opposition under such circumstances, it only remained to take a vote, which would so far commit the nation as to preclude any future debate. A dead silence ensued the assembly was apparently awed, or cajoled into compliance, when Ridge, who had a spirit equal to the occasion, and who saw with indignation that the old men kept their seats, rose from the midst of the younger chiefs, and, with a manner and tone evincing great excitement, addressed the people. ” My friends,” said he, “you have heard the talk of the principal chief. He points to the region of the setting sun as the future habitation of this people. As a man he has a right to give his opinion; but the opinion he has given as the chief of this nation is not binding; it was not formed in council, in the light of day, but was made up in a corner to drag this people, without their consent, from their own country, to the dark land of the setting sun. I resist it here, in my place, as a man, as a chief, as a Cherokee, having the right to be consulted in a matter of such importance. What are your heads placed on your bodies for, but to think, and if to think, why should you not be consulted? I scorn this movement of a few men to unsettle the nation, and trifle with our attachment to the land of our forefathers! Look abroad over the face of this country along the rivers, the creeks, and their branches, and you behold the dwellings of the people who repose in content and security. Why is this grand scheme projected, to lead away to another country the people who are happy here? I, for one, abandon my respect for the will of a chief, and regard only the will of thousands of my people. Do I speak without the response of any heart in this assembly, or do I speak as a free man, to men who are free and know their rights? I pause to hear.” He sat down in the midst of acclamations. The people declared that his talk was good, that the talk of the head chief was bad; the latter was deposed upon the spot, and another appointed in his place. The delegation was changed, so that a majority of it were opposed to emigration, and Ridge was added to the number.

The advantage of traveling through the United States was not thrown away upon this intelligent and liberal-minded Indian. He visited the capital of a great nation, passing through many populous towns, and a great extent of cultivated country was introduced to President Jefferson, and became acquainted with many refined persons. He returned with a mind enlarged by travel, and with a renewed ardor in the cause of civilization.

The authority which were follow, having supplied us with few dates, we are not able to state at what time the ferocious Double-head rose into power among the Cherokees, nor is it very import ant. He was bold, ambitious, and possessed of uncommon sagacity and talent. He had strong friends, and, by. prudently amassing such property as the condition of the country rendered attainable, was considered wealthy. With these advantages he became a prominent man; and when the Cherokees began to establish some thing like a civil government, and to create offices, he succeeded in placing himself in the most lucrative posts. But as he sought office with selfish views, he very naturally abused it, and made himself odious by his arbitrary conduct. He not only executed the laws according to his own pleasure, but caused innocent men to be put to death, who thwarted his views. The chiefs and the people began alike to fear him, and a decree was privately made that he should be put to death. Ridge was chosen to perform the office of executioner, which he boldly discharged, by going with a few followers to Doublehead’s house, and killing him in the midst of his family; after which he addressed the crowd who were drawn together by this act of violence, and explained his authority and his reasons. It is impossible for us to decide how far such an act may have been justified by the demerits of the victim, and the patriotic motives of him who assumed the office of avenger. To settle the relative merits of the Brutus and the Caesar, is seldom an easy task; and it is rendered the more difficult in this instance, in consequence of the absence of all evidence but that of the friends of the parties. There seems, however, to be sufficient reason to believe, that Ridge sincerely desired to promote the civilization of his race, that Doublehead, his equal in talent and influence, but a savage at heart, entertained less liberal views, and that the removal of the latter was necessary to the fair operation of the great experiment to which Ridge was now devoting all his energies.

Shortly after the return of Ridge from Washington, a great excitement occurred among the Cherokees, on the subject of civilization. Heretofore the improvement of this nation had been gradual and almost imperceptible. A variety of causes acting together, led to a chain of natural consequences, which, by easy degrees, had produced important changes in the habits of the people. The insulated position of the nation, the inter-mixture of a half-breed race, the vicinity of the white settlements, the visits of the Missionaries, and the almost miraculous invention of Sequoyah, had all contributed to infuse the spirit of civilization. But, though many were converted, the great majority remained wrapped in the impenetrable mantle of barbarism, unaffected by these beneficent efforts, or regard ing them with sullen apathy, or stupid suspicion. A mass of ignorance, prejudice, and vice, excluded the rays of civilization, as the clouds of unwholesome vapor exhaled from the earth, shade her bosom from the genial warmth of the sun. But what, previous to the period at which we have arrived, had been merely doubt or disinclination, now began to assume the form of opposition. Some of the Cherokees dreamed dreams, and others received in various ways communications from the Great Spirit, all tending to discredit the scheme of civilization. A large collection of these deluded creatures met at Oostanalee town, where they held a grand savage feast, and celebrated a great medicine dance, which was performed exclusively by women, wearing terrapin shells, filled with pebbles, on their limbs, to rattle in concert with their wild uncouth songs. An old man chanted a song of ancient times. No conversation was allowed during the ceremony; the fierce visage of the Indian was bent in mute attention upon the exciting scene, and the congregated mass of mind was doubtless pervaded by the solemnizing conviction that the Great Spirit was among them. At this opportune crisis, a deputation from Coosa Wathla introduced a half-breed Cherokee, from the mountains, who professed to be the bearer of a message from heaven. His name was Charles. He was received with marked respect, and seated close to Ridge, the principal person present, and who, though he deplored the superstition that induced the meeting, had thought proper to attend, and ostensibly to join in the ceremonies. The savage missionary did not keep them long in suspense; he rose and announced that the Great Spirit had sent him to deliver a message to his people; he said he had already delivered it to some of the Cherokees in the mountains, but they disbelieved, and had beaten him. But he would not desist; he would declare the will of the Great Spirit at all hazards. The Great Spirit said, that the Cherokees were adopting the customs of the white people. They had mills, clothes, feather beds, and tables worse still, they had books and domestic cats! This was not good therefore the buffalo and other game were disappearing. The Great Spirit was angry, and had withdrawn his protection. The nation must return to the customs of their fathers. They must kill their cats, cut short their frocks, and dress as become Indians and warriors. They must discard all the fashions of the whites, abandon the use of any communication with each other except by word of mouth, and give up their mills, their houses, and all the arts learned from the white people. He promised, that if they believed and obeyed, then would game again abound, the white man would disappear, and God would love his people. He urged them to paint themselves, to hold feasts, and to dance to listen to his words, and to the words the Great Spirit would whisper in their dreams. He concluded by saying, if any one says that he does not believe, the Great Spirit will cut him off from the living.

This speech, artfully framed to suit the prejudices of the Indians, and to inflame the latent discontent of such as were not fully enlisted in .the work of reform, caused a great excitement among them. They cried out that the talk was good. Major Ridge perceived at once the evil effect that would be produced by such harangues, and, with his usual decision, determined not to tamper with the popular feeling, but to oppose and correct it. He rose in his place, and addressing the tumultuous assemblage with his wonted energy, said, ” My friends, the talk you have heard is not good. It would lead us to war with the United States, and we should suffer. It is false; it is not a talk from the Great Spirit. I stand here and defy the threat that he who disbelieves the threat shall die. Let the death come upon me. I offer to test this scheme of impostors!” The people, mad with superstition, rushed upon the orator who dared thus to brave their fury, and rebuke their folly, and would probably have put him to death, had he not defended himself. Being an athletic man he struck down several of the assailants, but was at last thrown to the ground, and his friend, John Harris, stabbed at his side. Jesse Vaun and others rallied around him, and beating back the crowd, enabled him to rise; and at length an old chief had sufficient influence over the infuriated savages to quell the tumult. As the tempest of passion subsided, the fanaticism which had caused it died away. The threat of the pretended messenger of heaven had proved false. His challenge had been accepted, and the daring individual who had defied him, lived, an evidence of his imposition.

The storm of fanaticism passed on to the Creek nation, among whom dreams were dreamed, and prophets arose who professed to have talked with the Great Spirit. The daring and restless Tecum the, who had traversed “the wilderness, for several hundred miles, for the purpose of stirring the savages to war against the Americans, appeared among the Creeks at this juncture, and artfully availed himself of a state of things so well suited to his purpose. Besides bringing tidings from the Great Spirit, he brought assurances from the British king, and greetings from the Shawanoe nation. The Creeks rose against their chiefs, broke out into war against the United States, and having surprised the frontier post of Fort Mimms, massacred the whole garrison, without distinction of age or sex.

These events occurred at a period the most gloomy in the history of our frontier settlements, the most hapless in the melancholy record of the destiny of the red man. The jealousies between Great Britain and America were rapidly approaching to a crisis, and the prospect of a war between these nations opened a wide field for the turbulence of savage passion, and the craft of savage intrigue. The extensive frontier of the United States, from the lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, became agitated. Emissaries, prophets, and mercenary traders were at work in every direction, having various interests and purposes, but alike bent upon setting all the elements of discord in motion.

General William McIntosh, a half-breed Creek, and one of their head men from Coweta, was on a visit to the Cherokee nation, when the faithless and tragic outrage was perpetrated at Fort Mimms; and, by order of the chiefs, he was escorted back to his own country by a chosen band of Cherokees, at the head of whom was Ridge. On their arrival at Coweta, they found the council of the Creek nation assembled. The head chief, Big Warrior, of Tuckabachee, was there, endeavoring to devise measures to secure his people from the impending danger of a civil war, and a war with the United States. The chiefs were in favor of a pacific policy, but they were overruled by a large majority, who, under the malign influence of the prophets, breathed only vengeance against the whites, and uncompromising hostility against every measure and every advocate of Christianity or civilization. The Big Warrior, having drawn a band of faithful friends about him for his present protection, applied to the United States authorities for assistance to put down this rebellion; and sent to the Cherokee nation a talk, together with a piece of tobacco, tied with a string of various colored beads, to be smoked in their council. Ridge was the bearer of the tobacco and the talk of the Creek chief, and in his name demanded aid to put down the Red Sticks, as the insurgent party were called; and, in an animated speech, he urged the object of his mission before the council at Oostanalee. He maintained that the hostile portion of the Creeks, in making war against the whites, had placed the Cherokees in a condition which obliged them to take one side or the other. That in the unsettled state of the country, no distinction would be known but that of Indians and white men, and a hostile movement by any tribe would involve the whole in a war. He insisted, further, that if the Creeks were permitted to put down their chiefs, and be ruled by the prophets, the work of civilization would be subverted, and the Red Sticks, in their efforts to re-establish a state of barbarism, would destroy all the southern tribes. The council listened with attention, and having considered the arguments of Ridge, declared that they would not interfere in the affairs of their neighbors, but would look on, and be at peace. “Then,” said Ridge, “I will act with volunteers. I call upon my friends to join me.” A number of brave men, the most conspicuous per sons in the nation, came forward; the people imbibed the spirit, until at last the chiefs were constrained to reverse their recent decision in council, and declare war.

The government of the United States had, by this time, taken steps to punish the massacre at Fort Mimms, and to protect the border settlements. General White, of Tennessee, with a body of the militia of that state, accompanied by Major Ridge, and a number of Cherokee warriors, marched into the Creek nation, and returned with many prisoners.

On his arrival at home, Major Ridge sent runners through the nation to collect volunteers for another expedition, and, with the assistance of the other chiefs, raised eight hundred warriors, whom he led to the head-quarters of General Jackson, at the Ten Islands, in Alabama. Under this commander, destined to become eminently successful in his military exploits, the army moved towards the position of the Creeks, who occupied a fortified camp, in a bend of the Talapoosa river, which, from its shape, was called the Horse shoe. This little peninsula was connected with the main land by a narrow isthmus, across which the Creeks had thrown a strong breastwork of logs, pierced with loop-holes, while the remainder of the circumference was surrounded and protected by the deep river. Within the area were a town and camp, in the midst of which was a high post painted red, and at the top of this were suspended the scalps of the white people who had been slain in the war. The Creek warriors, naked, and painted red, danced round this pole, and assembled about it, to narrate their exploits in battle, for the purpose of exciting in each other the principle of emulation, and the desire of vengeance. General Jackson, with his usual energy of purpose, resolved to attack the enemy without delay. The main body of his army advanced upon the breastwork, while General Coffee, with a detachment of the militia, and the Cherokee allies, forded the Talapoosa below, and surrounded the bend of the river. It was not intended that this division should cross into the camp, nor were they provided with boats; but the Cherokees, becoming anxious to join in the assault, two of them swam over the river, and returned with two canoes. A third canoe was secured by the activity of a Cherokee, who brought it from the middle of the river, after the Creeks who occupied it, had been shot by the Tennessee riflemen. Major Ridge was the first to embark; and in these three boats the Cherokees crossed, a few at a time, until the whole body had penetrated to the enemy’s camp. A spirited attack was made upon the rear of the enemy, by which their attention was diverted from the breastwork, and material aid given to a daring charge then making upon it by the regulars and militia. The breastwork was carried; the troops poured into the camp, the Indians pressed upon its rear, and the Creeks sought shelter behind numerous logs and limbs of forest trees, which had been strewed about to impede the advance of the assailants, and afford protection to themselves in the last resort. Here they fought with desperation. Thinned by the sharp shooters, and hemmed in on all sides, they scorned to ask for quarter or, perhaps, unaccustomed to that courtesy of civilized warfare which allows the vanquished to claim his life, they knew not how to make the demand. They continued to fight, and shout, the war-whoop, selling their blood dearly to the last drop. Driven at last from their lurking-places, they plunged into the thicket of reeds that margined the river, but the sword and the tomahawk found them here, and their last dismal refuge was in the deep cur rent of the Talapoosa. Here, too, the rifle ball overtook them, and the vindictive Cherokees rushed into the water in the fury of the pursuit. Few escaped to report the tragic story of that eventful day.

Ridge was a distinguished actor in this bloody drama; and are told that he was the first to leap into the river in pursuit of the fugitives. Six Creek warriors, some of whom had been previously wounded, fell by his hand. As he attempted to plunge his sword in one of these, the Creek closed with him, and a severe contest ensued. Two of the most athletic of their race were struggling in the water for life or death, each endeavoring to drown the other. Ridge, forgetting his own knife, seized one which his antagonist wore, and stabbed him; but the wound was not fatal, and the Creek still fought with an equal chance of success, when he was stabbed with a spear by one of Ridge’s friends, and thus fell a hero who deserved a nobler fate.

Thus ended the massacre of the Horseshoe, the recital of which we have made as brief as was consistent with fidelity to our task. We take no pleasure in recording these deeds of extermination : but they form a portion of history, and, unhappily, the story of border warfare is always the same; for it is always war embittered by party feud, personal injury, and individual hatred a national quarrel aggravated by private grief, and inflamed by bad passions.

After the Creek war Major Ridge visited Washington as a delegate from his nation, to President Madison, to adjust the northern boundary of their country; and he again represented his people on a similar mission during the administration of Mr. Monroe He had now become a prominent man, and when Alexander Saunders, an influential Cherokee, and the personal friend of Ridge, proposed to divide the nation, and organize a new council, it was chiefly through his exertions that the scheme was defeated.

After the death of Charles R. Hicks, the Cherokees were governed by John Ross, who, being a person of some education, led them to adopt a constitution and laws, in imitation of those of the United States. We pass over the controversy that ensued between the Cherokees and the State of Georgia, and between the latter and the United States, with the single remark, that Georgia objected to the organization of a government, by Indians, within her limits; and insisted that the American government should extinguish the title of the Cherokees, and remove them to other lands. Major Ridge had been among those who were opposed to the emigration of his people; he had favored the plan of establishing a regular government, and the introduction of education and Christianity, and had believed that these improvements could be more successfully cultivated by remaining in their own country, than in a region of wilderness, where all the temptations to a relapse into savage habits would be presented. But when, after a bitter and fruitless contest, it was found that Georgia adhered inflexibly to her determination, and the government of the United States would not interfere, he saw that sooner or later the weaker party must submit or be crushed, and he now used his influence to induce the Indians to remove to the new home pointed out to them. His views were supported by the members of a delegation that visited Washington in 1832, and who, after appealing to the government, and conversing with many eminent public men, and intelligent citizens, whose sympathies were strongly enlisted in their cause, came to the conclusion that it would be best to do at once that to which they would be finally compelled. John Ross, with a majority of the Cherokees, maintained a different policy, and an unhappy spirit of party was engendered by this diversity of opinion. Major Ridge was accused of entertaining opinions hostile to the interest and happiness of the people was regularly impeached, and cited to appear before a council to be held in the autumn of 1833, to answer a charge of treason. But when the time arrived, his accusers endeavored to put off the trial; betraying evidently their own convictions of his innocence, and their willingness to hold over him an accusation, which, while neither established nor refuted, might neutralize his influence. This attempt, however, failed, and the charge was dismissed.

Major Ridge is one of the very few individuals who, after being reared in the habits of the savage, have embraced the employments and comforts of civilized life. In youth we have seen him pursuing the chase for a livelihood, and seeking the war-path with all the Indian avidity for bloodshed and plunder. Gradually with drawing from these occupations, he became a cultivator of the soil, a legislator, and a civil magistrate; exhibiting in each capacity a discretion and dignity of character worthy of a better education. His house resembled in no respect the wigwam of the Indian it was the home of the patriarch, the scene of plenty and hospitality.

He showed the sincerity of his own conversion from barbarism, by giving to his children the advantages of education, and rearing them in habits of morality and temperance. All of them have professed the Christian religion, and sustained fair reputations; while Major Ridge, surrounded by his descendants, enjoys, in his old age, the respect and confidence earned by a long life of active industry and energetic public service.



MLA Source Citation:

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 22 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/major-ridge-cherokee-chief.htm - Last updated on Dec 17th, 2012


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