The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains
It was summer time; so there were no nuts nor acorns. Edible roots are seldom to be found in such a high land. There was little sustenance but toads, snakes, insects, berries, and the inner bark of trees. Many of the Indians starved to death. And yet the survivors stayed on, defying every effort of the troops to capture them.
General Scott found himself confronted by a problem similar, on a small scale, to the one that was giving so much trouble to our army operating against the Seminoles in the Everglades of Florida. To dig the Cherokees out of their warrens would require a large force operating simultaneously from both the Tennessee and the Carolina sides, and heating through a country so difficult that the “drive” might last all summer. At this juncture there occurred an incident that gave him an opportunity for compromise.
Among the Indians who had been seized was an old man named Tsali (Cherokee pronunciation of Charley). He was taken with his wife, his brother, his three Sons and their families. His wife being unable to travel fast, the soldiers prod-(led her along with bayonets. Charley, boiling with rage at this brutality, gave the word to the other men, in Cherokee, to strike down the guard and make a dash for liberty. They sprang upon the unsuspecting soldiers, killed one of them, stampeded the others, and made their escape to the mountains.
Scott sent for the white man, Thomas, who was the Indians’ most trusted friend, and authorized him to seek out the leader, Utsala, and propose to him that if he would seize Charley and the others concerned in the “murder,” and deliver them to headquarters for punishment, the General would call off the pursuit, secure a respite for the main body of refugees, and use his influence in Washington to get a special dispensation permitting the band to remain unmolested in their hills.
Thomas accepted the commission. With one or two Indian guides he made his way over secret paths to Utsala’s hiding place. Here he stated .his mission, and agreed with the chief that if the chief Tsala and his few companions were delivered to justice there was good hope that the Government would make an exception in favor of the band of Lufty and allow them to remain in their own country.
Utsala’s heart was bitter, for his wife and little son had starved to death on the mountain side. “But he thought of the thousands who were already on their long march into exile, and then he looked around upon his little band of followers. If only they might stay, even though a few must be sacrificed, it was better than that all should die—for they had sworn never to leave their country. He consented, and Thomas returned to report to General Scott.”
There are various and conflicting tales about the Charley episode, some of them mere legends, evidently colored by prejudice, and others the recollections of very old people who were not actors in the event. On the other hand Mr. Mooney got the story directly from Colonel Thomas himself, and from Wasituna, Charley’s youngest son, who alone was spared by General Scott on account of his youth. His relation can be accepted as historic fact.
“It was known that Charley and his party were hiding in a cave of the Great Smokies, at the head of Deep Creek.” (There is no real cave in that region, but there are shelving rocks sufficient to shelter a few men, and that is what is evidently meant). “But it was not thought likely that he could be taken without bloodshed and a further delay which might prejudice the whole undertaking. Thomas determined to go to him and try to persuade him to come in and surrender.
“Declining Scott’s offer of an escort, he went alone to the cave, and, getting between the Indians and their guns as they were sitting around the fire near the entrance, he walked up to Chancy and announced his message. The old man listened in silence and then said simply, ‘I will come in. I don’t want to be hunted down by my own people.’”
“By command of General Scott, Chancy, his brother, and the two elder sons were shot near the mouth of Tuckaseegee, a detachment of Cherokee prisoners being compelled to do the shooting in order to impress upon the prisoners the fact of their utter helplessness.”
A year later (September 12, 1839) the Commissioner of Indian Affairs reported that the Indians scattered through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee numbered 1,046. They were in a distressing condition, mere landless aliens, staying under respite that might be cancelled any moment, and kept alive mostly by the white settlers out of pity or in return for labor they performed. If they had been left to their own devices it is more than probable that they would have been gradually gathered up and sent to join their brethren in the West. In fact a commissioner was appointed in the Spring of 1840 to enroll them for such removal.
But Colonel Thomas went to Washington, and stayed there continuously for three years, working with all the energy of a devoted friend to induce the Government to let the Eastern band remain in its old home and to secure for them their fair share of moneys due for reservations and improvements confiscated. And he succeeded.
In 1846, the Eastern Cherokees were admitted to participation in the benefits of the treaty of 1835, and Thomas was authorized at various times to buy back from the whites enough land in western North Carolina to serve as a permanent home for the Band. This he did: but since the State of North Carolina persisted in refusing to recognize Indians as landowners, until 1866, Thomas held the deeds in his own name, as their authorized agent under the Government. The Indian title was finally adjudicated by the United States during the period from 1875 to 1894.
The present legal status of the Eastern Band of Cherokees is indeterminate and anomalous. It has been ruled by the courts that they are citizens of the United States, and again that they were wards of the Government. They are under discipline of a resident Indian agent, but never have been reservation Indians. They are citizens of North Carolina, and at the same time a body corporate and politic. They have a tribal constitution, and are governed in tribal matters by chiefs and councilors elected by themselves.
Their lands were purchased by themselves, or by the Government from funds due them, but they cannot make free contracts nor alienate the lands that they hold in severalty. They pay taxes, except poll tax, perform road service, and are amenable to the local courts, save in land matters. Male Cherokees of voting age who can read and write English are allowed to vote—sometimes, and sometimes not.
There are about 18,000 of these Indians in the QualIa boundary, and about 500 more scattered in other parts of North Carolina. More than half of them are full-bloods, a much larger percentage than among their kinsmen in Oklahoma.
Nearly all of the men, and many of the women, can read and write their own language. About half of them can use enough English for ordinary intercourse. The Government training school at Cherokee post office affords an excellent education to the boys and girls, and, under the present Superintendent, is doing fine work among the adults by demonstrating modern methods of farming and stock raising.
The prompt and generous response of the Eastern Cherokees to our Government’s calls for subscriptions to liberty bonds and war savings stamps was surprising and delightful. In proportion to their ability they more than equalled the whites. Their young men went into the war willingly and fought gallantly. Only one slacker was reported in the whole tribe, and he was immediately brought to book by his own people. The Indian children in the Cherokee school are supporting a war orphan in France.
The sacrifice of poor old Tsali and his kinsmen was not made in vain.