Episode #25 An Eternal Flame

This month not only have we traveled over the Blue Ridge, we are skimming Indian history from the Pequot war in 1636 (losing Mistick Fort in Connecticut) to the loss of the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears beginning in 1836 in North Carolina. We almost have a final resolution, still playing out. Exhausting, I know. But so very insightful to political positions today. It seems that we are still eager to set up divisions among ourselves to establish rules and customs to decide who is “in” and who is “out,” manipulating the popular vote, like fourth grade, to see who gets chosen for “teams.” Pay attention to who chooses you!

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Cherokees were encouraged, with a supply of plows, spinning wheels and looms from the federal government, to assimilate into American life. They already excelled at raising horses, cattle, and gardening. An effort was being made on both sides for a short time…by some folks. Not surprisingly, Indians became more dependent upon European goods. Some of the Cherokee men were natural leaders, and many Native American families sent their children off to be educated or else brought teachers into their community. For a very short time, there may have been a chance at peace. If it had not been for the misunderstanding about the value of property. Especially when the smell of gold dust filled the air.

It was at this time a hero claimed his spotlight. Some might say a genius, and it appears he applied more than common sense and perseverance to solve a gigantic problem his brothers could not see. Sequoya could not read or write, and he had no need to speak English. But he was observant and noticed that many who did speak English made markings that could be interpreted in order to understand the thoughts of those in another location. “Writing” must have appeared to be a useful idea, and he reasoned his language could use the same markings. Horace Kephart told this story on pages 9-12 of The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains, published in 2010 and marketed by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. “After years of hard study, in the face of ridicule and repeated failures, Sequoya finally began analyzing his language into its component sounds,” picking out one hundred and fifteen distinct syllables. Any word in the Cherokee language could be written by “assigning a separate character to each syllable.” Eliminating double consonants with similar hissing sounds, Sequoya reduced the number of sounds to eighty-five symbols. No spelling to learn. “Any Indian could pick up in a few weeks” the art of reading and writing. Thousands of Indians became literate, “without one school being established or one teacher hired.”

The Cherokees made a concerted effort to be “civilized” to please their new white neighbors. Page 9 in Kephart’s book: They passed laws for the collection of taxes, for repairs of roads, for the support of schools, for the suppression of temperance and polygamy, and for the prevention of selling land to the whites without the consent of their National Council. From my perspective, it seems as though they tried to prove their own civilization was worthy of respect. How sad they justly felt their survival depended upon a subservient demeanor. We have seen that before, and it never works, for neither side.

In 1827 the Cherokee Council began publication of a national newspaper in the Cherokee language created by Sequoyah who then lived in Arkansas. (Kephart, page 10) Under the editorship of an Native American educated in Connecticut, the press was located in the newly established Cherokee capital of New Echota. (Bringing us back to The First American War–in Connecticut–See Episode #23)

Sequoyah himself moved to Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and tried to use his notoriety to unite the Cherokee Nation from there. He traveled with a peace delegation to Washington D.C., in 1828, and to Takatoka in 1839 (love that name; it sounds Fijian) to achieve a fragile voice vote between the Eastern and Western tribes that failed to “resolve the reunification issues,” and later to Mexico to convince Cherokee bands to return home. He is reported to have died on one of these trips around 1844 in Coahuila, but the date and the location of his grave site are up for speculation. There are a few possibilities: he could be buried in Coahuila,  in Wichita Mountains north of there, or in Zaragoza, Texas.   https://en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequoyah

In 1965 Sequoyah’s cabin was declared an historic landmark operated by the Oklahoma Historic Society until 2016 when it was bought by the Cherokee Nation.

Overview: Chota was the original Cherokee capital of the Overhill Cherokees but it was moved in 1788 from the Little Tennessee and Tellico Rivers to Ustanali on the Coosawatee River in Georgia. Ustanali was established in 1777 by refuges from burned-out towns in northeastern SC when Chief Old Tassel and several other leaders were trapped and murdered as they responded to “Nolichucky Jack” Sevier’s request for a peaceful meeting. This turned out to be retribution for the killing of a settler family by somebody else, not these particular chiefs. But an Indian is an Indian, right? All the same? Do we have these same prejudices today? Oh, yeah. Maybe in first grade. (This was the time of angry warriors like Dragging Canoe, told in Episode #23) Check out the website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Echota

New Echota became the new capital in 1825 but didn’t last long because Chief John Ross and the National Council meetings moved to Tennessee. Instead New Echota became the site of a removal fort for the Trail of Tears, the painful forced evacuation of Native Americans to a new territory most of them didn’t want. The town was abandoned for a hundred years. Now it has a historic monument; I don’t know if there are any Cherokees there, but I do know Sevier became the first governor of Tennessee, his retribution.

South Mountain

Between 1804-1827, most gold in the US came from North Carolina. (See Brackett Town Saga on this blog) In December 1828, the Georgia legislature got vicious, annexing the Cherokee property within her chartered limits, declaring all laws and customs of the Indians be null and void, and none of them or their descendants would be able to witness or be a part of any lawsuit where a white man was a defendant. Each white citizen in Georgia was given a lottery ticket for the auctioning off of the confiscated Cherokee property. (Kephart, pages 14-16)

The Cherokee Nation was not the only Native American tribe affected by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. At the beginning of 1830, there were nearly 125,000 Native Americans living on millions of acres in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. By the end of the decade, there were very few in the southeast US because the federal government had voted itself the power of an Omniscient Ruler to exchange native-held land east of the Mississippi for land to the west, acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase in present day Oklahoma. Out of sight, out of mind. Just paperwork. The Choctaws left in 1831, and the Creeks in 1836.(See https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history)

(Today I got a request for a blanket donation from St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana, “serving Native American children of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations since 1884.” Just sayin’…)

In 1835, the National Council of the Cherokees was led by Chief John Ross, who was only one-eighth Cherokee blood. He was their leader for 40 years, and they trusted him. Even when he talked them into giving up their weapons to prove their good will. Unfortunately, that advice prevented the defense of their property from the thieving rabble who still had their own weapons.  I suppose the theory was the tribe was going to move anyway and didn’t need all that stuff.

That may have been a factor in why a few self-appointed representatives of the Cherokee negotiated in 1835 “the Treaty of New Echota, which traded all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi for $5 million, relocation assistance and compensation for lost property.” This sneaky treaty was negotiated with Cherokee chiefs who represented a small faction, trading their land in Tennessee and Georgia for land in the west. These men, led by John Ridge, did not have permission to represent the majority, certainly not the National Council. Out of a population of 17,000, only 300 were at the meeting at the Cherokee capital. Protesting this treaty, nearly 16,000 signed a petition of renegotiation to take back to Washington, but Congress approved the treaty anyway, on an unusual fast track. See https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history

The story continues in https://cherokee.org/About-the-Nation/History/Trail where I read “the Cherokee leaders who signed the Treaty of New Echota also signed their own death warrant, carried out once the Cherokee arrived in Indian territory.”

When Chief Ross headed to Washington to represent the majority of Cherokee, attempting to halt the miscarriage of justice, he was waylaid by Georgia militia. All his documents were taken along with scientific data about Indians carried by poet John Howard Payne who traveled with Ross. They were held without charges in Georgia so they could not represent the Cherokees before Congress. At the same time, the Cherokee Press was disabled. (Kephart, page 18-19) The Cherokee lost their voice. No freedom of speech for them.

On May 23, 1836, the treaty became law; the Cherokee were given two years by President Van Buren to abandon the land of their fathers. (Not because of anything they did to lose their rights but because they didn’t have any rights IMHO.) There were many Congressional leaders opposed to this new treaty such as Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and Henry Clay, according to Kephart, page 21. The law was passed by only one vote. As a side mention, Davy Crockett had been elected to Congress as a Jacksonian Democrat from Tennessee, but in this issue he went against his constituents and Jackson. Even under threat to losing his political career, Crockett said he would not sacrifice his honor and conscience to please the opposition who considered a treaty as a “matter of expedience.” Just a “matter.” (Kephart, page 21) Crockett was voted out and went to fight in the Mexican War in 1846. You know the rest of his brave story at the Alamo.

Bridal Veil Falls

At this time, the census showed there were 16,542 self-supported Cherokees with no debt. (Kephart, page 17-27) The Supreme Court had ruled their territory should remain inviolate forever…separate from that of any other state boundaries. But now 7000 troops appeared in May of 1836 to round up peaceable Cherokees guilty only of trusting their chief’s ability to persuade Congress to let them remain as honorable neighbors. New Echota became the location of Ft. Wool, a Removal Fort from which they were herded like animals to a country totally unlike their beloved forest with scenic vistas and waterfalls.

From Horace Kephart’s book we learn that there are many legends and stories about the Trail of Tears, and it is hard to separate fact from fiction. On page 28, he recommends the account of James Mooney, of the US Bureau of Ethnology, from which he quotes: “squads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in coves or by the sides of mountain streams, to seize and bring in as prisoners all the occupants.” “Men were seized in the fields or going along the road, women were taken from their wheels and children from their play.” In many cases the “rabble” who followed the soldiers like “scavengers” stole the livestock and set fire to the cabins during the roundup, stealing the Cherokee’s hope as well as their possessions. “Systematic hunts were made by the same men for Indian graves, to rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead.”

In a few weeks, most of the Cherokee were “corralled in various stockades,” and the “work of removal” began in June of 1838. In bands of 5,000 under the direction of Army officers, they were put on steamboats and sent down the Tennessee and Ohio rivers. They were deposited on the Mississippi River banks to march across Arkansas into Indian territory, now Oklahoma. Mountain folk did not do well in the lowlands in scorching heat. Even after the summer passed, and a new route chosen, an estimated 4,000 perished along the way. On page 31, Kephart quotes one of the conservative Chiefs who counseled peace with the white man but opposed leaving his homeland.  Before allowing a circulation among his people of a translation of St. Matthew published by the Cherokee press at Echota, Chief Yonaguska had it read to him. He commented, “Well it seems to be a good book–strange that the white people are no better, after having had it so long.” Ouch!

Just like a movie, the climax was a final showdown between a protagonist and the antagonist. Tsali was a spiritual leader, a prophet, originally from Coosawattee and once a compadre of Dragging Canoe, a Chickamauga-Cherokee War Chief referenced in the Burchfield story of an earlier blog. Older now, Tsali was caught in the dragnet of Cherokees along with his wife and brother and three sons and their families. Here is one place where the truth has died with the witnesses. Kephart relates the story one way, saying that the wife “unable to travel fast” was prodded with bayonets, and Tsali became so angry he signaled his party in Cherokee language to kill the soldiers and flee. At https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsali  the story had the same result of escape but a more dramatic tale of a baby being killed, evoking the outrage of any reader.

General Winfield Scott had been tasked by President Martin Van Buren with the responsibility of implementing the controversial evacuation law. He had the military backup and the ability to enlist the help of locals who were anxious to seize Cherokee land. The orderly march westward was overshadowed by a thousand Native Americans who refused to participate. They were hiding securely in caves on 5000′ treacherous mountain slopes which made the job of the soldiers difficult. The lack of available food put these Indians in peril, and many starved to death. Scott decided on a compromise: he would leave the majority alone if Tsali surrendered because his group had been responsible for killing soldiers. Tsali listened to this option and accepted his fate: “I will come in. I don’t want to be hunted down by my own people.” (Kephart, page 34) So the finale sputtered to an ending that neither side was proud of: Tsali, his brother and two sons were executed by a firing squad of their own tribe who was forced to choose between that act of betrayal and their own lives. Their helplessness was reinforced. Again.

Colonel William Thomas, who had been a trader and friend to the Cherokee for twenty years, was complicit in Tsali’s surrender and death as the only option to save the larger number of refuges. For the next three years Thomas represented them in Washington, lobbying for their best interests, and it was through his diligence that the Eastern Band of Cherokees was able to return to their land, although it took many more years for their citizenship in North Carolina.

Another finale that took years to appreciate: In Episode #23 Westward Ho Dysartsville, Oconostata was introduced as one of the Cherokee Chiefs who traded away land to Jacob Brown on the Nolichucky River in TN. The deal was made on the property of Hunting John McDowell in today’s McDowell County. This is the rest of the story of the great Cherokee War Chief. “In July of 1782, the aging warrior with the consent of the Cherokee Nation resigned to his son his forty-four year status as ‘Great Warrior’.” In 1783, almost completely blind, the former Chief lived with Virginia Indian Agent John Martin on the Long Island of the Holston River.” When he felt his time was close to ending, Oconostata asked his friend to carry him to the Cherokee Capital of Chota. The town became a myth when eventually its location was only mere speculation. Their friendship was real.

Writer Ann Landis Swann continues the legend of Oconostata in her The Other Side of the River, Morris Publishing, Kearney, NE, pages 387-388. In the late 1960s, in preparation of flooding the Little Tennessee River, archaeologists located seven columns which represented the seven clans, remnants of the Cherokee Council House. When they excavated the area, they found the remains of a man between the ages of 69 and 72. Anyone buried at the entrance of the Council House in this possible capital of Chota signified an elevated stature in the Cherokee legend of leaders. Believable evidence that it was Oconostata.

According to the Cherokee Travel and Tourism Cherokee Guide of 2008: “In 1879 in Carlisle, PA, Capt R.H. Pratt opened the first Native American boarding school to forcibly acculturate Indians to mainstream white society. ‘Kill the Indian and save the man,’ Pratt said. Toward this goal, Indian children throughout North America were taken from their homes and families, given ‘white’ names, wardrobes, and haircuts, and forbidden to speak any language but English.” (Pages 7-8) “The Cherokee Boarding School, founded in 1880, likewise maintained an English-only policy until 1933, with devastating effect on Cherokee fluency.” This backward philosophy has now changed; we celebrate our roots.

“When the Cherokees were driven west on the Trail of Tears, the caretaker of the Sacred Fire, an eternal flame, went with his people into exile. This flame was then maintained in Oklahoma for succeeding generations.

“In 1951, the Cherokee Historical Association sent an expedition of tribal leaders from the Eastern Band to retrace the Trail of Tears. In Oklahoma, these leaders lit a charcoal filled bucket with live coals from the Sacred Fire and brought it all the way back to Cherokee, North Carolina. On the 1951 opening night of “Unto These Hills,” a torch lit from these coals transferred the Sacred Fire to light a new Cherokee Eternal Flame, located just offstage. This flame still burns today.

Smoky Mountains

“And in ‘Unto These Hills…a retelling.’ It is brightly reflected by a Hoop Dance that symbolically reunites the Eastern and Western Cherokee. As these hoops become a glowing, living connection between both tribes, they proclaim the unquenchable Cherokee spirit to all who see their light.” Your Cherokee Guide, 2008, Cherokee Travel and Tourism, page 32.

“Both stories end in present-day Cherokee, where descendants of those who held out against removal and those who returned from it now live on their own, sovereign land. And as the new play suggests both by its plot and its existence, today’s Cherokees are actively deciding how best to blend their own traditions with what the larger world offers.” Your Cherokee Guide, page 31.

Psalm 121:1 “I will lift up my eyes onto the hills. From whence cometh my help? (and then) Verse 2: “My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.”


Copyright (c) May 2019 Georgia Wilson


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