Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Possum's Hair Hat

I’d call it an astonishing mystery - on April 3, 1730 in the Cherokee village Nequassee (present Franklin, NC) Sir Alexander Cuming oversaw a ceremony to install Chief Moytoy as the "Emperor of the Cherokees," and won the allegiance of the Cherokees to the King of England:
April 3. They proceeded this Morning to Nequassee, being. five Miles Distance from Joree, their Company always increasing. Here the Indians met from all Parts of the Settlements, (having received Intelligence of the General Meeting intended) by the Expresses sent from Keeowee. This was a Day of Solemnity the greatest that ever was seen in the Country; there was Singing, Dancing, Feasting, making of Speeches, the Creation of Moytoy Emperor, with the unanimous Consent of all the head Men assembled from the different Towns of the Nation, a Declaration of their resigning their Crown, Eagles Tails, Scalps of their Enemies, as an Emblem of their all owning his Majesty King George’s Sovereignty over them, at the Desire of Sir Alexander Cuming, in whom an absolute unlimited Power was placed, without which he could not be able to answer to his Majesty for their Conduct. The Declaration of Obedience was made on their Knees, in Order to intimate, that a Violation of their Promise then made in so solemn a Manner, would be sufficient to make them no People. Sir Alexander made the Witnesses sign to the Substance of what they saw and heard, in order to preserve the Memory thereof, after Words are forgot. The Witnesses were Sir Alexander Cuming, Eleazar Wiggan, Ludovick Grant, Samuel Brown, William Cooper, Agnus Mackferson, David Dowie, Francis Beaver, Lachlan Mackbain, George Hunter, George Chicken, and Joseph Cooper, Interpreter, besides the Indians.

Cuming anticipated some details of the ceremony, as indicated by one contemporary account:
Sir Alexander had been informed of all the Ceremonies that were used in making a head beloved man, of which there are a great many in this nation. They are called Ouka and as we translate that word King, so we call the Cap he wears upon that occasion his Crown, it resembles a wig and is made of Possum’s hair Dyed Red or Yellow, Sir Alexander was very desirous to see one of them, and there being none at that Town One was sent for to some other Town, He Expressed Great Satisfaction at Seeing of it, and he told the Indians that he would carry it to England and give it to the Great King George.

During the ceremony, Moytoy insisted that Cuming share in the glory of the moment. The Cherokees present lifted Cuming up onto the seat reserved for Moytoy and performed the Eagle Tail Dance that involved stroking him with the tail feathers of 13 golden eagles.

We’re told that Cuming made the trip to the colonies because of his wife’s dream that he would accomplish great things among the Cherokees. Drawn to a place he’d never seen, Cuming left England on September 13, 1729 and arrived in Charleston on December 5.

He was a persuasive confidence man, who wasted no time in swindling Charleston investors and planning an escape on the next ship heading back across the Atlantic. But not before his trip to the Cherokee territory as a self-appointed emissary of the crown.

For guides, Cuming enlisted white traders and Indian fighters familiar with the Cherokee land and people. On March 11, 1730, they set off from Charleston toward the southern mountains. Along the way, the party shot a wild bison in South Carolina, and were warned to avoid Cherokee territory because of their hostility toward the English.

Cuming never hesitated, but sped forward. At that time, there were about 64 Cherokee villages in parts of four present-day states, 30 to 60 houses per town. In an incredibly short time, Sir Alexander visited many of those villages, was greeted with exceptional generosity wherever he went, and forged extensive alliances with Cherokee leaders, culminating with the April 3 ceremony. He must have impressed the Cherokee people, because very soon after his arrival they hailed him as a 'lawgiver, commander, leader and chief' and presented him with the scalps of their enemies.

His whirlwind tour among the Cherokees began in the Lower Villages along the headwaters of the Savannah River, like Keowee, and then proceeded to Nequassee and the other Middle Settlements along the upper part of the Little Tennessee. He crossed the Unicoi Range past Murphy and visited the Overhills Settlements, including Tellico, before starting back to Nequassee.

He somehow convinced seven Cherokees to return with him to the royal court as evidence of the agreement he had negotiated with the Cherokees. Cuming and his entourage arrived back in Charleston on April 13, just a month and two days after starting their expedition to the mountains. They boarded a ship on May 4 and landed in Dover, England on June 5, 1730. He was promptly thrown in jail for debt. The Cherokees thought it a counterproductive punishment in that it rendered the debtor unable to repay his debts.

What a day it must have been, 277 years ago today, when Sir Alexander went to Franklin and was crowned with a possum’s hair cap.

One "embellished" book on this episode is William O. Steele’s "The Cherokee Crown of Tannassy" which expands on the contemporary accounts of the expedition.
The illustration: Seven Cherokee men show off English costumes given to them by King George II on a walk in St. James Gardens, London, summer 1730. Engraving, British Museum.

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