Wednesday, March 9, 2016

History Rewritten - 5

Men are not worried by things, but by their ideas about things.

They have prostituted their culture.  I went to Cherokee this summer.  I could only stay two days.
-Vernon Bellecourt, American Indian Movement leader

Who controls the present controls the past; who controls the past controls the future.
-The Ministry of Truth, in George Orwell’s 1984.

Among legendary Cherokee figures few, if any, have attained the lofty status of Tsali, aka Charley, aka Old Charley.  That’s understandable if one’s knowledge of the man is limited to the version depicted in the outdoor drama, Unto These Hills.  But for anyone who begins with the documentary record of his final days, the transformation of the Tsali of history to the Tsali of legend is a head-scratcher.   In that regard, a rewording of the Epictetus adage is in order

Men are not inspired by things, but by their ideas about things.

The popular legend of Tsali goes something like this:

During the Cherokee removal, Tsali and his family were taken into custody.  Subsequently, a soldier accompanying the captives was killed and Tsali escaped.  After hiding out in the upper Deep Creek area, Tsali came forward to accept his inevitable execution on November 25, 1838.  As a result of Tsali’s sacrifice, federal officials allowed 1000 of his fellow Cherokees to remain along the Oconaluftee River, thereby avoiding the Trail of Tears. 

So we’re told.  But while the myth is easily refuted, some aspects of the story remain a mystery.  Few incidents occurring deep in the Smokies in the 1830s are as well documented as the death of Tsali.  I would be the last to claim, though, that such documentary evidence is infallible.  Military records in particular should be taken with a very large grain of salt.  Having examined the respective Union and Confederate accounts of the Civil War Battle of Bryson City, I find it hard to believe that they are both describing the same event.  Nevertheless…

Historian Duane King gets to the crux of the matter:

The extent to which Tsali’s death has been glorified in martyrdom staggers the imagination.  To whites and acculturated Indians, Tsali is seen as a combination of the Messiah and George Washington, who made the ultimate sacrifice for the creation of a new state.  

However, many traditional Cherokees view the murder of the soldiers as a hideous crime which jeopardized the entire Cherokee community in the North Carolina mountains.  It invoked the wrath of the United States government.  In their bid to remain in North Carolina, the Oconalufty Cherokees had worked hard to promote an image of peaceful, law-abiding, industrious, model citizens.  Suddenly, through no fault of their own, that image was challenged.

My curiosity led me to trace the evolution of the Tsali story from fact to fiction.  I promptly discovered that several bona fide scholars had already outlined that progression.  Unfortunately, the nuances of the “real” story don’t lend themselves to melodramatic pageants and other tourist bait. 

Clearly, there is a price to be paid for chipping away at a legend.  After University of Tennessee historian John Finger wrote about the facts surrounding the Tsali incident, the blustering, rough-edged, criminal, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Jonathan “Ed” Taylor, confronted the professor:

We don't need outsiders coming in and attacking our heroes.  Cherokees wouldn't attack George Washington, and you're doing that to us.*

Good.  I don’t want anyone shaking my firmly held belief in GW’s chopping down of the cherry tree or flinging of a silver dollar across the Potomac. Is nothing sacred?

Chief Ed is a funny one to be feigning such sensitivity.  Back in 1991, the Atlanta Braves were catching hell for their mascot and their tomahawk chops even after Chief Noc-A-Homa had been dispatched to the Great Baseball Stadium in the Sky.

But Taylor stepped up to the plate in their defense.

Doug Grow reported on the controversy for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune:

CHEROKEE, N.C. — Thousands of the tomahawks favored by fans of the Atlanta Braves are made here. So are the chicken-feather headdresses.

``And blankets,`` said Jonathan Taylor. ``Don`t forget to mention we make blankets.``

Taylor is principal chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. He also is a fan of capitalism, the Braves baseball team, Braves owner Ted Turner and the much discussed tomahawk chop.

``We`re not fighting a war-Indians against whites-anymore,`` Taylor said. ``Cherokees just want to make a living. The tomahawk chop is great. Right now, we`ve got 300 Indians working over at the moccasin factory.``

Cherokee is designed to be a tourist trap. It`s filled with places with such names as the Honest Injun Trading Post, Trail of Tears Gallery, Big Chief Swap Shop and Princess Cafe.

American Indian Movement leaders in the Twin Cities and in Atlanta have spoken with a combination of contempt and pity for the Cherokee tribe. One AIM leader, Bill Means, compared the Cherokees profiting from the Braves` success to the Indian scouts who helped the cavalry.

The last line is hilarious, considering that is PRECISELY what happened in the case of Tsali.  Why isn’t that the moral of the story?  “Look how swimmingly things turn out when Indian scouts help the cavalry!!!!”

Background to a Showdown

In 1835, one minority faction of Cherokees signed a treaty in New Echota, Georgia that provided for removal of Cherokees to the West.  But another small faction settled along the Oconaluftee River held fast to the terms of an 1819 treaty which had allowed them to seek United States citizenship and hold lands in the vicinity of Quallatown.  These “Oconaluftee,” “Lufty,” or “Qualla” Indians had enjoyed harmonious relations with their white neighbors, and the white merchant Will Thomas was an adopted member of the group.

When the terms of the New Echota Treaty were being implemented, there was great dissension among the “non-Oconaluftee” Cherokees.  Many who felt railroaded by the small faction of treaty signers did their best to elude the United States Army as it rounded up Cherokees for the removal.  Among those fugitives was a small band led by Tsali.

Most of his early life was spent with the so-called Chickamauga Cherokees of northwest Georgia, about 100 miles away from Qualla.  During the onset of the Revolutionary War, a number of Cherokees in Tennessee sought to distance themselves from the expanding frontier settlements.  Starting in 1776 –77, they migrated southwest and establish a dozen new towns south of present-day Chattanooga.

These Chickamauga or Lower Cherokees had ongoing conflicts with the Upper Cherokees remaining along the Hiwassee and Little Tennessee Rivers.  Black Fox of the Chickamauga served as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1801-1810, and took a major role in treaty negotiations. In 1806, Black Fox relinquished nearly 7,000 square miles of land in present-day Tennessee and Alabama, and was given a lifetime annuity in return.  

A series of such transactions, arguably quite self-serving, did not sit well with certain elements among the Cherokees.  Upper Cherokees complained to President Thomas Jefferson January 24, 1808:

We…can never consider any future Treaty binding upon us, until it is reviewed & approved by a Majority of all our beloved Men, Chiefs & Warriors. This Regulation will effectually prevent all future Misunderstandings of our Engagements and secure Tranquility between us.

Tommy J responded to the Upper Cherokees on May 4, 1808:

You complain that you do not receive your just proportion of the Annuities we pay your Nation; that the Chiefs of the lower Town’s take for them more than their share. My Children, this distribution is made by the Authority of the Cherokee Nation, & according to their own rules over which we have no control. We do our duty in delivering the Annuities to the head men of the Nation and we pretend to no Authority over them, to no right of directing how they are to be distributed. but We will instruct our Agent Colo. Meigs to exhort the Chiefs to do justice to all the parts of their Nation in the distribution of these Annuities & to endeavor that every town shall have its due share. We would willingly pay these Annuities in money which Could be more equally divided, if the Nation would prefer that, and if we can be assured that the money will not be laid out in strong drink instead of necessaries for your wives & children….

You propose My Children, that your Nation shall be divided into two and that your part the Upper Cherokees, shall be separated from the lower by a fixed boundary, shall be placed under the Government of the U.S. become citizens thereof, and be ruled by our laws; in fine, to be our brothers instead of our children. My Children I shall rejoice to See the day when the red men our neighbors become truly one people with us, enjoying all the rights and privileges we do, & living in peace & plenty as we do without any one to make them afraid, to injure their persons, or to take their property without being punished for it according to fixed laws. but are you prepared for this? have you the resolution to leave off hunting for your living, to lay off a farm for each family to itself, to live by industry, the men working that farm with their hands, raising stock or learning trades as we do, & the women spinning & weaving Clothes for their Husbands & Children? all this is necessary before our laws can suit you or be of any use to you.

By 1811, other outside factors complicated the turmoil among the Cherokees.  The Shawnee leader Tecumseh came south to persuade the Five Civilized tribes to join his proposed pan-Indian alliance to resist the Americans.  He exhorted the Muscogees in October 1811.  General Samuel Dale, who was present at the meeting, claimed these were the words of Tecumseh:

In defiance of the white warriors of Ohio and Kentucky, I have traveled through their settlements, once our favorite hunting grounds. No war-whoop was sounded, but there is blood on our knives. The Pale-faces felt the blow, but knew not whence it came. Accursed be the race that has seized on our country and made women of our warriors. Our fathers, from their tombs, reproach us as slaves and cowards. I hear them now in the wailing winds. The Muscogee was once a mighty people. The Georgians trembled at your war-whoop, and the maidens of my tribe, on the distant lakes, sung the prowess of your warriors and sighed for their embraces. Now your very blood is white; your tomahawks have no edge; your bows and arrows were buried with your fathers. Oh! Muscogees, brethren of my mother, brush from your eyelids the sleep of slavery; once more strike for vengeance; once more for your country. The spirits of the mighty dead complain. Their tears drop from the weeping skies.

Let the white race perish. They seize your land; they corrupt your women; they trample on the ashes of your dead! Back, whence they came, upon a trail of blood, they must be driven. Back! back, ay, into the great water whose accursed waves brought them to our shores! Burn their dwellings! Destroy their stock! Slay their wives and children! The Red Man owns the country, and the Pale-faces must never enjoy it. War now! War forever! War upon the living! War upon the dead! Dig their very corpses from the grave. Our country must give no rest to a white man's bones. This is the will of the Great Spirit, revealed to my brother, his familiar, the Prophet of the Lakes. He sends me to you. All the tribes of the north are dancing the war-dance. Two mighty warriors across the seas will send us arms. Tecumseh will soon return to his country. My prophets shall tarry with you. They will stand between you and the bullets of your enemies. When the white men approach you the yawning earth shall swallow them up. Soon shall you see my arm of fire stretched athwart the sky. I will stamp my foot at Tippecanoe, and the very earth shall shake.

If those were indeed the words of Tecumseh, such sentiments drew mixed response in the South.  A Cherokee leader, The Ridge, after observing Tecumseh among the Muscogee, threatened him with death should he ever set foot upon Cherokee territory.  On the other hand, Tsali was very receptive to Tecumseh’s message and during a national council of the Cherokees, he argued for war against the Americans.  After a heated debate, The Ridge prevailed with his arguments in favor of maintaining peace with the Americans. 

Several weeks later, though, the Southeast was rattled by the New Madrid earthquakes.  Tsali asserted the temblors fulfilled Tecumseh’s vow that by stamping his foot at Tippecanoe, “the very earth shall shake.”  With prophetic fervor, Tsali warned of a coming apocalypse for the Cherokee Nation and convinced many fellow Cherokees to retreat to the Smoky Mountains to find safe haven.  Tsali, his wife, and three sons relocated from Georgia to the Nantahala River near its confluence with the Little Tennessee and lived quietly for the next quarter century. 

This brings us to where the scholars begin to trace the evolution of Tsali from man to myth. In November 1838, United States Army troops under the command of General Winfield Scott were tracking down recalcitrant Cherokees trying to avoid their forced removal.  A number of holdouts, including Tsali and his family, were hiding along the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries.   Will Thomas was assisting the army by organizing a party of Oconaluftee Cherokees to help track down the fugitives.

Rounding Up the Fugitive Cherokees

I was aware of the military correspondence regarding the matter, but I was surprised to find that the records were published in numerous periodicals within a month of Tsali’s death.  An overview of events is found in a November 6, 1838 letter from General Scott, at the headquarters of the Eastern Division of the War Department in Athens, Tennessee.  At that point, he knew of the killings committed by Tsali’s party and was awaiting their capture, shuttling army troops in and out of the region.  

Troops were ordered from North Carolina to the Canada frontier, July 21st, on the assurance of Brigadier General Eustis, their immediate commander, that all the Indians …had been collected and sent in to the agency for emigration….

 In a few weeks, [it was] discovered that perhaps 300 had escaped…by retiring to distant hiding places in the same range of mountains, beyond the limits of the late Cherokee country; which number was in the months of July and August augmented by forty or fifty [more], who stole away singly from the principal emigrating depot…

Early in August I sent Lieutenant Scott, with a detachment of mounted men and Indian runners furnished by the Cherokee authorities, into those mountains, who succeeded, by the aid of those runners in bringing to the agency about 90 of the fugitives…

On the 12th of September I dispatched Lieutenants Larned, Johnson, and Smith, with a larger detachment of mounted men, and a double set of Indian runners, furnished as before and [they apprehended] about 60 prisoners, all of whom were captured, not one having yielded to invitation or persuasion on the part of the runners.

Lieutenant Larned estimates the remaining Indians in the region (subject to emigration— that is, excluding those who have acquired the right to remain on the Oconeelufty, Haywood county, under the laws of North Carolina,) at about 200 souls, including 40 warriors. Five of the latter were the prisoners of Lieutenant Smith, and [they] murdered two of his men and wounded a third.  Indeed he had no others with him at the moment, the rest of his party being on the return from a search for Indians, and only half a mile off when the prisoners made the attack.  That this act of hostility was wholly unprovoked by any unkindness, is evident from the fact that the two men killed had dismounted and lent their horses to the murderers to ride, who pretended to be lame or fatigued.

Tsali Kills His Captors and Escapes

In a November 5 letter to Lieutenant Larned, Lieutenant A. J. Smith went into greater detail concerning the murders committed by the Cherokees taken into custody:

Agreeably to your instructions, dated September 17th, I repaired immediately to Oconeelufty, North Carolina, for the purpose of collecting all the Indians in that neighborhood belonging to the nation. After two weeks unsuccessful search at Olufty, I started to S. Carolina, in pursuit of a large number of Indians that had been reported to me to be in the vicinity of Pickens. I found a camp of sixteen, and brought them to O.

On my return to the place, I found orders for us to return home as soon as practicable. On our way down the little Tennessee river I heard of a party of Indians within a few miles of us, and thinking it my duty to collect them, if possible, I proceeded in company with Mr. Thomas and three men to their camps, sending the other party on down the river in charge of a sergeant and eight men. I found but eight at their camp, but understanding that there were twenty belonging to the company, I concluded to stay with them until next morning, hoping they would all come in. I was, however, obliged to start with only twelve of the company.

This day I expected to overtake the other command, but was forced to stop at James Welsh's. There I found an express with a repetition of your previous orders.  From thence I made rny way, with all possible speed, down the river, ordering, by express, a portion of the men of the first command to join me immediately. On the evening of [November 1st] I discovered an unwillingness among the Indians to travel, and, in order to make greater speed, I put some of the children on horses, but it was with great difficulty I could then get them along, I suspected.all was not right and frequently cautioned the men to be on their guard.

Shortly after sunset, I discovered a long dirk-knife in the possession of one of our Indians, and ordered it to be immediately taken from him. He turned it over without any hesitation; and we had proceeded but a short distance before I spied an axe, which I also ordered to be taken from them, but I am sorry to say, too late, for I had scarcely finished the order, before I saw the axe buried in the forehead of one of our men.

This being the signal for attack the others fell immediately to work, and in less than one minute, they killed two, wounded a third, and commenced searching them, and carrying off every article they could lay their hands on. I fortunately escaped unhurt, and owe my life in a measure to the spirit and activity of my horse.

Search for the Killers

Returning to General Scott’s letter, plans for capture of the offending party are outlined:

The country to be searched by Colonel [William S.] Foster is very extensive, and in the greater part, extremely difficult to traverse, both for horse and foot. It abounds in deer, wild beef cattle, and hogs. I suppose that the expedition may be out about four weeks…

The instructions which I shall give the expedition, (which has commenced its march,) will have nothing in them of a vindictive character, except as regards the murderers, and I shall change my former orders so far as to permit the troops to fire on any warrior who flies.

The Indians lo be pursued are mere outlaws. They have obstinately separated themselves from their tribe, and refused all obedience to the orders and entreaties of its chiefs. Nevertheless, they shall be again summoned to deliver themselves up, with a promise of kind treatment to all except the murderers. Every Cherokee in this neighborhood who has heard of the recent outrage has expressed the utmost indignation and regret, and it would be very easy to obtain from the emigrants on the road any number of warriors to march with the troops against the outlaws. I shall, however, only accept of the services of a few runners, to bear invitations of kindness, deeming it against the honor of the United States to employ, in hostilities, one part of a tribe against another.

Col. Foster will also have the aid, as runners, guides, and interpreters, of some of Mr. Thomas's Oconeelufly Indians, as well as the personal services of Mr. Thomas himself, who takes a lively interest in the success of the expedition.

Besides punishing the murderers and capturing the other fugitives, the expedition has another important object, viz., to prevent those Indians who, unprovoked, have commenced hostilities, from murdering the White families thinly scattered over that mountainous region.

Finally, on December 5, Captain John Paige announced “mission accomplished”:

I have the honor to report the arrival of the troops from the mountains; they having captured the five murderers, four of which were executed, and the fifth was pardoned.  The Lufty Indians that reside in North Carolina rendered great assistance in finding them. After the murderers were caught, they were tied to trees, the troops drawn up, and the Lufty Indians shot them.  The families of the murderers (nine in number) were brought to this place and will go west accompanied by the troops as prisoners.  The troops will all leave this nation in a few days…

Eyewitness to Tsali’s Execution

In these accounts there is nothing to indicate that the Oconaluftee Indians faced any risk of deportation.  So where did we get the idea that Tsali “sacrificed” himself so that “his people” could remain in the mountain? Five years afterwards, an eyewitness to Tsali’s execution gave a deposition to Joseph Welch, Justice of the Peace. This account explains that the small group of Cherokees who executed the Tsali party did gain the right to remain in North Carolina as a reward for their cooperation, a far cry from the legendary tale:

This day personally came before me, Joseph Welch, one of the acting Macon County Justices of the peace in and for said county, Jonas Jenkins, aged forty one years, a respectable citizen of said county who, after sworn according to law, deposeth and saith as follows:

That about the fifteenth of November 1838, he was employed to accompany Euchella and about forty Cherokee warriors that had been employed by Colonel Foster of the United States Army to aid in capturing Charley and three other Cherokee Indians that had as he was informed murdered two soldiers by the names of Perry and Martin belonging to the 4th Infantry a short time previous to the time he entered the service.

After the Cherokee company and the few white hunters that accompanied them captured three of the murderers, deponent aided to guard them to where Colonel Foster was, then stationed with the United States troops near the mouth of the Tuckasegee River on the Little Tennessee River in the above mentioned county.

A few days afterwards the murderers were tried by the Cherokees, found guilty (as deponent as informed) and deponent was present when they were shot by a guard of the Cherokees under the direction of Euchella in the presence of Colonel Foster and the United States Army which was drawn up on the bank of the Little Tennessee River to see them executed.

Euchella and the chiefs and warriors that composed the company were directed to assemble at Colonel Foster's tent to hold a talk. Colonel Foster when they were assembled informed them that they had seen in the punishment of those murderers the consequence resulting from an attack on the United States Army and murdering citizens. He stated that he was aware of the important services they had rendered the United States in capturing and executing those murderers and that only one by the name of Charley remained to be captured and executed, he would leave them to perform that part of the duty and would immediately march his army out of the country and in consequence of the meritorious services rendered the United States by the Cherokee chiefs and warriors in performing the services he would close the emigration and permit Euchella and his band as well as all the Cherokees remaining in the country (except old Charley's family) to settle in and unite with the Cherokees at Qualla Town that had been citizenized.

He advised them to send runners to bring in their friends that had been lying out in the mountains to avoid being taken to Arkansas to inform them of the permission granted them to settle at Qualla Town and become citizens of the state, advised them to say to their friends not to lie out in the mountains any longer suffering with hunger but to take his advice and settle at Qualla Town and not scatter off among the whites, to live in friendship with their white neighbors and make good citizens and he assured them that they would never be molested by the United States.

Euchella replied before they were made citizens of the United States. that they had aided the white people in their war against the Creek Indians and now since the government of the United States had been so kind to them as to permit the Cherokees remaining to remain citizens of the state of North Carolina, they would always be found ready as American citizens to render their adopted country all the aid in their power against her enemies.

Euchella and the other chiefs and warriors belonging to the company took leave of Colonel Foster and Euchella, informed him when his warriors had captured Charley that he should be dealt with as the chiefs had promised and though he might be in a foreign country when he heard from them, he should have no reason to accuse them for not performing on their part in good faith all they had promised him. The Cherokee company then marched up the Tuckasegee River towards Qualla Town and the American Army started towards Tennessee as deponent was informed, he did not wait to see them on their march but they were preparing to march when he left with the Cherokee company.

The next day Wachucha and some other Cherokees met the Cherokee company with old Charley who they had captured on Nantahala and the next day afterwards Euchella and the chiefs tried him, he acknowledged he had killed the soldier and that he expected to die for it when he done the act. Euchella after the decision was made informed Charley that he would be shot at twelve o'clock. A short time before twelve he told Euchella to hunt up his children that had been left in the mountains when he was taken first to be emigrated, to be a father to them talk good to them, give them good advice, to tell them what had become of their father and that it was his request that they should die in that country and never go to Arkansas.

He told them he was a brave man and not afraid to die and when he was chained to the tree to be shot he showed no symptom of fear. Euchella promised him what he requested in relation to his children should be performed, a bandage was place over his eyes and three of the warriors were selected to execute the sentence and at a signal given by Euchella with his hand, the three selected fired, one ball passed into his brain and two balls into his breast, deponent aided in digging his grave and burying him on the bank of the Tuckasegee River.

The Cherokee company immediately marched on towards Qualla Town. A few days afterwards deponent was at that town and saw about thirty of the outlying Cherokees including men, women, and children almost naked move into the town to settle there in pursuance of the instructions given by Colonel Foster in permitting those Cherokee Indians to remain with the best arrangement that could have been made, that the interest of the government of the Cherokees and the white citizens were promoted thereby. Colonel Foster's whole regiment unaided by the Indians could not in his opinion have captured those murderers against this time. The large beds of laurel in which they had secreted themselves rendered it impossible for him to have taken them with his troops, deponent further saith, as sworn to and subscribed before me August 16, 1843.

So there you have it.  Myth debunked. 

The Legend Takes Root

Before long, the legend of Tsali took on a life of its own.  A prime suspect in this process is Will Thomas, though his motives are not entirely clear.  We do know that Thomas was an informant to Charles Lanman when that writer travelled through Qualla a decade after the Cherokee removal. 

Lanman’s retelling appeared in his book, Letters from the Alleghany Mountains.  His embellishment of Tsali’s dying words is a stock feature of the romanticized “noble savage” literature of the nineteenth century:

Another of the characters I intended to mention is named Euchella. He is a very worthy chief, and now in the afternoon of his days. He is quite celebrated among his people as a warrior, but is principally famous for important services rendered by him to the United States Government during the Cherokee troubles. He, and a band of one hundred followers, first attracted public attention by evading, for upwards of a whole year, the officers of Government who had been commanded to remove the party beyond the Mississippi. It having been ascertained, however, that Euchella could not easily be captured, and would never submit to leave his country, it was determined that an overture should be made, by which he and his brotherhood of warriors could be secured to assist the whites in their troublesome efforts to capture three Indians who had murdered a number of soldiers. The instrument employed to effect a reconciliation was the Indian trader, Mr. Thomas, who succeeded in appointing a meeting with Euchella on a remote mountain-top.

During this interview, Mr. Thomas remonstrated with Euchella, and told him that, if he would join the whites, he might remain in Carolina, and be at peace. “I cannot be at peace,” replied the warrior, “because it is now a whole year that your soldiers have hunted me like a wild deer. I have suffered from the white man more than I can bear. I had a wife and a little child—a brave, bright-eyed boy—and because I would not become your slave, they were left to starve upon the mountains. Yes; and I buried them with my own hand, at midnight. For a whole week at a time have I been without bread myself, and this in my own country too. I cannot bear to think upon my wrongs, and I scorn your proposition.”

It so happened, however, that he partially relented, and having submitted the proposition to his warriors, whom he summoned to his side by a whoop, they agreed to accept it, and from that time Euchella became an ally of the army. It was by the efforts of Euchella and his band that the murderers already mentioned were arrested and punished. They had been condemned by a court martial, and sentenced to be shot, and the scorn of death manifested by one of them, named Charley, is worth recording.

He had been given into the hands of Euchella, and when he was tied to the tree, by one arm, where he was to die, (to which confinement he submitted without a murmur,) he asked permission to make a few remarks, which was of course granted, and he spoke as follows: “And is it by your hands, Euchella, that I am to die? We have been brothers together; but Euchella has promised to be the white man’s friend, and he must do his duty, and poor Charley is to suffer because he loved his country. O, Euchella! if the Cherokee people now beyond the Mississippi carried my heart in their bosoms, they never would have left their beautiful native land—their own mountain land. I am not afraid to die; O, no, I want to die, for my heart is very heavy, heavier than lead. But, Euchella, there is one favor that I would ask at your hands. You know that I had a little boy, who was lost among the mountains. I want you to find that boy, if he is not dead, and tell him that the last words of his father were that he must never go beyond the Father of Waters, but die in the land of his birth. It is sweet to die in one’s own country, and to be buried by the margin of one’s native stream.”

After the bandage had been placed over his eyes, a little delay occurred in the order of execution, when Charley gently raised the bandage, and saw a dozen of Euchella’s warriors in the very act of firing; he then replaced the cloth, without manifesting the least anxiety or moving a muscle, and in a moment more the poor savage was weltering in his blood. And so did all three of the murderers perish.

Qualla Town, North Carolina, May, 1848.

One More Bite at the Apple

Forty years after Will Thomas told Charles Lanman about Tsali, he retold the tale to James Mooney, an ethnographer who spent several years among the Cherokee at Qualla and compiled Myths of the Cherokee.  At this stage of his life, Thomas’ mental faculties may have been seriously compromised. Either that, or a tendency toward self-aggrandizement resulted in his taking a more central role in the Tsali story as it was channeled by Mooney.

It remains to speak of the eastern band of Cherokee—the remnant which still clings to the woods and waters of the old home country. As has been said, a considerable number had eluded the troops in the general round-up of 1838 and had fled to the fastnesses of the high mountains. Here they were joined by others who had managed to break through the guard at Calhoun and other collecting stations, until the whole number of fugitives in hiding amounted to a thousand or more, principally of the mountain Cherokee of North Carolina, the purest-blooded and most conservative of the Nation. About one-half the refugee warriors had put themselves under command of a noted leader named U′tsălă, “Lichen,” who made his headquarters amid the lofty peaks at the head of Oconaluftee, from which secure hiding place, although reduced to extremity of suffering from starvation and exposure, they defied every effort to effect their capture.

The work of running down these fugitives proved to be so difficult an undertaking and so well-nigh barren of result that when Charley and his sons made their bold stroke for freedom General Scott eagerly seized the incident as an opportunity for compromise. To this end he engaged the services of William H. Thomas, a trader who for more than twenty years had been closely identified with the mountain Cherokee and possessed their full confidence, and authorized him to submit to U′tsălă a proposition that if the latter would seize Charley and the others who had been concerned in the attack upon the soldiers and surrender them for punishment, the pursuit would be called off and the fugitives allowed to stay unmolested until an effort could be made to secure permission from the general government for them to remain.

Thomas accepted the commission, and taking with him one or two Indians made his way over secret paths to U′tsălă’s hiding place. He presented Scott’s proposition and represented to the chief that by aiding in bringing Charley’s party to punishment according to the rules of war he could secure respite for his sorely pressed followers, with the ultimate hope that they might be allowed to remain in their own country, whereas if he rejected the offer the whole force of the seven thousand troops which had now completed the work of gathering up and deporting the rest of the tribe would be set loose upon his own small band until the last refugee had been either taken or killed.

U′tsălă turned the proposition in his mind long and seriously. His 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 round 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.

Now occurred a remarkable incident which shows the character of Thomas and the masterly influence which he already had over the Indians, although as yet he was hardly more than thirty years old. It was known that Charley and his party were in hiding in a cave of the Great Smokies, at the head of Deep creek, 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 Charley 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.” They came in voluntarily and were shot, as has been already narrated, one only, a mere boy, being spared on account of his youth. This boy, now an old man, is still living, Wasitû′na, better known to the whites as Washington.

Enough Already

I have only scratched the surface of the “mythification” of Tsali, but frankly I find it too tiresome to proceed.  And I am eager to get back to the 16th century and following the trail of Hernando De Soto.  For further reading, including a closer look at the evolution of the oral tradition of the Tsali legend among the Qualla Indians, the following sources are all essential:

Duane King, “Tsali: The  Man Behind the Legend,” Journal of Cherokee Studies, Fall 1979. Excerpted online: 

John Finger, “The Saga of  Tsali: Legend Versus Reality,” North Carolina Historical Review, January 1979.
(Also at  )

Paul Kutsche, “The Tsali  Legend: Culture Heroes and Historiography,” Ethnohistory, Autumn 1963.

Also, for a modernist critical approach that breaks free from such confining paradigms as chronology, historical fidelity, patriarchy, and the dreaded Old Dead White Guys, a recent dissertation might be of interest.  Actually, as doctoral dissertations go it is fairly engaging:

AUGUSTÉ, NICOL NIXON, Ph.D. The Rhetoric of Nuna Dual Tsuny: Retelling the Cherokee Trail of Tears. (2006) Directed by Dr. Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater. 170pp.   This dissertation discusses ways to examine historical events such as the Cherokee Trail of Tears through various rhetorical lenses and scrutinizes how to negotiate meaning via these strategies.  This work will contribute to the current discourse on how rhetoric and rhetorical strategies guide the reexamination of a unique American Indian/Euro-American history.   To accomplish this task, I examine the Trail of Tears event through rhetorical lenses that utilize dynamic genres such as ethnohistory, witness, and women’s voice.
Even those doing the best works of history and archaeology are combining evidence and imagination, in an unavoidably imperfect way.  Rebuilding the distant past is like assembling a 1000-piece puzzle missing 900 pieces.  Of course there is room for “various rhetorical lenses.”  If someone is peeved that a great native feminist utopia was subverted by the arrival of Ol’ Whitey, then give voice to that great lost cause.  I get it.

If some inspiring moral can be drawn from the Tsali story, as it is generally marketed, fine.  I get it.  But why the bitter resistance to hearing the extremely strong evidence of another, contradictory, story?  One in which the Oconaluftee Cherokees had little to gain or lose from the shenanigans of a guy named Charley.  A fellow who might have been something other than a selfless martyr.

Having spent most of my life in these mountains, I consider the history of this place to be MY heritage, too.  And I have spent decades studying that history, to see this place not just as it is today, but as it was long ago.  So I’m surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t be, at how hard it is to sweep away the misinformation and get to something solid, or as solid as a reconstruction of the past can be.

Admittedly, when I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or George Orwell’s 1984, it doesn’t strike me as fiction, so much as a critique of current events, troubling events.  And those books warn what happens when the past is appropriated or erased by the powers-that-be. I find some satisfaction in fighting back against that form of oppression in whatever small and feeble way that I can.  At least that’s one way to justify my obsession with historical minutiae.


*Note - The Ed Taylor quote appears in a Washington Post article (9/14/2004), When Myth Meets Reality, by Bob Thompson.  Describing the way that a “top ten list” of Eastern Cherokee cultural events was chosen for inclusion in the National Museum of the American Indian, my overwhelming response is deep sadness. From the article, “Event No. 9 was the opening of the casino on Nov. 13, 1997.”  The article delivers an interesting critique on the struggles faced by the museum to balance tribal involvement with historical integrity.  Hopefully, intelligent policy has prevailed over the PC crowd by now, but who knows.  Everybody gets a trophy.

I would not go to the National Gallery of Art to see popsicle-sticks-glued-to-construction-paper presented as “art.”  Nor would I go to the NMAI for a celebration of worthless junk spawned by a tribe’s marketing arm.


Vern Bellecourt, rest his soul, was right about those who prostitute their culture. Long ago and far away, I interviewed Mr. Bellecourt.  I only wish I could have taken a ride with him through Cherokee.  Now THAT would have been an interview! 

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