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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter II - Early History of the Cherokees


At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Cherokees were the most powerful and the most civilized of all the North American Indians. Their possessions, which at one time extended from the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains almost to the Mississippi, and from northern Kentucky to central Alabama and Georgia, though greatly diminished, still covered a territory of fifty-three thousand square miles, almost half of which lay in Tennessee, a small area in southwestern North Carolina, the rest being about equally divided between Alabama and Georgia. They were the mountaineers of the south holding the mountain barriers between the English settlements on the Atlantic Seacoast and the French and Spanish garrisons in the Mississippi Valley and on the Gulf Coast.

They called themselves Yun-wi-yah, meaning principal people. The name Cherokee, or Cheraqui has been given more than one interpretation. According to one version it is a contraction of two words meaning "He takes fire." It was believed by the Spaniards to signify rock-dwellers, and was probably given them by neighboring tribes as descriptive of the mountain country which according to Bancroft, was the most picturesque and salubrious region east of the Mississippi. "Their homes are encircled by blue hills rising beyond blue hills of which the lofty peaks would kindle with the early light and the overshadowing night envelop the valleys like a cloud". David Brown, a Cherokee youth educated at Cornwall, Connecticut, writing in 1822, describes it as a well-watered and fertile region; "Abundant springs of pure water are to be found everywhere," he says. "A range of lofty and majestic mountains stretch themselves across the nation, the northern part of which is hilly while in the southern and western parts are extensive and fertile plains, covered partly with tall trees through which beautiful streams of water glide. The climate is delightful and healthy; the winters are mild and the spring clothes the ground with richest verdure. Cherokee flowers of exquisite beauty and variegated hues meet and fascinate the eye in every direction."

Cradled in such surroundings, it is not strange that the Cherokees were instinctively artistic and responsive to every form of natural beauty. The song of bird and the delicate fragrance of wild flower delighted, while the massive grandeur of mountain and forest filled with awe and admiration, these children of the wilderness, often inspiring their minds to lofty flights of fancy which sometimes found expression in metaphors of rare subtlety and beauty.

Attachment to their ancestral homes was strong and sincere and had its root deep in the past of their domestic and religious institutions. As is always the case when a primitive people has dwelt for a long time in the same region, their legends had become localized and were associated with mountain peak and prominent rock and tree, with spring and cave and deep river-bend.

The English traveller, Bartram., describes the people of this tribe as of larger stature and fairer complexion than their southern neighbors. "In their manner and disposition they are grave and steady; dignified and circumspect in their deportment; rather slow and reserved in their conversation, yet frank, cheerful and humane; tenacious of the liberties and natural rights of man; secret, deliberate and determined in their councils; honest, just and liberal, and ready always to sacrifice every pleasure and gratification, even their blood and life itself, to defend their territory and maintain their rights." The men are described as tall, erect and moderately robust; their features regular and their countenances open, dignified and placid, exhibiting an air of magnanimity, superiority and rude independence; the women, as tall, slender, erect and of delicate frame; their features, formed with perfect symmetry. "Their countenances are cheerful and friendly; they move with a becoming grace and dignity."

They were a religious people: but "never in their most savage state did they worship the work of their own hands, neither fire nor water." They believed in a Great First Cause, in a spirit of Good, and a spirit of Evil in constant warfare with each other, the Good finally prevailing. Heaven, an open forest of shade and fruit trees, was adorned with fragrant flowers and mossy banks beside cool sparkling streams; game abounded and there were enough feasts and dances to satisfy, but not to cloy, the appetite for pleasure. This happy and immortal region reserved for beautiful women, prepared and adorned by the Great Spirit, and men distinguished for valor, wisdom and hospitality, lay just across the way from the land of Evil Spirits, where the wretched who had failed on earth, were compelled to live in hungeT, hostility and darkness, hearing and seeing the rejoicings of the happy without the hope of ever reaching the delectable shores.

Witches and wizards were abroad in the land, who claimed supernatural powers and were supposed to have intercourse with evil spirits, and to have the power of transforming themselves into beasts and birds, in which forms they took nocturnal excursions in pursuit of human prey, usually, though not always, those stricken with disease. The croak of a frog or the hoot of an owl in the twilight was enough to strike terror to the heart of the bravest Indian child, who verily believed that the witches "would get him if he didn't watch out."

Adair, who for forty years was a trader among the southern Indians and travelled extensively through their country between 1735 and 1775, describes the Cherokees as living in villages situated beside "cool, sparkling streams," in which they bathed frequently, either as a religious rite or for the purpose of "seasoning" the body and rendering it indifferent to exposure. "They are almost as impenetrable as a bar of steel," he declares.

Their villages lay in four main groups: the Lower Settlements lying upon the head streams of the Savannah; the Middle Settlements on the Tennessee and its southern tributaries; the Valley Towns west of them between two ranges of the Blue Ridge Mountains; and the Overhill Settlements on the Little Tennessee between the Blue Ridge and Holston. Besides these main groups were scattered towns situated in different parts of the Cherokee country. It was estimated in 1736 that there were sixty-four towns and villages, "populous and full of women and children," with about sixteen or seventeen thousand souls all told, over six thousand of whom were warriors. Each village had its council house and its outlying fields of maize, beans and squashes, the common property of the community. The head man of the village, together with certain warriors distinguished for prowess, not only managed local affairs but represented the village at the General Council of the nation usually held, at Chota on the Tellico River. A certain loose tribal unity was maintained by a principal chief and by certain laws or regulations by which every member of the tribe was bound.

To summarize, the Cherokees, by virtue of their location had developed an artistic temperament, certain physical and mental characteristics and a form of religious belief in keeping with and influenced by their surroundings. Because of this intimate relation their attachment to their country was exceedingly strong, a fact important in the explanation of their later actions, but often either overlooked or disregarded by the ever encroaching whites.

Contact of the Cherokees with Europeans dates back to the middle of the sixteenth century, when the daring and adventurous De Soto, marching northward from Tampa Bay and passing over "rough and high hills," arrived in the land of the Cheraqui. The Spaniards described the Indians as a naked, lean and unwarlike people given to hospitality to strangers. To the travellers they presented baskets of berries and presents of corn, wild turkeys and an edible species of small dog, which latter the Cherokees themselves did not eat, according to the Gentleman of Elvas.

From time to time the Cherokees met Spanish explorers and English and French settlers from whom they gradually adopted such civilized arts as appealed to them. That they so long remained conservative to European ideas and appeared to disdain anything alien was due to the fact that there was so little in civilization that appealed to people in the barbarous stage, and not to their lack of intellectual vigor. Their own tools and implements were so admirably suited to their purposes that they did not feel the need of better ones. Fire arms proved an exception. The Indian learned their use readily, for by them he was enabled to supply the growing demand for furs, the chief article of trade with Europeans, and to hold his own with his enemies. By 1715 about twelve hundred Cherokee warriors were supplied with guns, and a few years later the governor of South Carolina furnished two hundred more with guns and ammunition on condition that they would help him in a war upon a neighboring tribe.

Before the end, of the seventeenth century Virginia and South Carolina traders began dealing with the Cherokees. In 1690 Cornelius Daugherty, a Virginia Irishman, established himself among the tribe with whom he spent the remainder of his life. He was followed by other traders, some of whom were not on the very' best terms with the aborigines, due chiefly to their custom of purchasing or capturing Indians to be sold in the settlements or to the West Indies, and to their general conduct toward the natives, which was described as sometimes "very abuseful." Complaints of these abuses coming from the Cherokees to Governor Nicholson, coupled with the jealousy of French encroachments upon English trade with the Indians, caused him to arrange for a conference of chiefs to be held at Charleston in 1721. A treaty establishing i boundary between the Cherokees and the settlement was agreed upon; a chief was designated as the head of the nation to represent it in all dealings with the colonial government; a commissioner was appointed to superintend the relation of the colony with the Cherokees and a small cession of land was made, the first in the long list that was to follow.

Nine years later we find North Carolina commissioning Sir Alexander Cummings to arrange a treaty of alliance with the tribe. After a preliminary meeting with the chiefs on the Hiwassee in the Cherokee country he conveyed a committee of six of them, bearing the crown of the nation, to England where, after a visit of several weeks, they signed the treaty of Dover. The treaty provided that the Cherokees trade with no other country than England, and that none but Englishmen be allowed to build forts or cabins, or plant corn among them. In return for these concessions the chiefs carried home a generous supply of paint, a few pounds of beads and some other equally worthless articles. Flattered by the courteous treatment which they received in England they did not at first realize the disproportionateness of the bargain.

These two treaties were but the beginning of land cessions by which, year after year, from this time on, under one pretext or another, the aborigines were shorn of their ancestral domains and found themselves powerless to prevent it.

In 1755, a treaty and purchase of land were again negotiated by South Carolina. In 1756 North Carolina commissioned Hugh Wad-deli to conclude a treaty of alliance and cession which was followed up the same year by Governor Glenn's chain of military forts, Fort Prince George erected on the Savannah, Fort Monroe, 170 miles farther down the river, and Fort Loudon on the Tennessee, at the mouth of the Tellico. In 1777 Cherokee hostilities were put down with a heavy hand by the combined forces from Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina and most of their principal towns on the Tennessee destroyed. A cession of land was wrung from the Indians which proved so distasteful to the Chicamauga band that they refused to assent to it. Moving westward they settled the "Five Lower Towns" on the Tennesee, among which was Lookout Mountain town where Daniel Ross came so lear losing his life. With various other treaties these bring as to the end of the official relations of the Cherokees with colonial governments, so far as concerns land cessions, and to the War of Independence and the formation of the Confederation.

The mother country and her colonies, by failing at the outset to adopt a definite systematic policy of justice and humanity towards the Indians, established the precedent for all subsequent dealings with them. Charters and patents granted by England to the colonies neglected to give due consideration to the prior claims of the aboriginal tribes. The colonies left their course with the Indians to be directed by circumstances. Agents and commissioners were given a free hand in securing land cessions and arranging treaties. Bribes were used without scruple and chiefs and headmen corrupted by every available means. That any advantage which might be taken of the ignorance and misunderstanding of natives, unfamiliar with the English language, was considered legitimate is evident to any one familiar with the history of Indian treaties. Neither governments nor individuals considered it dishonest to cheat an Indian, criminal to rob him, nor murder to kill him. Any attempt to protect him or to teach him the way of salvation was scarcely deemed meritorious. That amicable relations existed at all between the Indians and the English was due to two causes: first, the few exceptional white men who looked upon the savage as entitled to the same justice and humanity as that to which the white man is entitled; and second, to the increasing proximity of Spaniards in Florida and French in the Mississippi Valley and on the Gulf Coast, bidding for Indian trade. These the English watched with jealous eye, dreading not only the loss of profitable trade, but the hostility of the natives who could become formidable enemies at the very back doors of the settlements.

This fear caused the colonists to adopt a conciliatory policy toward the Cherokees who, responding to their advances, formed an alliance with them against the French. In the attack upon Fort Duquesne a band of Cherokee warriors rendered valuable service to the English. The contemptuous attitude of British and Colonial officers, the severe military restraint placed upon them, suspicion of their fidelity, together with various other reasons, caused them to become dissatisfied and return home. Having lost their horses in an encounter with the French and being fatigued by the long journey, they supplied themselves with mounts from a herd which they found running at large on the frontier. The inhabitants of Virginia, horrified at this act of horse stealing, attacked the warriors on their way home through the settlements and killed forty of them. An act of treachery on the part of a settler who invited a party of Cherokees to his house in order that they might be surrounded and shot down as they left his hospitable roof completed the estrangement. Ata-Kulla-Kulla, a prominent chief, calling a council of war declared that, after they should have safely conducted back to the settlements some Englishmen who were among them for the purpose of arranging a treaty, "the hatchet shall never be buried until the blood of our people shall be avenged." "But let us not violate our faith," said he, "by shedding the blood of those who have come among us in confidence, bearing belts of wampun to cement a perpetual friendship. Let us carry them back to the settlements and then take up the hatchet and endeavor to exterminate the whole race of them. In the bloody war which followed villages were burned, orchards and maize fields destroyed, women and children murdered, many warriors slain, and the remaining inhabitants forced to take refuge in the caves of the mountains until peace was restored by the humiliating treaty of 1760.

The tribe had not fully recovered from the effects of this struggle when they were confronted with the War of Independence. Smarting under their recent defeat and resenting the steady encroachment of colonists upon their hunting grounds, they promptly, ranged themselves on the side of the British and placed their warriors at the service of King George. In the border warfare which followed Indians and white vied with each other in the atrocity of their deeds. The Cherokees, finally completely defeated, were forced to sue for peace in 1785. By the terms of the treaty of Hopewell which followed, Congress was to pass laws regulating trade with them; the Cherokees were allowed to send a delegate to Congress; and no whites were to be suffered to settle upon Cherokee lands. This treaty was unsatisfactory to Indians and whites alike. The latter paid scant attention to the article forbidding them to settle on Indian lands; the natives refused to submit to the encroachment of the settlers and kept them terrified by sudden raids and bloody masacres. The whites retaliated in kind and this condition of affairs kept up until stopped by intervention of the Federal Government, in 1790.

As early as 1789 General Knox, Secretary of War, called the attention of President Washington to the disgraceful violation of the treaty of Hopewell, and recommended the appointment of a commission to look into the matter and, if need be, negotiate a more effective treaty.26 In August of the next year the Senate passed a resolution providing for such a commission, and the result was the treaty of Holston, which, in addition to settling the boundary question, gave the Federal Government the exclusive right to trade with the Cherokees, granted an annuity of $100 and promised to supply implements of husbandry and send four persons into the Cherokee Nation to act as interpreters.

An Indian agent, who was sent to see that the policy of the treaty was carried out, established headquarters on the Hiwassee River near where it empties into the Tennessee, and from this point settled disputes between the whites and Cherokees, enforced intercourse laws, apportioned annuities and distributed plows, hoes, spinning wheels, cards and looms among the Indians and instructed them in their use. Colonel Silas Dinsmore, who was agent from 1796 to 1799, devoted his energies to the raising of cotton, to which some sections of the nation were excellently well suited. Major Lewis succeeded him and was succeeded in turn by R. J. Meigs, an old Revolutionary soldier, who had marched to Quebec with Arnold. For twenty-two years he served as Indian agent, rendering efficient and intelligent service and acquiring a knowledge of the character and needs of the Cherokees which made him authority in their affairs29 as long as he lived.

This new policy of the Federal Government gave encouragement, impetus and direction to the progressive spirit already abroad in the nation. Notwithstanding the half century of intermittent warfare the Cherokees had made considerable advancement before the treaty of Holston. Adair states that horses had been introduced among them early in the eighteenth century, and that by 1760 they had a prodigious number of them and they were of excellent quality. The same may be said of cattle, hogs and poultry. Sevier, on his expedition against the Coosa towns in 1793, allowed his army to kill three hundred beeves at Etowah, and leave their carcasses rotting on the ground.30 Benjamin Hawkins, while travelling through the Cherokee Nation three years later, met two Indian women driving ten fat cattle to the settlements to selL21 Indian pork was highly esteemed by the colonists; "At the fall of the leaf" says Adair, "the woods are full of hickory nuts, acorns, chestnuts and the like, which occasions the Indian bacon to be more streaked, firm and better tasted than any we met with in the English settlements." Baskets were made by the women, and pottery of simple though pleasing design was moulded from day and glazed by holding in the smoke of corn meal bran; hunting was a lucrative occupation of the men until the end of the nineteenth century, a party of traders taking home at one trip thirty wagon loads of furs.

By their geographic position and superior numbers, the Cherokees might have held the balance of power in the south had it not been for the looseness of their tribal organization. The first attempt to weld the whole nation into a political unit was in 1736 when Christian Priber, a French Jesuit, went to live among them and, by promptly adapting himself to their language and dress, won their confidence to such an extent that he was able to induce them to adopt a scheme of government which he drew up, modelled on the French monarchy, with the chief medicine man as emperor, himself as secretary of state, and Great Tellico as the national capitaL But when Priber was arrested by the authorities of North Carolina, on the accusation of being a secret emissary of the French, this scheme gradually went to pieces. It was seventy-two years later that they reorganized their government and adopted their first code of written laws. In 1808 the Council provided for the organization of regulating parties to maintain order in the nation, named the penalty for horse stealing and declared that fatherless children should inherit the father's property in case the mother married again." It had been the custom among the Cherokees, time out of mind, to transmit from father to son the memory of the loss by violence of relatives or members of the clan. With the memory also was transmitted the obligation to revenge the loss. "Who sheddeth man's blood, by the clansmen of the deceased shall his blood be shed," was considered good savage ethics; but the Cherokee Nation emerging from barbarism had outgrown this ancient custom, and in 1810 an act of oblivion for all past murder was passed by unanimous consent of the seven clans in council at Oostinaleh; punishment was taken from the clan and placed in the hands of the General Council. The later development in government will be taken up and treated in a future chapter.


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