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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter XVIII - Two Decades of Economic Development


Having followed the political fortunes of the Cherokees in the west, it may be of interest to glance at their industrial and educational development during the two decades following removal.

Confused by the unsettled state of their own, and embarrassed by the dilatory policy of the Federal government, the Emigrants, nevertheless, had lost little time in trying to adjust themselves to an unfamiliar environment and to gain an economic footing in the new country. But a period of "hard times" was not to be avoided. The subsistence promised for one year by the United States could not be depended upon. Rations, dealt out irregularly, were frequently of such inferior quality as to be practically unfit for use. The flour and meal were musty and the beef, grass feed, was tough and unwholesome. For a supply of fresh meat they had to depend almost entirely upon primitive traps, blow guns, bows and arrows, and guns; the guns of which they had been deprived in the east just before removal had neither been returned nor paid for. The problem of building houses and clearing and cultivating fields was made difficult by the scarcity of carpenter's tools and farming implements which the cost of transportation to such a remote region made doubly dear, and which most of the people had no money to buy at any price.

They would have fared ill, indeed, the first few months after their arrival, but for the older members of the community. In spite of Political feuds and personal quarrels, the main body of the Old Settlers received the newcomers with that hospitality to which they had been accustomed from time immemorial, which was a part of their ancient religion, and which they had not yet outgrown. And so nearly connected by bonds of kinship and clanship were the two divisions of the tribe that the helping hand of the one had not far to reach in order to relieve the need of the other. The loan of a plow or an axe for several days, or a few bushels of corn until a crop was made, the gift of a hen and a setting of eggs, the use of a loom and enough yarn to weave a blanket or some cloth, helped to tide over the crisis and give "a start" to these victims of Andrew Jackson's Indian policy backed up by the Anglo Saxon acquisitiveness under the guise of necessary economic development The proverbial "lazy Indian" was hard to find among the Cherokee people for many years. It was a case of work or do worse with most of them; and, although they have always been considered an abstemious people with a few simple wants, for a time it taxed their ingenuity and energy to the utmost to provide the merest shelter and the barest subsistence. But the knowledge of agriculture and household arts, learned in the old nation, was gradually adjusted to meet the needs of the new in spite of various drawbacks; and, in the course of a few years, there were good farms and comfortable homes with vegetable gardens and orchards for the more thrifty, while the most unprogressive full-blood had his log cabin and his maize patch.

The land was found to be more desirable than had been expected. The uplands proved to be good farming land, while the river valleys were very fertile, and when cleared and cultivated produced richer harvests than the Georgia and Tennessee fields had afforded. Grass grew luxuriantly on the prairies, furnishing abundant pasturage for cattle, horses and sheep which throve marvelously without care or expense. Hogs ran wild in the woods, fattened on the mast and multiplied by tens. Game, such as prairie chicken, wild turkey and deer, was plentiful, and wild fruit and berries flourished in their season.

As in the old nation, the land was held in common, the improvements only being the exclusive and indefeasable property of the individual. Any Cherokee citizen, natural or adopted, might fence a farm and improve a home wherever his fancy or business judgement suggested, so long as he did not encroach upon the rights of a former settler. The unfenced land was the common property of the tribe.

There was no provision made for white settlers except in the law making it was compulsory for a Cherokee citizen, employing a white man, to secure a permit, for which he paid by the month or the year, whether the laborer worked for wages or rented the land for a certain per cent of the crops. Another law granted to certain United States citizens the privilege of establishing stores of general merchandise and engaging in trade under a license from the Cherokee government.

Intermarried whites were given practically the same rights and privileges as the Indians themselves, except that of holding office, but outsiders were not encouraged to come into the nation; those who persisted in doing so were considered intruders and shown cold courtesy. Otherwise the country would have soon become a refuge for criminals and outlaws from the States, and an asylum for all sorts of defective and distressed humanity who would have hung like a millstone about the neck of the nation already bowed under the burdens of its own people; and the land hungry pioneers from the very states from which the Cherokee had been expelled would soon have been elbowing the Indian out of his new home just as they had done from the old. In spite of the laws and protests of the Cherokee Council and the "cold shoulder" given them by the Indians themselves, intruders and squatters proved a perpetual nuisance to the country. Washington Irving, in his "Tour of the Prairies," gives us a very good description of one of these rough, uncouth, raw boned Sons of the frontier, who, with a not very clear conception of the distinction between thine and mine, showed scant consideration for the feelings and rights of others in his continual search for more elbow room. When once he had gained a footing it was almost impossible to dislodge him. He and his children were always a demoralizing influence to the Indians, either through lawlessness or intermarriage, for he was often a fugitive from justice in the state from which he hailed and seldom reformed under frontier conditions. His sons and daughters, uneducated and possessing many of the traits of the parent, were not an elevating influence when they became Cherokee citizens by marrying into the tribe, as some of them did.

Following the example of the south, or their own interest and inclination, the Cherokees did not gather into towns and villages to any extent, but formed neighborhood settlements.

One of the most interesting of these neighborhood communities was Park Hill, situated about five miles south of Tahlequah. Here a church and day mission had been started by Dr. Worcester, and a printing press set up, on which various kinds of interesting things were being printed,—tracts, hymns, a primer, the Bible in both Cherokee and Choctaw, and an almanac computed for the meridian of Fort Gibson, containing all sorts of useful information. It was arranged somewhat on the order of Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac" and printed in both the Cherokee and the English languages.

The rich valley to the north of Park Hill commended itself to a number of the emigrants, among whom was Chief Ross. Selecting a site for a home about two miles from the mission station he built a modest little house which he called Rose Cottage. With the arrival of more prosperous days, which, however, were slow in coming, the cottage gave place to a brick mansion furnished with rosewood and mahogany, with silver plate and imported china. The grounds surrounding them were set with shrubbery and choice flowers after the most approved fashion of landscape gardening of the time, while the kitchen garden and the orchard were planned on a scale sufficiently large to supply the demands of the family table, never without guests, and to feed a retinue of house and field servants. A blacksmith shop, a kiln, a laundry, a smokehouse, a dairy, and negro cabins galore were gradually added to the equipment of the estate.

Mr. Ross had married, in 1844, Miss Mary Brain Stapler, a young woman from Wilmington, New Jersey, whom he had met when on a trip east to put some boys in school. She was a student in a boarding school at the time and he was a man of more than fifty. It was a case of love at first sight on both sides, and the union, in spite of the disparity in their ages, proved to be a very happy one. They lived in rather magnificent style for the time, always keeping open house and frequently giving big dinners. The plantation, which came to include a thousand acres or more, was worked by slaves and proved to be immensely profitable. It was conducted like all the plantations of the south and almost everything in the way of food, clothing, and implements used on the plantation was raised or manufactured there. Only the luxuries of the "great house" and its inmates were imported from the outside. Although rumor, with her hundred tongues, spread the belief that such elegance as the chief and his family enjoyed could only have been secured by diverting part of the contents of the national money chest into his private coffers, satisfactory proof of the accusation is entirely lacking.

From the first, slavery became an established institution in the western nation just as it had been in the east. Those who could afford to do so took their servants with them when they emigrated. It was considered an indication of wealth and standing in the community to own negroes, consequently everyone who could afford to do so owned one or more.

Missionaries of the old nation had either preceded the emigrants to the west or followed them there. Of the Reverend Cephas Washburn, his mission at Dwight and his work among the Cherokees West, something has already been said. Of those who accompanied the emigrants, Dr. Butler, the Reverend Evans Jones, and others enjoyed the unbounded confidence of their adopted people. They were men of education and ability who could have filled with credit almost any pulpit in the country. But for the unparalleled services which he rendered the people, the full-blood Cherokees, Dr. S. A. Worcester stands out a unique figure among missionaries to the Indians. It will be remembered that he was among the early missionaries in the old country and had shown his loyalty to the Cherokees by willingly suffering imprisonment for championing their cause in Georgia. He was a whole-souled, generous man and a broad-minded, tolerant Christian, proclaiming that not the form of worship but the spirit of it is pleasing to God; not the making of a solemn vow, but the keeping of it proves one's title to life eternal. Doctor and educator as well as preacher, he was interested in every activity of Cherokee life, seeking to render efficient service wherever he was most needed, eager to bring physical relief to a sick baby, to shed mental light upon the mind of the humblest child, or to preach the gospel of salvation to benighted and sin-cursed men and women. Himself a scholar of no mean ability his whole training was brought to bear upon the problem of bringing knowledge and Christianity within the range of those who did not understand the English language. In order to do this he planned to prepare textbooks on various subjects in the Cherokee language. At one time he began the arrangement and translation of a geography which he was compelled to give up because it took too much time from his work on the Bible. A grammar and a dictionary, which were in a forward state of preparation when he left Georgia, were lost with all the rest of his effects when the steamboat, on which he was going west, sank in the Arkansas. Many tracts, pamphlets and some sermons were printed in the Indian language and distributed freely among the full-bloods who read them eagerly.

Upon his release from the penitentiary, Dr. Worcester had found his hands tied as long as he stayed in Georgia or Tennessee. Eager to be at his work again he therefore determined to go west just about the time the New Echota Treaty was negotiated. Unfortunately for him and the cause he was so eager to serve, his motives in leaving at this time were misunderstood. Those who opposed the treaty accused him of deserting their cause, and when they found themselves in power in the west, threatened to drive him from the country. This misunderstanding and the untimely death of Mr. Boudinot proved a serious handicap to his work to the end of his long and busy life, which, in spite of hardships and injustice, stands today as an example of what a cosecrated mind, coupled with a consuming energy, may accomplish for education and Christianity. Sequoyah invented for the Cherokees an alphabet, and they proudly and appropriately hail him the Cadmus of their race. Dr. Worcester consecrated that alphabet to the purpose of raising the nation to a higher plane of living and thinking. Yet the name of the Messenger, as he was called, is scarcely mentioned in the fireside history today. The Cherokees are not often chargeable with such lack of appreciation.

Besides Butler, Worcester, and Jones there were other consecrated men and women who preached and taught in the Cherokee country. There were also native interpreters and preachers of ability and education. Jesse Bushyhead, Stephen Foreman, William Lasley and John Huss are some of them. These native preachers had the advantage of speaking firsthand to the people, and the eloquence which one thrilled listeners around the council fires, inspiring warriors to valorous action against the enemy, now spoke from the pulpit, persuading men to nobler lives and inspiring them to higher purposes and ambitions. Their ability to interpret and explain the Christian religion in terms familiar to them through their old pagan faith, tribal customs and even superstitions appealed to the full-blood element who were converted to Christianity as they could have been by no white man, however able and zealous. It is unquestionably due in no small measure to them and their teachings that a Christian spirit dominated the masses of the Cherokees under circumstances which might have rendered God-fearing Anglo Saxons little better than savages. And as a civilizing and educating, as well as Christianizing power, their influence and that of the missionaries was exceedingly important.

There had been no public school system in the old nation for the reason that, just at the time when their national finances might have justified them in starting one, Georgia had extended her laws over the nation thereby, putting an end to all hope of progress in that direction. But it will be remembered that a school fund had been provided by the treaty of 1819, when the proceeds of the sale of a small tract of land in Alabama had been set aside for that purpose. The constitution of 1839 contains this clause: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary, to good government, the preservation of liberty, and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged in this nation." The Council, three weeks later, followed up the constitution by a law providing for a school system to be organized by a board of education composed of three members. Because of financial straits the school question languished for a time, but in 1841 a law was passed providing for the establishment of eleven primary schools to be distributed according to population in the various districts. The law also provided for a superintendent of education who should appoint, for each school, a board of directors composed of three members, who should hold office on good behaviour and whose business it was to locate and superintend the building of school houses, to employ teachers for their respective schools, to prescribe the kind of textbooks to be used and the branches to be taught.

Within five years there were eighteen schools in operation under these laws and an enrollment of six hundred and fifty-five pupils. Thirteen years later they had increased to thirty with an enrollment of fifteen hundred. All but two of the teachers were natives who proved themselves well qualified for their work. The course of study included geography, history and the Testament, in addition to A, B, C, and the "Rule of Three."

In order to provide their youth with the advantage of a higher education the Council, 1846, passed a law establishing two seminaries of high school rank, one for boys and one for girls. The former was located in the valley a little more than a mile from the Capitol; the latter, near Park Hill. The corner stones were laid by Chief Ross on June 17, 1847, and the buildings were finished and ready to be opened three years later. They were two-story brick structures of colonial architecture, protected on three sides with wide galleries supported by huge brick columns. Each accommodated about a hundred students who boarded in the institution at a very reasonable price. Especial provision was made for indigent children, so that it was the power of the poorest girl or boy, who had enough ambition and energy, to get a very fair education free of cost. Miss Sarah Worcester and Miss Ellen Whitmire, two superior young women, educated at Mount Holyoke, were engaged as the first teachers at the Park Hill Seminary, and Miss E. Jane Ross, who had been educated in the east, was later added to the faculty.

The course of study included geometry, geography, botany, arithmetic, history, Latin, Greek and such subjects at Watt's Improvement of the Mind, and Paley's Natural Theology and Intellectual Philosophy. Little attempt was made at industrial education except that each student was assigned by turns to some special duty in the general housekeeping scheme over which a rigid supervision was maintained by members of the faculty. Religious training was not neglected. The Bible was taught daily, while on Sunday religious services were conducted in the institution.

The principal chief himself not infrequently attended the preaching service at the female seminary, his arrival and departure always proving the most interesting and exciting event of the day. His coming, viewed with far more interest than that of the preacher, was heralded by the students through hall and corridor, and groups of eager, bright eyed Indian girls filled every available window and doorway to view the splendid spectacle as the negro coachman with a flourish drew up the team of blacks at the entrance. And when the courtly chief, clad in broadcloth, descended to conduct the first lady of their land, arrayed in rich silks and real lace, into the seminary chapel, their pleasure and pride bordered on ecstasy.

The students of the neighbouring institutions were no less enthusiastic in their admiration of Chief Ross, and occasionally some of the older boys had the temerity to walk out to Rose Cottage when they knew the chief was at home just for the pleasure and profit of a visit with him. Busy man of affairs as he was, he never denied them an interview, and subjects of interest were discussed as gravely and as courteously with them as business of state with the executive council. And, perhaps not least in importance to the mind of a hearty seminary boy, an invitation to stay to dinner was never neglected nor was it ever declined.

Notwithstanding the fact that the two seminaries were suspended for some time on account of lack of funds, sixty-two young women had graduated from the girls school before the Civil War, and gone out to teach in the public schools or to take their places as heads of their own households. Perhaps a somewhat smaller number of young men had finished their training at the Male Seminary to take prominent places in politics, education and the ministry. In addition to these young men and women educated at home, a good many sons and daughters of the more well-to-do, sent east by their parents, were carrying off honors at such colleges as Princeton and Mt. Holyoke and coming home to take places of honor and usefulness among their people as doctors, lawyers, law makers and teachers.

The printing press seized in Georgia had never been returned, nor was it paid for when, in 1843, the Council passed an act authorizing the publication of a paper, to be called the Cherokee Advocate, which was to have for its object the information and encouragement of the tribe in agriculture, education, and religion. W. P. Ross, a nephew of the chief, who had graduated at Princeton at the head of his class, was made editor. The first number of the paper appeared in September, 1844.

Added to the political troubles which distressed the Cherokee Nation in the west, there was threatened trouble with the Osages whose title to the western part of the Cherokee Nation had never been satisfactorily adjusted by the Federal Government when it was ceded to the Cherokees. Other wild tribes in the west were restless and discontented for fear of encroachment on their territory. Their menacing attitude at length came to be regarded with no little concern by the Cherokees, and in order to allay uneasiness and establish friendly relations with them they decided to arrange a grand intertribal council where a definite understanding among them all might be reached. Accordingly runners were sent to all the tribes between the Cherokee Nation and the Rocky Mountains inviting them to send deputations to a meeting to be held at Tahlequah in June, 1843.

The invitation met with ready response. At the appointed time chiefs and head men of the Osages, Cheyennes, Kiawas, Comanches, Wichitas and other wild tribes of the plains, together with representatives of the civilized Creeks and Seminoles, began to arrive. The meeting proved to be literally a gathering of the clans. Such an assemblage of wild Indians in all the regalia of war paint and feathers, beaded buckskin and bright hued blankets, with civilized aborigines wearing the conventional costume of the American citizen, had never been witnessed before and may never occur again.

The conference lasted ten days, during which time the visitors were given a taste of real Cherokee hospitality. Barbecued beef, conutche, conohany, "dog ears" and other Indian substantials and dainties were served bountifully and freely to all. They played Indian games, smoked the peace pipe and listened to the interpretation of the wampum as rendered by the aged Chief Lowrey, the only man then living who understood its mysteries. Finally, the various tribes entered into compacts of eternal peace and friendship, which, be it said to their credit, they have never broken. Then, well pleased with their entertainment, themselves and their hosts, they mounted their ponies and in single file rode solemnly back to their people. There was no further rumour of war in the land, nor were Cherokee hunting and trading parties, which frequently made expeditions to the plains, ever molested by Indians.

So strong was his hold upon the full-blood element that Mr. Ross's popularity did not seem to wane as the years went by, even when the government grew to be autocratic and imperial, rather than republican and democratic. The principal appointive offices come to be filled invariably with his personal friends or, more often, with his own relatives. Charges were made that he was using the chieftainship for personal aggrandizement and private gain and that his friends and relatives were profiting by his patronage. There were doubtless some elements of truth in these accusations, but the party of the opposition was never able to prove them to his constituents nor to oust him from his position. Had it been able to do so, there is grave doubt whether another man of the tribe before the Civil War had the ability, the training and the experience that would have made him equal to the emergencies that were constantly arising in the nation. Through long years of public life he had not only gained experience and training, but had proved himself resourceful, and systematic in discharging his public duties, diplomatic in his relations with the Federal Government, resolute and undeviating in pursuing a definite fixed policy of national advancement in politics and education. If he sought to satisfy personal ambitions, he also cherished a national pride, and with a broader and far more subtle vision than his fellows, looked to the future, still cherishing the dream of his young manhood to make the Cherokees the greatest nation of civilized Indians. It is doubtless due to this ambition and to his leadership that the tribe did not disintegrate into petty bands, soon to fall a prey to land grabbers from the States.

Plagued by drought which destroyed their crops in 1854, and again four years later, hindered by internal disorders and factional hatred, and embarrassed by the policy of the Federal Government the Cherokees nevertheless made slow, steady progress, so that their agent was able to say of them a few months before they were overtaken by the Civil War: "From their general mode of living the Cherokees will favourably compare with their neighbours in any of the States." Their population was estimated at twenty-one thousand native Cherokees, one thousand whites and four thousand negroes. They owned large numbers of cattle, hogs, horses and sheep, and had in cultivation about one hundred and two thousand acres of land from which they raised abundant crops of wheat, oats and corn when the season was favourable.

The twenty years between 1840 and 1860 form a period of transition when the Cherokees were thrown completely upon their own resources and the help of the missionaries for their development and advancement. But they had at last secured an independent existence and were at liberty to work out, untrammeled by state interference, their tribal salvation. The measure of economic success they achieved in the face of great odds is due to their individual efforts; the credit of their national policy, as worked out in the public and high schools and in the government, belongs largely to such men of their own tribe as H. D. Reese, Superintendent of Public Schools, William Shorey Coody and the Vanns of whom mention has been made, together with a number of other strong and able men in some of whose veins ran no drop of white blood.


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