The Cherokee Indians

“We, the rightful lords of yore, are the rightful lords no more; like the silver mist, we fail, like the red leaves in the gale–fail, like shadows, when the dawning waves the bright flag of the morning.”

In every history of the united states the different tribes of Indians–the native “sons of the forest” and “rightful lords of the soil,” from main to Florida and from the Atlantic ocean to the great Mississippi valley–justly claim conspicuous notice, whether considered as prowling enemies or warm-hearted friends.

As the Tuscarora of eastern and middle Carolina were one of the most powerful of the Indian tribes, exercising a dominant sway over much of its undulating and semi-tropical territory early in the last century, so the Cherokees were the most powerful tribe of western Carolina and the adjoining region, preceding and during our revolutionary war, frequently requiring the strong arm of military force to chastise them and teach them, by dear experience, the superiority and growing destiny of their “pale faced” neighbors.

The native land of the Cherokee was the most inviting and beautiful section of the united states, lying upon the sources of the Catawba and Yadkin rivers–upon Keowee, Tugaloo, Etowab, Coosa and Flint, on the east and south, and several of the tributaries of the Tennessee, on the west and north. If to this list be added the names of Hiwassee, Enoree, Tallulah, Swannanoa and Watauga, all streams originating and flowing through this mountainous country in rapid, frolicksome mood, we have an assemblage of musical sounds, (omitting the hard-sounding “flint”,) only equaled in beauty and soft cadence upon the ear, by the grand and picturesque scenery with which they are surrounded.

According to Adair, one of the earliest settlers of South Carolina, and who wrote of the four principal tribes, (Cherokee, Shawnee, Chickasaw and Choctaw,) in 1775, “the Cherokee derive their name from “cheera”, or “fire”, which is their reputed lower heaven, and hence they call their “magi, cheera-tah-gee”, men possessed of the divine fire.”

Within twenty miles of old Fort Loudon, built on the Tennessee in 1756, says the same authority, “there is a great plenty of whetstones for razors, of red, white and black colors. The silver mines are so rich that by digging about ten yards (thirty feet) deep, some desperate vagrants found at sundry times, so much rich ore as to enable them to counterfeit dollars to a great amount, a horse load of which was detected in passing for the purchase of Negroes at Augusta.” “A tradition, says Dr. Ramsey, (Annals of Tennessee,) still continues of the existence of the silver mine mentioned by Adair.”

After the whites had settled near, and began to encroach upon the “over-hill towns,” their inhabitants withheld all knowledge of the mines from the traders, fearing their cupidity for the precious metals might lead to their appropriation by others, and the ultimate expulsion of the natives from the country. The history of the Cherokees is closely identified with that of the early settlements of the frontiers of the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee, and all suffered from their vigorous and frequent hostile and murderous incursions. They were formidable for their numbers, and passionate fondness for war. They were the mountaineers of aboriginal America, and like all other inhabitants of an alpine region, cherished a deep affection for their country, and defended it with a lasting devotion and persevering tenacity. Little of their early history can be gathered from their traditions, extending back scarcely a century preceding the revolution. “Oka-na-sto-ta”, one of their distinguished chiefs, visited England during the reign of George the second. From his time they date the declension of their nation. His place of residence was at “Echota”, one of the over-hill towns. Of the “tumuli”, or mounds scattered through the country, and other ancient remains, they know nothing, and considered them, when they took possession of the country, as vestiges of a more numerous population than themselves, and farther advanced in the arts of civilization. The several Indian tribes in America have been compared to the fragments of a vast ruin. And though these vestiges of a remote period in the past may not awaken the same grand associations in the mind of the beholder as the majestic ruins of Greece and Rome, yet they cannot fail to excite feelings of veneration for the memory of a numerous people, whose lingering signs of greatness are widely visible from the western borders of North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico, and throughout the Mississippi Valley.

As early as the year 1806, two deputations attended Washington City from the Cherokee Nation; one from the lower towns, to make known to the president their desire to remove west of the Mississippi, and pursue the hunter’s life; the other deputation, representing in part the Cherokee belonging to the above settlement, to make known their desire to remain in the lands of their fathers, and become cultivators of the soil. The president answered their petitions as follows:

“The United States, my children, are the friends of both parties. As far as can be reasonably asked, they are willing to satisfy the wishes of both. Those who remain may be assured of our patronage, our aid, and good neighborhood.”

The treaties formed between the United States and the Cherokee Nation, in the years 1817 and 1819, made provision for those desiring to remain, agreeably to the promise of the president; and they thus became citizens of the United States, each family being allowed a reservation of six hundred and forty acres of land. The whites claimed the same lands under a purchase made of the state. Suits were instituted in favor of the Indians, and by our courts were decided in their favor. Afterward they sold their reservations to the commissioners of the state, and purchased lands in the white settlement, and in the neighborhood of the hunting grounds reserved for them by treaties concluded with the Cherokee Nation between the years 1790 and 1799; which privilege as a part of their nation they now enjoy.

The Cherokee now own in Haywood County, a tract of seventy-two thousand acres of land, well adapted in the vallies for farming, and on the mountains for wild game and sports of the chase. “Qualla town”, their metropolis, is chiefly inhabited by the former sovereigns of the country, among whom are a few Catawba. The Qualla town people are divided into seven clans or divisions, over each of which a chief presides.

About the year 1830 the principal chief of this settlement, by the name of “Drowning Bear” (or You-Na-Guskee) becoming convinced that “intemperance” would destroy himself and his people, determined, if possible, to bring about a work of reform. He accordingly directed his clerk to write in the Indian language an agreement which translated reads as follows: “the undersigned Cherokee, belonging to the town of Qualla, agree to abandon the use of spirituous liquors.” This instrument of writing was immediately signed by the old and venerable chief, and the whole town. This wise proceeding has worked a wonderful change for the better in their condition. They are now a temperate, orderly, industrious and peaceable people.

One of the most wonderful achievements of our age is the invention of the Cherokee alphabet. The invention was made in 1821 by “Guess”, (Se-qua-yah) “a half breed” Indian, his father being a white man and his mother a Cherokee. He was at the time not only perfectly unacquainted with letters but entirely so with every other language except his own. The first idea of the practicability of such a project was received by looking at an old piece of printed paper and reflecting upon the very singular manner (to him) by which the white people could place their thoughts on paper and communicate them to others at a distance. A thought struck him that there surely must be some mode by which the Indians could do the same. He first invented a distinct character for each word, but soon found the number so great that it was impossible to retain them in the memory. After several months’ labor he reduced his original plan so as to give to each character a “syllabic sound”, and ascertained there were but eighty-six variations of sounds in the whole language; and when each of these was represented by some particular character or letter, the language was at once reduced to a system, and the extraordinary mode of now writing it crowned his labors with the most happy success. Considerable improvement has been made in the formation of the characters, in order that they might be written with greater facility. One of the characters, being found superfluous, has been discarded, reducing the number to eighty-five. Guess emigrated to the west in 1824. It has been much regretted that he did not remain in North Carolina to witness the advantages and blessings of his discovery.

The bible, newspapers and other literature are now published in the “musical” Cherokee language.

Western North Carolina

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