The Epic of the Cherokee and the Colonists
When the Spanish conquistador came through here on his way from the Gulf Coast to Lake Michigan, he encountered big towns, well-used roads, and abandoned homes. A smallpox epidemic—one of a series of plagues carried from Europe—had decimated the natives.
Accounts of De Soto’s journey put him and his men in Asheville—called Guaxule by the Cherokee—on May 29, 1541. All around the village there, one Spanish writer noted, was a public walk, “along which six men could pass abreast.”
Nearby was the French Broad River, which many sources say had been called “Tah-kee-os-tee,” meaning '’racing waters.” A literal translation of the Cherokee word is “where they race,” which some scholars say might relate to the path around the village, possibly a racetrack. The Cherokee loved games.
To get to Asheville, De Soto had brought with him as guide “the Lady of Cofitachiqui,” chief of the large tribe that lived around present-day Columbia, South Carolina. As did many Indians along De Soto’s Carolina route, the lady greeted the Spaniards with gifts and hospitality, hoping to have them move along with little ill feeling. No such luck.
The soldiers, tired, hungry, and dejected about having found neither gold nor a settling place, began thinking about settling at the Columbia site, and making do. There were available houses. The temple that held statues of male ancestors also contained coffins filled with pearls.
De Soto, however, wanted to push on. His decision, and the delays that accompanied it, created tension among his men, some of whom committed offenses against the Indians.
Deprived of the Cofitachiquis’ good will, De Soto took the chief hostage and made her lead his men to Guaxule. Faye Gibbons gives the episode a whole chapter in her juvenile biography, “Hernando De Soto: A Search for Gold and Glory” (Crane Hill Publishers).
Pounded by a hurricane and a hailstorm, De Soto’s party crossed the Blue Ridge in sorry shape. In present-day Tryon, their guide escaped while pretending to relieve herself in the woods, having retaken the funerary pearls that the Spaniards had looted.
De Soto died a year later, after having determined that the northern lake (Lake Michigan) did not lead to the western ocean. His surviving men eventually made it back to Spanish territory, moving along the French Broad River for part of their trek.
Nearly 150 years later, the Cofitachiqui people disappear from the historical record. In 1679, an English deserter named Thomas Jibe reported the last sighting. The English were at war against the “Cafatache,” Jibe told a Spanish interrogator, and were trying to get pearls from them. Some scholars believe that they became part of the Catawba Nation.
Cherokee maidens often appear in lore as women who aid colonists; fall in love with white men; or fall in love with men from other tribes and suffer tragedy (as at Lover’s Leap in Marshall).
William Bartram, a world-famous botanist, passing through the Cowee Mountains in what is now Macon County in 1775, added another view.
He entered a vast meadow “embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds,” he wrote in his journal, and encountered “companies of young, innocent Cherokee virgins … bathing their limbs in the cool fleeting streams; whilst other parties, more gay and libertine, were yet collecting strawberries or wantonly chasing their companions, tantalizing them, staining their lips and cheeks with the rich fruit.”
The truth about Cherokee girls is that they were part of a middle-class society with a communal and conservative ethic, a love of art and sport, and a scientific economy.
Strawberries were a cultivated plant; as were the corn and beans that Bartram saw in the natives’ strategically sited plots. The “Elysian fields,” as Bartram called the strawberry beds, were a working farm.
About the natives’ land management, Charles Mann, in his book, “1491,” marvels, “the surgery was almost without scars; the new landscape functioned smoothly, with few of the overreaches that plagued English land management.”
The Cherokee reserved wild land to serve their hunting and gathering needs. On various cultivated terraces, they grew a surplus of crops to ensure good life, the symbol of which was the strawberry.
According to Cherokee myth, women and strawberries had something to do with creating civilization. The story stands alongside the central drama of the goddess Selu and the origin of corn.
After an argument with the first man, the first woman left their forest home. Pursuing her, the man got help from the sun, who tried tempting the woman with blueberries and blackberries to no avail. Strawberries, the next offering, worked, restoring the Cherokees’ domestic balance.
Bartram, by the way, had been staying with a Mr. Galahan (sometimes spelled Calhoun), the chief trader in the region. Galahan’s humanity and probity made him, Bartram commented, “a prodigy,” as most white traders provoked “great and frequent occasions of complaint of their dishonesty and violence.”
Bartram had been with Galahan when they’d encountered the strawberry pickers. The girls had first hidden behind bushes, and then had come forward to present baskets of fruit, saying it was “ripe and sound.” The men “regaled” themselves of the fruit and the girls went back to work, “several parties of the girls, under the conduct of the elder matrons, (having) disposed themselves in companies on the green, turfy banks.”
“When my grandma was making baskets she showed me how to make them,” Aggie Ross Lossiah, great granddaughter of Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, related in “The Story of My Life as Far Back as I can Remember,” published in the “Journal of Cherokee Studies,” Fall 1984.
She had written her account in 1960, when she’d been 80.
“With a history extending back almost ten thousand years, basketry was an integral part of Cherokee life,” Anna Fariello states in her book, “Cherokee Basketry: From the Hands of Our Elders.” “By 1540, when Hernando de Soto encountered the Cherokee, they were living in settled communities where baskets were part of their everyday life.”
Baskets and other perishable items do not survive well over the millennia, but Jefferson Chapman, director of the Frank H. McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee, has reported “impressions of simple twined basketry and netting” on 8,000-year-old hearths.
When Lossiah’s’ grandma “got her a load of baskets made, we went to peddle,’’ Lossiah recounts. “I took my few baskets that I had made and I had enough to buy me a cotton dress.”
Martha Wachacha had been just eight years old when she’d been initiated into basket-making, she said in an interview published in the 1989 “Fading Voices” issue of the “Journal of Cherokee Studies.” She’d watched her aunt split white oak and scrape the splints. “What they threw away I picked up. I wanted to make some baskets, too, because the baskets were so beautiful.”
Eight years old was when a child became a big girl. Getting a dress was a part of that change.
Cherokee girls’ homes were with their mother’s clan. In Woodland days, the homes looked out on a cleared area with several other homes, garden plots, and, in some places, raised temples.
“The early explorers,” Thomas Lewis and Madeline Kneberg write in “Tribes that Slumber,” “described the temples as having carved and painted wooden pillars, and walls hung with colorfully patterned mats. And they were particularly impressed by sculpted wooden figures—human, eagles, serpents, and other symbolic forms—that graced the fronts and roofs of temples and served as tribal emblems.”
When not attending to elders, plowing fields or grinding corn, Woodland girls headed out to collect forest products, sometimes walking a couple of days.
They went out in the fall “to burn the leaves off from the mountains in order to get the chestnuts on the ground,” James Mooney recorded in the Cherokee myth titled, “U’tlun’ta, the Spear-Finger.” They did not feel safe. When the old witch with the liver-plucking digit “saw the smoke rise she knew there were Indians there and sneaked up to try to surprise one alone.”
Every plant and animal had stories about their distinctive qualities: why the Possum’s tail is bare; how the Redbird got his color; and so on.
The redbird got his redness from a wolf who rewarded it with paint from a rock after the bird had pecked plaster from his eyes placed there by a trickster raccoon.
The redbird is also associated with the daughter of the Sun, who escaped in the form of a bird from a coffin carrying her back from the darkening land. A rattlesnake had killed the girl, mistaking her for the Sun, which had been causing a drought in the land.
When the redbird’s call— “kwish! kwish! kwish!”—had been heard by Woodland girls, they might have thought of the Cherokee myth, “The Daughter of the Sun: Origin of Death.” The escape of the Sun’s daughter had prevented her rescuers from going back to Ghost Country to bring back other dead souls.
Girls were familiar with death. They were sometimes called upon to attend to dying community members, as Lossiah had had to do once.
A neighbor’s wife was sick and on her death bed, “and he had to hire someone to stay right by her all the time to keep the flies off her face…about two weeks she passed away.”
Indian death was also part of life in the path of colonial expansion, such as in 1761 when Cherokee towns felt the wrath of Col. James Grant, whose army had sailed to Charleston to vanquish the Cherokee after the Cherokee had repulsed Col. Archibald Montgomery.
The Grant expedition
“We killed a large Rattle snake & a water snake which had another in it almost as large as itself,” Capt. Christopher French, a member of Col. James Grant’s expedition against the Cherokee, marveled in his journal, May 19, 1761.
He did not seem to see the snake’s rapaciousness as any kind of a sign.
Grant’s army of over 2,000 troops was in the Lake Keowee area, near present-day Clemson. Capt. French and the fleet he’d been with had left the Jersey coast on Dec. 30, 1760, arrived in Charles Town on Jan. 6, 1761, and anchored on Jan. 9.
The expedition mission was to vanquish the Cherokee, who’d thoroughly repulsed Col. Archibald Montgomery’s force in June 1760. By that time, an Anglo-Cherokee alliance had gone bad and escalated into an all-out Anglo-Cherokee war.
The joint fort at Prince George had become the place where the British had imprisoned a delegation of 32 chiefs and executed 29 of them after the fort’s commander had been killed; and where the Cherokee had eventually starved the British out.
“I had orders to put every soul to death,” French would write on June 10, 1761, after surviving the battle of Cowhowee (near present-day Otto) and heading toward Echoy (near present-day Brasstown), the site of Montgomery’s last stand.
The waiting time
Back in Charles Town, Grant’s mission took a back seat as baggage delivery problems delayed departure two months and the soldiers turned their attention to city life. The “South Carolina Gazette” reported on March 21, 1861 that the officers and men had put on a comedy and farce for the citizens.
There were other entertainments, French revealed: a war dance by “King Higler” and 26 of his Catawba Nation; and a series of masques by a “Dutch” troupe about a madman who claimed to be God, a Devil who wanted to be killed, and people who smothered the devil between two mattresses, “saying he was come from the Moon & must, consequently, be very cold.”
The troupe was a group of Protestant radicals during the Methodist Great Awakening.
“These ‘New Lights or the Gifted Brethren,’ who ‘pretend to Inspiration,’” Anglican minister Charles Woodmason wrote in his journal, “now infest the whole Back County,” and were spreading.
On March 20, 1761, Grant’s army finally marched. About 2,000 royals, colonials, anti-Cherokee Indians, and African-American laborers—“pioneers,” French called them—made it to Monk’s Corner in two days. They stayed 24, waiting out heavy rains.
Soldiers began to desert, and not just the colonials. Poor farmers-in-arms seeking happiness found the landscape enchanting; and the natives, peaceful if one respected them. They risked their lives to grasp a dream.
“Halted & try’d seven Men for Desertion,” French noted on April 17. “They were found guilty and six of them condemned to dye.”
The army marched on, reaching the Congaree River, north of present-day Lake Marion, on April 22.
“Discipline problems inherited from the Congaree camp,” Tom Hatley notes in his book, “The Dividing Paths,” “led to the desertion of nearly 40 percent of the Carolina regiment by the time it reached Ninety-Six.”
Ninety-Six had been the British trading post at the Cherokee border, and became a fortified town.
Many sources say the place name came from the distance in miles to Keowee; or the 96 streams an Indian princess crossed to reach a British boyfriend during the Anglo-Cherokee War.
The problem is, the distance doesn’t match up; and the name existed before the war.
While the British were moving toward Cherokee villages, torch in hand, negotiations were going on.
Lt. Lacklan McIntosh, criticized “by his peers for his humane treatment of the Cherokees,” according to the Summer 1977 issue of the “Journal of Cherokee Studies,” freed 113 Cherokees in exchange for “18 Bullocks; & several Peace Talks.”
At the same time Chickasaws working with the British did what the British were loath to do: they killed Cherokee citizens and prisoners and claimed scalps.
On May 3, 1761, Alexander Monypenny, Grant’s executive officer, reported that when Tistoe, one of seven Cherokee Chiefs who’d visited King George II in 1730, had left home for business, Chickasaws had attacked his wife and house boy.
“The Chickesaws scalped the Woman and Wounded the Boy,” Monypenny penned. “This is exactly true Indian Assistance.”
Last ditch appeal
Attakullakulla, another one of the chiefs who’d met the king—came to speak with Grant at Fort Prince George on May 22, and waited five days for the British Army’s arrival.
The chief’s name—Ada-gal’kala in the Cherokee transcription—translated as “Little Carpenter” and referred to his deal-making prowess. He was hoping to buy time and forge a peace at the last minute.
He was familiar with British perfidy. At age 19 in London, he’d signed a trade agreement with the King, which, he and the other chiefs discovered after they’d gotten a translation, ceded all of Carolina.
“At last,” Robert Conley relates in his book, “A Cherokee Encyclopedia,” the chiefs “decided that because they had no right to cede the lands anyway, the agreement could not be binding.”
Off to the side, a British soldier carved maps and images into a powder horn in scrimshaw fashion. Ships dock, roads wend, and deer prance in the carver’s nostalgic vision.
The horn is now in the possession of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee.
An alternate picture of the moment in history might have been: carpenters making packsaddles, tailors making bags, wagons being outfitted, a fort being built for wagons and stores left behind, and about 60 Cherokees surrendering to the fort to gain refuge from the coming scourge.
And it was coming.
Ada-gal’kala made a strong case about his loyalty. He’d been waging war against the French, and brought scalps. He’d turned away other Indian nations that wanted to have him join in fighting the British.
However, another leading Cherokee chief, Oconostota (Ogan’sto), continued his attacks, and sided with the French. Grant would not be dissuaded from going from Cherokee town to town, burning homes, granaries and crops, and bringing along predators with him.
On June 7, Grant, and his now 2,828 men advanced toward Cherokee country. From June 10, when they eradicated Echoy, to June 28, when they leveled Elajoy (near present-day Maryville, Tenn.), Grant’s army destroyed 17 towns, burning over 1,500 acres of corn and orchards and sending homeless families into the mountains.
Ogan’sto sued for peace, but wouldn’t go in person to meet Grant. Ada-gal’kala went instead. Peace was achieved with South Carolina in December 1761.
Fourteen years later, Conley recounts, “Ogan’sto joined with Ada-gal’kala in making the sale to the Transylvania Company of much of what is now Tennessee and Kentucky, thereby angering Dragging Canoe and other younger Cherokee men.”
The “Journal of Cherokee Studies,” previously cited, concludes its republication of the journals of French and Monypenny with a statement by Francis Marion, a lieutenant under Grant who would become known as the Revolutionary War patriot, “Swamp Fox.”
“We proceeded, by General Grant’s orders, to burn the Indian cabins,” Marion recollected. “Some of the men seemed to enjoy this cruel work, laughing heartily at the flames, but to me it appeared a shocking sight.
“When we came,” Marion continued, “to cut down the fields of corn, I could scarcely refrain from tears.”
Marion saw children’s footprints, and imagined them returning to their village, asking their mothers, “Who did this,” and getting the reply, “The white people did it—the Christians did it!”
“Thus for cursed mammon’s sake, the followers of Christ have sowed the selfish tares of hate in the bosoms of even Pagan children,” Swamp Fox charged.