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Wednesday, 11 April 2007 00:00

The Tsali legend

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Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been researching and writing about events surrounding the Cherokee removal of 1838, especially those pertaining to the capture and execution of Tsali — who thereby became a Cherokee martyr — and three of his sons.

 

A recent rendering of this story, “Tsali, Tsali’s Rock and the Origins of the Eastern Band,” appeared in my Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains (Charleston SC: History Press, 2005). Shortly thereafter, an expanded version of that essay titled “Will Thomas, Tsali & Tsali’s Rock” was included in a special issue of The Journal of Cherokee Studies (vol. XXIV) devoted to William Holland Thomas.

Although the general outlines of those incidents are generally agreed upon by various scholars and interested onlookers, the specific details of the executions have never, to my knowledge, been published. Several weeks ago, George Frizzell, special collections archivist at Hunter Library, Western Carolina University, ran a search of the newly implemented online version of the “American Periodical Series.” This consists of digitized reproductions of more than 1,100 eighteenth and nineteenth century newspapers and periodicals (1740-1900) in the original microfilm reproduction series.

The two items Frizzell turned up somewhat to his surprise that described the executions were published in Jan. 1839, only a little over a month after the executions took place. The first is the most illuminating, but, for the record, I’ve transcribed the second as well. Inevitably, I have drawn some preliminary conclusions about the specific content and general tone of these reports. But, for now, I will just reproduce them without commentary. For readers not fully aware of the events, here is some general context extracted from the two sources cited above.

Tsali, known by whites as “Old Charley,” was a 60-year-old farmer who unwittingly became a prominent figure in Cherokee history and lore. On Oct. 30, 1838, a detachment of soldiers led by 2nd lieutenant A.J. Smith and accompanied by William Holland Thomas captured 12 members of the Tsali family somewhere along the Tuckasegee River, probably about halfway between present Bryson City and where that river then flowed into the Little Tennessee. Smith’s detachment began pushing the Tsali group “with all possible speed” down the river toward Fort Cass just over the state line in Tennessee. In the Fairfax area located near present Lake Fontana dam, Tsali’s family revolted on the evening of Nov. 1, killing two soldiers and injuring another. There are various versions of the specific events that led to the killings; nevertheless, one can safely assume that resistance to being captured and forcibly removed from one’s homeland was the precipitating factor.

For Thomas, the incident was a monkey wrench tossed at the last minute into his careful plans aimed at allowing the Quallatown Indians and other Cherokees to remain in Western North Carolina. For the U.S. military it was a bloody mess, an incident that couldn’t be ignored without retribution.

General Winfield Scott ordered Colonel William S. Foster and nine companies of the 4th Infantry into WNC, stipulating that, “The individuals guilty of this unprovoked outrage must be shot down.” Thomas, as an expert on the Indians and the terrain, joined the punitive expedition. He no doubt wanted to be on hand to orchestrate events as much as possible.

Accounts of what happened and where are again varied, but contemporary military records, as well as correspondence between Thomas and other principals in the affair, document the fact that Tsali and his family were hunted down and executed by Euchella and other Cherokees, who apparently did so in exchange for being allowed to remain in WNC. Tsali family members Jake, George, and Lowan were captured and then executed late Nov. 1838. A teenage son of Tsali’s was spared. Tsali himself was captured shortly thereafter, quite likely at a rock shelter in the present day Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The following day he was executed by Euchella and others "near Big Bear’s Reserve," a military camp situated on the site of a 640-acre allotment made to Big Bear and his family in 1817 and the site of present Bryson City.

The mythologizing and polishing of the Tsali legend — whereby Tsali willing gave himself up to be executed so that his people might remain in their WNC homeland — began as the incident itself was unfolding and has continued to this day. What is clear is that, while Tsali didn’t willingly surrender or make a grand speech when he did so, his death removed the final stumbling block faced by the Quallatown Indians and others in their decades-long effort to resist removal to Oklahoma.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

 

Tsali excerpts

Niles’ National Register, Jan. 5, 1839

“The ‘Hamilton (Ten.) Gazette,’ contains an interesting account of Col. Foster’s campaign, from which we extract the following account of the execution of the murderers:

“Of those brought in the colonel thought three deserved death, and in the exercise if that spirit of comity and forbearance, which has so generally characterized the officers of the army, toward the suffering indians [sic], he called a council of those who were friendly, and after being convinced that one and all had proper views of the principles of justice, and would mete out even to their own blood, proper punishment for transgression, he delivered them over to the chiefs, to be dealt with according to their laws. ‘Blood for blood’ is the governing principle of this tribe — consequently, the doom of the murderers was a sanguinary as if they had been punished by the regiment. On the following day, the 24th ult. we believe, three sentenced culprits were brought out. It was arranged that there would be six executioners, two to fire at each man, one at the head, and the other at the heart. Previously to their taking their stand, the colonel ordered a bandage to be placed over their eyes, that they might not know which of their brethren executed them. They were then shot down in the presence of the regiment. Thus ended that day’s tragedy.

From the representations of the chiefs, in whom col. Foster had the utmost confidence, he thought it unnecessary to detain the regiment until the next day, when the fourth and last murderer was to be executed. In fulfillment of the promise made by the Indians [sic], ‘Old Charley,’ who was not captured at first, and was the fourth one sentenced, was executed the 26th, in the same way as the others.”

Army and Navy Chronicle. Jan. 10, 1839.

“The Cherokees. By letters received from Col. Foster, of the 4th regiment of infantry, by Gen. Scott, and transmitted to the Adjutant General, it appears that the United States troops under that active and indefatigable officer have captured all the Indians concerned in the murder of two soldiers of that regiment in the Cherokee country. Of the five men who committed this cruel murder, four were executed by the Cherokees themselves who united with alacrity in the pursuit, and aided essentially in the capture of the murderers. The fifth, from his extreme youth, was retained a prisoner by the commanding officer. Col. Foster says: ‘The honor of the nation has been fully cared for, as well as the honor of the regiment to which I belong. At and over the graves of our murdered comrades, funeral honors were paid. For twelve days, the men of the regiment passed the mountains, crossed the streams, and threaded the valleys of the country, in detachments of from two to sixty, in search of the fugitives. The thirty-one Indians whom I had in my camp, and whom I held until the final termination of the affair, and then released, belonged to Euchetta’s band. With him and the Oco-nee-lufty Indians under the Flying Squirrel, their fathers, brothers, and husbands, captured, and finally punished the outlaws and murderers.” — ‘Globe.’

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