Unto These Mountains

Jonathan Ross

Paying homage to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and their new business venture

Those of us who grew up in this neck of the woods know of Cherokee, North Carolina. Many of us, however, are unaware that there are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. One is the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma; a second is the United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee Indians, also in Oklahoma; and the third is that with which we are most familiar, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians—our friends across the mountains. How this division came about, most moving to the West while some cloistered in the Smokies, has a historical basis.

During his four years as president, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts signed into law a protective tariff placing duties on imports. The law was particularly unpopular in the South where the cotton trade was king. In the election of 1828, Andrew Jackson succeeded Adams as president and inherited from the prior administration South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun as his Vice-President. Regrettably, Jackson and Calhoun had a long history of political differences. In 1832, an election year, Jackson was able to pass legislation lowering, but not eliminating, the tariff. Dissatisfied by Jackson’s modest attempt to placate the southern states, South Carolina—with Calhoun’s vigorous support—claimed the right to nullify the federal tariff law. When Jackson sent the Navy to Charleston and threatened to hang Calhoun as a traitor, the “Nullification Crisis” was temporarily resolved. Calhoun, however, resigned his vice-presidency in order to return to the Senate and advocate for the South.

To shore up his popularity in the southern states for the ensuing election, Jackson had earlier signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which authorized him as president to grant lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for Native American lands in the states. At that time, almost 125,000 Native Americans lived on millions of acres in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. The tribes in these states considered “civilized” were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and, of course, the Cherokee. Many in these tribes owned land individually, had learned to speak English, and converted to Christianity—considered earmarks of “civilization.” A few even owned slaves to help work their farms. White settlers, however, coveted their lands to profit in the cotton industry and sometimes used violent means to gain access, looting and burning houses, stealing livestock, and squatting on Native American lands. Many of the states had passed laws in disregard of the traditional sovereignty of the tribes as self-governing. 

Jackson, who in earlier times had led troops to battle the Creeks in Alabama and the Seminoles in Florida, had taken up the cause of the white settlers. To illustrate, in the landmark case of Worcester vs. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that the laws of Georgia had no application to tribal lands, implicitly holding that the other southern states’ laws had no force or effect in the Indian nations. In response, Jackson, according to some reports, commented, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall made his decision, now let him enforce it.” As the country’s top executive officer, Jackson ignored the ruling. The Choctaw were the first to be sent west. The Creeks were next. Meanwhile, agents acting on behalf of the Cherokee negotiated the Treaty of New Echota, purporting to trade all Cherokee lands in the southeast in exchange for $5 million, relocation assistance, and compensation for lost property. John Ross, however, the principal chief of the Cherokees who was armed with 16,000 tribal signatures, protested the terms of the treaty, arguing that his people had not approved of its contents. Most simply refused to leave. 

By the time Jackson was succeeded in 1837 by his former vice president, Martin Van Buren, only 2,000 Cherokees had left their homelands for what was called the Oklahoma territory. So, Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott and 7,000 soldiers under his command to expedite the process. This led to what became known as the Trail of Tears. The soldiers marched some 15,000 Cherokees, in possession of only what they could carry, over 1,200 miles to Indian Territory. Tragically, more than 5,000 died along the way—as a result of exposure, dysentery, cholera, typhus, whooping cough, and starvation. Still, not all Cherokees left. Approximately 800 tribal members lived along the Oconaluftee River in western North Carolina. Their chief, Yonaguska, also known as Drowning Bear, managed to avoid removal with the help of his adopted white son, lawyer William Holland Thomas. Thus begins the tale of a Cherokee farmer and prophet by the name of Tsali. 

On November 1, 1838, during the roundup commanded by General Scott, Tsali, his wife, his brother, and his three sons and their families were captured and marched under guard toward a military location on the Hiwassee River. According to one account, when Tsali’s wife paused to care for the needs of her infant, one of the guards struck her and prodded her with his bayonet. When the mother, holding her baby, was forced onto horseback, her foot hung in the stirrup. She lost hold of the child, who fell to its death. In response, Tsali and his family attacked the soldiers, killing one guard and injuring or subduing the others, and then fled to the mountains. Word that Tsali’s clan had evaded capture and hidden out in a cave near today’s Clingman’s Dome prompted others to join them. Over time, hundreds of Cherokees had gathered in the area, surviving on roots and berries to avoid starvation.

Without enough soldiers to risk in such a remote part of the mountains but fearful of setting an intolerable precedent, General Scott had a situation on his hands. He chose to enlist the aid of Thomas, who had earned the trust of the tribe. Thomas was directed to make an offer. If Tsali and his family would surrender to be judged by the military courts, those other Cherokees who had joined them in the mountains would remain free to stay. For their role in the killing of their soldier guard, Tsali, his brother, and his sons were executed by a firing squad, purportedly made up of Cherokee prisoners. Tsali’s wife and youngest son, Wasidana, were spared. The fugitive Cherokees who had taken refuge in the Smokies became the forebearers of today’s federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which is located on some 68,000 acres known as the Qualla Boundary. Regardless of its precise historical accuracy, this saga and Tsali’s role as a martyr have become legend. 

Since the summer of 1950, the drama Unto These Hills, originally written by Kermit Hunter, has played at the outdoor Mountainside Theatre in Cherokee. The story line recounts the history of the Eastern Band and has included roles of such notable figures as Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee written language, Chief Yonaguska, Thomas, and, of course, Tsali. More recently, Charles Frazier, the award- winning author of Cold Mountain, published Thirteen Moons, a historically based novel which makes reference to the story of Tsali as “Charley.” 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which opened in 1934 during The Great Depression, has a long history with the Eastern Band. Gatlinburg, of course, opened as the Smokies’ gate city on the Tennessee side. Cherokee has served in that role in North Carolina. Gatlinburg and later Pigeon Forge began to thrive as resort cities after World War II while Cherokee met with less success in the development of its economy. Things began to really change in 1997. The Eastern Band opened Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. With four expansions since then, the Casino’s hotel now boasts over 1,100 rooms. And the gambling options compare favorably with those in Las Vegas. Dining options include Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Guy Fieri’s Kitchen, the Brio Tuscan Grill, and other restaurants. Many Tennesseans travel over the mountains to add to the prosperity of the tribal council. 

In order to qualify as a member and share in tribal earnings, one must first have a direct lineal ancestor among the 3,146 authenticated people listed on the 1924 Baker Roll of the Eastern Band, as approved by act of Congress; and second, must possess a minimum of 1/16 degree to meet the tribe’s blood quantum requirement. Today, Cherokee has over 16,000 on its rolls. With communal ownership, every tribal member received an estimated $13,000 in this past year. 

Now led by current Principal Chief Richard Sneed, the Eastern Band continues to prosper but with plans to diversify, having recently purchased over 400 acres in Sevierville. The properties are located on both sides of Interstate 40 at the 407 exits, one of the most heavily traveled sections of interstate in the country. Roughly 200 acres at the southeastern quadrant is under development. The Texas-based Buc-ee’s, a massive convenience store conglomerate, is constructing a 74,000-square-foot facility with 120 fuel pumps and car washes extending over a mile. As the anchor tenant for the Eastern Band, Buc-ee’s, which has 38 locations in Texas alone, claims its Sevierville store will be the largest convenience market in the nation and “the home of the world’s cleanest bathrooms, freshest food, and friendliest beaver”—the company mascot. 

A direct quote from one of the many positive comments on a story posted at TheSmokies.com serves as the inspiration for this column: “I sincerely hope some sort of recognition or tribute is offered to the American Indians whose land this once was.” And is now again.   

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