Tsali - A Cherokee hero

In 1830 The U.S. Congress passed "The Indian Removal Act". It authorized the president to begin negotiations with the Native American tribes east of the Mississippi about their removal to and area west of the Mississippi River, later known as The Indian Territory and today in modern day Oklahoma. Among the tribes were the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes", although the name is not too popular as it implies, that other tribes were not civilized. The five tribes were called "civilized" because they had adopted a lot of the white mans way of living. The tribes were the Seminoles in Florida, the Creeks in Georgia, the Choctaws in Mississippi and the Chickasaws also in Mississippi. I am well aware that all these tribes, except from the Seminoles, lived in parts of other states as well, but these states are where the larger number of the tribes lived. The fifth tribe was the Cherokees. When the Europeans came to North America, The Cherokees controlled an area of more than 135,000 square miles even if some of it was disputed and claimed by other tribes as well.

In  the 1830s this area had been reduced to less than half size by the many treaties that the tribe hand been forced to accept, first with The British and after the revolution with USA.  In 1835 a small part of the tribe, less that a 1,000 of the total of 18,000 tribe members, signed a treaty accepting to give up all their land claims in the east and move to the indian territory. The group was led by Major Ridge, while the rest of the tribe followed Principal Chief John Ross, and wanted to stay in their old homelands. This split led to a bloody civil war between the two fractions of the tribe some years later. In 1837 the American government decided that the treaty was binding for the whole tribe (an often used trick in the removal of the indians). The Cherokees had to be moved to Indian Territory, like it or not. The government ordered the army under command of General Winfield Scott to arrest all Cherokees and gather them in hastily built prison camps, where they should stay until they could be moved. Most indians reluctantly accepted and followed the soldiers to the camps, where they stayed until 1838, when they were sent on the march later called The Trail of Tears. At least 4,000 Cherokees died on the march. You can read more about the Cherokee History and Trail of Tears on Wikipedia and many other sites.

Around 200 tribe members avoided capture by escaping into the mountains and living of the land. Some of these were later captured while others manage to stay free. In North Carolina around 400 Cherokees lived on land, that was not tribal land but owned by a white man, William Holland Thomas, who as a child had been adopted by Chief Yonaguska or Drowning Bear as he was known by the white. As these Cherokees were not living on tribal land, they were not to be removed. This part of the tribe was known as The Oconaluftee Cherokees or The Quallatown Cherokees.

Amongst the people who were to be removed was an earlier leader called Tsali. He had been part of the Chickamaugas under chief Dragging Canoe during the Chickamauga Wars from 1776 to 1794, and in 1812 he became known as a prophet, urging the tribe to join the Shawnee chief Tecumseh in his rebellion against the Americans. The Cherokees stayed out of the rebellion though, and in 1838 Tsali, now a rather old man, was living a peaceful life as a farmer and hunter in Snowbird Mountains in western North Carolina, near present day Robbinsville. He didn't choose side in the debate of whether to move to Indian Territory or not, but continued looking after himself and his family.

From here the sources disagree quite bit on what really happened. Some sources will know, that when soldiers came to arrest Tsali and his family in their homes and take them to prison camp, the soldiers were attacked by Tsali and a group of men, and some soldiers were killed. This is also how it is described on the English Wikipedia. In the book "The Cherokee Nation - A History" by Robert Conley you can read a different story. According to Conley Tsali and his extended familiy followed the soldiers without resistance, as they were taken to the prison camp near Bushnell on the Little Tennessee River. Along the way one of the soldiers prodded Tsali's wife with a bayonet to make her walk faster. Tsali asked his brother to be ready, when he fell over, and in the confusion they should escape into the mountains and hide there. Unfortunately only part of this worked. The family managed to escape but in the turmoil one of the soldiers shot himself in the head when his rifle fired accidentally.

Lieutenant Andrew Smith, commander of the detachment told another story, when he retuned to headquarters. According to his account, he and three soldiers had captured Tsali and his family and were taking them to Bushnell. The group of prisoners consisted of five men, seven women and some children. One evening when the camped for the night, one of the indians - no names are mentioned - produced a tomahawk that he had been hiding under his clothes. He killed one of the soldiers with the axe, while another was shot with his own rifle by one the indians. The third soldier was wounded while Lt Smith managed to escape as he was on horse back, and his horse was ratcheting, which saved his life. The report never mentions what happened to the wounded soldier.

Tsali Boulevard street sign in Cherokee, North Carolina

Other stories tells other versions of what happened, but I think we have to believe that the attack took place en route, not before the arrest as both parties agree on that. Whether to believe the story told by Tsali's brother in law before his execution or the story reported by Lt. Smith is another matter. Both parties were probably telling a story that made them look better in the eyes of others. Some doubt that five indians armed only with a tomahawk so small it could be hidden on a persons body could have overcome four soldies with with guns ready, but anyway Tsali and his family did disppear into the mountains.

General Scott sent Colonel William Foster and 10 companies of soldiers out to "hunt and kill the murderers". Those who hadn't killed anyone were to be brought back to prison camp so they could be "shipped off" with the rest of the tribe. Chief Yonaguska and his white adopted son William Thomas (Wil-Usdi  in Cherokee), were hired as trackers. Nine companies of 4th US Infantry followed Colonel Foster into the moutains while one company accompanied William Thomas to Oconaluftee in the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains. William Thomas persuaded the Oconaluftee Cherokees not to hide the fugitives should they appear at the village. The 10 companies tried for several days to locate Tsali and the other fugitives but with no luck. Colonel Foster now promised the Quallatown Cherokees, that if they would help finding and arresting Tsali, they would be allowed to stay in their homeland. Today it seems to be a strange kind of reward, as the indians already had the right to stay, as they were not living on tribal land. Maybe because the indans knew, that the americans were not known to keep their promises and feared to be removed even if they lived on Thomas land or for another reason, the tribe promised to do what asked. They sent a force of 60 warriors into the mountains and a few days later they handed over Tsali's brother in law, Natantayalee George and his son Natantayalee Jake to Colonel Foster. Also Tsalis wife, his sister-in-law and her young daughter were captured, and so were the rest of Tsali's children. Now 11 of the 12 fugitives were captured, only Tsali himself remained at large.

Colonel Foster claimed that the two Natantayalees and Tsali were the ringleaders of the attack on the soldiers and that also Tsali's oldest son had played a part in the killing, so on November 24'st 1838 three of the four captive males were executed by a firing squad. Only Tsalis youngest son were spared. As the leaders of the Quallatown Cherokees did not want their fellow Cherokees to be shot by white soldiers, the firing squad was formed by indians. The next day, Tsali surrendered to another group of Cherokees and was taken to the army camp. The next day he was tied to a tree and shot, also he by fellow tribal members. What was left of his familiy was accepted into the Quallatown Cherokee Tribe. In the days, weeks and months after the executions stories were told of Tsali's bravery. Today most Cherokees are convinced that the reason for his surrender, was that he had been told by his brother, that if he sacrified himself he could save the tribe from being removed and Tsali is celebrated as a hero in the tribe.

In Colonel Fosters report to General Scott he praised Drowning Bear (Yonaguska)  and his tribe for his effort and the colonel also praised one of the other groups that had assisted in the hunt for Tsali. In his report he requested that the two groups were allowed to remain in North Carolina, a right at least one the groups already had. In January 1839 the permission to stay was officially given, and the two groups together with the survivors of Tsali's family and the fugitives that were not caught provides the basis of modern day Eastern Band Cherokee Indians.

In present day Cherokee (where once the Quallatown village was) a major road through town is named Tsali Boulevard, and his story is mentioned at the Museum of Cherokee Indians in town. Cherokee is the headquarters of the Qualla Boundary, home of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. It's home to the Tribal Council and the offices of the Principal Chief. Outside town you can visit Oconaluftee Indian Village, a living museum that illustrates how the tribe lived around 1750. Next to the museum is the Mountain Side outdoor theatre, when you in summer can see the play "Unto these Hills", that tells the story of the Cherokees from 1540 to Trail of Tears. This play tells it's own version of the Tsali story.

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