Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose
The Cherokee Chiefs and a thousand Cherokees were at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River. The shoals region is near present Elizabethton in far eastern Tennessee, even east of the Cumberland Gap. The chiefs, in council, were there to sell Kentucky to Richard Henderson and the Transylvania Company. The Treaty of Sycamore Shoals was signed on 17 March, 1775. The thousand Cherokees were there to receive their portions of the ten-thousand dollar selling price in beads and blankets. Kentucky had been an essential hunting ground for many tribes from every compass point around its entire circumference; but slowly over time with the defeat, disease, or demise of all the other tribes, the Cherokees were considered to be sole owners of the Blue Grass. It had been the backcountry, ignored and unexplored by white men until the early 1750’s. By 1770, Daniel Boone and other Long Knives had entered Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap and had explored large portions of its land all the way to the Ohio River.
First Beloved Man and Supreme Chief of the Cherokees from 1760-1775, Little Carpenter (Attakullakulla), was an old man at Sycamore Shoals. He and the other old chiefs decided during talks to agree to the sale. Those men saw little value in a country that could not be lived on. Researchers have determined no native people had villages inside Kentucky’s limits during this period. Epidemics of white-man’s diseases and chronic warring between native tribes were both to blame for the depopulation. So was a geology that led to challenging water availability. Kentucky’s karst geology resulted in sink hole formations instead of surface erosion, forming many wide valleys with surface waterways like here in Missouri. Instead the rivers were much more circumscribed in deep valleys fed by the sinkholes, not easily accessed from the abundant plateaus. Kentucky had been used by Native Americans for years and centuries; but during the 1760’s, no tribes lived there; it had become a backcountry even to them.
Little Carpenter’s son, Dragging Canoe, disavowed the sale at Sycamore Shoals and withdrew south to Chickamauga Creek with his warriors declaring Henderson would find Kentucky a “dark and bloody land.” Indeed, it was death and depopulation that had led to its circumstance. It was the backcountry again–a wild, untamed wilderness beyond even Indian settlement. It was a place where not just the traditional “hunter-gatherer” lifeway could be pursued but also blood sports, hunting and warring, could be practiced – at that time the only accomplishments which could lead to tribal leadership. It represented a significant portion of the “wild” of what was left of then “Indian Territory.” Young leaders like Dragging Canoe needed Kentucky to advance to chief. He and his Chickamaugans fought for a Cherokee Kentucky for the next twenty years. The sale was completed and quickly declared illegal, but opened the way for Kentucky to be settled by frontiersmen. Thousands of early white settlers coming into Kentucky died at the hands of the Chickamaugans over the next two decades. Statehood was achieved in 1792, following Vermont in 1791, after the original thirteen. The Cherokee backcountry had become the fifteenth state!
Sixty years after the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, the Cherokee Nation faced imminent, forced removal from their ancestral homeland to the government Indian reserve beyond the western territories. By then the tribe had made great strides toward acculturalization. Those efforts had been taken to heart as a means to avoid removal. Many Cherokees by the 1820’s had permanent homes, farms, slaves, businesses, and schools. The Cherokees had developed their own written language with a ninety percent proficiency rate–a much higher percentage than the general white population. By then the Cherokees had learned many commercial farming practices; built diverse businesses like mills, taverns, and river ferries; and established schools, churches, and a government with a constitution. The Cherokees had worked hard to be considered “civilized.”
Cultural, economic, and intergovernmental issues between the Cherokees and certain government officials (including President Andrew Jackson) were brought into the nation’s focus and culminated with the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The Cherokees were one of five “civilized tribes” to be removed to “Indian Territory,” a backcountry undesired by white settlers. The territory was selected for the Indians because it was thought to be of no value for agriculture for “hundreds of years,” so declared by Maj. Stephen Long, who explored the area in 1819-20. It was a “sterile, waterless waste,” – the “Great American Desert.” An unpopular, likely illegal, treaty, the Treaty of New Echota, signed with a minor Cherokee offshoot resulted in the order that the Cherokees would be rounded up and removed by force by May 23, 1838.
“…driven to…a sickly wilderness in the midst of savage tribes.”
As a last-ditch effort to reverse the order to remove, the elected Cherokee leaders, led by Chief John Ross, sent a memorial to Congress in February of 1838 praying that Congress would act to stop the removal. The Cherokees contented in the memorial that “they are to be driven, in June next, from a cultivated and comfortable home, to a sickly wilderness in the midst of savage tribes.”
Compare that statement and the facts about the government’s new “Indian Territory” to the issues at Sycamore Shoals. The Cherokee Nation had become civilized with all the accouterments of civilization. The words of the memorial declared their “cultivated” farming practices and their “comfortable” homes and lifestyles made them accomplished beyond being able to survive or succeed in a “sickly wilderness” beyond even settlement. But even worse, the Cherokees were to be located in the “midst of savage tribes.” Indian Territory was no more than a government issued contemporaneous backcountry.
Sixty years before the wise old chiefs had turned their backs to their own backcountry as an unnecessary liability to the Cherokee Nation –a region unnecessary, as the Cherokee people had civilized beyond the “hunter-gatherer” paradigm. And they had disavowed the need for practicing the “blood sports” in the “dark and bloody land” by selling Kentucky, being therefore now not capable to live “in the midst of savage tribes.” Chief John Ross was doing his best to prevent his nation from experiencing unjustified retrograde settlement by being sent to a backcountry. The effort failed; so, they walked the trail. Hundreds died from exposure, malnutrition, and disease after reaching their new government-provided lands. The Cherokees’ government-imposed new home immediately became “a dark and bloody land.” Four- thousand out of the original seventeen thousand Cherokees who were removed died during this epic tragedy.
Logical, civil, truthful facts carried little weight in political decisions…..has this changed in 180 years?
If you have any suggestions, comments, or critiques please email Chris.Dunn@GeoVelo.com
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