Cherokee Chief Yonaguska

Thomas' Legion
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Cherokee Chief Yonaguska

(ca. 1759 - 1839)

Cherokee Chief Yonaguska
Cherokee Chief Yonaguska.jpg
(Historical Marker)

After hearing the scriptures from the "Gospel according to Matthew", Chief Yonaguska replied, "It is a strange that the white people are not any better after having this so long."

 

Yonaguska, interpreted as "Drowning Bear," was born about 1759, some 40 years after English traders introduced the “black drink,” or rum, to his people in the North Carolina mountains. He is described as strikingly handsome, strongly built, standing 6 feet 3 inches, with a faint tinge of red—due to a slight strain of white blood on his father’s side—relieving the brown of his cheek.

 

Like many dedicated reformers, Yonaguska’s resolve was strengthened by first-hand experience—he had been addicted to alcohol most of his life. When he was 60 years old and critically ill, Yonaguska fell into a trance. Certain that the end had come, his people gathered around him at the Soco Council House and mourned him for dead.

 

In the council house was his adopted son William Holland Thomas, a 14-year-old white boy who was destined to succeed him as chief and become the only white man to serve as chief of the tribe. Drowning Bear referred to Will Thomas as Wil-Usdi or "Little Will." Will learned the Cherokee customs as well as how to write in Cherokee. He also learned their legends, history, and culture. Furthermore, at the age of 16, Will opened his first business (store) and perfected his organizational, leadership, and managerial skills. With a volume of law books, Thomas also became a self-taught and persuasive lawyer; acquired knowledge that would prove critical to the Cherokees' survival.

In approximately 24 hours, however, Yonaguska awakened. When the chief addressed his people, he relayed a message from the spirit world: “The Cherokee must never again drink whiskey. Whiskey must be banished.” He then had Will Thomas write out a pledge: “The undersigned Cherokees, belonging to the town of Qualla,” it read, “agree to abandon the use of spirituous liquors.” Yonaguska then signed it, followed by the entire council and town. Preserved among Thomas’ papers, the pledge is now in the archives of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University. From the signing of the pledge until his death in 1839 at the age of 80, whiskey was almost unknown among the Cherokees. And when any of his people broke the pledge—few did while he was alive—Yonaguska enforced the edict with the whipping post and lash.

 

Today’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are direct descendants of the Cherokee Indians who avoided, or survived, the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears.

 

Yonaguska was the first among his people to perceive the white man’s takeover of their mountain kingdom. As a 12 year old boy, he had a vision and he discussed it; but no one paid any attention to him. As a young man, he had witnessed the havoc wreaked among his people when Gen. Griffith Rutherford and his North Carolina militia burned 36 Indian towns in 1776. Throughout the early 1800s Yonaguska was repeatedly pressured to induce his people to remove to the West. He firmly resisted every effort, declaring that the Indians were safer from aggression among their rocks and mountains. He continued by stating that the Cherokee belonged in their ancestral homeland. After the Cherokee lands on the Tuckaseigee River were sold as part of the Treaty of 1819, Yonaguska continued to live on 640 acres set aside for him in a bend of the river between Ela and Bryson City, on the ancient site of the Cherokee town of Kituhwa. As pressure increased for Indian Removal, Yonaguska became more determined to remain in his homeland, rejecting every government offer for removal west. He refused to accept government assurances that his people would be left alone in the promised western lands. In the course of his life, he had seen settlers push ever westward. Yonaguska knew that nothing short of complete control would ever satisfy them. “As to the white man’s promises of protection,” he is said to have told government representatives, “they have been too often broken; they are like the reeds in yonder river—they are all lies.”

 

After the removal of all but a handful of mountain Cherokee to the West, Yonaguska gathered those left about him and settled at Soco Creek on lands purchased for them by his adopted son, William H. Thomas. As a white man, Thomas could legally hold a deed to the lands and allow the Cherokee to live on them. Shortly before his death in April 1839, Yonaguska had himself carried into the townhouse at Soco, where, sitting upon a couch, he proclaimed his words to his people. The old man commended Thomas to them as their chief and again warned them against ever leaving their own country. Then wrapping his blanket around him, he quietly lay back and died. Yonaguska, the most prominent chief ever of the Eastern Band, was buried beside Soco Creek, about a mile below the old Macedonia mission, with a crude mound of stones to mark the spot.

Sources: Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation; Museum of the Cherokee Indian

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Reviews

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About the Author: Well known and acclaimed Cherokee author Dr. Tony Mack McClure, a native of Tennessee, is a certified member of the Native American Journalists Association, Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, and Committeeman for the Tennessee Chapter of the National Trail of Tears Association. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, over 250 newspapers, on all major television networks and many cable systems.

Recommended Reading: Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. Description: One of the many ironies of U.S. government policy toward Indians in the early 1800s is that it persisted in removing to the West those who had most successfully adapted to European values. As whites encroached on Cherokee land, many Native leaders responded by educating their children, learning English, and developing plantations. Such a leader was Ridge, who had fought with Andrew Jackson against the British. Continued below...

As he and other Cherokee leaders grappled with the issue of moving, the land-hungry Georgia legislators, with the aid of Jackson, succeeded in ousting the Cherokee from their land, forcing them to make the arduous journey West on the infamous "Trail of Tears." ...A treasured addition for the individual remotely interested in American Indian history as well as general American history.

 

Recommended Reading: Famous Indian Chiefs: Their Battles, Treaties, Sieges And Struggles With The Whites For The Possession Of America (Hardcover) (516 pages). Description: This comprehensive book, regarding famous Native American Indian Chiefs, is drawn from the chiefs' own words from rare manuscripts, diaries, treaties, Bureau of Indian Affairs, special collections, national archives, and repositories, and it vividly portrays the chiefs' struggles, thoughts and views. There are two sides to every story and this is their story - the untold story and it has finally been explored and portrayed with this scholarly research. I highly recommend it!

 

Recommended Viewing: 500 Nations (372 minutes). Description: 500 Nations is an eight-part documentary (more than 6 hours and that's not including its interactive CD-ROM filled with extra features) that explores the history of the indigenous peoples of North and Central America, from pre-Colombian times through the period of European contact and colonization, to the end of the 19th century and the subjugation of the Plains Indians of North America. 500 Nations utilizes historical texts, eyewitness accounts, pictorial sources and computer graphic reconstructions to explore the magnificent civilizations which flourished prior to contact with Western civilization, and to tell the dramatic and tragic story of the Native American nations' desperate attempts to retain their way of life against overwhelming odds. Continued below...

Mention the word "Indian," and most will conjure up images inspired by myths and movies: teepees, headdresses, and war paint; Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and their battles (like Little Big Horn) with the U.S. Cavalry. Those stories of the so-called "horse nations" of the Great Plains are all here, but so is a great deal more. Using impressive computer imaging, photos, location film footage and breathtaking cinematography, interviews with present-day Indians, books and manuscripts, museum artifacts, and more, Leustig and his crew go back more than a millennium to present an fascinating account of Indians, including those (like the Maya and Aztecs in Mexico and the Anasazi in the Southwest) who were here long before white men ever reached these shores.
It was the arrival of Europeans like Columbus, Cortez, and DeSoto that marked the beginning of the end for the Indians. Considering the participation of host Kevin Costner, whose film Dances with Wolves was highly sympathetic to the Indians, it's no bulletin that 500 Nations also takes a compassionate view of the multitude of calamities--from alcohol and disease to the corruption of their culture and the depletion of their vast natural resources--visited on them by the white man in his quest for land and money, eventually leading to such horrific events as the Trail of Tears "forced march," the massacre at Wounded Knee, and other consequences of the effort to "relocate" Indians to the reservations where many of them still live. Along the way, we learn about the Indians' participation in such events as the American Revolution and the War of 1812, as well as popular legends like the first Thanksgiving (it really happened) and the rescue of Captain John Smith by Pocahontas (it probably didn't).

 

Recommended Reading: The Cherokee Nation: A History. Description: Conley's book, "The Cherokee Nation: A History" is an eminently readable, concise but thoughtful account of the Cherokee people from prehistoric times to the present day. The book is formatted in such a way as to make it an ideal text for high school and college classes. At the end of each chapter is a source list and suggestions for further reading. Also at the end of each chapter is an unusual but helpful feature- a glossary of key terms. The book contains interesting maps, photographs and drawings, along with a list of chiefs for the various factions of the Cherokee tribe and nation. Continued below...

In addition to being easily understood, a principal strength of the book is that the author questions some traditional beliefs and sources about the Cherokee past without appearing to be a revisionist or an individual with an agenda in his writing. One such example is when Conley tells the story of Alexander Cuming, an Englishman who took seven Cherokee men with him to England in 1730. One of the Cherokee, Oukanekah, is recorded as having said to the King of England: "We look upon the Great King George as the Sun, and as our Father, and upon ourselves as his children. For though we are red, and you are white our hands and hearts are joined together..." Conley wonders if Oukanekah actually said those words and points out that the only version we have of this story is the English version. There is nothing to indicate if Oukanekah spoke in English or Cherokee, or if his words were recorded at the time they were spoken or were written down later. Conley also points out that in Cherokee culture, the Sun was considered female, so it is curious that King George would be looked upon as the Sun. The "redness" of Native American skin was a European perception. The Cherokee would have described themselves as brown. But Conley does not overly dwell on these things. He continues to tell the story using the sources available. The skill of Conley in communicating his ideas never diminishes. This book is highly recommended as a good place to start the study of Cherokee history. It serves as excellent reference material and belongs in the library of anyone serious about the study of Native Americans.

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