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Gold was discovered at Dahlonega, Georgia in 1828. Word was slow to get out, but resulted the following year in the first gold rush in U.S. history. White settlers and land speculators were already calling for the removal of Indian tribes from the Southeast, and the presence of commercially viable gold deposits gave final impetus to this movement. The Treaty of New Echota was signed by Andrew Jackson's government and a minority faction (the Ridge party) of the Cherokee people at the end of 1835. Principal Chief John Ross and the tribal council pleaded with the Senate not to ratify the treaty, and later asked Congress to void the treaty, but both attempts were unsuccessful. (In fact, the government had been committed to a policy of removal since 1802, when Thomas Jefferson's administration obtained title to Georgia's western lands, now Alabama and Mississippi, in exchange for cash from the U.S. Treasury and a promise to extinguish Cherokee land claims in Georgia.) Forcible removal of the Cherokee people by the U.S. Army under the command of General Winfield Scott began soon thereafter.
These political machinations took place almost entirely within the Cherokee Nation proper, which had its capital at New Echota and represented "acculturated" or "progressive" Cherokee, who had adopted many aspects of the dominant white culture (including the holding of black slaves). Many traditional Cherokee, especially in western North Carolina, were largely unaware of or unconcerned with the political situation in New Echota. Instead of attempting to imitate or assimilate into white culture, they lived by the old ways of hunting, fishing, and farming small landholdings. One of these traditionals was a man named Tsali, known to some of his white neighbors as "Charley".
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Tsali lived with his wife and family close to the confluence of the Nantahala and Little Tennessee (Tanasi) Rivers, near present-day Bryson City, North Carolina. When, in early November of 1838, soldiers arrived at Tsali's cabin and announced that the family must proceed to a stockade further down the Little Tennessee, they packed a few belongings, no doubt in a state of denial or disbelief, and set out for the stockade in the company of another family (headed by Tsali's brother-in-law) and a detachment of four soldiers under the command of Second Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Smith. Along the way, one of the soldiers impatiently prodded Tsali's wife with a bayonet—which is when things went from merely ugly to violent.
Speaking calmly in Cherokee, Tsali advised his companions to initiate a struggle when he feigned a fall. Accounts differ as to whether his intent was to engage in combat or merely to escape: some versions have one soldier dropping his rifle, accidentally discharging it into his own head; others say that one of the Cherokee men produced an ax from underneath his clothing and attacked a soldier. Whatever the actual sequence of events, in the ensuing chaos apparently one of the enlisted men was wounded and the others killed. Lieutenant Smith survived (according to his report) only because his horse became frightened and ran away with Smith still mounted. Tsali's party—five men, seven women and children in all—escaped, eventually sheltering somewhere on the Left Fork of Deep Creek, approximately three miles east of Clingman's Dome in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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General Scott, already in charge of Cherokee removal, tasked his troops with finding Tsali and the other "murderers", no easy task in the rough, densely wooded Smoky Mountains terrain. (Witness the FBI's 1998-2003 search for domestic terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph, who eluded capture for over five years in the North Carolina mountains despite the availability of significantly improved technology.) With General Scott's approval, Colonel William Foster approached William Holland Thomas, a white man who had been befriended and eventually adopted by the Cherokee, and enlisted his help in tracking down Tsali's party. The inducement: exemption from removal, both for those who assisted in the manhunt and for other "fugitive" traditionals who were hiding in the mountains and had not been involved in the fatal incident.
By November 24, Foster reported that all of Tsali's party, with the exception of Tsali himself, had been captured. Three men, including one of Tsali's sons and his brother-in-law, were executed by firing squad on the 23rd.
Tsali was captured and executed on November 25—and here, again, accounts differ as to the circumstances. Some say he was taken by surprise on the Tuckasegee (Dagasiyi) River; others that he had heard of Colonel Foster's exemption offer and willingly sacrificed himself in order to secure an eastern homeland for his surviving people. Ultimately, I'm not sure that the exact circumstances are as important as the results of his death. Tsali's reported last words, "It is sweet to die for one's country," may be apocryphal, but the fact is that his courageous sacrifice (willing or not) did help to ensure that some of his relatives were spared Nunna daul Isunyi—"the Trail Where The People Cried", better known as the Trail of Tears—and allowed to remain in the North Carolina mountains. (For once, the government honored its agreement, which may be the most striking element in the whole story.) Today, there are approximately 12,000 enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; approximately 8000 live on the Qualla Boundary (Eastern Cherokee Reservation) centered on the town of Cherokee, North Carolina.
[Flag of the Eastern Band]
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William Holland Thomas, the man who brokered Tsali's capture and the eastern Cherokee's exemption from removal, was later recognized as a chief, and became a long-serving state senator. When war broke out in 1861, he recruited and led Thomas' Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders, two companies of Cherokee and six companies of whites, to fight for North Carolina and the Confederacy. His unit captured the town of Waynesville, North Carolina in May 1865; after learning of the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia a month earlier, Colonel Thomas surrendered the legion. This was the last military action of the war's eastern theater. Late in life, he suffered from some form of mental illness, but remained dedicated to the Cherokee people, and served as an informant to Smithsonian ethnologist James Mooney.
General Winfield Scott, a Virginian, went the other way in 1861, remaining loyal to the Union and serving as the U.S. Army's Chief of Staff.
Of the later careers of Colonel Foster and Lieutenant Smith, I have thus far learned nothing.
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I'd like someday to visit the graves of Tsali and his executed companions, to offer some tobacco and perhaps a Cherokee rose in remembrance, to reflect on the men's courage in the face of American military might, to honor through pilgrimage their sacrifice not just for their families but for the cause of human freedom. Unfortunately, that won't be happening anytime soon. They were buried near the stockade at Bushnell—the same stockade from which they were supposed to be sent west to the Indian Territories of Oklahoma. In the early 1940s, the Tennessee Valley Authority built the Fontana Dam, the Little Tennessee River inundated the valley, and the graves were put far out of reach, deep beneath the waters of Fontana Lake.