Friday, December 28, 2007

Arcadia in Appalachia

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
- Leo Tolstoy
One of the queerest stories to arise from the Appalachian South involves one Gottlieb Priber, who wandered into the Cherokee Overhill country, what is now the southeastern corner of Tennessee, around 1736. He was a German explorer and eccentric whom the British mistook for a French agent. The English trapper and author James Adair wrote:

…[Priber] made friends with the head warriors of [Great] Tellico… More effectually to answer the design of his own commission, he ate, drank, slept, danced, dressed and painted himself with the Indians; so that it was not easy to distinguish him from the natives, he married with them, and being endued with a strong understanding and retentive memory, he soon learned their dialect, and by gradual advances, impressed them with a very ill opinion of the English… (this and quotes that follow are from Adair’s History of the American Indians, pp. 252-257, emphases mine).
A good way to understand the hostile relationship between British and French colonists – and its effect on the Cherokee nation caught between – is to visit Fort Loudoun State Park near Vonore, Tennessee. There, the visitor can explore a reconstruction of the mid-18th century military outpost, built by South Carolina colonists to protect the Cherokees from attacks by the French, rival Indian tribes, and savage Anglo/Scots-Irish backcountry men. Until 1760 the Cherokee and British were intimate trading partners, the latter respecting the former’s sovereignty. The relationship between the Overhill towns to Williamsburg and Charles Towne was far better, generally speaking, than public school texts admit. The French pushing up from the Gulf of Mexico into the fringe of the British-claimed “southwest territory,” i.e. southeast Tennessee, posed a serious threat to that trade. Moreover, the French incited other Southeastern natives – which had formerly traded with, and maintained respectful distance from, the Cherokees – into inter-tribal hostilities.

A park interpreter dressed in period British military regalia explains (in a thick, East Tennessee twang) the implications of the intrusion. At stake was not only trade and territory, but ecclesiastical control. The rivalry between the French and British was also a battle between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. Both were the established churches in their respective empires. To the British, the Pope represented not only ecclesiastical but ultimate political domination of their lives and properties. The park interpreter fires of a loud shot from a smooth-bore musket (“Brown Bess”), a reminder that the British would rather have died fighting than come under the Pope’s imperium.

Returning to Gottlieb Priber,

Having thus infected [the Cherokees] by his smooth deluding art, he easily formed them into a nominal republican government – crowned their old Archi-magus, emperor…and invented a variety of high-sounding titles for all the members of his imperial majesty’s red court, and the great officers of the state… He himself received the honorable title of his imperial majesty’s principal secretary of state, and as such subscribed to himself, in all the letters he wrote to our government, and lived in open defiance of [the English].
Priber’s activity among the Cherokees is estimated at six or seven years. His ultimate goal was the creation of a utopian state hidden in the Southern Appalachians, uniting all Natives and ne'er-do-wells against European traders. One observer suggested that Priber wanted to demonstrate to the French how democratic ideals could be applied back home in Europe.

Priber urged that the “seat of [Indian] government be moved nearer to the French at Coosawattee, where in ancient times a town stood belonging to the Cherokees; and that they should admit into their society Creeks and Catawbas, French and English, all colors and complexions; in short, all who were of these principles, which were truly such as had no principles at all.”
The British in South Carolina and Georgia would have none of it; they placed a 400 pound bounty on Priber’s head. He was tracked down and captured while passing through Creek country.

The Creek Indians have at last brought Mr. Priber prisoner here; he is a little ugly man, but speaks all languages fluently…he talks very profanely against all religions, but chiefly [against] the Protestant; he was for setting up a town at the foot of the mountains among the Cherokees, which was to be the city of refuge for all criminals, debtors and slaves… There was a book found upon him in his own writing ready for the press, which he owns and glories in…in which…he lays down the rules of the government which the town is to be governed by, to which he gives the title of Paradise. He enumerates many whimsical privileges and natural rights…particularly dissolving marriages and allowing community of all women and all kinds of licentiousness; the book is drawn up very methodically, and full of learned quotations; it is extremely wicked, yet has several flights of invention, and it is a pity so much wit is applied to so bad a purpose.
In the wake of these events the influence of Great Tellico was diminished and the locus of Cherokee government shifted north to Tanasi and Chota on the banks of the Little Tennessee River.

Gottlieb Priber was foiled in his attempt to undo what generations and centuries (and millenia) of Native American history had established: the natural delineation of peoples along cultural and linguistic lines.

But, if Priber had only lived another 260 years, he could have witnessed his quixotic vision taking shape – across western Europe and in the greater United States of America.