Thursday, January 3, 2008

Enemies, Neighbors and Compatriots: Multiculturalism in the Mountains

The Indians are as much entitled to their rights as I am to mine.
- William Holland Thomas

The British were unable to check the flow of white settlers into the Cherokee backcountry. The Wataugan settlements, in what is now upper East Tennessee, spelled a degree of doom for the Cherokee nation. Not only did these white “Overmountain Men” turn the tide of the American Revolution with their crushing defeat of Loyalists at Kings Mountain, they turned their wrath on the British-allied towns of the Cherokees. By the end of the war the once-mighty Cherokee nation lay in ruin.

But a strange symbiosis evolved during those years of hostility. By several accounts the Cherokees were apt to take captives as either slaves or adopted members of the clan. Many white women preferred the company of the red men and women; from them, Cherokees learned the art of spinning fabric and raising livestock. In their imminent defeat they were learning techniques that would sustain the survival of a remnant.

The Anglo-Celtic settlers were learning, too. From the Cherokees they discovered the medicinal properties of numerous wild herbs, especially the coveted ginseng. They acquired better skills for tracking and hunting game. They learned to clothe themselves against the bitter mountain winters in buckskin and bear fur.

More importantly, the Natives and Anglo-Celts found a certain degree of cultural resonance in one another. The Cherokees recognized in the Scots-Irishmen – more so than in their old English allies – an irrepressible yearning for freedom and independence, a certain “wildness,” and a visceral connection to the land. In fact, the Southern Appalachian high ridges and deep valleys would do more to draw these two cultures together than warfare or even trade.

Some of the Cherokees living in north Georgia and north Alabama emulated the practice of chattel slavery. As they moved to the Oklahoma territory after the Treaty of New Echota (1836), slaveholding Cherokees took their black servants with them. But in the rugged mountains of southwestern North Carolina the terrain was too steep to support slave agriculture. The white subsistence farmers settled into a hunting-and-gardening lifestyle far removed from the big plantations of the Tidewater and Lower South. And their closest neighbors were the Cherokees.

Over 2,000 Cherokees remained in North Carolina after 1836, in close proximity to their ancient lands thanks to the efforts of a white trader and attorney, William Holland Thomas. Growing up a racial minority on a hardscrabble farm adjacent Quallatown in northern Jackson County, Thomas won the affection of Yonaguska, a Cherokee headman, and was adopted into the tribe as Wil us di (“Little Will”). Both in Raleigh and in Washington, DC, the adult Thomas served as agent for the Cherokees, arguing that they, having never been present at nor signatories to the Treaty of New Echota, were de facto citizens of North Carolina and thus entitled to remain in their communities at Quallatown and Buffalo Town. The process was long and arduous, but the Cherokees came to realize something their white neighbors already knew – that the distant federal government was an efficient source of trouble rather than assistance.

When the nationalist-mercantilist War Against Secession (1861-65) broke out, there was little question which side the North Carolina Cherokees would take. Like tens of thousands of uplanders, the Cherokees were now part of the “plain folk,” or yeoman class – that mysterious 75% non-slaveholding segment of Southerners who fought for principles broader than the alleged planter hegemony. At stake were local self-government, the unmolested backcountry way of life, and, for the Cherokees, a chance at payback to a treaty-breaking U.S. government. Thomas mustered a fully-integrated company of troops at Quallatown on April 9, 1862. This writer’s great-great-great uncle Thomas W. Ward joined ranks that day beside men with names like Cahtoquaskee, Chu wha loo keh, Oosowih, and Tala gi skih. One of the officers in that company was 2nd Lt. Astoogatogeh, later killed in a skirmish at Baptist Gap near the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

The “Thomas Legion” would swell to two battalions with 18 companies and over 1,500 troops. It was unconventional in every aspect. Colonel William Holland Thomas, keenly aware of mountain culture, liberally allowed his men to take “French leave” to look after affairs at home – much to the chagrin of higher-level commanders. Names appeared, disappeared, then reappeared on muster rolls. Thomas wanted to keep his soldiers as close to the Smoky Mountains as practicable and demurred when one of his companies, “Conley’s Sharpshooters,” was detached to Jubal Early's Shenandoah Valley offensive. Like most Southerners, Thomas and his men believed in a strictly defensive war, protecting loved ones and property as opposed to the grand strategic schemes of the West Point-trained Confederate generals. The Thomas Legion had the makings of a true guerrilla force that could have ambushed and killed as many Unionists passing through the foggy mountain gaps as the District of Columbia was willing to waste.

In the end, however, events in northern Virginia, the Mississippi Valley and north Georgia involving much larger masses of men rendered the Thomas Legion’s efforts useless. The Legion fired the last shots in the eastern theater of the war, surrounding a company of Federals at Waynesville, NC on May 9, 1865 – a full month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In a bizarre twist of history, the Legion captured the town only to lay down its arms in recognition that the war was over.

When Thomas approached the Federal officers for terms, he came with his Cherokee cohorts stripped to the waist and wearing red war paint. Wil us di embodied the relationship forged between the Cherokee and their white highlander neighbors – a connection that would last until new waves of invaders came in the mid-to-late 20th century.

1 comment:

Marsha said...

Good stuff, my friend.