John Ross

The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains

1830 Map of Cherokee Territory in Georgia
1830 Map of Cherokee Territory in Georgia

In 1827, he was president of the convention that framed and adopted the constitution of the Cherokee Nation, “the first effort at a regular government, with distinct branches and powers defined, ever made and carried into effect by any of the Indians of North America.” In the following year he was elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and he held this office continuously until his death.

After a hard fight in Congress both the Ross memorial and the one from New York were tabled. In May, President Van Buren made his belated proffer of a stay of proceedings, but then immediately backed down before the bristling Governor of Georgia. John Ross then submitted another project for the negotiation of a new treaty as a substitute for that of 1835, but the last day of grace for the voluntary emigration of the Cherokees was only one day off, and the Government declared that it could not consider any further negotiations.

Meantime General Scott had built a number of stockade forts throughout the Cherokee country and had disposed his troops in them. There were six of these forts in southwestern North Carolina, five in northern Georgia, one in northern Alabama, and one in southeastern Tennessee. When the last hour had struck he began the round-up.

There seems to be only one reliable and full account of the Cherokee removal. It is by Mr. James Mooney, of the United States Bureau of Ethnology, who was a master of the Cherokee language and a competent historian. The facts were collected by him directly from men, white and red, who were themselves participants in this tragic affair. A few paragraphs from Mr. Mooney’s narrative are as follows:-

“Squads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in coves or by the sides of mountain streams, to seize and bring in as prisoners all the occupants, however or wherever they might be found. Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway, and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trail that led to the stockade.

“Men were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their wheels and children from their play. In many cases, in turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, they saw their homes in flames, fired by the lawless rabble that followed on the heels of the soldiers to loot and pillage. So keen were these outlaws on the scent that in some instances they were driving off the cattle and other stock of the Indians almost before the soldiers had fairly started their owners in the other direction.

“Systematic hunts were made by the same men for Indian graves, to rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead. A Georgian volunteer, afterward a colonel in the Confederate service said: ‘I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.’

In this manner, within a few weeks, nearly 17,000 of the Indians were corralled in the various stockades. The rest, about a thousand, mostly natives of the high mountains of southwestern North Carolina, fled and hid out in the trackless wilds of the Great Smoky divide.

Early in June the work of removal began. Several parties, aggregating about 5,000, were dispatched under direction of officers of the Army to landings on the Tennessee River, where they were put aboard steam-boats, sent down the Tennessee and the Ohio, to the further bank of the Mississippi, and then marched afoot across Arkansas to the recently established Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

This removal, in the hottest part of the year, of a mountain-bred people unaccustomed to the scorching low-lands, unused to the kind of food given them, nauseated by the warm drinking water, and crowded together like sheep on the steamboats, was attended by much sickness and mortality. The Cherokee national council pleaded that they be allowed to remove the rest of their people overland, in parties led by their own chiefs, after the summer heat and sickly season had passed. This was permitted, and the remaining 13,000 started on their long trek, from their assembly place at Rattlesnake Springs, Tennessee, in October, 1838.

“It was like the march of an army, regiment after regiment, the wagons in the center, the officers along the line, and the horsemen on the flanks and at the rear.. .The route lay south of Pikeville, through McMinnville and on to Nashville, where the Cumberland was crossed. Then they went on to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where the noted chief White-path, in charge of a detachment, sickened and died. His people buried him by the roadside, with a box over the grave and poles with streamers around it, that the others coming on behind might note the spot and remember him.

“Somewhere also along that march of death—for the exiles died by tens and twenties every day of the journey—the devoted wife of John Ross sank down, leaving him to go on with the bitter pain of bereavement added to heartbreak at the ruin of his nation. The Ohio was crossed at a ferry near the mouth of the Cumberland, and the army passed on through southern Illinois until the great Mississippi was reached opposite Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

“It was now the middle of winter, with the river running full of ice, so that several detachments were obliged to wait some time on the eastern bank for the channel to become clear. In talking with old men and women at Tahlequah (Mr. Mooney) found that the lapse of over half a century had not sufficed to wipe out the memory of the miseries of that halt beside the frozen river, with hundreds of sick and dying penned up in wagons or stretched upon the ground, with only a blanket overhead to keep out the January blast.”

At last the crossing was made, and the sad procession passed on through southern Missouri. In March, 1839, they reached their destination in Indian Territory, after nearly six months’ travel and agonizing hardships. It is estimated that over 4,000 Cherokees perished as a direct result of the removal, or nearly one-fourth of all those who were driven into exile. A war with an enemy of anything like their own number would not have taken so heavy a toll.

The struggles and trials of the Cherokees in their new western home do not concern the present topic. Let us go back now to the scattered and desperate refugees, those pitiful few hundreds who were left outlawed in the forests of their native mountains.

It has already been mentioned that the original nucleus of the Cherokees was the Kituwha settlement on the Tuckaseegee River, near the mouth of the Okona-lufty, in the present Swain County, North Carolina. The Indians of this and the neighboring settlements on Lufty and Soco were the purest blooded and most conservative of the Cherokee Nation. Their chief, Yonaguska (“Drowning Bear”), was a man of fine presence, six feet three inches in height and of powerful build.

He was a noted orator. His people revered him not only as a leader but as a prophet.

Yonaguska counseled peace and friendship with the white man, but he was immovably opposed to a western migration. He declared that his people were safer from aggression in their steep and rocky mountains than they would ever be in a fertile land that would sooner or later be coveted by the westward-moving whites. He was a firm upholder of ancient customs and of the aboriginal religion. The white missionaries he regarded with suspicion.

When a Cherokee translation of St. Matthew was published at New Echota, and a copy was brought to the Kituwha country, Yonaguska would not allow it to be circulated until it had first been read to himself. After listening to a few chapters the old chief dryly remarked, “Well, it seems to be a good book—strange that the white people are no better, after having had it so long.”

When Scott’s soldiers began to seize the Indians and drive them to the stockades, most of Yonaguska’s band fled in advance and secreted themselves in the high mountains. Here they were joined by others who had escaped from Calhoun and other collecting stations, until upwards of a thousand Indians were hiding in the roughs. About half of them were under command of a leader named Utsala (“Lichen”), who disposed them along the head waters between Clingman Dome and Mount Guyot of the Great Smoky range.

Anyone acquainted with that region and knowing whites and Indians descended from those who were there at the time of the man-hunt, can visualize the situation in which the fugitives were placed.

Although lumbermen at one time began to invade it, it remains a wild country. Nearly all of it is very rough and rugged. Most of the divide (which forms the State line between North Carolina and Tennessee) is over 5,500 feet above sea level, and the abutting ridges for several miles each way are but little lower. The sides of the mountains have steep slopes that begin at the very banks of the streams.

There are extensive areas strewn with great fragments of rock, although there is a heavy forest mantle everywhere. Cliffs and precipitous banks are so frequent that the only thoroughfares are a few carefully chosen trails. For several miles east of the Porter Gap the crest of the Smoky divide is almost knife-edged, so that footing is precarious, the rocks being covered with slippery moss or by dense, low, iron-like bushes that are very hard for a man to push through. A misstep might send one hurtling and sliding five hundred feet or more into North Carolina on one side or Tennessee on the other, unless some tree-top caught and held him.

On the slopes of the mountains there is a heavy stand of hardwood and chestnut and hemlock; on the upper reaches there is dense spruce and balsam. Labyrinths of laurel keep many of the water-courses in perpetual gloom. On some slopes and ridges, particularly on the Tennessee side, are great tracts of stunted rhododendron over which a man can only flounder. Dogs cannot go through such a thicket at all.

So far, then, as configuration and natural cover are concerned, this region is almost ideal for men hiding out, and to this day it is a refuge for moonshiners, deserters, and outlaws. But the problem of getting food in such a country is serious, unless the fugitive has clandestine help from outside.

There is little animal life in the upper zones, other than small brook trout, chipmunks, red squirrels, and a few birds. Bears harbor there, but they are wily and almost impossible to find without a pack of dogs. Formerly there were deer, and at that time a small party of hunters might be able to feed themselves for a week or two on products of the chase. But when a thousand fugitive Indians swarmed up into the roughs of the mountains, all game animals must have fled before them, leaving an empty solitude.


Kephart, Horace. The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains, A Little Band that Has Stood Against the White Tide for Three Hundred Year. Ithaca, N.Y.: The Atkinson press. 1936.

Search Military Records - Fold3

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top