By Lynn Hotaling
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians avoided removal via the Trail of Tears during the 1830s and remained in Western North Carolina primarily because of the efforts of two men: Yonaguska (also known as Drowning Bear), their chief at the time, and William Holland Thomas, who served as their lawyer and advocate in Washington, D.C.
Thomas also played pivotal roles in Jackson County’s pioneer history, its creation from portions of Haywood and Swain counties, and secession and the Civil War; his impact on the county was documented in this series’ previous two installments. This week’s report will focus on Yonaguska, whose vision and tenacity ensured his people would remain in their traditional homeland, and a second 19th century chief, Nimrod Jarrett Smith, who cemented the North Carolina Cherokees’ legal status.
“The situation for the Eastern Band Cherokees throughout the 19th century was fraught with perils and challenges. Yonaguska and Smith were two of the leaders who helped navigate a course through these pitfalls,” said local historian George Frizzell, who authored “The Native American Experience” chapter in “The History of Jackson County,” adding that half of Qualla Boundary is in the designated limits of Jackson County. “Yonaguska combined insight, resilience, and humor to formulate a strategy to avoid removal in the 1830s. In the post-Civil War years and with Will Thomas’ decline in health, Smith helped craft an approach to maintain the Band’s territorial integrity and also develop a legal and political status acknowledged by the state of North Carolina.”
Yonaguska is believed to have been born around 1760 and died in 1839, serving as a chief of the Cherokee middle towns (including the Indian settlements in what became Jackson County) from 1800 until he died. He was known as a gifted orator, and urged peace with the United States, helping to keep the Cherokees from joining Shawnee leader Tecumseh’s alliance with the British before the War of 1812.
According to “Highland Homeland: The People of the Great Smokies” by Wilma Dykeman and Jim Stokely, Yonaguska “lived most of his life in the shadow of the Smokies and possibly discovered Alum Cave.
“Persuaded as a young man not to avenge the murder of a close relative, Yonaguskah (several spellings of his name appear in the literature) grew into a wise student of human feelings and foibles. He enjoyed the reputation of a gifted orator and commanded respect in all corners of the Cherokee Nation,” write Dykeman and Stokely.
Yonaguska was among the Indians living along the Tuckaseigee, Oconaluftee and Little Tennessee rivers who took advantage of a provision in an 1819 treaty the Cherokee Nation signed with the U.S. government that allowed them to withdraw from the Nation, receive individual reservations of 640 acres each, and become citizens of North Carolina and the United States. His reservation was located on what’s now known as Governor’s Island at the confluence of the Tuckaseigee and Oconaluftee. The reservations of the 50 or so other heads of households who followed him were located along the Oconaluftee and near Quallatown. The next year, Yonaguska sold his property for $1,300 and moved to Quallatown.
“Yonaguska was able to provide his people with leadership and sound advice at a critical point in their history. He always counseled peace with the whites but was suspicious of white motives and efforts to undermine traditional Cherokee culture,” writes Frizzell in “The History of Jackson County.” “One famous story told how Yonaguska insisted on having a Cherokee translation of the Bible read to him before it was preached to his people. After listening to the book of Matthew, he supposedly remarked, ‘Well, it seems to be a good book – strange that the white people are not better, after having had it so long.’ With Thomas’s assistance, Yonaguska initiated a temperance society among the Oconaluftee (or Qualla) Indians and urged them to consider carefully the destruction alcohol had wreaked on Indian tribes. He also supervised the construction of a townhouse on Soco Creek for the Oconaluftee Indian community.”
Yonaguska did not attend the 1835 Cherokee Council meeting that resulted in the Treaty of New Echota, the document passed by a minority faction that ceded most Cherokee Nation land in the East to the federal government and resulted in the Trail of Tears. He opposed leaving the mountains and until his death exhorted his followers to remain in their ancestral homeland. In summing up his reasoning, he turned the government’s offer of “more fertile” land in the west, pointing out during a speech, “You say the land in the West is much better than it is here. That very fact is an argument on our side. The white man must have rich land to do his great business, but the Indian can be happy with poorer land. The white man must have a flat country for his plough to run easy, but we can get along even among the rocks on the mountains.”
After the New Echota treaty was ratified, Yonaguska called on Will Thomas to go to Washington, D.C., to negotiate on behalf of the Oconaluftee Cherokee. Yonaguska and Thomas contended that Yonaguska’s band was not obligated to move west because they had withdrawn from the Cherokee Nation when they accepted land following the 1819 treaty. Yonaguska and Thomas helped maintain the Oconaluftee Cherokees’ protected status by assisting the federal government in apprehending fugitives from the Nation who attempted to avoid removal by fleeing to the mountains around Quallatown.
In the “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography,” Theda Perdue credits Yonaguska with helping his followers avoid removal. “Yonaguska’s leadership ability, his steadfast dedication to temperance, and his willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government enabled the Oconaluftee Cherokee to secure the enforcement of the treaty of 1819 and the recognition of their rights as North Carolina citizens,” writes Perdue.
While Yonaguska is the chief who recognized Will Thomas’ value to the tribe, Nimrod Smith (1837-1893) is the one who served with Thomas and saw the value of lobbying governments on his people’s behalf. Principal chief of the Eastern Band from 1880 until 1891, he rose to the rank of first sergeant in Thomas’ Legion during the Civil War. Born to a Cherokee mother and white father, Smith received an informal education that was adequate to allow him to serve as clerk to the 1868 council that drafted the first constitution for the Eastern Cherokee.
He continued as a civil servant and was elected to fill the remainder of Principal Chief Lloyd Welch’s term when Welch died in office in 1880. Smith met anthropologist James Mooney, author of the classic “Myths of the Cherokee,” and is described by Mooney as “a splendid specimen of physical manhood, being six foot four inches in height and built in proportion, erect in figure, with flowing black hair curling down over his shoulders, a deep musical voice, and a kindly spirit and natural dignity.”
According to the online essay that accompanies Smith’s historical highway marker, sometime between 1870 and 1880 he moved to a farm he called “Yellow Hill,” located in the Qualla Boundary’s present-day Yellowhill community. “Upon being elected Principal Chief, Smith centralized Cherokee politics around his farm in modern-day Cherokee. While Qualla Town (more commonly spelled Quallatown) remained the local post-hamlet for the area, Chief Smith merged the various township Council Houses into a centralized location. In close proximity to Smith’s frame house, the EBCI constructed a building that functioned as school house, meeting house, and Council House,” the essay states.
Smith became chief at a time when the Eastern Band’s education had been neglected, and the Indians’ legal status was uncertain. In 1881, he contracted with Indiana Quakers to establish schools that would be paid for by the interest of the U.S. government trust fund for the North Carolina Cherokee and donations from the Society of Friends.
According to Perdue, writing about Smith in “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography,” the Quakers had established a training school in Cherokee and day schools in other settlements by the end of 1881. The next year, Congress authorized establishing an agency in Cherokee and a census that was completed in 1884.
The Eastern Band’s legal battles were not over when Smith became chief, and he devoted much of his time to efforts to gain access to annuities and other federal funds set aside for the Western (Oklahoma) Cherokee. The court ruled against the Eastern Band in 1885, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision a year later. According to the courts, the Eastern Cherokee had forfeited any claim to those funds by their refusal to move west. “The decision deprived them not only of the trust and annuity funds but also of their tribal status and consequently left them in an extremely ambiguous legal position,” writes Perdue. “... In an effort to protect the Cherokee, Chief Smith employed attorney Fred Fisher of Bryson City to draw up an act of incorporation (such as businesses used) for the Eastern Cherokee Indians. The act was ratified in March 1889 and a state charter was issued providing that ‘the North Carolina or Eastern Cherokee Indians, resident or domiciled in the counties of Jackson, Swain, Graham, and Cherokee, be and at the same time are hereby created and constituted a body politic and corporate under the name, style, and title of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, with all the rights, franchises, privileges, and powers incident and belonging to corporations under the laws of the state of North Carolina.’ Thus the North Carolina Cherokee became a corporation and adopted corporate procedures and regulations as their legal system.”
The highway marker essay tells more about Smith and his contributions: “Described as a man of imposing stature, Chief Smith was a staunch Democrat, often involved in politics beyond the Qualla Boundary. He spent a great deal of time working at his own expense on behalf of the EBCI in Washington. He was also a Master Mason in good standing at the Ocona Lodge. Shortly before his death, Smith was asked about the Cherokee Removal and, smiling graciously, responded, ‘As we were at home, I think the victory might have remained with us.’”
The contributions of both chiefs are documented with highway markers.
Yonaguska’s is located on U.S. 19 northeast of Bryson City and reads: “YONAGUSKA ca. 1760-1839/ Chief of Oconaluftee Cherokee. He advocated temperance and opposed removal of his people from their homeland. Lived in this vicinity.”
Smith’s marker, located where he once lived, on U.S. 441 (Tsali Boulevard) in Cherokee, reads as follows: “NIMROD JARRETT SMITH 1837-1893/ Principal Chief, Eastern Band of Cherokee, 1880-1891. Led incorporation of Band & centralization of Tribal government on his property, here.”
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.