In December 1835 a group of Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota ceding all lands in the eastern United States. Although North Carolina’s Cherokee did not sign the treaty, the federal government held most of them to the terms of the agreement. Claiming exemption from the planned removal were a group of Cherokee known as the Oconaluftee Citizen Indians, led by Yonaguska and represented by William Holland Thomas, who had personal claims to lands granted in previous treaties. Despite Chief John Ross’s pleas not to resist the removal, many North Carolina Cherokee refused to leave their homeland and went into hiding. The United States Army, dispatched to search for the holdouts, enlisted the help of Thomas, who was more familiar with the lands and the people involved. Thomas agreed to help because he did not want the fugitive Cherokee to jeopardize the Oconaluftee band’s ability to stay in North Carolina.
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Tsali, also known as Charley, was one of the hundreds of Cherokee who refused to leave North Carolina. He and his family and a few close neighbors, a group that totaled about twenty, went into hiding in May 1838. From here the story diverges into what is in oral histories and what is in written records. Among the Cherokee Tsali has become a legendary hero, depicted in the outdoor drama Unto These Hills. Cherokee oral tradition tells of Tsali’s group being captured and harassed by the federal troops, with a baby being accidentally killed. By this account, Tsali decided to try to feign injury and ambush the soldiers to escape. In the ensuing skirmish, one soldier was killed and two others wounded, one mortally. The Cherokee escaped back into the mountains where they stayed until being told that, if the men responsible were to give themselves up, all of the other Indians in hiding could remain in North Carolina. The Cherokee account maintains that Tsali agreed to be executed so that the others could stay.
At the time that the marker was placed in Bryson City in 1937, few of the government records related to the Tsali event had been studied by scholars. What those documents reveal is different from oral tradition. On November 1, 1838, Second Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Smith, William Holland Thomas, and a few enlisted men found Tsali’s encampment and captured about twelve Cherokee. While being marched to the command base, some of the men attacked the soldiers and escaped. Major General Winfield Scott ordered Col. William S. Foster to capture the fugitive Cherokee responsible for killing the soldiers. Official records indicate that Thomas offered help, taking “a lively interest in the success of the expedition,” and assistance from some of the Oconaluftee Indians. Foster was ordered to shoot down the “individuals guilty of this unprovoked outrage” and to “collect all, or as many as practicable, of the fugitives (other than the murderers) for emigration.” Foster’s and Thomas’s actions with regard to the fugitives indicate that they either had verbal instructions form Scott or at least believed that he would permit any Cherokee who helped to find Tsali’s band to stay in North Carolina.
Along with the Oconaluftee Indians, Foster and Thomas enlisted the aid of some of the fugitive Cherokee in the vicinity. Thomas sought, in particular, a former neighbor of Tsali’s known as Euchella (Utsala). It is likely that Thomas conveyed the promise of staying in North Carolina to Euchella, who reported to Quallatown with some of his men on November 12. Euchella and an Indian known as Flying Squirrel lead about sixty men in search of Tsali. On November 24, Foster wrote to Scott that the mission was a success—that, of the twelve Indians that had been in the original group, all but Tsali had been recaptured and the three men most culpable in the attack “were punished yesterday by the Cherokees themselves in the presence of the 4th Regt. of Infantry.” Foster had made clear in other communications that he did not believe that Tsali was one of the murderers. His assurance is made clear by his dismissal of the search party and leaving the area. However, the next day, after Foster was gone, Euchella and another Indian caught Tsali and executed him. Foster issued a proclamation in support of Euchella and his “band of about thirty souls” and sent Scott a petition signed by residents in favor of the Indians’ wishes to stay.
The commissioners for the Cherokee removal granted Euchella and his band the permission to remain in North Carolina with the Oconaluftee Citizen Indians. Eventually these groups would be recognized as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Tsali’s story began to take shape with its embellished twist in 1849 and he has since “soared to an eminence in Cherokee annals” wherein he is considered a “beloved idol.” The significant difference in the two stories, of course, is that records indicate that Tsali never surrendered. Thus he never made the noble sacrifice for which he is idolized. The events were tragic and the outcome heartbreaking, and the saga is now immortalized in Cherokee lore. Tsali is portrayed as a martyred hero in the outdoor drama Unto These Hills in Cherokee to crowds of tourists every summer. The message of tragedy and sacrifice is clear but the history is a bit blurry.
John R. Finger, “The Saga of Tsali: Legend Versus Reality,” North Carolina Historical Review (January 1979): 1-18
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, VI, 56-57—sketch by John R. Finger (1996)
Barbara R. Duncan and Brett H. Riggs, Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook (2003)
James Mooney, History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1992 reprint edition)
Eastern Band of the Cherokee: http://www.cherokee-nc.com/index.php?page=60