By Lowell Kirk
Under the terms of the fraudulent l836 Treaty of New Echote, all Cherokee who lived within the
Cherokee Nation, were required to give up their homeland and remove west of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory. As of May l838, only a few had done so. General Winfield Scott arrived at Calhoun, Tennessee in command of about 7,000 soldiers to forcible remove almost l6,000 Cherokee to the west. More than 25 stockades were established in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama to be used as “holding pens” for the Cherokee until they could be marched to Rattlesnake Springs. From there, they would begin the forced march under armed escort known as the Trail of Tears.
Tsali was one of the “traditionalist” Cherokee who had not been involved in the heated debates
over the removal policy. He lived with his wife and three sons in a cabin near the mouth of the
Nantahala River, where it flows into the Little Tennessee, near present day Bryson City, North
Carolina. After an l8l9 treaty, he, as well as about l000 other Cherokee at Quallatown, lived outside
the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. Like most of the North Carolina Cherokee, he had been
somewhat bypassed by the “progress” that had been made by those Cherokee who had accepted the “white man’s road after 1794. Most of the “Progressive” Cherokee lived in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Most of the Cherokee who lived in the mountains of Western North Carolina were “traditionalists.”
Tsali farmed a small hillside plot and hunted to provide for his family. Only now and then did an
occasional bit of news about the troubles in Georgia trickle into this area of North Carolina. When
the Federal troops began rounding up the Cherokee in May of l838, it would be the primitive or
“traditionalists” in North Carolina who made up the bulk of the Cherokee who refused to go to
Oklahoma. They had always been outside the mainstream of Cherokee “progress”, and did not live
within the boundaries of the Cherokee nation as it existed from l8l9 to l838. As the historical events
of l838 began to unfold, Tsali would become a legendary hero to the Cherokee.
When James Mooney of the Smithsonian Institute lived with the Cherokee from l887 to l890, this
is the story he was told. Tsali’s brother-in-law came to Tsali’s cabin in May of l838 and told Tsali of
the 7,000 soldiers who were rounding up the Cherokee to take them to a land where the setting sun
bent down to touch the earth. General Winfield Scott had said that all Cherokee people must begin
the long march west before the next new moon. Tsali did not understand why the Cherokee must go,
and he only thought of it for a few moments as he sat by the fire puffing his pipe. The next day he
went back to his fields, with little more thought of it. And while Tsali worked his fields, the soldiers
were rounding up the Cherokee and putting them in the more than 25 stockades, in preparation for
the long march west. Some Cherokee believed that Tsali began dreaming of a dream of how his
people might stay in their native hills. After all, that is the stuff of legends. But it is most likely that
Tsali was only concerned for his crops and a good harvest to feed his family through the long winter.
Soon the soldiers arrived at Tsali’s cabin and told him that he and his family must go to the
stockade at Bushnell, down the Little Tennessee River from Tsali’s cabin. The site of Bushnell is now covered by the waters of TVA’s Fontana Lake. Although Tsali did not understand, he offered no resistance. With his wife, his sons and his brother-in-law’s family, they headed toward the Bushnell stockade carrying only a few things which they had managed to put into bundles. Four soldiers escorted them. According to the story which was told to Mooney, somewhere along the way, one of the soldiers prodded Tsali’s wife with a bayonet, to quicken her steps. Tsali became angry. In the Cherokee language, Tsali told the other Cherokee to get prepared to take the soldier’s guns when he pretended to fall, and they would escape into the hills. In the resulting scuffle, a soldiers gun discharged and ripped a hole in the side of his own head. Tsali had intended no bloodshed, but his family quickly ran into the woods and proceeded to a cave in the mountains under Clingman’s Dome.
U.S. Military records give another version of the story. Second Lieutenant Andrew Jackson
Smith, accompanied by three soldiers, had captured the Tsali group of twelve, five men, seven women and some children. In the morning of November l, Smith led the “prisoners” back toward the stockade at Bushnell. Having made a camp, Smith warned his men to be on guard for trouble.
Shortly thereafter, one of the Cherokee drew a hidden ax and sunk it in the forehead of one of the
three soldiers. In the next moments, a second soldier was killed, and the third was wounded. Smith
claimed that his horse became frightened and ran away, saving Smith’s life, according to his official
report. The Cherokee then fled, after taking some articles from the soldiers. Smith went to the
Bushnell stockade, took the Cherokee who had been previously collected there and marched to Fort Cass at Calhoun where he made his official report to General Scott on November 5.
This brings up a question. How could four United States military personal, carrying rifles, one on
horseback when they were supposedly camped, be overpowered by five Cherokee men and seven
women and children, who were apparently armed with only one ax small enough to be hidden on a
man’s body? In Lt. Smith’s report there was no mention of a soldier prodding Tsali’s wife with a
bayonet. However, what United States “officer and a gentleman” would report to his superior that
one of his soldiers prodded an old woman with a bayonet, if it had happened as the Cherokee story
On November 6, General Scott gave orders to Colonel William S. Foster to hunt down and shoot
the “murderers.” Foster was ordered to “collect all, or as many as practicable, of the fugitives
(other than the murderers) for emigration.” The aid of Drowning Bear and Will Thomas was en¬
listed. Thomas was the white adopted son of Chief Drowning Bear of the Quallatown band. As the
Quallatown Band lived outside of the Cherokee Nation, they were not required by law to emigrate.
Thanks to Will Thomas General Scott made a distinction between the Quallatown Band living near
the Oconaluftee River and “fugitives”. Thomas had convinced General Scott that the Quallatown
Band had promised not to hide any of the “fugitives”, referring to those who had fled from their
homes within the Cherokee national boundaries. Even John Rose, Chief of the Cherokee Nation, sent his condolences to General Scott for the murders, saying that the Cherokee Nation should not be held responsible for this “individual” occurrence. Colonel Foster entered the upper Little Tennessee country with nine companies of the U.S. Fourth Infantry. A tenth company had proceeded toward the Oconaluftee with Will Thomas, under the command of Lieutenant Larned. Apparently, Thomas convinced the Quallatown Cherokee that if they would help catch Tsali and the other “murderers,” they would be allowed to stay in North Carolina.
So the Oconaluftee Cherokee provided a total force of about sixty men to capture the
“murderers,” when ten companies of U.S. troops could not! Soon the Cherokee turned over to
Colonel Foster Tsali’s oldest son, Nantayalee Jake, and Tsali’s brother-in-law, Nantayalee George, whom Foster claimed were the “principal actors in the murder.” Tsali’s wife and the wife of Nantayalee George and her small daughter had also been brought in by the Oconaluftee Cherokee. By November 24, Foster reported that of the twelve Cherokee present at the murder site, all but Tsali had been captured. Three adult males were executed. The Cherokee themselves made up the six man firing squad. Tsali’s youngest son was spared, along with Tsali’s wife. Colonel Foster announced that removal had officially ended and the rest of the Indians in hiding could join their brothers at Quallatown, on the Oconaluftee. Will Thomas had convinced Foster that Tsali had
played only a minor role in the affair, and so Foster’s Fourth Infantry left the mountains, their
mission complete. After Foster had left Bushnell, Tsali was brought in by other Quallatown Chero¬
kee. At noon on the next day, Tsali was tied to a tree and shot in the same manner as the other three.
Colonel Foster’s final report on the affair, dated December 3, l838 reported Tsali’s execution, and
commended Drowning Bear for his assistance. Foster also asked that one of the “fugitive” groups
under the leadership of Euchella, who had helped in the capture of Tsali, be allowed to stay with the
Quallatown Cherokee. The commissioners for the Cherokee removal officially agreed to allow such
in January, l839.
Soon, the story of Tsali became a legend and inspiration among Quallatown Cherokee. It was
widely reported that Tsali had willingly surrendered so that the Federal troops would leave the
North Carolina mountains and allow the Quallatown Cherokee to remain in their ancient homeland.
Although the Federal government had declared that the removal was over, for the rest of the century the government continued to make efforts to get the Quallatown Cherokee to emigrate to the west. It was the legend of Tsali, and the belief that he had selflessly given his life in order that some of his people could remain in their beloved mountains. In the hearts and minds of the Cherokee people today, Tsali still lives! And so do more than 10,000 Cherokee today, in the center of their ancient homeland.