“Too little has been written about the early Indians who peopled North Carolina,” The Asheville Citizen declared on July 19, 1903. Fortunately for the paper’s readers, a June 1903 booklet — North Carolina Cherokee Indians — offered a detailed account on the very topic.
Authored by former Confederate Lt. Col. William W. Stringfield, The Asheville Citizen ran extensive excerpts from the publication. The paper’s selection focused on several topics, including the personality of Chief Yonaguska, also known as Drowning Bear.
Born around 1760, Yonaguska served as head chief of the Cherokee middle towns beginning in the 1820s and remained in the position until his death in 1839. Known for his opposition to whiskey as well as removal, the Cherokee leader was also “very suspicious of missionaries,” Stringfield writes.
Nevertheless, the writer asserts, Yonaguska entertained attempts at conversion. In one account, the Cherokee leader listened to several chapters read aloud from the Book of Matthew. According to Stringfield’s retelling, Yonaguska eventually grunted with satisfaction, before stating, “It seems to be a very good book. Strange the white people are not better after having had it so long.”
The Asheville Citizen also ran several excerpts concerning the Indian Removal Act of 1838, known as the Trail of Tears. The historic event resulted in the expulsion of an estimated 16,000 Cherokees from their homeland to territory farther west.
In this section, Stringfield’s writing offers haunting accounts of violence. “I fought through the Civil War, and have seen thousands of men shot to pieces, but that Cherokee Removal was the most cruel work I ever knew,” one Georgia man told the author.
In another passage, which Stringfield notes is directly pulled from a Bureau of American Ethnology report, the sudden shock and horror of removal are vividly depicted:
“[S]quads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonets every small cabin hidden away in the caves or by the side 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 that led to the stockage. In many cases, on 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.”
In additional excerpts, Stringfield shares of failed escapes by tribal members and the brutality that followed, as well as the stoicism many Native Americans displayed in the face of unimaginable cruelty.
“The manner of removal is indeed a stain upon our flag!” the author wrote.
Of course, not all tribal members were discovered by the military. According to the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, an estimated 300-400 Cherokees remained in North Carolina, hiding in the mountains.
Stringfield celebrates the victory of this small group in his pamphlet, noting: “The Eastern Band of Cherokees, of whom I am supposed to write, were, originally, the fugitives who refused to go, and could not be caught!”
Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.