Asheville Archives: Local resident reflects on Cherokee history, 1903

PAGE TURNER: Shortly after its June 1903 publication, The Asheville Citizen ran several excerpts from William W. Stringfield's booklet on the history of North Carolina's Cherokee Indians.

“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. 


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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5 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: Local resident reflects on Cherokee history, 1903


    Stringfield was originally from Tennessee. He served with Thomas’s Legion, a North Carolina unit which included several Tennessee companies in its ranks. Some of these men stayed in Western North Carolina after the War, with their old comrades. William H. Thomas commanded the Legion, using his relation through marriage to Jefferson Davis to obtain permission to raise this last Confederate Legion, in 1862. Thomas was moved to act as the Confederate government had just passed a draft law, and he worried about the fate of the Cherokees, if conscripted into white units. Thomas was “The White Chief of the Cherokee”, and a lawyer, and it was he that cut the deal for the “Eastern Band” to be left here undisturbed, if old Tsali could be talked into surrendering. The Legion had around 17-18 companies (each nominally 100 men), and four of these were Cherokees, including some of the officers. This was the only unit east of the Mississippi, north or south, to have Native American companies. Thomas negotiated a Treaty with the Federal government and received the money promised the Cherokee under its terms, Native Americans being under a legal disability to own land, and used this money to buy up most of the current “Qualla Boundary” reservation, taking title to the land in his own name. Unfortunately Thomas ended his days in the state insane asylum, and several generations of lawyers were enriched before the title to the Qualla Boundary could be straightened out.

    • Jillian Wolf

      Kevin, where can more information on what you’ve shared be found. Thank you.


        Lt. Col. Stringfield’s papers were relatively recently discovered, and are currently housed at WCU in Cullowhee. A recent history of Thomas’s Legion followed this discovery – possibly entitled “Storm in the Mountains”. If I recall correctly the brief histories of the 69th and 80th NC were written by Stringfield for the 1901 publication of “Clark’s North Carolina Regiments”. The designation as the 69th and 80th was a postwar attempt to make the Legion fit with more standard Confederate units; during the War they were known as the Legion, and the Battalion of the Legion. Charles Frazier’s second (I think) book (after “Cold Mountain”) was a fictionalized life of William H. Thomas, possibly entitled “Thirteen Moons” or something similar. J. P. Arthur’s “History of Western North Carolina” touches on these topics in many peripheral ways. The current multi-volume work of the state Department of Archives and History, “N. C. Troops”, has at last reached the Legion, I believe, after fifty years. Most of these sources are in Pack Library or any other reasonably large North Carolina library. Just about everything mentioned in my previous post ought to be covered in these works.

        • North Asheville

          Thank you for these very helpful amplifications of Thomas Calder’s fascinating article.

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