The Remaining Cherokee


On clear autumn nights in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, a full harvest moon shines down on the lofty peaks that rise along the Tennessee border. Suddenly the dark figure of an Indian man appears, walking slowly along the ridge. He stands straight and tall.

Then stops for a moment, turns to look down into the valley, and vanishes. For almost one hundred and fifty years, this scene has been repeated in the mountains of Swain County. Yankee soldiers moving through the area during the Civil War reported seeing a tall, mysterious Indian. They fired at him over and over, but he simply continued his walk along the ridge. A series of sightings in the 1940’s led to newspaper stories published throughout the state.

Who is the ghostly Indian? Legend says that he is Tsali, an heroic Cherokee who defied white soldiers and helped one thousand of his fellow Cherokee to remain in the mountains of North Carolina.

For centuries the Great Smoky Mountains were the home of the Cherokee people. Long before Columbus sailed to the New World, these native Americans lived and hunted in the l= and of the sky.

” Then European colonists began to settle along the sounds and rivers of North Carolina. Slowly at firs, then in greater numbers, the whitemen moved inland. Finally when the native Americans sided with the British in the struggle for independence, North Carolina's revolutionaryleaders hired men to fight the Cherokee. The soldiers were paid with Cherokee land. When a treaty was finally signed, the Cherokee were left with only the land along the Tennessee border. Peace lasted only a short time. In 1815 and Indian boy found a pretty stone in a creek bed near his home. when his mother showed it to a white trader, the news spread like wildfire: Gold on the Cherokee land! The President of the United States signed a new treaty.

This time all the Cherokee would be removed from the Great Smoky Mountains and sent to land beyond the Mississippi River- where no gold had been found. Rage swept through the Cherokee nation; for twenty years they argued and fought. At last the government reluctantly agreed to pay the Cherokee five million dollars for their lands, but theIndians would have to leave immediately.

In May of 1838, United States soldiers under General Winfield Scott began to round up the Cherokee. Over 17,000 of them were herded into stockades and then driven like cattle to a reservation in Oklahoma. Along the way, almost one fourth of the Cherokee men, women, and children died. they fell victim to disease, exhaustion, starvation, and injury. The 1,200- mile journey is called the Trail of Tears. The morning when soldiers came onto Tsali's land, he was tending his crops near the Oconaluftee River. Tsali was an old man, simple and hardworking. At the first sound of hoof-beats, he looked up. A soldier pointing a rifle rode up to him, shouting in a foreign tongue. Tsali continued digging. The man pushed Tsali with the butt of his gun. Still Tsali worked in his field. It wasn't until he heard more horses, this time from the direction of his cabin, that Tsali moved.

He saw the soldiers force his aged wife, his three sons, and wife's brother from their home. Tsali's wife reached over to pick up a water jug, but a soldier smashed it to the ground. Two soldiers herded Tsali and his family along a narrow trail that led down into the valley. The others hurried away to the next farm. Tsali felt like a fish caught in a net. At the first bend in the trail, Tsali's wife paused for a final, sad look at her home. Impatiently the soldier prodded her along with his bayonet, and she tumbled face down in the dirt. At that Tsali's strength returned, and he cried out, in the Cherokee language, "Now we fight, my sons!" His oldest son jerked the reins of one horse, knocking the rider to the ground. Tsali managed to grab the other soldier. In the struggle that followed, the rifle went off, sending a bullet through the white man's heart. The other soldier escaped on foot.

Tsali and his family fled into the mountains, following paths known only to the Cherokee. For months they hid in a small cave under Clingman's Dome, eating roots and berries. Tsali's wife grew steadily weaker and finally died. Meanwhile over one thousand other Cherokee escaped into hiding among the Smoky Mountains.

By fall the soldiers had completed their grim roundup. Only the fugitive remained. General Scott knew it would cost many lives to hunt down those in hiding. But there was one who must not escape: Tsali. The killer of a white soldier must be punished.

So a white trader named William Thomas was called. As a young boy, Thomas had been adopted by a Cherokee chief. Tsali knew and trusted him. Thomas found the cave and announced the general's offer:

“Tsali and his family must give themselves up. Once they are under arrest, the soldiers will leave, and the other fugitive Cherokee will be free to remain in the Smoky Mountains.

"We will come", Tsali replied simply. It was their lives for the lives of one thousand of their brothers.

Tsali's youngest son was spared because of his age and was allowed to return to the cabin by the Oconaluftee River. Tsali, his two oldest sons, and his brother-in-law were quickly sentenced and executed by a firing squad. All four refused blindfolds. Today their graves are covered by the waters of the man-made Fontana Lake.

In death they became great heroes to the Cherokee people. Because of their sacrifice, the Cherokee continued to live in the Great Smoky Mountains, bearing children whose children's children are there still.

Many believe that Tsali himself remains, that his spirit will forever walk along the ridge, straight and tall, in "the land of the sky."

Return to Table of Contents