“Whatever else you leave undone, see Qualla,” urged the friend who had persuaded us to an exploration of the North Carolinian mountains as he helped us aboard the train in Philadelphia. “Ride over some day to Casher’s Valley: you’ll find gigantic bluffs there; and to Waynesville: it is the highest town in the United States. And don’t forget the gorge of the Unaka Range—eighty peaks above six thousand feet in sight at once. But above all, see Qualla—see Qualla!”
Now, this “riding over,” so jauntily hinted at, had turned out to be not the gallop of an hour or two, as we supposed, but slow journeys of hundreds of miles along mountain-roads, made on mules or the sure-footed Canadian ponies in use among the mountaineers. Half the summer passed before we remembered Qualla. It was very easy to forget any duty, or even pleasure, among these hills. We had come into the land of forgetting. Railroads, telegraphs, work, hurry of every sort, we had left behind us at the first pass. Taking the little town of Asheville as our head-quarters, and leaving all baggage and encumbrances there, we journeyed leisurely from one great mountain-range to another—the Cowee, Nantahela, Balsam, Blue Ridge—the region where the Appalachian chain reaches its loftiest height on the continent; halting sometimes in a gorge where a glittering trout-stream proved too tempting to our fishermen, sometimes in a drowsy, dirty little hamlet above the clouds; or camping far in the forests in hope of bringing down some of the wary black bears that lurked in their thickets. Woods and gorges as well as mountain-hamlet were drowsy: the whole region wore the same curious air of calmness, of content, of utter indifference to any uneasy goings-on in the world below. The very sunshine in these heights was not energetic—never apparently saw any necessity, as in town, for a hurry of heat. There was always a tranquil gray chill in it, as in early November days in the North; always vast masses of mist moving somewhere in sight ready to break on you in fine summer rain—a rain which at evening melted away into a universal sparkle from horizon to horizon, and a soft green shiver of leaves, and rainbows arching over peaks that rose like dim gateways in the far heaven. The guide was anxious to tell you that these peaks were Pisgah or Clingman’s Dome or the Black Brothers, but you were apt to remember how Bunyan or Christian long ago had come into a place like this and caught a glimpse of the heavenly hills, and were quite sure these were no Black Brothers.
There was a certain monotony of somber grandeur in the scenery that had its tranquilizing influence, and made a great gulf of time, as it were, between this and our ordinary life. For days together we traversed narrow paths with bare cliffs on either side, or passed through interminable chains of lower hills white with chestnut blossoms, or rising to the cold high levels, climbed giddy steeps where the black balsam was the only tree, and no birds were found except the eagle and the little snow-bird of the North, which summers in this chilly air.
The mountaineers, with their clear-cut Huguenot faces and incredibly dirty clothes, nodded like old friends when we passed them on the hill-paths, but did not trouble themselves to ask any questions. We did not need to ask any of them. Their lives were open before us. There were the unlighted log hut, split into halves by an open passage-way, and swarming with children, who lived on hominy and corn-bread, with a chance opossum now and then as a relish. They were not cumbered with dishes, knives, forks, beds or any other impediments of civilization: they slept in hollow logs or in a hole filled with straw under loose boards of the floor. But they were contented and good-natured: they took life, leaky roof, opossum and all, as a huge joke, and were honest gentlefolk despite their dirty and bedless condition. At long intervals they drove the steer which was their sole live-stock, loaded with peltry or corn, down to one of the little villages where trade was carried on without money. Money, indeed, appeared throughout this region to be one of the unknown luxuries of civilization; and it is startling (if anything could be startling up yonder) to find how easily and comfortably life resolves itself to primitive conditions without it. In these villages we found thoroughbred men and women, clothed in homespun of their own making, reading their old shelves of standard books: they were cheerful and gay, full of shrewd common sense and feeling, but utterly ignorant of all the comforts which have grown into necessities to people in cities, and of all current changes in the modern world of art, literature or society; in fact, almost unconscious that was such a world. Among the mountain-woodsmen we found other men and women who had never learned the use of a glass window, or of a cup and saucer, and manifestly never had learned to keep themselves clean; yet they were of honorable, devout habits of mind, and bore themselves with exceptional tact and delicacy of feeling and the dignity and repose of manner of Indians. Palpable facts likes these were calculated to shake the old notions of busy, money-making Philadelphians. After all, were Chestnut street and Broadway all wrong in their ideas of the essentials of life? The village lawyer here had education, the thousand decencies and tendernesses of home, the comfort of soberly courteous and kindly habits of thought in those about him, and, if he chose it, of religion. Nature in her loftiest mood was ready to be his companion. If the externals of his life did lack certain refinements and possibilities, certainly there was utterly dropped out of that life all the hurry and anxious gnawing care which have made the men of the Northern States lean of body and morbid of mind, and the women neuralgic and ill-tempered. In the drowsy content of his atmosphere, looking from some stupendous height, off into infinite repose, doubts would creep in as to the use of work and worry, and the actual value of government bonds or bric-à-brac or Messionnier’s pictures, and whether it really “paid” to toil a life long to secure such goods a little in advance of our neighbor. The eternal calm of the mountains reflected itself in the lowest nature in some queer, incomplete way. The shrewdest business-man of the party lapsed slowly into flannel shirts and lazy good-humor, and began to take rain, heat or poor fare with the serene complacency of a native. If he wished now and then for a lodge in some wilderness which we passed, he forgot to remark how long the investment would be in paying two per cent. He had begun the journey with harangues at every stopping-place upon the effect of a railroad and the influx of Northern capital in opening up this region. Now he gravely assured us that manufactures and money could be found anywhere, but that there was something beneath this solitude and laziness and happy indifference worth them all. When these stately mountain-monarchs should be bored and tunneled and cut up by Novelty mica-mines and iron-furnaces worked by New York capitalists, he hinted that a good beyond their money value would be lost to the country. However, I am afraid that almost any of the citizens of Buncombe county would be willing to trade their spiritual, intangible possessions for a few greenbacks paid quarterly.
We all attempted, of course, plenty of scientific guesses as to the cause of this universal drowse over men and matter—why the poorest Buncombe natives, more than any other barefooted, snuff-rubbing race, should “lie reclined on the hills like gods together, careless of mankind.” We talked of the effect upon the nervous centres of the rarity of the atmosphere at that elevation, and upon the lungs of the air-tonics from vast bodies of balsam forests. But whatever the explanation, the fact was apparent. The brain and nervous system were refreshed and restored in that atmosphere as by prolonged physical sleep. There is not one of us who will not remember that journey as an actual lapse out of the nervous strain, the bodily daily sense of wear and exhaustion, which belongs to middle age, back into some sleepy, sunny, well-fed holiday of youth.
It was toward the last of July, when we had returned to our central headquarters in the village of Asheville, that we bethought ourselves of Qualla. It was difficult to gain any definite information about it. The blessed quality in our new friends of indifferent calm became rather exasperating when we set out for information.
“Qualla was a little Indian village. It might be worth our while to ride up thar, provided Colonel Thomas, who was their chief, could git up a torchlight dance for us. The Indians were quite savage, still worshipped their old fetiches,” our informant believed. He himself “had never been to Qualla. It was about a hundred miles off, in a gorge of the Oconalufta. Why on earth should he go there?”
“Qualla,” another Confederate ex-colonel stated, “was not a village at all. It included the counties of Cherokee, Jackson and Swayne, and was inhabited solely by a body of Cherokee Indians, the largest remnant of an original east of the Mississippi. They had their own government, he thought. Could not tell whether they were heathens or Christians. Little matter when you came to red-skins, anyhow. If we waited long enough, we might see some of the dirty devils down in town. They came occasionally to trade. Did not drink. Had some vow against liquor, he had heard. Had never been up in the nation: what could take anybody to Qualla?”
Various scraps of information were offered on other sides. The Indians were half starving; somebody had gobbled up their appropriation; Colonel Thomas was a white man who had governed them authoritatively for twenty years. The nation was Christian, and in a condition of peace and prosperity, with him at its head: the nation was heathen, living in polygamy and unbridled revolt, and Colonel Thomas was a maniac chained to the floor. The road to Qualla was a safe and good one: the road was utterly impracticable even for the mountain-mules. But nobody had ever seen Qualla itself, and nobody had ever wanted to see it. On that one point all were agreed. The educated western North Carolinian, when he leaves his own village, turns his face straight toward Richmond or Philadelphia: he can give you the dimensions of the Walnut Street Theatre better than those of the Dry Falls, and would rather look at the pretty girls in the paths about the old Confederate capitol than climb to the dizzy peak where Mitchell’s grave was made high above the clouds. Why any man, much less woman, should turn his or her back on metropolitan delights to climb slippery precipices or unearth a forgotten tribe of Indians could be explained only by the natural perverse cussedness of the Northern mind.
We made the journey slowly, with the keen enjoyment of discoverers of solitudes which have never been trodden by foot of summer tourist—of ravines where no artist with camp-stool and yellow umbrella could venture for “effects,” and heights to which even “Holloway’s Pills” had not reached. So utterly removed is the life of the inhabitants of these counties from that of modern civilization that one or two centuries seem to bar us out from the world we left behind. Character, too, develops unchecked to its natural limits in this solitude, into all kinds of eccentric form and expression. Every man or woman who drove us or watered the mules or cooked a meal’s victuals for us was a type of some odd genus of human nature, which, like the mountain-cedars above us, had knotted and gnarled and rooted itself at pleasure. On the farms the woman worked and took rank with the negroes, but in the little hamlets, as soon as society became an element of daily life, the chivalric Southern deference to her had crept in and showed itself in the oddest and most unexpected ways. Chief among these was the content with which men, cleanly enough themselves, invariably regarded any excess of idleness and squalor in their households, never by any chance calling the women to account for it. On a journey, too, the father and inevitable half-grown black nurse took charge of the baby and the ten other fractious children (for there were always eleven), while the mother lay back dozing or reading a novel. The universal feeling appeared to be that when she had brought forth these helps to the state she had wholly fulfilled the chief end of woman. I remember the wretched, flea-infested little inn of Webster, a village of some twenty houses perched on the edge of a cliff, where the postmaster, judge and other dignitaries boarded. Street-mud and other abominations lay inch-deep on the dining-room floor, which was hardly more filthy than the children playing in it or the messes on the table. One forlorn negro was housekeeper, cook, hostler and nurse-maid, while the landlady, a jaunty black-eyed woman, watered her verbenas or lay on the sofa, a pink knot of ribbon in her hair, reading Waverley. The nausea of the men as they gulped down the compounds of fat pork and molasses, and the tender gallantry with which they stopped to pay their respects to the hostess as to a dame of high degree, were significant sights to see, and impossible in a Northern State. With us, even the dame of high degree is not often allowed to live like the lily and the rose, and assuredly human lilies and roses meet but small favor as keepers of boarding-houses.
On our way to Qualla, however, we discovered “Smather’s” in Waynesville, the cleanest and most picturesque of little mountain-inns, perched nearly three thousand feet above tide-level. From its shady porches you look down on the clouds in the valley below or watch the gray mist rising up the sides of the Great Balsam range, whose peaks, clad in funereal black, encircle the sleepy little village; or, very likely, you think of nothing but the savory whiffs from within of delicious fried chicken, coffee and hot biscuits light and white as snowflakes, for which the keen cold wind teaches you how to be grateful.
The story of a mysterious murder, the first in the mountain-region for five years, flitted before us in in our journey like an uneasy ghost, taking new shape in every hamlet or lonely farmhouse. The murderer, a youth of nineteen, was arrested and put literally into chains in the Asheville jail. Such was horror and consternation which the crime carried to these kindly mountain-folks that they were anxious to prove that he had been guilty of the last murder for years back, although he was then but a boy.
“For it don’t stand to reason,” said one old man, arguing the matter, “that God ’ud make two such fiends as that thar in one generation.”
Indeed, the farther we penetrated to the recesses of these mountain-wildernesses the more we were impressed with the honesty, the kindly humanity, the sound sterling virtue in their inhabitants—a fact which made the discovery that awaited us at the end more startling and inexplicable.
We found the road to Qualla little traveled and scarcely practicable—a slippery cartway cut halfway up the precipice, and never repaired since it was built. Captain E——, a shrewd, intelligent man, who guided us there from Webster, had been its engineer and builder, as he told us. But “there was nobody to look after it, and it had gone to ruin.” He pointed out a mica-mine, which “nobody had cared to go on with;” a saw-mill which he had started on the banks of the creek, but which “nobody wanted.” We passed through the day vacant huts, fallen to the ground and overgrown with moss and rank parasites, which gave an aspect of dreary desolation to the tropical luxuriance of the landscape. White men apparently had failed in gaining here even the little which they required to live. “Yet the soil is black with richness,” said Captain E——, “and the mountains are full of marble and iron and copper, and, they do say, gold. But they are too lazy to even lay a log toward the mending of this road. They’d rather run the risk of rolling down into the river, wagon, steers and all, as some of them do every winter.” Interest in the journey was kept at fever-heat by the momentary expectation that our own cart would follow the usual course over some of the dizzy heights where the road had frequently been washed away, until, as one wheel grated against the cliff, the edge of the other hung over a sheer precipice of hundreds of feet.
The day was green, with a strong chilly wind blowing, sudden gusts of rain blotting out the mountains as the clouds were driven against the higher peaks. When the rain-veil lifted, the unbroken forests were left no less sombre in tone and meaning. The sides of this range were clothed in hemlocks and oaks, with a thick undergrowth of laurel and rowan; the scarlet rhododendron flamed in every dark recess; rank vines crept over the ground and matted the trees into impenetrable walls of green, and enormous bare gray trunks were writhed and twisted like Doré’s trees overlooking hell, so that one could not put away the idea of a dumb agony and pain. The upper peaks were clothed with the balsam, whose black trunk and sombre foliage made them appear through the mist as though wrapped in funereal mantles. This loneliest of trees will live only in the solitude of heights which rise over four thousand feet. Owing to the cold, no ordinary singing-birds, nor the moccasin and rattlesnakes which infest the villages, are ever found where it grows. The bleak winds of winter are sometimes more than even the tree itself can bear, and great masses of dead trunks crowd the summits, tossing their bare branches against the sky like a procession of ghosts going down into Hades.
In fact, the melancholy sky, the magnitude and utter solitude of the mountains, were so oppressive on the day of our entrance into Qualla that it seemed as if we too might be going down into a place of departed spirits. We were speedily disabused of any such fantastic impression by the gentleman who had taken charge of the party. Qualla, according to his brisk little anecdotes, was an El Dorado, a Happy Valley, created and generously given over by a single white man to the Cherokees, where the red men under his guidance had reached the highest point in civilization every attained by any of their color. Nothing could be more cheery or kindlier than the talk of this merry little Irishman, who “had lived with the nation since his childhood as a brother.” They call him Tallalla (“red woodpecker”), he told us, “from the color of his hair. He had been a deputy ruler over them under Colonel Thomas, and had carried out the plans of that great and good man for their benefit faithfully.” He then proceeded to give us a sketch of the singular career of this unknown reformer, rejoiced, as he said, that there was now a chance that it should be made known to the Northern people. His statement in brief was this:
By the treaties of 1817, 1819 and 1836 the United States acquired from the Cherokees a large territory lying west of the Pigeon River in North Carolina, and east of the Holston and French Broad in Tennessee, also certain lands, known as the “New Purchase,” of Georgia and Alabama, giving them lands west of the Mississippi in lieu, and requiring them to remove thereto. But the North Carolina Indians, under their Yonaguska, claimed that they were not represented in the treaties, and were permitted to remain. There were about one thousand of these people in the mountain-region called Qualla. Yonaguska had adopted a white lad, who when grown to manhood became the medium of communication between the Indians and the world without. He carried on all the trade for them, and assisted the chief in administering the government of the tribe. When Yonaguska came to die, our enthusiastic chronicler proceeded to state, he formally constituted this adopted son (Colonel Thomas) chief of the tribe, which received him with joy, and from that day to the present had trusted him as a wise father. The new chief was born a hero and a reformer in the grain. He carried the tribe in his heart, as though they were indeed his children: his own aim and thought in life was to civilize and Christianize them. His power over them was absolute: he punished, rewarded, married; controlled the economy of each family according to his own individual will. The good accomplished was almost incredible, continued Tallalla. “The Qualla Indians were Christians, and industrious farmers: every member of the tribe was compelled by Colonel Thomas to sign a temperance pledge and to adhere to it strictly. For thirty years this philanthropist had fed and clothed the whole tribe at his own expense—carried the burden of their souls and bodies, in fact, until his mind gave way under the weight, and he was now hopelessly insane.”
This narration touched every hearer but one, who inquired, “How did Colonel Thomas meet these expenses? I thought you stated he was a penniless boy.”
“Speculation—speculation in land,” said Tallalla airily. “He not only opened a store, out of which he supplied all their needs gratuitously, but purchased for them the region of Qualla, some hundred thousand acres on the Oconalufta and Tuckaseege rivers, and on Soco Creek.”
“The support of a thousand people for thirty years is a load for one of the old genii,” suggested the doubting Thomas in the back of the cart. “This is a story for Scheherazade.”
“And when he was no longer able to take charge of them, I tried to carry out his plans,” continued the historian. “And even now, in his wildest ravings, it is not wife and children that rest upon his mind, but the Indians. ‘What is to become of my people?—my people?’ he cries incessantly.”
At this moment we drove down a defile and stopped at the house of the only white farmer in Qualla, of which we made a sort of head-quarters during our stay. House and family were fairly typical of Western North Carolina. Colonel P—— (there were apparently no privates in the Confederate army) is a leading man in these counties—a wealthy man as wealth is counted down there. In the North his wife would not have lost her bloom at forty, and would set the fashion in her county in the make of her gros d’Afrique and point collar; his sons would “finish” in Heidelberg. Colonel P——’s mansion is a huddle of log-built rooms, chunked with mud, squatted in the middle of cornfields which his wife has helped to plough. She weaves on a heavy homemade loom the clothes of the household, waits on her husband and sons at table, and eats herself with the servants, white and black. She is a shrewd, clean-minded, just woman, bony and gray-haired, dressed, like her cook, in brown linsey, with a yellow handkerchief knotted about her neck. Her comfortless house was as clean as a Shaker’s, and her table bountifully spread. Her welcome of Tallalla was not cordial, we observed, and she listened eagerly to his account of the Arcadia of the red-skins which we were to explore to-morrow. It was not the custom here for wives to join the conversation of their husbands and other men. But presently two or three half-naked Indians came down the mountain with coarse baskets to trade for a bit of pork. Mrs. P—— gave the bacon. “They are almost starving,” she said to me quietly, “and so is the whole nation. Qualla was paid for with their own money, and they do not own an acre of it. I have seen over ninety thousand dollars in gold paid into their hands in this very kitchen, and before they left the house there were not thirty dollars to divide among them.”
“Who had taken it?”
She shut her thin lips: “It is not my business to make charges. As for their civilization, they lived in open polygamy before the war. That did not aggrieve Colonel Thomas’s conscience. When the law passed enforcing marriage among the slaves, the Indians were brought in by scores to be legally married. But it is all the same: when a young fellow tires now of his wife, he puts her out of his hut and finds another, and nobody thinks any the worse of either of them.”
About a hundred rods from the house there was a small wooden building, the porch of which was piled with empty boxes and the windows hung with cheap calicoes, beads, tin dippers and hoop-skirts. It was proudly pointed out by Tallalla—who, it now appeared, had been a boy employed in the shop—as the scene of Colonel Thomas’s business transactions.
“Do you mean to say,” queried the skeptic of the travelers, “that the keeper of that country store ruled over a thousand people from behind his counter?”
“Absolutely,” replied Tallalla; and the farmer confirmed him in the assertion.
“And from the profits of that miserable little shop he clothed and fed them for thirty years, and bought the land of three counties?”
“The profits were larger than in ordinary trade,” stammered Tallalla. “We always expected to make one hundred or a hundred and fifty per cent. on every sale.”
“Who were your customers?”
“The Indians, necessarily.”
The water was growing too muddy for further fording.
But I may as well state here the results of our inquiries made into this matter on our return to Asheville. It was true that the tribe (estimated at from thirteen hundred to fourteen hundred in 1870) had for a whole generation fallen under the absolute control of this storekeeper, Thomas. Dr. Francia exercised no more unlicensed dictatorship over the half-breeds of Paraguay than did this man over the credulous, trusting savages. They were, and are, as a rule, unable to speak any tongue but their own; they are barred by the mountains into their wilderness; the surrounding white population is one which scarcely knows that they exist—a population which meets known facts with exceptional apathy, as we have seen. Until within the last two years Western North Carolina, with its white and red inhabitants, was an almost unknown region to the rest of the country. Indians in the West are subjected to the friction and the observation of the encroaching, pushing, trading white race: this fragment of a tribe was left in their untraveled hills to the sole manipulation of one man. He had apparently kindly instincts, and certain very moderate ideas of morality, and brought his subjects very fairly up to the standard which these gave him. They were urged to cultivate their land, to deal justly with each other: liquor was forbidden. He was their judge, business-agent, pastor and master: he furnished them with clothes, etc., through the store, charged them his own price, received in payment the appropriations made to them by Congress before the war, and purchased Qualla with them, besides isolated farms for which individual Indians paid him their own earnings. The titles to all these purchases were made out in his own name; and a few months before our arrival every foot of the Qualla lands, the ground on which this tribe had lived during the memory of men, and for which their money had been paid, was sold under the hammer to satisfy his creditors. The Indians had brought suit for its recovery, and our enthusiastic guide, who “had been loved as a brother by them,” was one of the parties against whom they brought it.
Now, this story, of which we will not hint the miserable details, may seem incompatible with the “kindly instincts and morality” for which we gave their dictator credit. But the burglar may be a most affectionate son and brother; the Greek brigands patter their paternosters at night devoutly before they put a bullet through the heads of their captives who do not pay their ransom; and the men who have made the name of Indian agents and commissioners synonymous with “thief” among us have been, no doubt, often church members and agreeable, genial fellows in their way. Tallalla perhaps furnished the key to the riddle when he declared that “the negro was a domestic animal, and the Indian a savage animal, and that the man who dealt with them as human beings was a fool and would reap his folly for his pains.” The creed is an accepted one in this country.
We penetrated Qualla on mules. It was a succession of ravines—well watered, the soil rich and black with vegetable mould—and of high wooded hills. Ten thousand acres, we were told, were under actual cultivation by the Indians, but I suspect the amount to be largely overstated. The old savage instinct prompted them to conceal their huts back in the densest thickets, avoiding sunny wholesome exposures: even the little cornfields were hidden in the heart of the forest. Without a guide we might have ridden for days through Qualla and fancied we were the first to penetrate an unbroken wilderness.
We found the men always at work, busily hoeing their corn, although they knew that the chances were that in a few weeks they would be driven from the land, left beggared in a world of which they knew nothing. The first hut we entered was a fair type of the majority of them. There was but the one little room, without any window: the grass actually grew in the heaps of dirt on the floor. A stool, a bedstead with some straw on it, and an iron pot were the only plenishing. The man of the house, a young fellow of twenty, lay on the floor wrapped in a blanket, sick with some lingering fever: his wife sat on the stool staring drowsily into the fireplace, where a log smouldered on the hearth, while two or three dirty, naked children scrambled about her. Her hands and feet were finely shaped, as are those of most Indians: her coarse, glossy black hair hung straight down her back. She turned shy gentle eyes toward us, followed by a frightened glance at the forest, as though she would have hid herself there if she could. It was not the terror of a savage animal, as Tallalla and his like rank her: she was a clean-minded, womanly woman—without ideas, probably, but whose fault was that? There was in her face, and in the face of every Indian but one whom we saw in Qualla, that heavy, hopeless sadness which belongs to races to whom God has given a brain for which the world has as yet found no use; the appeal of which is no less forcible because it intends no appeal. In the corner stood a blow-gun, the only weapon belonging to Oo-tlan-o’-teh, the sick man. It was a long hollow pipe, out of which an arrow feathered with closely-wrapped thistle-down was blown with skill and force enough to bring down squirrels and birds from the highest trees. In the ashes was the woman’s (Llan-zi’s) sole household property, the pot in which she had mixed the corn and beans early in the morning, leaving them to simmer: when they were cooked the whole family would squat about the pot, eating with wooden ladles. As we turned to go Llan-zi conquered her terror enough to thrust forward her baby for admiration, with a shy proud smile.
The majority of the huts we discovered were as miserable as this, and their owners as poor and ignorant as Llan-zi and her husband: but the faces of these people, I am bound to confess, were of a far higher type than those of the same class of whites, American, English or Irish, would have been in a like condition. They were neither vicious nor vulgar in a single instance. On the contrary, they were grave, thoughtful, self-possessed: the vacancy in the face arose from lack of subjects for thought, not of the ability to think. We visited, however, several huts belonging to Indians who could read and write in Cherokee, and even that small degree of education told in clean floors and neat flannel dresses; the iron pot and wooden spoons were still the table furniture, but a little shelf on the wall with half a dozen cups and saucers of white stoneware, kept for show in beautiful glistening condition, hinted at latent aesthetic taste, just as plainly as would Indian cabinets laden with priceless bric-à-brac elsewhere. Packed away in these huts were always dress-suits of cloth and bright woolen stuffs of state occasions, including always a high hat for the men and hoop-skirts for the women.
We found Sowenosgeh, head-chief of the Cherokee nation, as he signed himself, neither drunk nor meditating on the past glories of his race, according to our usual notions of a chief, but barefooted and clad in patched trousers, hard at work digging, as were his two sons. He was a short, powerfully-built old man, with a keen shrewd eye, which instantly measured his guests and held them at proper distance from himself. The hut was very squalid, although Sowenosgeh had, we were told, laid by a comfortable sum in gold, having no trust in greenbacks. His wife was the daughter of the great Yonaguska, the last of a long line of chiefs. She was nearly eighty, and very dirty, but her features were fine: her long white hair hung over her shoulders, and she carried herself about her work in the field with a majestic air of command which any sovereign in courts might envy. The consciousness of high birth tells, even in a mud hut. She brought seats, first for her husband and then for his guests, but none for me, I being only a woman, like herself. Commench, the chief’s son, had been an officer in a company of Indians which was raised by a Captain Terrel and taken into the Confederate service. The old chief drilled the young men in the war-dance and the old savage religious rites before they left. They “fought with great bravery,” Captain Terrel informed us; “but although they were all nominally Christians, and although one hundred years certainly had passed since any tribe had engaged in warfare, they could not be restrained from scalping the men they killed.”
The whole of the Qualla Indians are, in fact, nominally Christians. There are two little churches on their land built long ago by themselves. The preacher, Enola, or Black Fox, is, or was in former years, a member of the Baptist Association. But the same lethargy has crept over their religion as over the whole life of this forgotten people. The lichen-covered little church is open sometimes, and Enola talks to a few drowsy old men and women. But when they want divine interference in their family affairs, or would ensure rain or sunshine for their corn, they do not go to God, but to the conjurer Oosoweh. We tried in vain to find this highest power in the land. His hut was empty, and certain Indians who were busily at work hoeing his corn told us that he had gone to the mountains to bring a rain. He usually finds such a journey necessary at the busy seasons, and leaves his disciples to hoe or plough while he lies on his face on some mountain-height, with all the countries on earth marked out on the ground by pegs. As he pulls these pegs in and out the winds blow and the clouds move. The preacher Enola, an intelligent old man of sixty, lives in a cabin which had a look of comfort and home unknown to any other. There were a carpet, beds and crockery-ware, and a bookcase full of books in English and Cherokee: outside, a snug surrounding of beehives, piggery, ducks, etc. The old man, sharpening his saw at a grindstone by the brook, put the whole story of Qualla in a few sharp words, “My people,” he said, “are like grown-up children. They have the bodies of men, but they know nothing: they have lived in Qualla since before the white men came to the country, and they have not made one quarrel. Because they are peaceable they are forgotten. All that they want of the white men is schools.”
Twice an attempt has been made by the State government to establish a school for them; and in both instances the Indians welcomed the teacher “as a hungry man would bread,” crossing the mountains from the most distant settlements in the two counties to bring their children and go to the school themselves. But the loneliness for the white man was more than an ordinary teacher could endure, and the schools were given up after a few months. The hint that there was a chance that teachers would be sent to them roused even the dullest of them to breathless eagerness. They crowded about my mule, asking a hundred questions, and explaining how little money it would take, and how hard they would study to “please the North.” One old woman, over ninety years old, pushed the others aside, and holding her grandchild before her by the shoulders spoke with such energy that the interpreter could hardly follow her: “Tell her it is too late for me. But these children, are they to grow up like dogs? But I don’t want any lies. There were schools before, and I carried my children seven miles many times in winter, and found the door locked, and the teacher gone to Webster for weeks. He went away just when we were beginning to learn, and never came back. I don’t want the North to tell us any lies like that.”
The interpreter, Wilowisteh, a bright-faced lad of nineteen, the only man in Quall who met us with a laugh, heard this talk of a teacher as though it were a matter of life and death to him. he is probably the most intelligent man in the nation—speaks English with tolerable fluency, and serves as a medium of communication between his people and the whites in all business of the tribe, trading, taking out licenses to marry, etc. “Do you think we must always live here,” glancing about him at the wall of mountains, “and as we are?” When he received no answer he suggested presently that a white teacher would not stay in Qualla, but that if one or two Indians could be taken North and trained as teachers, they could bring their people up “to be like the whites.”
“And you would be one of the two, Wilowisteh?” one of the party said, laughingly.
But the man did not laugh; only looked from one to the other with an eagerness which, when one thinks of it, was a tragic thing enough. He ran alongside the mules for miles, listening as we discussed the question, his face clouding over when he could not follow our meaning.
We dismissed him on the Soco River. He drew a canoe out from its hiding-place and stood in it, guiding it with a pole as it floated down the narrow stream between the high hills.
“It is a pity the lad could not be taught and made a Christian,” said Captain E——. “Some rascally white man has brought whisky up to Qualla this summer, and Wilowisteh has begun to drink, for the lack of something else to do.”
We saw Llan-zi again as we passed her hut. She had set out the pot of corn and beans, and these had been eaten. Now she had put the pot in the corner, and seated herself again to stare drowsily at the log in the smouldering ashes. What else had she to do? To-day, to-morrow, through all the years to come? She is a woman, with probably as strong a brain as any other, modest, with tender feeling and womanly religious impulses; yet she is shut out from the world of knowledge and action—left to live like an animal. Her people are placable, industrious, eager for knowledge—not savages, but men living perforce like brutes.
I honestly acknowledge that my motive in writing this paper has been to ask the question, What can be done in the North for Llan-zi and her people? I have tried to describe Qualla and the neighboring white population precisely as I saw them last summer, with the hope that I could make clear the difficulties that hedge these poor Indians, and convey to others the pathetic appeal which they made to me. Since I began to write these pages (May 1875) I have received news that the suit which was conducted in their behalf against Colonel Thomas and others by Major Marcus Erwin, an eminent lawyer of North Carolina and an earnest friend to the Indians, has been successful. Their undoubted title to the whole Qualla country has been established: fifteen thousand dollars have been appropriated to the survey of these lands by Congress, and the tribe had been taken under the direction of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Major Erwin writes hopefully that it is reported schools will be established for them by the Commissioner, and probably a model farm.
We, who are more conversant with the management of Western Indians by government agents, shall not probably be so sanguine as to these speedy beneficial results as is the generous Carolinian. Government surveys of Indian lands are usually followed by white squatters and whisky much more promptly than by schools or model farms.
Llan-zi in her hut and eager, shrewd Wilowisteh are ready for either.
What can be done for them?
Every religious body in the country has sent teachers to the Western tribes, to the farthest Pacific coast, while this remnant of Cherokees has all the while been locked up in the hills of one of the oldest States, perishing in our very midst for lack of knowledge. When I remember the outlay of millions by these churches for the spread of the gospel in foreign countries, I am sure that the cry of these few women next door to us will be heard, and that their children will not be left “to die like dogs.”
I am quite aware that the money for the establishment of schools in Qualla could easily be raised; the difficulty lies in finding teachers with the proper qualifications. No mere hireling worker would answer: there is a needed zeal, the real missionary spirit, as well as knowledge. I hear every week of unmarried or childless women, with both culture and money, whose sole complaint is that there is no standing-place in the world in which they can use their talents. Let me offer them, in all sincerity, the hut of Llan-zi, where she sits with her dirty children waiting beside the smouldering fire. The self-immolation of such work would be as complete, and the isolation greater than if they sacrificed their lives to the far-off pagans of Japan or India. No church, probably, would send them off with plaudits to their martyrdom, nor would they find any romance of ancient creeds or ancient story to gild the mud huts and clay paths by the narrow Soco River. But Americans (outside of Indian rings and government agents) are a very sincere and humane people, and I have great faith that some strong and kindly men and women, reading these pages, may suddenly perceive that these are their own kinsfolk needing their help, who have so long lived forgotten among the mountains of Qualla.
1. A reference to John Bunyan’s Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) in which Christian is the protagonist.
2. French Protestants who followed the teachings of John Calvin; they first came to America in the early seventeenth century.
3. Animal pelts.
4. Ernest Messionnier (1815-1891), French painter known for his military scenes.
5. From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lotus-Eaters (1832).
6. Elisha Mitchell (1793-1857), American clergyman and geology educator who discovered “Mount Mitchell,” the highest peak above sea level in the US.
7. The most popular patent medicine of the period.
8. The first novel of Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832); published in 1814, the remained highly popular into the twentieth century.
9. French artist Gustav Doré (1832-1883) who illustrated several works, including Dante’s Divine Comedyand in 1875 an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” created haunting, almost nightmarish renditions of darkened woods.
10. The female storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights (c.1706-c.1721), also known as Arabian Nights.
11. Plain woven, all-silk dress goods.
12. A coarse twill fabric, also known as linsey-woolsey.
13. Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez De Francia (1766-1840), the first dictator of Paraguay, from 1814 until his death. Congress granted him complete control over the country for life; he became increasingly despotic.
14. Erwin also published a Democratic newspaper in Asheville.