West of Chatworth, Georgia, a small town in the northwest part of the state, Georgia 225 leaves the main highway and heads south. Shortly after dipping to a stream the road rises and a dramatic brick house appears as if out of nowhere. The house has a commanding view of all land around it and a stunning view of the Cohutta Mountains, less than 10 miles to the east. This brick home is one of the oldest remaining structures in northern third of the state of Georgia and its owners were leaders of the Cherokee Nation.
At the start of the 19th century, one of the richest men in the Western Hemisphere lived on this land. James Vann, a member of the Cherokee Triumvirate, worked and fought hard for the money he used to build this house along the Old Federal Highway at Spring Place. At the time, he owned about 200 slaves and hundreds of acres of farmland.
Vann and a number of his wives lived in the house or nearby. After his murder in 1809, the house passed to Joseph, Vann's eldest son.
When "Rich Joe" Vann was 20 years old President James Monroe paid him a visit in 1819. Through the 1820's Rich Joe proved every bit as shrewd as his father James and expanded the family wealth.
After the Georgia Gold Rush Joseph hired a white man to run the plantation. Although the man never actually worked for Vann, the Cherokee had unknowingly violated a new Georgia law forbidding whites from working for Cherokees without a permit. The infamous Georgia Guard tried to take over the house. A man, Spencer Riley, who claimed to have won the house in the Land Lottery of 1832 also tried to take over the house and Rich Joe, his wife and family were caught in the midst of the struggle between Riley and the Guard. Col. Bishop, leader of the Guard, took a smoldering log and threw it on the cantilevered steps, smoking Riley out of the house.
The Vann's were finally forced out of the house in March, 1835. In November of that year Col. Bishop imprisoned John Howard Payne for 13 days on the grounds. Payne, noted as composer of "Home, Sweet Home" had been charged with sedition for supporting the claims of the Cherokee over the state of Georgia.
The house passed through numerous hands and by the 1950's was in disrepair. The roof had come off and the elements were taking their toll. At the time, sites like Vann House were administered by the Georgia Historical Society. A restoration project began in 1951 and was completed 12 years later.
Vann House Museum
The story of James Vann and the Cherokee are told in the Vann House museum, which also houses the visitors center for the park. Displays on the house and its owners, its rich history and the Cherokee Trail of Tears help visitors understand the impact of this man and his family on North Georgia and the Cherokee Nation.
Born: Feb 1765
Spring Place, Cherokee Nation, Georgia, USA
Died: 19 Feb 1809
Buffingtons Tavern, , Georgia, USA
James Vann was one of the many mixed-blood Cherokees who would lead the nation into the modern era. He was born at Spring Place, Georgia in 1768. His father was John Joseph Vann, a Scottish trader, and his mother, Wawli Vann, the daughter of John "The Trader" Vann and Sister of Raven,(Ahneewakee Moytoy) . One of the factors that brought Vann to political importance early in his career was his ability to read and write English. This put him in the picture whenever important correspondence between the European and the Cherokee transpired.
In the 1790s, James Vann Joined the Lower Cherokee Towns in a raid on Knoxville led by John Watts. At Cavett’s Station, the Cavett family surrendered to Bob Benge in exchange for safe conduct to an area that the Cherokee would allow. Old Chief Doublehead was not so forgiving and demanded that Watts’s group turnover the settlers to his tender mercies. Watts, Benge and Vann resisted but Doublehead killed a young boy while he rode with Vann. As a parody to the honorable Cherokee title “mankiller,” Vann displayed his scorn for Doublehead by calling him “babykiller.”
Three years later, Vann supported Major Ridge of Pine Log at the Cherokee councils. Vann Ridge and Charles Hicks became known as the Young Chiefs. Over the next 15 years, they facilitated the very successful adoption of European culture by the Cherokee while retaining autonomy. Vann personally became a very wealthy plantation owner with numerous slaves and substantial power.
As fitted his power, Vann was a well-traveled man and in 1800 visited Washington, DC during a tour of the East Coast. There he met some Moravian missionaries from North Carolina who asked for permission to establish missions in the Cherokee territory. Before allowing the Moravians in, however, he had to obtain permission form the Council, and Old Chief Doublehead attempted to delay action on the school. Vann and Hicks insisted that the schools would begin with or without Council support and from this point on, the Council began to show a split between the Young (progressive) Chiefs and the Old (traditional) Chiefs. One irony was that whereas the Young Chiefs realized early that the wealth of the Cherokees was in owning the land and complied with the prohibitions established by the Council against land sales to the Euro-Americans. But, Doublehead and other could be bribed to sell lands. Hicks discovered this when he translated papers for J. Meigs the Cherokee Agent.
In 1803, Vann led the Cherokee negotiators in discussions for right-of-way (easement) to build the Federal Highway (roughly from Chattanooga to Atlanta, U.S. route 41). It was typical of the style of the Young Chiefs that he, Hicks and Riggs were able to enrich themselves by ensuring that they owned businesses on the new trade route, rather than by losing control of the land.
While self-enrichment was not a crime, selling land to the Euro-Americans was punishable by death among the Cherokee. James Vann, Alexander Saunders and Ridge were appointed to kill Doublehead. At the time, the concept of “due process” was not well established anywhere on the frontier much less in the Cherokee Nation. The Young Chiefs were apparently not fully up to the job of cold-blooded execution/murder and botched the job. But, Ridge finally killed Doublehead on a subsequent occasion. This killing, while technically enforcement of Cherokee law by the Lighthorse Patrol, had most of the trappings of a political rebellion and the collection of events is known as the Revolt of the Young Chiefs, which brought them to power once and for all (at least until Andrew Jackson destroyed the nation).
James Vann was one of the Cherokee who was becoming a wealthy and influential. He was the agent for the sale of the Wafford Tract of Cherokee land in northeast Georgia in 1804.Reportedly, his grave is marked with a head stone, inscribed:
and devils dragged him off to hell”.
Vann, breaking with matrilineal Cherokee customs, had willed most of his substantial estate to his son Joseph (“Rich Joe”) rather than to his wife . The will was made in 1808 and named George Parris (son of Richard Parris) and Richard Rowe as his executors. At this point, George Parris was apparently living near Edgefield, South Carolina. When he left to execute the Vann will, George Parris gave his power of attorney to Charles Goodwin of Edgefield (in Edgefield County, formerly Ninety-Six District) stating that he was moving to Georgia. He settled in Forsyth County, GA.
Brutal, violent, intemperate. These are the most common words used in regard to James Vann, and for good reason. But James Vann made significant changes to the Cherokee world during his life and a lasting change in his death.
"Who is the father of James Vann" is a controversial question. According to Gary E. Moulton of the University of Nebraska, Clement Vann was the father. William H. Vann in the book Cherokee Origins believes that Joseph Vann was the father, while Virginia Vann Perry claims a man named James Vann was the father. Vann genealogy expert Belinda Pierce thinks John Joseph Vann was the father.
According to the experts at the Vann House in Chatsworth, Georgia, Vann's father is unknown. Clement raised the boy from a young age.The son of a Scottish trader and his Cherokee wife, Vann's father Joseph and step-father Clement were among the first white traders in the Cherokee Nation. Vann's early recognition came because he was one of the few Cherokee who could read English. As a teenager he was called to read letters to the tribe from Tennessee Governor John Sevier and others.
When poor relations with Sevier's settlers deteriorated in the early 1790's, Vann joined the Lower Towns Cherokee in a planned raid on Knoxville, Tennessee. During a raid on Cavett's Station, the Cavett family surrendered to Bob Benge, who promised safe transport for all remaining family members. A chief named Doublehead was not consulted for the negotiations. Angry at Benge, Doublehead and his friends attacked Cavett's Station. Benge, John Watts (who was leading the raid) and Vann tried to protect the family to no avail. Doublehead killed a young white boy Vann had hoisted to his saddle to protect, then turned and tried to attack Vann. Vann avoided the blow by turning his horse. To the Cherokee the title "Mankiller" is a term of great respect. From that day forward, whenever angered, Vann called Doublehead "Baby-killer." Vann would never forgive nor forget the treachery.
Vann was instrumental in selecting a warrior, Ridge, to represent the village of Pine Log in council. Ridge was present three years earlier when James Vann stood up to Doublehead at Cavett's Station. A third man, Charles Hicks, lived in the town and together the three quickly became good friends. Over the next fifteen years this Cherokee Triumvirate would steer a young Nation on a path towards acculturation. Vann was becoming a wealthy farmer, slaveholder, and respected negotiator for the Cherokee Nation.
In 1800, while on an East Coast trip that included a visit to Washington, D.C., Vann met a group of Moravian missionaries from North Carolina who desired to spread the Gospel and teach Cherokee children. Vann convinced them to move to Spring Place, south of the soon-to-be-built Vann House, to start their mission and school. He presented his idea to the tribal council, in part so his two-year old son Joseph might attend. That autumn Doublehead tried to delay the council from making a decision about allowing the school. Vann and Hicks drew Doublehead aside and informed him that whether or not he wanted it, the Moravians would have a school. Many of the mixed-blood Cherokee supported Vann. Doublehead let the council vote and the vote was in favor of the Moravians. He took the opportunity to tell Vann to stop criticizing him.
The tribal council had begun to factionalize. Ridge, Hicks and Vann would stand opposed to Doublehead on almost every issue, and Doublehead became jealous as the wealth of the Triumvirate grew. With his skillful handling of the Federal Highway negotiations in 1803, Vann ended up with a tavern, store, ferry and an additional estate on the Chattahoochee, and the highway would run directly past both his new home and the Moravian school at Spring Place. Hicks and Ridge also owned multiple businesses and were gaining in wealth, yet Doublehead was clearly ahead of all three.
The Triumvirate realized that white traders and government agents were willing to do business with Doublehead because he was willing to accept bribes. Benefiting from Hicks' association with Indian Agent Return J. Meigs, for whom Hicks translated papers, Vann learned that on at least three occasions Doublehead had illegally sold Cherokee land to whites, a crime punishable by death. At first, few people would listen to Vann as he exposed Doublehead's activities, but slowly he convinced a majority of the Nation that Doublehead was indeed committing crimes.
Vann, Ridge and Alexander Sauders were selected to kill Doublehead for his betrayal, possibly with the approval of the tribal council. At the appointed time Vann was too drunk to commit the murder. It was the first in a series of botched attempts that eventually ended in Doublehead's death at the hand of Vann's friend Ridge. This was one of a complex series of events led by Vann that would become known as "The Revolt of the Young Chiefs.
Cherokee historian Don Shadburn talked to us about Vann's married life. "His wives included three sisters, daughters of Walter Scott, a South Carolina Indian trader-- Elizabeth Scott (mother of Delilah Vann McNair), Polly Scott, and Peggy Scott. Jennie Foster and Nancy Ann Brown (half-sister of the Scott girls) were also wives. Nancy was Joe Vann's mother."
He was known to beat people, including his wives, for little or no reason, and the Cherokee Nation empowered him as head of part of the Lighthorse Patrol, a loose-knit Cherokee police force. By this time Vann's drinking problem was out of control. He became paranoid about theft. When Alexander Saunders tried to talk to Vann about his problems, Vann told him to leave.
James Vann lived by the sword, James Vann died by the sword. Celebrating at Tom Buffington's tavern northwest of Frogtown a single shot rang out from a partially opened door and James Vann fell dead, holding a bottle in one hand, a drink in the other. His Negro slave quickly picked up his son Joseph and Vann's billfold and spirited the boy back to Spring Place. Vann's body was buried near the tavern. Speculation as to who committed the crime is rampant even nearly 200 years after the act. Was it Alexander Saunders, whom Vann had exiled? Or maybe a relative of Doublehead's, getting revenge for his kin's murder? Most likely it was the relative of a man Vann had recently killed.
In death Vann would have a major effect on the matrilineal Cherokee society. The society was structured around Cherokee women, not men. When a man married he became a member of his wife's clan. Property passed through a wife when a warrior died. Vann, in line with white law of the time, left his inheritance to his son Joseph. The tribal council gave some of the inheritance to his wives and other children, but Joseph got the bulk.
When he died at the age of 43 Vann was one of the richest men not only in the Cherokee Nation but in the United States. His beautiful home along the Federal Highway still bears his name, Vann House, and is a popular stop along North Georgia's Chieftains Trail.
Vann is often dealt with in a negative light by his biographers. Lela Latch Lloyd describes him as "excessively cruel, and sadistic, a domineering demon." Henry Malone says he was "...far-famed, little beloved and greatly feared."
What others have to say...
James Vann was the son of a British seaman and a Cherokee woman. As a town chief, he was quite influential in tribal government. He amasses considerable wealth. Some historians credit him with nine Cherokee wives. Others claim three. We assume that Margaret (Peggy) was the mother of Jennie. While he was quite rich, he was a drunkard and his life ended rather violently. He was murdered by his brother-in-law.
James Vann became the wealthiest man in the Cherokee Nation and among the richest in the country. The Vann mansion stands near Dalton, GA. On the dark side, he was a drunkard and a bully. Any enemies, real or imaginative, were killed without trial or hearing supposedly.
Chief Crazy James Vann; B: 1765 Tennessee, M: Elizabeth Hicks 1795, M: Margaret Scott 1797 Tennessee, (a bigamist by American standards), D: 19 February 1809 Georgia. His mother Wai-Li was 55 when he was born. Wai-Li was born in 1710. His father was John Vann. James was quite a wealthy trader and owned a large estate with over 120 black slaves. Friend of George Washington, District Judge of Chickamaunga, became wealthy in planting, trading, and making whiskey. But because of his heavy drinking, parties and many incidents caused by this, he was called "part devil" by the missionaries who was nearby. In 1805-07 James Vann built the home that you speak of-- actually overlooking the Moravian Mission that had been built in 1801 and named "Spring Place" near Chatsworth (east of Dalton) Georgia, the Vann House. In 1809 while James, his twelve year old son- Joseph and a slave were on a business trip and stopping at Buffington's Tavern for the night, a lone shot was fired from the shadows of the darkened yard which killed James Vann. He discovered gold in Georgia in 1804, he was murdered for a chest full of gold (which turned out to be full of rocks). His body was dug up by grave robbers looking for his gold. His son Joseph spent years hunting down his killers.
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