Georgia Genealogy Trails

"Where your Journey Begins"


Pickens County, Georgia

The Cherokee Indians

The first inhabitants of the territory just described, and of all north Georgia, were the Cherokee Indians. At least, that is the more commonly accepted theory. The belief is held by some that long ago a strange tribe of white men, called the "mound-dwellers," lived in this section of the South, but the evidence in support of this belief is so small, as yet at least, that scientists have been able to form few if any definite conclusions about this half-mythical people.

There is no way of telling how long the Cherokees lived here. It is certain that during the time of which we have any knowledge, no other tribe of Indians ever inhabited the territory that is now North Georgia. The boundary between the Cherokees and the Creeks, who lived to the south of them, never extended very far north of the present Atlanta; and the northern boundary of the Cherokees, reaching at the time of the Revolutionary War to the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, still included part of North Carolina and Tennessee when the Indians were removed to the west. References to the Cherokees are made in the first recorded history concerning this section, the accounts written by companions of DeSoto, who traversed North Georgia in 1540 on his march to the Mississippi. How many centuries the Cherokees had then lived here, none can say.

In spite of the interesting character of the topic, there is really no need to go into great detail here about the Cherokees. Their story has been well and completely told by a number of competent authorities* (whose works the reader may consult, if interested, with both pleasure and profit), so that one is constrained to believe they are one of the best-known and most publicized Indian tribes in the United States. It will, however, be proper to give here some idea of the life and customs of this very remarkable tribe.

It was the civilization of the Cherokees that has so intrigued their biographers. Even as early as the sixteenth century, they were said by chroniclers of DeSoto to have been surprisingly intelligent and friendly. When the first white men came to live among them, early in the last century, the Cherokees rapidly acquired many of the customs of the whites. One of these customs was slave-owning. A census taken of the Cherokee nation in 1825, showing 13,563 Indians, gave the number of negro slaves owned by them at 1,277. This example of "civilization," striking as it is, is less to the point, however, than their achievement of literacy. The invention by Sequoyah of the Cherokee alphabet, its quick adoption and use by the entire tribe, and the subsequent establishment of a national newspaper printed in this now literate language, form a chapter said to be unparalleled by any other so-called savage tribe in modern history.

In other fields, also, the Cherokees during their latter days in Georgia made notable progress. They developed proficiency in the use of looms, spinning wheels, and various farm implements; most of them adopted the Christian religion and worshiped regularly al ihe churches which they built under the direction of white missionaries; they passed laws regulating the use of liquor, and made other moral advances; and they enjoyed an efficient method of self-government.

As we are reminded by most of the commentators on the Cherokees, they owed the greater part of their advance in civilization to the precept and example of white men, not only the missionaries who went among them to live and teach and, in some cases, dabble in their government, but also the whites who intermarried with the Cherokees. The census of 1825 before referred to showed that 73 women and 147 men of the white race were living in the Cherokee nation in that year after such intermarriage. It is accepted that practically all the chieftains and wealthy men of the tribe had white blood in their veins. Sequoyah—who had also the Caucasian name of George Guess—was at least three-fourths white, we are told, some of his biographers giving him as little Indian blood as one-sixteenth. John Ross and John and Major Ridge, head chieftains, and Elias Boudinot, the editor of the Cherokee newspaper, all were partly white, it is well established; and so were most of the wealthy, slave-owning class of Indians.

Of course, the fact that the Cherokees were able to take and assimilate the ideas of their leaders—red or white— proves that these Indians were of uncommonly good stock. It would be as idle to deny this as it would be to deny—on the other hand—the influence of the white blood among them. Everything considered, they must be regarded as superior to the average American Indian; and they are in fact so regarded by every student of the tribe.

That they were a "super-race," however, as their highly romanticized history might lead one to think, will stand a good deal of proving. Probably this was more evident to the white settlers who first lived among them than it is to us of today. Since the "civilization" of the Cherokees developed only after their contacts with the white race, we may rest fairly certain that these earliest pioneers underwent much the same inconveniences arising out of abode among Indians, as did our forefathers in other parts of the United States. If there were few Indian atrocities suffered in this section, as was the case, there was still no great amount of satisfaction, and a good deal of uncertainty, in having Indians for your neighbors. We are assured that the depredations of thieving Indians were nowise infrequent during the early days, and that their openly suspicious attitude was rather uncomfortable, to the pioneer women especially.

And there is nothing whatsoever to indicate that any actual white resident of the section, up to the time of the Removal in 1838, ever expressed the opinion that the rank and file of the Cherokees had partaken to any alarming degree of the civilized customs for which the upper class of the tribe became so celebrated. On the contrary, they were regarded by the whites with a mixture of distaste and pity, rather than as equals. We know this by official records, for one thing, since the court presentments of the early days took cognizance of the "state of degradation to which the Indians are fast approaching," (due to the use of liquor); and "the miserable existence" which they were being forced to lead among "an alien race, with strange customs and manners." These expressions, which are taken from the grand jury present-ments of Cherokee County, Georgia, in 1835, would indicate not only that the Indians of this section were taking very slowly to "civilization" but that it did not agree with them.

Of course, it was to be expected that with the increase of white population the Indians would become more subdued and tractable, and that with the increasing scarcity of wild game in the forests, due to the encroachments of white civilization, a large part of the Cherokees would be forced to some extent to desert their nomadic ways of life and turn to agriculture, and some types of industry, for a living.

Going back into the "pre-settler" days, though, we find the Cherokees lived in much the same way as did the other Indian tribes of the continent. Hunting, fishing, a perfunctory kind of agriculture—the women worked patches of corn, beans, pumpkins, and the like—occasional fighting, and frequent game-playing, formed their main pursuits. Lacking some of the warlike temperament of most other tribes, the Cherokee men were inclined to take their energy out in sports, such as horse-racing and ball-playing. Legend says the site of the present Ball Ground, in Cherokee County a few miles south of the Pickens line, was once the scene of a great "ball-play" between Cherokees and Creeks to settle a point of land ownership, the former winning. Such procedure between Indian tribes—if this legend is true—was, to say the least, unusual.

While the habits of the earlier Cherokees were nomadic, the various clans often had villages for their headquarters, each village or "town" being under the nominal rule of a chief. Of the numbers of Indian towns which existed in North Georgia, only one of these seems to have been in what is now Pickens County. This was Sanderstown, the place at which the Indians of this locality were collected by General Scott's soldiers for removal to the west. The present town of Talking Rock is located at or near the old site of Sanderstown. It is not known what the Indians called this village before it became known to the white settlers as Sanderstown —which of course is not an Indian name. There appears to be no evidence that it was known by them as Talking Rock —or Nunyu-gunwaniski, in their tongue—this name apparently having been first used to designate a town by the white people. The name itself is undoubtedly of Indian origin, but does not seem to have been applied by them to anything ex-cept an actual rock, concerning which there are various stories. The account given by Professor Mooney, one of the best-known authorities on the Cherokees, is quoted here:

Talking Rock: A creek in upper Georgia flowing northward to join Coosawatee River. The Indian settlements upon it were considered as belonging to Sanderstown, on the lower part of the creek, the townhouse being located about a mile above the present Talking Rock station on the west side of the railroad. The name is a translation of the Cherokee Nunyu-gunwaniskit "Rock that talks," and refers, according to one informant, to an echo rock somewhere upon the stream below the present railroad station. An old-time trader among the Cherokees in Georgia says that the name was applied to a rock at which the Indians formerly held their councils, but the etymology of the word is against this derivation.*

Another account of the origin of this name is found in a story familiar to some of the older residents of Pickens County, dealing with a prank of the Indians. According to this version, there was once a rock, in the locality referred to, on which had been carved the words, 'Turn me over!" The rock was so big and heavy that this was hard to do, but everyone who saw it would try. When, after a great deal of pushing and panting, someone would succeed in turning the stone over, he would read on the other side, "Turn me back over and let me fool somebody else!" This, according to the story, was the "talking rock."

It has been the impression of a few persons that there was once an Indian town called "Long Swamp" in what is now Pickens County, but the only historical reference to this town that I have been able to find is a map in Professor Mooney's book showing Long Swamp to have been in the northern part of the present Cherokee County, near Ball Ground. Another Indian town. Hickory Log, was in the same vicinity, both villages being situated on Long Swamp Creek, which flows from Pickens into Cherokee. There is a strong local tradition to the effect that Long Swamp town was the place where an early Indian treaty was signed, and in view of this tradition I am quoting the following from Prof. E. Merton Coulter's recently-published book, "A Short History of Georgia" (p. 167):

Near the end of the Revolution a group of these dangerous characters [banished Tories, outlaws, and adventurers] led by Thomas Waters settled among the Cherokees on the Etowah River at the mouth of Long Swamp Creek and carried out a reign of terror on the frontiers of Wilkes County [the nearest settled region] until the combination of Clarke and Pickens went against them in the latter part of 1782, broke up the settlement, and forced, without right, upon the Cherokees a treaty ceding lands from the Tugaloo to the Chattahoochee.

Elijah Clarke and Andrew Pickens, both of them Revolutionary heroes and the latter the man after whom Pickens County was later named, were the "Clarke and Pickens" referred to in this excerpt. The actual place where the treaty was signed may have been either in the present Cherokee County or in the present Pickens, having undoubtedly been somewhere along Long Swamp Creek.

It is interesting to note here that this Treaty of Long Swamp was not between the United States and the Cherokees, but between Georgia and the Cherokees. Also it is apparently the first treaty among the very few ever signed between the two parties. The right of a state to enter into Indian treaties soon became a much disputed point, but a federal commission in 1789 investigated the matter and found that the state had been honest and open in its dealings with the Indians.

Enough has been said here to show what manner of people the Cherokee Indians were when the white men came to settle among them, and how the Indians were affected by the intrusion. Regardless of the nature of their relations with these new neighbors or of their reactions to civilization, the Cherokees were a doomed race from the time the white man first cast his covetous eyes on their land. Their ultimate departure was inevitable, as it would have been in any other state east of the Mississippi. That this departure had to be a Removal was due to several reasons, which will be mentioned a little further on.

Removal of the Cherokee Indians

A great deal has been said and written about this topic. Georgia's part in the Removal, particularly, has long been a favorite subject for discussion among the historians—with Georgia usually getting the little end of the argument. In view of the facts in the matter, this is a little hard to under-stand, as I shall try to point out.

It is not so difficult, however, to understand the universal interest which has attached itself to the subject of the Removal. The Cherokees were not only the last Indian tribe in Georgia, but the last in any state east of the Mississippi, with the exception of the Seminoles, who still live in Florida. Their departure thus marked a sort of era in our national history—a history in which the Indians of the East and South had been conspicuously present as the first owners of the land. In addition, the Cherokees have always been regarded as one of the superior Indian tribes of the continent, and the degree of civilization which they achieved was so astonishing as to win them permanent fame. Romance could not help but follow the footsteps of such a people as they plodded sadly along the journey from their beautiful home in the South to the unknown "Land of the Setting Sun."

The reader may have decided, from some of my previous remarks about the Cherokees, that I am trying to make out a case against them and show that their removal from Georgia was not only necessary but attended with the highest degree of justice, poetic and otherwise. If so, he will have mistaken my real purpose, which is simply to show that this chapter in the history of our state has been more than a little exaggerated— and twisted—by certain outside historians whose ability and reputations are high enough to lend a certain amount of credibility to their versions of the affair. Worse, some of Georgia's ablest historians either concur or else give the impression that no defense is possible against this slight to their state.

It were hypocrisy, of course, to contend that the Indians were removed for any other reason than that the white people wanted the land. The land belonged, by every test of equity and law, to the Indians. And so, be it now said, the removal of the Cherokees and the seizure of their land, as it was allowed to happen, was entirely wrong and unjust.

It is right here, though, that commentators add, "—and a permanent blot on the fair pages of Georgia's history," or words to that effect. This does not necessarily follow. In order to place the blame in this affair with any accuracy, it is necessary that one have more than a superficial knowledge of the circumstances surrounding it. When the facts are known, one is inclined to wonder just what course the state of Georgia could have followed to come out of the matter more creditably.

Here, briefly, was the situation:

A great many years ago, in 1785 to be exact, the United States entered into an agreement with the Cherokee Indians known as the Hopewell Treaty, by which the Cherokees lost a large tract of their northern territory as a result of having helped the British in the Revolutionary War, but in which, for the consideration of their promise of future peace and friendship, the federal government confirmed their title to the lands that remained. From that time on, the United States recognized and held as lawful the title of the Cherokees to the lands confirmed to them by the Hopewell Treaty. During subsequent years the Indians ceded various tracts of this territory to the federal government, by means of properly executed treaties and upon payment for the lands by the government, but no thought was entertained by the latter of obtaining such lands without proper conveyance of title by the Indians.

In 1802, however, the United States obtained the cession from Georgia of a great tract of territory then within the bounds of our state and reaching all the way to the Mississippi River. In return for this territory, the United States expressly agreed, then and there, to extinguish the Indian titles to all lands in Georgia "as early as the same can be peaceably obtained on reasonable terms."

On the interpretation of this modifying clause rests the only slightest excuse to condemn Georgia for the removal of the Cherokees. It may be said that the United States was not bound to extinguish these Indian titles if it could not be done peaceably and at a reasonable cost. If this technical reasoning is sound reasoning, then it must be admitted that the blame is Georgia's.

I am sure, however, that no court of equity would sustain such an argument. The fact is, when the agreement of 1802 was made the federal government had no reason, in view of its former cessions from the Cherokees, to believe that it could not also buy their Georgia lands. At least, this must certainly have been the case, for had there been any doubt on the point at the time of the agreement, then the acceptance by the United States of Georgia's valuable cession would have been a very questionable action, under the kindest interpretation. There can be no doubt that Georgia entered into the contract believing that the consideration involved was unequivocal extinguishment of the Indian titles; and that the federal government obtained her cession through this under standing. To contend that the latter willfully offered a doubtful consideration is to cast reflection on the integrity of the United States in its methods of obtaining the contract; to contend, after the United States had assumed the responsibility of extinguishing the Indian titles, that the responsibility —and blame—was Georgia's, is to imply that this consideration was in fact doubtful. Which I am sure the historians do not wish to do; they have merely overlooked some of the facts.

Of course, it might also be argued that Georgia was at fault in seeking the extinguishment of the titles in the first place. This reasoning fails to stand up inasmuch as Georgia had no more cause to believe the Indian lands could not be purchased "peaceably and reasonably" than did the federal government. Here a third "villain" introduces himself into the plot—the Indian himself, who would not listen to reason and enable the United States to fulfill its agreement. But Georgia's skirts yet seem to be clear, and so they remain— her only fault is to protest, albeit long and loudly, that the promise made to her be carried out.

These are the true circumstances underlying the Removal —that alleged "blot on Georgia's history." They fail dismally to uphold the criticism our state has received in this connection. Concerning the Removal itself, and the manner in which it was carried out, there has been further criticism, by persons apparently without realization of the great diffi-culties bound to be connected with such a procedure. Here again it seems the facts have been ignored by the critics.

But we are getting ahead of the story. In the meantime, we find a great reluctance on the part of the government at Washington to disturb its constitutional wards, the Cherokees, in the possession of their Georgia homes. Georgia, however, was determined that the promise of 1802 should be fulfilled. Various governors and legislatures urged the matter on Congress from time to time, with indifferent results. Finally, federal agents succeeded in obtaining a removal treaty from the Creeks of South Georgia, and in 1828 this tribe departed to the Indian Reservation west of the Mississippi.

The Cherokees, however, steadfastly refused to give up their lands, although they were offered equivalent territory in the West as well as a large cash payment and other inducements. The attitudes of the Cherokees, the United States, and Georgia all are shown at this point by a message from President Monroe to the House and Senate on March 30, 1824, as follows:

By the paper bearing date of 30th Jany. last which was communicated to the chiefs of the Cherokee Nation in this city, who came to protest against any further appropriations of money for holding treaties with them, the obligation imposed upon the United States by the compact with Georgia to extinguish the Indian titles. to the right of soil within the state, and the incompatibility with our system of their existence as a distinct community within any state, we pressed with the utmost earnestness. It was proposed to them at the same time to procure and convey to them territory beyond the Mississippi in exchange for that which they hold within the limits of Georgia, or to pay them for it its value in money. To this proposal their answer, which bears date of 11th of Feby. following, gives an unqualified refusal.*

There are voluminous records of the events and negotiations that transpired in the course of Georgia's efforts to reclaim her Indian territory, and I can not take the space even to outline them here. To arrive at the climax, on December 29, 1835, there was signed at New Echota (the Cherokee capital, in the present Gordon County) a treaty under the provisions of which the Cherokees were to receive five million dollars and a large tract of land in the West in return for all their holdings east of the Mississippi. These were principally in Georgia, though parts of Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina were included. It was agreed also that the Indians were to be paid for the houses and improvements they left behind, and were to be transported to their new homes at the expense of the federal government and "subsisted" there for one year.

The treaty of 1835 was to go into effect two years after its ratification by Congress, but when that period had passed it became evident that the Cherokees did not intend to abide by their agreement. Their defense was that the treaty had not been approved by the majority of the tribe; and it is claimed, in fact, that the federal agent who obtained the treaty admitted himself that only three hundred Cherokees were present at the signing. However, things had gone too far to be halted at this late date, and neither the United States nor Georgia entertained any idea of relenting from the terms of the treaty.

So the military was called into action. General Winfield Scott, of the United States Army, brought a detachment of soldiers into Georgia and was joined here by General Charles Floyd with two Georgia regiments. The soldiers scattered out over the Indian territory and gathered the Cherokees into forts at convenient locations (Sanderstown was the place where the Indians of this county were gathered). The work of rounding up the Indians took a little over a week, being finished early in June, 1838. All the Cherokees—there were over 15,000—were then taken to Ross* Landing, in Tennessee, where they were to begin their long march to Indian Territory under military escort. Due to what can only be considered as inexcusably improvident arrangements, the Indians were held at Ross1 Landing until fall, so that their march was completed in the dead of winter. Many of them perished on the way, from exposure, sickness, and other causes, the number of deaths being put by some authorities at as high as four thousand. Finally the remainder, footsore and weary, arrived at their strange new homes beyond the Mississippi.

There is real tragedy in the story of the Cherokee Removal, especially this last phase of it. Of course, Georgia can not be held responsible for the deaths that occurred on this journey, her connection with the matter ceasing after the Indians were turned over to federal authorities at Ross' Landing, in plenty of time to make the trip during the mild months. For the "inhuman" manner in which the Indians were collected and gathered into forts, however, Georgia has received a great deal of abuse.

The classic account is given by Prof. James Mooney, probably the most noted authority on the Cherokees. It bebegins: "The history of this Cherokee removal may well exceed in weight of grief and pathos any other passage in American annals." He then gives a very dramatic description of Cherokee families being interrupted at meals, at work, or at whatever they were doing, to be forced at the points of bayonets to leave their homes and accompany the soldiers to the various forts. In only one particular, however, does he indicate any action of the soldiers not absolutely necessary under the circumstances—he alleges "blows and oaths," and these are flatly denied by the statements of actual eyewitnesses, one of which he was not. As there is great dispute about the treatment accorded the Indians by the soldiers, we can not accept any one account as the whole truth; but the evidence seems to point to the fact that humane treatment was not only ordered—we know that—but used, for the most part, except in the extremest emergencies.  I do not presume to decide this much-disputed question, however.

If I had the space, I would like to quote the rather lengthy address which General Scott made to his soldiers before they went out to round up the Indians, and also his address to the Cherokees after arriving in their territory with his army. In the former, he leaves no room for doubt as to the humane manner in which the soldiers were expected to carry out their work. "Every possible kindness," he ordered, "compatible with the necessity of removal, must be shown by the troops; and if a despicable individual should be found capable of inflicting a wanton injury or insult on any Cherokee man, woman, or child, it is hereby made the special duty of the nearest good officer or man instantly to interpose, and to seize and consign the guilty wretch to the severest penalty of the law." In his address to the Cherokees, General Scott reminded them that they had been constantly warned the treaty would be carried out, and that he had now come for that purpose, but assured them that if they submitted peaceably they would be treated with the utmost consideration. Thus the official attitude in the matter, at least, is established as completely humane.

This is a good deal more than can be said for some of the Eastern states in the treatment of their own Indian problems. Georgia had as little reason as they to want a large part of her territory made a permanent Indian reservation. No other state, furthermore, ever had an Indian tribe to attempt the setting up of an actual foreign nation within her borders. And yet, when the evidence is all in, few of the states in the Union can point to a record as favorable as Georgia's in the treatment of Indian affairs.

The Cherokees, in the final analysis, were so unfortunate as to stand in the way of white civilization; and it is in the nature of things that they should have had to yield, brave as their battle was. Wise men saw at the time that the injustice of the Removal would turn out to be justice in the end; that future generations, both red and white, would be better off for the step. We know today that this has been so; and we also have the interesting knowledge, today, that the "untold millions" in yellow gold which the Indians thought their Georgia land contained has dwindled into insignificance beside the actually computed millions in "liquid gold" that the Cherokees have derived from their Oklahoma oil lands.


Source: History of Pickens County. Atlanta, Ga.: Tate, Luke E..  Press of W.W. Brown Pub. Co., c1935.


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