Cherokee Phoenix


Published April, 1, 1829

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For the Cherokee Phoenix


It is impossible, at this late day, to distinguish accurately between ancient traditions of the Cherokees and modern fictions, or between those which are purely original, and those which have been derived wholly or in part, from intercourse with the whites. Their traditions are fading from memory, and only a few aged men can give much information respecting them.

I lately visited a Cherokee man of advanced age, for the purpose of learning from him such things as then he was young, he had heard from the aged. His own age, he cannot tell. He recollects the commencement of a war which took place between his nation and the British Colonies when he was a boy. He was a man when O-co-na-sto-ta (6 Cherokee letters), [written in English history Oconesta] visited England in 1762. The earliest principal chief within his recollection was an old man, whose name he has forgotten. After him was Standing Turkey, ,(5 Cherokee letters) next O-ka-na-sto-ta, (6 Cherokee letters), then Sa-wa-nu-gi, (4 Cherokee letters), then Ti-kv-gi-ski, (5 Cherokee letters) then Ta-ka-si (3 Cherokee letters), the son of O-ka-na-sto-ta, who was the last in Echota (3 Cherokee letters), the ancient capital of the Nation. The periods of the three last were short. Okanastota is considered as the last of their great men. At his death Echota, the honored town, began to decline.

In each assembly among the Cherokees, the old man said, it was customary to appoint some aged man, one of the head men of the villages to rehearse traditions; which he did in a speech, continuing his discourse although the company might be dancing, or however inattentive. Old men at that time were many. When he was young he was careless and inattentive, and therefore knows less of traditions than he might have known.

Origins of the Cherokees.- I inquired of him whence the Cherokees came to this place. He could trace their origin no further than the head waters of the Holston.

Formation of the Earth.- Before the formation of the earth all around was water. By order of God inferior powers undertook to form the earth. Various attempts failed, 'till at length a great angle-worm was directed to dive into the water which he did, and came up exceedingly large, having swallowed an immense quantity of earth, which he deposited on the surface of the water, and formed this world. It was at first an extended plain, but afterwards by what means he knows not acquired its present diversity of hills ' vallies (sic). Whence came the water, or anything prior to the formation of the earth he never heard.

Creation of Man.- Man was at first formed of earth. Two men were originally made by the Creator, an Indian and white man. Each of these, after a season, became exceedingly lonesome, on which account the Creator formed a woman, also of earth, and gave to him.

Origin of Literature among the Whites.- Soon after the Creation, while the Indian ' the white man were together, God visited them, and presented to the Indian a written paper. He was at first unable to read it, but, after studying a while, was beginning to make out a few words, when the white man very unceremoniously snatched the paper from his hand, read it without hesitation, and put it in his pocket. Hence the white man came to have learning, while the Indians were unable to put language on paper.

Fall of Man.- At first men were innocent and immortal. But after they had begun to multiply greatly, they became the envy of beings who dwelt above, who said. 'At this rate they will soon overflow the earth!'- A motion was therefore made in grand council in heaven, that man should be subject to death. The motion prevailed, and the wicked one, (5 cherokee letters), the chief of the authors of evil, undertook to bring about the object.- God had forbidden man on pain of death to eat the fruit of a certain tree. Of this prohibition the wicked one took advantage. Influenced by him the first man* plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree; he looked on it-it was fair; he smelt it-it was fragrant; he tasted-and was ruined.

Division of Nations and Languages: After the fall the Creator distributed mankind among several towns, or districts, and gave to the inhabitants of each a peculiar language.

The Deluge. After the events already mentioned, men having become wicked, God caused a deluge to destroy them. A certain man had a dog, which miraculously spoke to him, informing him that, after twelve days, a rain would commence, which should drown the world; and directed him what to do. He told him to build a raft, and make a very long rope. The man accordingly commenced labor. He was ridiculed by his neighbors, but persevered, completed his raft, and a very long rope by which he fastened it. At the end of twelve days the rain commenced. He placed himself on the raft. The rain continued till the whole earth was overflowed. Huge alligators destroyed every living creature which swam on the water, but this one man and his dog floated securely on the raft. The flood continued for a long time. When the waters began to abate, the dog petitioned to be thrown out. The man at first refused, but at length, after a whole days entreaty, yielded. The dog was immediately devoured by the alligators. At last the raft landed. The solitary man left it, and went in search of the town where he had lived. He found the spot at some distance, but it was desolated. Having a little provision left, he built a camp, and remained until the seventh day, when he suddenly heard a whoop in which a multitude of voices united. He ran towards the sound, till he came in sight of a hill, from which were issuing forth a multitude of people, who proved to be his companions who had been destroyed by the flood, revived again.

Unity of God.- The Cherokees, my informant said, have never acknowledged but one God, (5 Cherokee letters) the Creator. He was altogether benevolent and good.

Inferior Beings.- They believed in the existence of evil beings, (6 Cherokee letters) the authors of all mischief, who, as well as the Creator, dwelt above. These were the beings dwelling above (4 Cherokee letters 3 Cherokee letters) who decided in grand council that man should be subject to death. He does not recollect whether he ever heard of any good beings dwelling above except God. He may have been told of such, but if so, he was so inattentive as not to recollect. Whether these evil beings were spiritual or corporeal, he does not remember to have heard, and never formed any definite idea. He only understood them to be evil, and the authors of evil.

Religious Worship.- The only religious worship of which he had any knowledge was connected with what is termed conjuring, and, as he is no conjurer, he has had little knowledge of this. Addresses are, however, and always were made by the conjurers to the Supreme Being.

Green corn Dance.- This was an annual festival, of which he does not know the origin or design. He supposes the conjurers know. The day was appointed by the old people. The conjurers prepared a sort of medicine, and seven families were appointed to furnish corn for the feast. Everyone must take a portion of the medicine, and a portion was offered by throwing corn into the fire, before anyone could eat. Before this feast it was unlawful to eat of the new corn of the season, and no person was ever known to transgress. After it all might eat freely.

City of Refuge.- The Cherokees had a city of refuge for the manslayer. This was Echota, (3 Cherokee letters) + their honored town, of which my informant was once an inhabitant. Whoever had killed a person, whether intentionally or by accident, had the privilege of fleeing to this town, when he was safe from the avenger. The condition of his residence was, that he should go out to battle in the next war that might occur; in which if he killed or took prisoner and enemy, he was free. If after that he was killed, the avenger was demanded by the chiefs of Echota, and put to death. If he was unsuccessful in the first war, he must renew the attempt in each succeeding war, till he was successful, or till he died; never being free from the city of refuge on any other condition.

Future state.--- The old man knew no tradition respecting a future state, and thought nothing of any life beyond the present. He had a fear of offending God, and an apprehension of punishment, but death was the greatest and last evil which he feared.

Polygamy.- I had heard it said that polygamy was unknown among the Cherokees, till it was introduced by resident whites. I therefore inquired of the old man, who replied that such a custom formerly existed, but was unfrequent (sic).

These are some accounts of the traditions and former custom of the Cherokees, as I derived them by the aid of an interpreter, from a single individual, who did not profess great knowledge respecting them. Other aged persons would doubtless differ from him in some particulars, and probably more information might be obtained from some aged conjurer.


*I inquired whether the Indian or the white man. He replied the Indian. It is obvious to remark the confusion which arises from blending the original tradition, which was probably that of the creation of one man only, with the idea of the original creation of two, which doubtless sprung up after they had a knowledge of white men.

+ The place where Echota was situated is no longer in the possession of the Cherokees, having been ceded in the year 1829. It was, I am informed on the Little Tennessee river, a few miles from Tellico block-house. The place is said to be now in the possession of Col. Matthew W. M'Gee.