Published on May 13, 2012 by Amy
Yonaguska, also known as Drowning Bear (1759-1839), who was also known as Drowning Bear (the English meaning of his name), was a leader among the Cherokee of the Lower Towns of North Carolina. He was a reformer who banished alcohol from his land. Yonaguska challenged Rev. Schermerhorn to explain the terms of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota that a handful of Cherokee had signed. He is also the only chief who remained in the hills to rebuild the Eastern Band with others who had escaped or eluded the soldiers. His adopted son, William Thomas, the only white chief the Cherokee ever had, would carry on Yonaguska’s work to establish what is now the Qualla Boundary. During his life, however, Yonaguska was also a reformer and a prophet, a leader who recognized the power of the white man’s liquor and early on realized the lengths to which settlers would go to take over Cherokee lands.
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Yonaguska was born about 1759, some 40 years after English traders introduced rum to his people in the North Carolina mountains. He was born into his mother’s clan and gained status from her people. His father was of European ancestry. As a boy of 12, he had a vision that the European Americans threatened the Cherokee way of life, but people did not pay attention to a boy. As a young man, he had witnessed the destruction by Gen. Griffith Rutherford and his North Carolina militia, who in 1776 burned 36 Indian towns. The Cherokee had been allied with the British and the colonials were trying to keep them out of the coming revolution.
As a man, Yonaguska was described as strikingly handsome, strongly built, and standing 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m). He became addicted to alcohol while young and suffered. He had European ancestry on his father’s side and adopted as his son a young colonial American boy, William Holland Thomas, taken captive in a raid.
When he was 60 years old, Yonaguska became critically ill. During this time, he had a vision and spoke to his people after recovering. He relayed a message from the spirit world: “The Cherokee must never again drink whiskey. Whiskey must be banished.”
He had Will Thomas write out a pledge: “The undersigned Cherokees, belonging to the town of Quallan agree to abandon the use of spirituous liquors.” Yonaguska signed it, followed by the council (chiefs of the clans) and town residents. Preserved among Thomas’ papers, the pledge is now in the archives of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University. From the signing of the pledge until his death in 1839 at the age of 80, whiskey was almost unknown among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And when any of his people broke the pledge—few did while he was alive—Yonaguska enforced the edict with the whipping post and lash.
Throughout the early 19th century, Yonaguska was repeatedly pressured to induce his people to remove to the West. He firmly resisted every effort, declaring that the Indians were safer from aggression among their rocks and mountains and that the Cherokee belonged in their ancestral homeland. Other chiefs made the Treaty of 1819, by which they sold Cherokee lands on the Tuckasegee River. Yonaguska was given 640 acres (2.6 km2) set aside in a bend of the river between Ela and Bryson City, on the ancient site of the Cherokee town of Kituwa.
As pressure increased for Indian removal, Yonaguska rejected every government offer for removal west. Having seen European-American settlers push ever westward, he did not believe they would ever be satisfied and did not want to leave his homeland. He thought the United States government promises of protection were “too often broken; they are like the reeds in yonder river—they are all lies.”
When the missionary Samuel Worcester and Elias Boudinot translated and printed the Gospel of St Matthew in Cherokee, Yonaguska insisted on hearing it read to him first before allowing its circulation. Yonaguska’s comment on Matthew was:
“Well, it seems a good book – strange that the white people are no better, after having had it so long.” Yonaguska approved the distribution of the scriptures to his people.
In 1824 Yonaguska gathered the Cherokee in the State of North Carolina who were outside the bounds of the Cherokee Nation, as it had been reduced by the treaties of 1817 and 1819. They settled at Soco Creek on lands purchased for them by his adopted son, Will Thomas. As a white man, Thomas could legally hold a deed to the lands and allow the Cherokee to live on them. This was how Qualla Boundary was founded.
Shortly before his death in April 1839, Yonaguska was carried into the town house at Soco where he gave a last talk to his people. , sitting up on a couch, he made a last talk to his people. The old man commended Thomas to them as their chief and again warned them against ever leaving their own country. Then wrapping his blanket around him, he quietly lay back and died.
Yonaguska was buried beside Soco Creek, about a mile below the old Macedonia mission, with a mound of stones to mark the spot.