Published on January 27, 2011 by Aquarius
Yonagusta, the one called Drowning Bear, is remembered as a prophet and reformer as well as the most prominent chief in the history of the mountain Cherokee. He outlawed whiskey among his people long before the United States introduced prohibition.
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Of course, the rest of the country never heard of old Chief Yonaguska’s firewater edict, but for almost a gneration he enforced prohibition among his own people. He did it with a pledge, the lash and the whipping post.
Yonagusta was born about 1759, some forty years after English traders introduced “the black drink”, or rum, to his people in the North Carolina mountains.
In appearance, he is described as strikingly handsome, strongly built, standing six feet three, with a faint tinge of red — due to a slight strain of white blood on his father’s side — relieving the brown of his cheek.
Yonaguska was a key figure in the life and times of the Cherokee of the Great Smokies.
He was their most prominent chief, albeit his name does not occur in connection with any of the early wars or treaties.
Like many another reformer, Yonaguska was addicted to firewater most of his life.
When he was sixty years old, he became critically ill. His illness terminated in a trance, during which his people gathered around him at the Soco townhouse and morned him for dead.
At the end of 24 hours, however, Yonaguska awoke to consciousness and spoke to his people, among which was adopted son William H. Thomas, a 14-year old white boy, who was destined to succeed him as chief and became the only white man ever to serve as chief of the tribe.
“I have been to the spirit world,” Yonaguska said, “I have talked with old friends, I talked with the Great Spirit. He sent me back with a message. The Cherokee must never again drink whiskey. Whiskey must be banished from among you.”
He then had Will Thomas write out a pledge.
“The undersigned Cherokees, belonging to the town of Qualla,” it read, “agree to abandon the use of spiritous liquors.”
Yonaguska then signed it, followed by the whole council and town. 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 Cherokees.
And when any of his people broke the pledge – few did while he was alive – Yonaguska had them tied to a whipping post and lashed. The Cherokee feared the lash more than they liked the taste of whiskey.
Yonaguska was the first among his people to perceive the white man’s takeover of their mountain kingdom. As a boy of 12, he had such a vision and spoke of it but no one paid any attention to him.
As a young brave, he saw the havoc wreaked among the mountain Cherokee when General Griffith Rutherford and his North Carolina militia destroyed with fire 36 Indian towns in 1776.
In 1809, Yonaguska petitioned President Jefferson not to have the Cherokees in North Carolina removed from their homeland. No one at that time seriously believed the Cherokee would ever be forcibly removed, but Yonaguska knew better.
But it was not long afterward that the campaign for Indian removal began. And throughout the early 1800s frequent pressure was brought to bear on Yonaguska to induce his people to remove to the West.
He firmly resisted every persuasion, declaring that the Indians were safer from aggression among their rocks and mountains than they ever could be in a land which the white man could find profitable, and that the Cherokee could be only in the country where nature had planted them.
When the Cherokee lands on the Tuckaseigee River were sold by treaty of 1819, Yonaguska continued to live on a reservation of 640 acres set aside for him in a bend of the river between Ela and Bryson City, on the ancient side of the Cherokee town of Kituhwa.
Meanwhile, pressure was increased for Indian removal, and Yonaguska became more determined than ever to remain in his homeland, rejecting every Government offer for removal west.
Once in the midst of armed soldiers, he defiantly spoke through an interpreter:
“I am an old man, and have counted the snows of almost eighty winters… I can remember when the white man had not seen the smoke of our cabins westward of the Blue Ridge, and I have watched the establishment of all his settlements, even to the Father of Waters.
“The march of the white man is still towards the setting sun, and I know that he will never be satisfied until he reaches the shore of the great water.
“It is foolish in you to tell me that the whites will not trouble the poor Cherokee in the Western Country. The white man’s nature and the Indian’s fate tell a different story. Sooner or later one Government must cover the whole continent, and the red people, if not scattered among the autumn leaves, will become part of the American nation.
“As to the white man’s promise of protection, they have been too often broken; they are like the reeds in yonder river – they are all lies.
“North Carolina had acknowledged our title to these lands, and the United States had guaranteed that title; but all this did not prevent the Government from taking away our lands by force; not only that, but sold the very cow of the poor Indian and his gun, so as to compel him to leave the country.
“Is this what the white man calls justice and protection? No, we will not go to the West. We want to become the children of North Carolina, and she has received us as such, and passed a law for our protection, and we will continue to grow our corn in this land. The people of Carolina have always been kind to us, and we know they will never oppress us…
“We shall never do what you want us to do. I always advise my people to keep their backs forever turned towards the setting sun, and never leave the land of their fathers. I tell them they must live like good citizens; never forget the kindness of North Carolina, and always be ready to help her in time of war. I have nothing more to say.”
After the treaty of New Echota in 1835 ceded the entire remaining Cherokee territory east of the Mississippi and after the removal of all but a handful of mountain Cherokee to the West, Yonaguska gathered those left about him and settled on Soco Creek on lands purchased for them by his adopted son, Will Thomas, who as a white man could legally hold a deed to the lands and allow the Cherokee to live on them.
Shortly before his death in April, 1839, Yonaguska had himself carried into the townhouse of Soco where, sitting up on a couch, he made his 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.
They buried Yonaguska beside Soco Creek, about a mile below the old Macedonia mission, with a crude mound of stones to mark the spot.