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Wednesday, 28 October 2015 15:37

Little-known Cherokee history, from the archives

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When I used to work for the Cherokees, there were occasions when there was little to do. When that happened, I would vanish into the archives of the museum where I would find all the ancient history and folklore that was rarely explored — neglected because it was at odds with the image that the museum presented to the public.

Among my favorites was old Chief Doublehead, who managed to offend so many people he became something of an outcast. He beat his pregnant wives, drank to excess, lost land and livestock through gambling and took pride in being a cannibal. His exploits were an embarrassment to the Cherokee leaders because this was a time (the early 1800s) when they sought the good will of the white man’s government, and so promoted the Cherokee as “a peaceful people.” Doublehead was definitely at odds with that image. As a result Major Ridge, a powerful leader, and several tribal members decided to assassinate the old murderous drunk. It is a great story and is recorded in all its bloody grandeur in Thurman Wilkins’ remarkable history, “The Ridge Tragedy.”

Then, there was Christian Phiber, who Gov. James Oglethorpe described as a “most strange man,” who showed up among the Cherokees in the early 18th century and announced his intention of establishing “an earthly paradise” that would contain a large number of “half-breeds, Blacks, French and Portuguese.” It was no idle dream, and Phiber almost succeeded. His basic mission was to force the white settlers to return to Europe.  

Some of his concepts involved the abolishment of marriage and the promotion of polygamy. Before Phiber was captured (and probably killed), he had established a series of settlements consisting totally of women who had expressed a desire to govern themselves. He also promoted the idea that his utopian community would be a refuge for the disenfranchised and outcast everywhere. Phiber had put his utopian plan in a book which mysteriously vanished along with an extensive dictionary of the Cherokee language. He was arrested and imprisoned in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

And finally, there is the tragic tale of Chief Bowles (Duwali), who was born in 1765 and was named successor to the war chief, Dragging Canoe. However, this ill-fated Chief of the Chickamaugas soon found himself banished from home when he was falsely accused of murdering white settlers. The charges were later proven to be false, but by that time Bowles had departed with a large band of followers, vowing that he would find a home elsewhere.  

Bowles’ story resembles that of Moses as he wanders from place to place finally ending up in Texas where he became involved in the war between Mexico and Texas. Throughout this journey, Bowles’ faithful followers stayed with him.   

Finally, in 1838, Bowles was ordered to leave Texas. When he refused, he and his followers were attacked by the Texas army and killed in battle. Bowles was 83 at that time. When he was shot and fell from his horse, a Texas officer approached the wounded chief and shot him in the head with a pistol. His body was left on the battlefield and several soldiers cut strips of flesh from his back for souvenirs (reins for their horses). Many years later, a local resident noted in his diary that as he rode to and from his home, he often saw Bowles’ skull and skeleton lying where he had died.

(Gary Carden is a writer who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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