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Wednesday, 17 April 2013 13:28

History of Cherokee War is top notch

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bookWe Americans sometimes forget how new we are to the history of the world.

Here in Western North Carolina, for example, we live like other Americans. We drive cars on expressways, live in towns and cities, buy or build homes and apartments equipped with electricity and running water, erect schools, churches, and fast-food restaurants, build shopping malls, buy meat, vegetables and milk from large grocery stores, vacation at the coast or overseas, gather local information from papers like The Smoky Mountain News, and commune with the world via the internet and television.

 

Yet, how often do we stop to contemplate how life was lived in these mountains less than 250 years ago, that quarter of a millennium which spans about seven generations of humankind, a blink of an eye in human history? 

Nadia Dean’s A Demand of Blood: The Cherokee War of 1776 (Valley River Press, ISBN 978-0-9831133-0-0, $34.95) takes us back to a time when the fields and woodlands of these mountains were filled not with the noise of traffic, construction and the schoolyard shouts of children at recess, but with the explosions of musketry, war cries and the dark silence following massacre and devastation.

The war of 1776 between the Cherokee and the frontier settlers occurred against the backdrop of the American Revolution. Incited both by the British and by the encroachments of the settlers on Cherokee territory, Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee chief and a supporter of Great Britain, helped organize and lead attacks against those settlers who supported the cause of revolution. These attacks by the Cherokee on settlers, encouraged both by the English and those colonists loyal to the Crown, led in turn to the punitive expeditions in 1776 against the Cherokee by colonial militiamen supporting the American Revolution. Roused by these frontier attacks, these militiamen invaded Cherokee tribal lands in present-day Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, attacking the Cherokee warriors and their families when they could find them and burning their villages and their vast fields of corn.

Though this war of three protagonists — those loyal to King George III, the revolutionaries, and the Cherokees aided at times by the Creeks — has received mention in other histories, A Demand of Blood gives readers the details of this conflict and reveals the personal side of this “shadow war.” Dean, a journalist intimately involved in the personalities and events of the conflicts in the Middle East, brings the acute sensibility she gained in writing of places like Israel and Jordan to these battles of the New World. Her approach to the Cherokee wars is evenhanded, her research extensive, her journalistic eye for truth and interpretation on target. 

A Demand of Blood should attract readers for other reasons as well. There is first the overall appearance of the book. It is a beautiful piece of work, appearing by its cover and its format like a gift book, but easily fitted to the hand for reading. Numerous illustrations, documents and maps adorn the pages, and the last hundred pages consist of additional documents, lists, summaries and an index. All of these contribute to the informative side of Dean’s work. There are explanations, for example, of everything from wampum to tinderboxes, from Moravian rifles to the cabins built by the Scots-Irish. 

Dean also gives us in-depth accounts from all three of the protagonists: the Americans in revolt against England, the loyalist and British forces arrayed against them, and the Cherokees. She goes to great lengths to show us the complicated relations among these three forces. According to Dean, the Cherokee, for instance, did not go to war in 1775 against the frontier settlements to implement British policy, but to recover territory taken from them by these settlements. Their attacks on these settlements certainly benefited the British, but as Dean then points out, the British were not completely responsible for instigating these battles. Here Dean’s interest in the complexities of Middle Eastern affairs come to the fore, as she uses the skills she learned there to sort out, evaluate, and judge these complicated events of 1776. 

One early reviewer of A Demand of Blood wrote that “anyone interested in the Cherokees and the Revolutionary War in the southern colonies will find this book a rewarding and entertaining history.” I agree wholeheartedly, but would go a step farther. Anyone interested in discovering, as Nadia Dean puts it, “that history is not an exercise in asserting who was right or wrong, but rather an endeavor to examine what causes what” will also find much of value in A Demand of Blood. Here is historical writing at its finest — an examination of the past which both connects us to that past and teaches us lessons on our present. 

•••

Actors’ reminiscences may rarely attract the attention of readers, but the recently published The Richard Burton Diaries (ISBN 978-0-300-18010-7) deserve attention. Burton, a movie star in his prime in the 1950s and 1960s, and the husband — twice — of Elizabeth Taylor, was both a reader of books and a fine writer. Here in these diaries he not only gives us insights into the life of a “star,” but into the mind of man who, despite his enormous celebrity, remained loyal to his past, his family, his wives and his children. His crisp style, his humor, his self-effacement and his deep interest in ideas and literature make this edition of his diaries well worth a look.  

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