TOTA conference highlights Cherokee Old Settlers
A map created by the Arkansas Archeological Survey shows a Cherokee reservation and Cherokee settlements in the late 1700s and early 1800s in what is today Arkansas. In 1828, these Cherokee Old Settlers were forced to abandon their Arkansas settlements and move into Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. COURTESY
Arkansas Archeological Survey Director George Sabo III speaks to an audience on what led the Cherokee Old Settlers to settle in Arkansas during his presentation “Cherokee Old Settlers in Arkansas,” on Oct. 16 at the 22nd annual Trail of Tears Conference and Symposium in Pocola, Oklahoma. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
POCOLA, Okla. – George Sabo III, Arkansas Archeological Survey director at the University of Arkansas, spoke about Cherokee Old Settlers on Oct. 16 during the 22nd annual Trail of Tears Conference and Symposium.
“My goal is to examine the experiences and accomplishments of Cherokee Old Settlers in Arkansas within a framework that considers historical events setting the stage for Cherokee arrivals during the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” he said.
Sabo highlighted historical events from the first encounters between Natives and Europeans in the mid-16th century to the French and Spanish alliance with Native leaders that led to early Cherokee settlements in Arkansas. These early settlers are known today as Old Settlers.
In the 17th century, Sabo said French and Spanish documents show that tribes such as the Tunicas, Caddo, Quapaw and Osage inhabited lands in Arkansas.
According to Sabo’s research, some of the first Old Settlers settled along the St. Francis River in northeastern Arkansas after “Anglo-Americans” violated the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell. The Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw had signed the treaty with the new U.S. Congress. By 1805 approximately 1,000 Old Settlers were living along the St. Francis River, but they weren’t alone. People from the Abenaki, Delaware, Illinois, Miami and Shawnee tribes also occupied the area after the Revolutionary War.
Sabo discussed two events that led Cherokees to relocate to Arkansas in the early 19th century. One was an 1808 land cession between Upper Louisiana Gov. William Clark and Osage Chief Pawhuska. Although Pawhuska thought the treaty would secure hunting rights in the territory for the Osage, Clark planned for the territory to be open for settlement by other tribes.
The other event was an earthquake known as the New Madrid earthquake, which it and its aftershocks occurred from December 1811 to February 1812 in northeastern Arkansas and southeastern Missouri. The earthquakes destroyed Native settlements along the St. Francis River, including those of the Old Settlers. Sabo referenced historian Conevery Bolton Valencius, who noted that the earthquakes weren’t just a series of events to the southeastern Natives but “signs portending grave cultural and religious implications.”
Those two events plus the continuous conflict in the eastern Cherokee homelands resulted in the Old Settlers and more eastern Cherokees traveling west to the northern banks of the Arkansas River near present-day Russellville, Arkansas, to settle. Sabo suggests the Quapaw were in “friendly relationships” with the Cherokee newcomers.
“The Quapaws were, indeed, perfectly comfortable with an upstream Cherokee settlement area that could serve as a buffer separating Quapaws from Osages, among whom antagonisms still occasionally flared,” he said.
While in the new territory it was not peaceful for the Old Settlers. The Osage saw the land as theirs and attacked Cherokee settlements. For nearly a decade, the Old Settlers and the Osage warred.
Sabo mentioned one battle between the Old Settlers and Osages in 1817. The Cherokees organized 600 fighters and “attacked” Osage Chief Clermont’s town, killing more than 30 Osage and taking more than 100 prisoners. This event led the Osage to petition for a peace negotiation, which resulted in a land cession known as Lovely’s Purchase. The cession obtained an area of land that extended north of the Arkansas River to southern Missouri and 40 miles west from Fort Smith, Arkansas. Sabo said the ceded land was to act as a “buffer” between the Osages and Old Settlers.
“Cherokee assessments of the continuously changing geopolitical landscape enabled them to gain an upper hand over Osages,” he said.
After securing the land, the Old Settlers advanced in “American-style civilization.” They developed well-structured housing, schools and churches such as the Dwight Mission. Many developed ranches and fenced fields for crops and livestock. Sabo said the Old Settlers also tried to stay true to their culture.
“There were consequently two faces to Cherokee settlements in Arkansas, one illustrating a successful march toward civilization outwardly embracing white American ideals, the other preserving important cultural institutions including social structure, political leadership and religious belief and practice,” Sabo said.
All seemed well for the Cherokees. However, after the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814, ending the war between Great Britain, France and the United States, “Anglo-American” settlements in Arkansas multiplied. As the “Anglo” population grew, so did the “racial perspective” of Natives. The tribes that were once viewed as civilized were now seen as “savage.”
“In the view of territorial and federal officials, southeastern Indians including Cherokees should be removed even farther west to make way for the advance of American civilization,” Sabo said. “By the end of the second decade of the 19th century, these sentiments galvanized into legislative action at state, territorial and federal levels across the South to forcibly remove Indians from all lands in the path of expanding Anglo-American settlement.”
Hoping to escape removal, some Old Settler leaders went to Washington, D.C., to convince officials that they should be allowed to purchase their Arkansas lands. The Eastern Cherokees were also in Washington asking to remain on their homelands. Sabo said Congress and President John Quincy Adams’ administration would not budge.
Although the Old Settlers had to abandon their lands, where they were relocated to in 1828 wasn’t far. They settled parts of present-day Sequoyah, Muskogee and McIntosh counties in what is now eastern Oklahoma. Some of them settled again along the Arkansas River and formed the communities of Webbers Falls and Tahlonteeskee, later renamed Gore.
“The one small consolation for the Old Settlers was that their newly granted lands were located a comparatively short distance up the Arkansas River, and the move took place without most of the horror that accompanied the larger-scale Trail of Tears removals that commenced a decade later,” Sabo said. “And here we are today, celebrating a legacy of trial and tribulation but also of perseverance and success.”