The Sacrifice of Tsali, The Cherokee Folk Hero Who Gave His Life For His People
Tsali was a Cherokee folk hero who sacrificed his life for his people. They were in hiding from the US government who had ordered the removal of the Cherokee from their native lands.
Tsali, known also as Charley, was a farmer who had little concern for politics. During the 1830s, however, the Native Americans were forcefully removed by the American government, and Tsali became a Cherokee legend as a result of his actions during the removal. In short, the legend states that Tsali gave himself up to the government to be executed, so that the rest of the Cherokees need not be removed.
Who Was Tsali?
Little is known about Tsali’s life prior to the 1830s. He is recorded to have had a wife and three sons. Tsali and his family lived in a cabin near the mouth of the Nantahala River, where it flows into the Little Tennessee River, not far from what is today Bryson City, North Carolina.
In 1819, all territory to the east of the Little Tennessee River was ceded by the Cherokee government to North Carolina. As a result, a group of the most conservative Cherokee decided to withdraw from the Cherokee Nation.
Nantahala River close to where it flows into the Little Tennessee River, where Tsali lived with his family. (Magnus Manske / Public Domain )
The Cherokee are noted for their assimilation of American settler culture during the 19 th century. For instance, their government was modeled on that of the United States and the syllabary of the Cherokee language was invented by Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith who had served in the U.S. Army.
Although the Cherokee made use of the technologies brought by the newcomers, there were also those who preferred to maintain their traditional ways . These were known as the ‘traditionalists’ and Tsali was one of them, as were most of the Cherokee who lived in the mountains of western North Carolina.
Sequoyah with a tablet depicting his writing system for the Cherokee language. Sequoyah was a Cherokee however he embraced the news ways as opposed to Tsali who was a traditionalist. (Scewing / Public Domain )
Tsali was a ‘Traditionalist’
As a ‘traditionalist’, Tsali’s life revolved around providing for his family, which he did so by farming his small hillside plot of land and hunting. Tsali was not too concerned with the happenings beyond his home and news only occasionally trickled down to his ears. Tsali’s quiet life, however, would be forcefully shaken up by the outside world in 1838.
In 1831, the Indian Removal Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, which allowed the government to resettle Native American tribes from their homelands to the western prairies. In other words, the American government was allowed to take land that they wanted from the Native Americans in exchange for land they did not want.
The Indian Removal Act did not sit well with the Five Civilized Tribes , a term used to refer to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. These tribes not only cultivated the land, but were involved in trade, had homes, representative governments, and sent their children to mission schools. Therefore, the idea of moving to a strange land in the west did not appeal to them at all.
The Indian Removal Act resulted in the transplantation of several Native American tribes, Tsali fought for his people to stay on their land. (Nikater / Public Domain )
The refusal of the Five Civilized Tribes to relocate was not tolerated by the U.S. government and military coercion was used to force about 100,000 tribesmen to march westwards during the 1830s.
One day in 1838, Tsali was visited by his brother-in-law, who came to tell him that American soldiers were rounding up the Cherokee and were forcing them to re-settle in the west.
The next day he went back to work on his land as usual. In the meantime, the soldiers, under the command of General Winfried Scott, continued to gather the Cherokee for removal. Even those who tried to hide in isolated areas were sought out.
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The Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee - Tsali’s tribe, Choctaw, Muscogee/Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole. (Magnus Manske / Public Domain )
Tsali Fights the Indian Removal Act
Eventually, on the 1 st of November 1838 Tsali, his family, and a band of Cherokee who had hidden themselves, were captured by the soldiers and were being led to the stockades to be held before their westward march.
The sources disagree on what occurred next. According to Cherokee oral tradition, the soldiers maltreated their captives causing Tsali to retaliate. He faked an injury, ambushed the soldiers, and escaped with the rest of the group. During the ambush, a soldier was killed, and two wounded, one mortally.
The Cherokee remained in hiding until they received word that if the men responsible were to give themselves up, the rest of the group would be allowed to stay. In the end, Tsali gave himself up to be executed, so that his fellow tribesmen could stay on in North Carolina.
According to official documents, however, some of the Cherokee attacked the soldiers and escaped. It was the Oconaluftee (who were exempt from removal) and a few other Cherokee who volunteered to find Tsali and his band, with the understanding that anyone who helped would be allowed to stay. Sixty men were led by Euchella, a former neighbor of Tsali, in the hunt for the runaway Cherokee.
The American commander, Colonel William S. Foster, wrote to General Scott that the mission was a success and that all the escaped Cherokee, with the exception of Tsali, were captured. Additionally, the three most culpable men were executed by the Cherokee themselves. He also stated his belief that Tsali was innocent and dismissed the search party. The next day, however, Euchella and another Cherokee caught Tsali and executed him.
Euchella and the Cherokee who aided the search were allowed to remain in North Carolina and became known as the East Band of Cherokee Indians . As for Tsali, his story soon passed into Cherokee oral tradition and achieved its current form in 1849. His tale is today depicted in the outdoor drama, Unto These Hills .
"Unto These Hills" performers in Cherokee, NC. The play tells Tsali’s story as passed on through the years via Cherokee oral tradition. (Billy Hathorn / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Top image: Tsali, Cherokee folk hero. Source: jozefklopacka / Adobe .
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