Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Many residents and visitors know – but many do not – that the town proper of Franklin as well as Macon County played a major role as the setting of Native peoples’ lives and deaths, from the origins of time until well into the 19th century. Robert Shook, curator of the Macon County Historical Society, paid tribute to Cherokee history and culture in the summer edition of the museum’s “Echoes” publication by focusing on a particular person who is considered by some historians and Cherokee to have been a hero.
Late May 1838 involved members of the U.S. Army entering Western North Carolina and physically removing thousands of Cherokee residents from their homes and marching them to a series of six nearby, impromptu forts or camps, including Fort Hembree in Hayesville and Fort Butler in Murphy. It was called the Indian Removal Act and was instigated by President Andrew Jackson. That many of those Cherokee lived in and around Franklin and were close friends with ever-increasing settler families is a surprise to a great many people.
The human face on the tragic event, which forced Cherokee away from their native homelands to walk to and establish new lives in Oklahoma, was that of a Cherokee man named Tsali. Also known as “Charley,” he was a full-blooded Cherokee farmer who resided with his family near the mouth of the Nantahala River. Like many other Cherokee families, Tsali was reluctant to leave his homeland. He and other family members, including his wife and sons, were captured and, on the morning of Nov. 2, 1838, were in the process of being escorted to an army camp. Although different accounts of the particular incident were documented, the general gist is that a soldier prodded Tsali’s wife with a bayonet and a retaliation of Cherokee against soldiers ensued. One soldier was killed and others were injured, one mortally, while the group of Cherokee fled into the mountains.
“The story goes that Tsali’s hideout was only known to a few,” said Shook. William Holland Thomas was one of those. He was local merchant who served as agent for the Oconaluftee Cherokee. Thomas was also considered a “white chief” of the Cherokee and he is loosely portrayed in Author Charles Frazier’s book, “13 Moons.”
Shook writes that, “Thomas told Tsali that if he would come down to surrender, then the general would allow all the others who were in hiding to remain, and once more to establish homes for themselves and future generations. If they failed to surrender, Thomas told him, then [Major General Winfield] Scott would turn loose an army in the mountains and hunt them down like dogs, which would forever end the Cherokee race.”
Tsali gave himself up and is a legendary hero, pointed out Shook, who explained his sacrifice via the scripture, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” (John 15:13) The site where Tsali was executed is now under Fontana Lake, added Shook.
Ongoing, Tsali is eulogized in many published and oral accounts and most significantly in the 71-year-old outdoor drama “Unto These Hills,” staged each summer on the reservation in Cherokee, which is located 30 miles from Franklin.