Yonagusta, the one called Drowning Bear,
is remembered as a prophet and reformer as well as the most
prominent chief in the history of the mountain Cherokee.
He outlawed whiskey among his people long before the United
States introduced prohibition.
Of course, the rest of the country never heard of old Chief
Yonaguska's firewater edict, but for almost a gneration he enforced
prohibition among his own people. He did it with a pledge,
the lash and the whipping post.
Yonagusta was born about 1759, some forty years after English
traders introduced "the black drink", or rum, to his
people in the North Carolina mountains.
In appearance, he is described as strikingly handsome, strongly
built, standing six feet three, with a faint tinge of red --
due to a slight strain of white blood on his father's side --
relieving the brown of his cheek.
Yonaguska was a key figure in the life and times of the Cherokee
of the Great Smokies.
He was their most prominent chief, albeit his name does not
occur in connection with any of the early wars or treaties.
Like many another reformer, Yonaguska was addicted to firewater
most of his life.
When he was sixty years old, he became critically ill.
His illness terminated in a trance, during which his people
gathered around him at the Soco townhouse and morned him for
At the end of 24 hours, however, Yonaguska awoke to consciousness
and spoke to his people, among which was adopted son William
H. Thomas, a 14-year old white boy, who was destined to succeed
him as chief and became the only white man ever to serve as
chief of the tribe.
"I have been to the spirit world," Yonaguska said,
"I have talked with old friends, I talked with the Great
Spirit. He sent me back with a message. The Cherokee
must never again drink whiskey. Whiskey must be banished
from among you."
He then had Will Thomas write out a pledge.
"The undersigned Cherokees, belonging to the town of Qualla,"
it read, "agree to abandon the use of spiritous liquors."
Yonaguska then signed it, followed by the whole council and
Preserved among Thomas' papers, the pledge is now in the archives
of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.
From the signing of the pledge until his death in 1839 at the
age of 80, whiskey was almost unknown among the Cherokees.
And when any of his people broke the pledge - few did while
he was alive - Yonaguska had them tied to a whipping post and
lashed. The Cherokee feared the lash more than they liked
the taste of whiskey.
Yonaguska was the first among his people to perceive the white
man's takeover of their mountain kingdom. As a boy of
12, he had such a vision and spoke of it but no one paid any
attention to him.
As a young brave, he saw the havoc wreaked among the mountain
Cherokee when General Griffith Rutherford and his North Carolina
militia destroyed with fire 36 Indian towns in 1776.
In 1809, Yonaguska petitioned President Jefferson not to have
the Cherokees in North Carolina removed from their homeland.
No one at that time seriously believed the Cherokee would ever
be forcibly removed, but Yonaguska knew better.
But it was not long afterward that the campaign for Indian removal
And throughout the early 1800s frequent pressure was brought
to bear on Yonaguska to induce his people to remove to the West.
He firmly resisted every persuasion, declaring that the Indians
were safer from aggression among their rocks and mountains than
they ever could be in a land which the white man could find
profitable, and that the Cherokee could be only in the country
where nature had planted them.
When the Cherokee lands on the Tuckaseigee River were sold by
treaty of 1819, Yonaguska continued to live on a reservation
of 640 acres set aside for him in a bend of the river between
Ela and Bryson City, on the ancient side of the Cherokee town
Meanwhile, pressure was increased for Indian removal, and Yonaguska
became more determined than ever to remain in his homeland,
rejecting every Government offer for removal west.
Once in the midst of armed soldiers, he defiantly spoke through
"I am an old man, and have counted the snows of almost
eighty winters... I can remember when the white man had not
seen the smoke of our cabins westward of the Blue Ridge, and
I have watched the establishment of all his settlements, even
to the Father of Waters.
"The march of the white man is still towards the setting
sun, and I know that he will never be satisfied until he reaches
the shore of the great water.
"It is foolish in you to tell me that the whites will not
trouble the poor Cherokee in the Western Country. The
white man's nature and the Indian's fate tell a different story.
Sooner or later one Government must cover the whole continent,
and the red people, if not scattered among the autumn leaves,
will become part of the American nation.
"As to the white man's promise of protection, they have
been too often broken; they are like the reeds in yonder river
- they are all lies.
"North Carolina had acknowledged our title to these lands,
and the United States had guaranteed that title; but all this
did not prevent the Government from taking away our lands by
force; not only that, but sold the very cow of the poor Indian
and his gun, so as to compel him to leave the country.
"Is this what the white man calls justice and protection?
No, we will not go to the West. We want to become the
children of North Carolina, and she has received us as such,
and passed a law for our protection, and we will continue to
grow our corn in this land. The people of Carolina have
always been kind to us, and we know they will never oppress
"We shall never do what you want us to do. I always advise
my people to keep their backs forever turned towards the setting
sun, and never leave the land of their fathers. I tell
them they must live like good citizens; never forget the kindness
of North Carolina, and always be ready to help her in time of
war. I have nothing more to say."
After the treaty of New Echota in 1835 ceded the entire remaining
Cherokee territory east of the Mississippi and after the removal
of all but a handful of mountain Cherokee to the West, Yonaguska
gathered those left about him and settled on Soco Creek on lands
purchased for them by his adopted son, Will Thomas, who as a
white man could legally hold a deed to the lands and allow the
Cherokee to live on them.
Shortly before his death in April, 1839, Yonaguska had himself
carried into the townhouse of Soco where, sitting up on a couch,
he made his last talk to his people.
The old man commended Thomas to them as their chief and again
warned them against ever leaving their own country. Then,
wrapping his blanket around him, he quietly lay back and died.
They buried Yonaguska beside Soco Creek, about a mile below
the old Macedonia mission, with a crude mound of stones to mark
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