Over the centuries, since the Cherokee people’s first contact with Europeans, there have been many attempts to preserve the pre-Columbian culture. It seems that the more passionate attempts met with the most tragic demise while the more casual and indirect acquaintances have survived. I point to the encounters and reports by European adventurers, traders, priests or ethnographers whose works, notes, and books have successfully preserved hints of the culture, albeit from a foreign perspective. James Adair is a prime example.
Adair was an Irishman, a native of County Antrim, Ireland, who came to America in 1735 to became an Indian trader, living and travelling among Native Americans for forty years. In 1775, he published a book based upon his notes called “The History of the American Indians.” Although a sizable portion of the book is dedicated to the hypothesis that the American Indians are descended from the lost tribes of Israel, a theory that did not originate with Adair, the other portion of the book is more dedicated to his observations of the Katahba, Cheerake, Muskohge, Choktah, and Chikkasah Nations. These observations, paintings and extensive maps have proven to be very enlightening on their cultures and their relations with the colonists.
This account by James Mooney is based on Adair’s observations and demonstrates the profound and devastating cultural influence of the new colonists, “In 1738 or 1739 the small pox, brought to Carolina by slave ships, broke out among the Cherokee with such terrible effect that, according to Adair, nearly half the tribe was swept away within a year. The awful mortality was due largely to the fact that as it was a new and strange disease to the Indians they had no proper remedies against it, and therefore resorted to the universal Indian panacea for “strong” sickness of almost any kind, viz, cold plunge baths in the running stream, the worst treatment that could possibly be devised. As the pestilence spread unchecked from town to town, despair fell upon the nation. The priests, believing the visitation a penalty for violation of the ancient ordinances, threw away their sacred paraphernalia as things which had lost their protecting power. Hundreds of the warriors committed suicide on beholding their frightful disfigurement. “Some shot themselves, others cut their throats, some stabbed themselves with knives and others with sharp-pointed canes; many threw themselves with sullen madness into the fire and there slowly expired, as if they had been utterly divested of the native power of feeling pain.” Another authority estimates their loss at a thousand warriors, partly from smallpox and partly from rum brought in by the traders.”
The indigenous tribes of the southeast were caught between the French and British battle for influence. The French were quickly expanding their sphere of influence and converting tribes to switch allegiance from the British to the French. The main enticement was trade. It appears that Adair was actively working with South Carolina’s new Governor James Glen to secure or strengthen alliances with the Chickasaw and Cherokee. Adair once quipped, “I told him, with that vehemence of speech, which is always requisite on such an occasion, that I was an English Chikkasah.”
Hoping to win over the tribes, competing South Carolina based traders started pouring in munitions and other goods. In the meantime, the German Jesuit, Christian Priber, ventured into Cherokee territory. Adair described him and his relations with the Cherokee, “In the year 1736, the French sent into South-Carolina, one Priber, a gentleman of a curious and speculative temper. He was to transmit them a full account of that country, and proceed to the Cheerake nation, in order to seduce them from the British to the French interest. He went, and though he was adorned with every qualification that constitutes the gentleman, soon after he arrived at the upper towns of the mountainous country, he exchanged his clothes and every thing he brought with him, and by that means, made friends with the head warriors of great Telliko, which stood on a branch of the Missisippi. More effectually to answer the design of his commission, he ate, drank, slept, danced, dressed, and painted himself, with the Indians, so that it was not easy to distinguish him from the natives, –he married also with them, and being endued with a strong understanding and retentive memory, he soon learned their dialect, and by gradual advances, impressed them with a very ill opinion of the English, representing them as a fraudulent, avaritious, and encroaching people: he at the same time, inflated the artless savages, with a prodigious high opinion of their own importance in the American scale of power, on account of the situation of their country, their martial disposition, and the great number of their warriors, which would baffle all the efforts of the ambitious, and ill-designing British colonists. Having thus infected them by his smooth deluding art, he easily formed them into a nominal republican government–crowned their old Archi-magnus, emperor, after a pleasing new savage form, and invented a variety of high-sounding titles for all the members of his imperial majesty’s red court, and the great officers of state; which the emperor conferred upon them, in a manner according to their merit. He himself received the honourable title of his imperial majesty’s principal secretary of state, and as such he subscribed himself, in all the letters he wrote to our government, and lived in open defiance of them.”
Mooney reported, “Under this title he corresponded with the South Carolina government until it began to be feared that he would ultimately win over the whole tribe to the French side. A commissioner was sent to arrest him, but the Chrokee refused to give him up, and the deputy was obliged to return under safe-conduct of an escort furnished by Priber.”
Many historians believe that Priber came to the Cherokee not as an emissary of the French, but rather independently intent on establishing a utopian society that he called “The Kingdom of Paradise.” His “paradise” became a refuge for not only Cherokee but other tribes, fugitive slaves, disaffected Germans, French and English. His utopian town lasted for a little over seven years until the British captured and imprisoned him. He died in prison.
James Adair had befriended and communicated with Christian Priber up until his death when he wrote, “As he was learned and possessed of a very sagacious penetrating judgment, and had every qualification that was requisite for his bold and difficult enterprise, it was not to be doubted that, as he wrote a Cheerake dictionary, designed to be published at Paris, he likewise set down a great deal that would have been very acceptable to the curious and serviceable to the representatives of South Carolina and Georgia, which may be readily found in Frederica if the manuscripts have had the good fortune to escape the despoiling hands of military power.”
Evidently, the manuscripts did not survive the “despoiling hands of military power” as they disappeared never to be recovered. Soon after Priber’s arrest in 1743, Chief Attacullacalla (one of the chiefs who went to the court of King George II with _______, refer to “Preserving the Culture: Chief Moytoy”] signed a treaty with the British agreeing to trade only with the British, return runaway slaves and expel non-English whites from their territory, in exchange for guns, ammunition, and red paint.
Christian Gottlieb Priber brought to the Cherokee a radically different form of government. It would not be the last time that a European form of government would be forced upon or adopted by the Cherokee. But, at this point, the Cherokee managed to hang on to much of their traditional culture and James Adair was there to observe and record, and thereby preserve, much of it in his notes and subsequent book.