Cherokee Footprints

When I’m in these soft green hills, around a high lake impounded around 1930 in North Georgia, I wake to an awareness of the Cherokee. By their absence, in this silence with the occasional hoot of a barred owl, I feel their presence. I should pray a land-acknowledgement at the dawn of each day here.

What European settlement did to the early dwellers across the continent was, and is, a monstrous violation of the very rule of law that the Europeans brought. But we sometimes generalize and romanticize the larger, and miss the local history. The Cherokee had a unique history. They adapted, and adopted many European ways. They created a written alphabet and published a newspaper. They built log cabins based on the models that the Scots-Irish and German immigrants brought into Appalachia. Some of the natives and invaders intermarried.

Bone to Bone, by Douglas B. Wright

But treaties were trashed, over and over, for 100 years. The Cherokee were pushed north by northwest, to Standing Peachtree north of present-day Atlanta, to the hills of North Georgia, then to the Trail of Tears out of Georgia in the 1830s.

A washroom of the house I’m in is wallpapered, as a kind of joking nod to mountain culture, in pages of the weekly Pickens County Progress from the 1970s. One article is headlined “Cherokee Footprints.” It is “Part II of No. 7,” apparently a newspaper series based on the local writer digging up county records. The article simply lists 16 lots from “District 11, Section 2, Gilmer County” from “The Cherokee Land Lottery Book.” The land lots were “drawn” (i.e. won for free by lottery) by individuals with Anglo names from counties all over lowland Georgia. Each lot was titled “Indian improvement,” not to say “stolen from. . .” Probably from the 1830s, they were awarded after the discovery of gold in North Georgia. For example: Lot 99: Indian improvement, 50 acres, Coosawattee River, South of Ellijay (you may know this river from the novel “Deliverance”), Drawn by Samuel Barksdale, soldier, Johnson’s, Warren County. Lot 120: Indian improvement, 5 acres on Yukon Road south of East Ellijay. Drawn by George Gambell, Kendrick’s, Monroe County. And so on.

Margaret Mitchell, the writer, was interested enough in Cherokee history to have participated in a hike to Standing Peachtree in the 1930s. Sponsored by the Atlanta Historical Society, the excursion also included my grandfather, Douglas Wright; his artist friend Athos Menaboni; his friend “Peggy” Mitchell’s brother Stephens, and a Civil War historian named Wilbur Kurtz (who specialized in the Battle of Atlanta).

Sometime later, after Margaret Mitchell had finished writing “Gone with the Wind” but before any publishers knew about it, she wrote a letter to Wilbur Kurtz, introducing herself by reminding him of when they had met.

During the excursion to Standing Peachtree, she reminded Kurtz, “we tried to palm off on Stephens as genuine Cherokee, an idol manufactured by Douglas Wright and Athos Menaboni. . .”

First edition

A cousin of mine just sent me a reference to this letter from the Atlanta History Center. Imagine my grandfather, a man of intimidating formality when I knew him, sculpting a fake Cherokee relic for the fun of it, and attempting a straight-faced hoax on his other best friend, Stephens Mitchell! This was a whimsical side of him and his buddy Menaboni (whose bird paintings today are as treasured locally as original Audubons).

I can see this whimsical side of Douglas Wright – reclusive artist, engineer and mathematician – in two bizarre sculptures in the woods near this house in the mountains. Another cousin saved these two pieces of art he made in his later years, not unlike fake cartoonish idols of a pre-literate culture. One is an abstract assemblage of what could be leg bones. The other is a totem post with an encircling repetition of a face that could be a Polynesian chieftain. As Henry Ford once said, history is bunk.

“Gone with the Wind,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938 and became the most successful historical novel in English literature (not to compare it to a certain Russian novel), has been criticized for its history. But the reason Margaret Mitchell wrote that letter to the historian Wilbur Kurtz (who was also a local artist) was that she wanted him to verify her references to Civil War and Reconstruction history.

“In a weak moment,” she wrote in the letter, “I have written a book and the background of the book is Atlanta between 1859 and 1872.” She says her manuscript is in no way a historical novel. “The story is more the effect war and reconstruction had on the characters than on the historical happenings themselves.”

Margaret Mitchell was merely a feature writer for the Atlanta Journal, trying to break into fiction.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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