This “average” man found himself in circumstances he might never have imagined, and his reaction to historical forces much greater than himself made him into a hero and martyr for the Cherokee who remained in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Tsali’s sacrifice, his death at the hands of a firing squad he chose for himself, proved to be a turning point in the history of the principal people.

Gathering The Cherokee:

As the troops commanded by General Winfield Scott gathered people of the Cherokee nation for removal, they searched for those who tried to hide. Most of the Cherokee cooperated—and spent their final days back east in the stockades—but 1,000 or more either hid from the troops or hoped their relative isolation would protect them. Tsali and his family were among these people. By the time the troops finished rounding up the stragglers they could ferret out—and Tsali lay in his grave— those remaining behind, the first of the Eastern Band, would number about 1,000. As a farmer and provider, Tsali was far more concerned with the weather and the crops he nurtured in the soil. Tribal factions struggled. Politicians argued. But Tsali knew little of the turmoil until May 1838. His brother-in-law, Lowney, brought word of the companies of soldiers searching the valleys and the thousands of Cherokee people herded in stockades. The whites were preparing for a great march to the west, to herd the principal people to a new home in Oklahoma. Tsali returned to his fields, and one of the stories told of him at this time involves a dream. As he worked, legend has it that Tsali imagined his people remaining in the mountains and carrying on the traditions and wisdom of their ancestors. True or not, the legend fits with what happened to Tsali next. On the trail scouts discovered Tsali and his family when they came to their cabin and ordered them to join other Cherokee in the stockade at Bushnell which is now covered by the waters of Fontana Lake. Like the rest of the nation, Tsali and his family were given little time to prepare for the journey. Taking only the belongings they could carry, Tsali, his wife, sons, and brother-in-law left their home under the guard of two soldiers. When Tsali’s wife stumbled and a soldier prodded her with his bayonet, Tsali’s life took a much different course. Hiding his anger as well as he could, Tsali spoke to his kinsman in their native tongue, aware that the soldiers did not understand Cherokee. “When we reach the turn in the trail,” he is supposed to have said, “I will trip and fall and complain of my ankle. When the soldiers stop, leap upon them and take their guns. Then we’ll escape into the hills.”

Tsali’s Fate Is Sealed:

The captives had never intended to kill or wound either of the soldiers, but an accidental discharge during the struggle left one soldier dead and turned Tsali, Lowney, and the sons, Ridges and Wasituna, into wanted men. Tsali’s family fled immediately to the safety of a concealed cave under Clingman’s Dome, now a part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where Scott’s troops would be at a marked disadvantaged if they ever discovered the fugitives. And Tsali was committed to fighting to the death rather than letting his family become prisoners. Apparently, the fugitives weren’t aware that more than 1,000 other Cherokee were also hiding out in remote areas of the Great Smokies. They had banded together under the leadership of Utsali or “Lichen,” who had sworn never to leave their mountain homeland. Tsali’s family and Utsali’s band eluded capture during the summer of 1838. By fall, the final group of soldiers and Cherokee detainees began the long trip west.

General Scott’s Proposal:

Faced with the nearly impossible task of capturing the fugitives, General Scott came up with an idea for ending the campaign and revenging the death of his soldier. He sent for Will Thomas, the white trader who had been adopted by the great chief Yonaguska. “If Tsali and his kin will come in and give up,” he told Thomas, “I won’t hunt down the others. If Tsali will voluntarily pay the penalty, I will intercede with the government to grant the fugitives permission to remain. But if Tsali refuses, I’ll turn my soldiers loose to hunt every one of them.” When Thomas delivered the message under Clingman’s Dome, Tsali agreed to turn himself in. When they reached the stockade, Tsali, Ridges, and Lowney were sentenced to death, while the younger Wasituna and his mother were spared.

A Legend Is Born:

In a field next to the stockade at Bushnell, the condemned men were stood against three trees. The colonel in charge asked the prisoners for their customary final words. Tsali spoke up: “If I must be killed, I would like to be shot by my own people.” Three Cherokee men were selected to be the executioners. Tsali and his kin waved aside the blindfolds they were offered. A volley rang out in the valley, and the men slumped to the earth. Tsali, Lowney, and Ridges were buried near the stockade. A little over 100 years later, the valley was flooded, and the graves today are covered by the waters of Fontana Lake.