In the drama, “Unto These Hills…a retelling,” Chief Yonaguska, who was also known as Drowning Bear, is a figure of persistence and endurance. Yonaguska challenges Rev. Schermerhorn to explain the terms of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota that a handful of Cherokee had signed. He is also the only chief who remains in the hills to rebuild the Eastern Band with others who had escaped or eluded the soldiers. His adopted son, William Thomas, the only white chief the Cherokee ever had, would carry on Yonaguska’s work to establish what is now the Qualla Boundary. During his life, however, Yonaguska was also a reformer and a prophet, a leader who recognized the power of the white man’s liquor and early on realized the lengths to which settlers would go to take over Cherokee lands.

Fighting the “Black Drink”:

Yonaguska was born about 1759, some 40 years after English traders introduced the “black drink,” or rum, to his people in the North Carolina mountains. He is described as strikingly handsome, strongly built, standing 6 feet 3 inches, 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. Like many dedicated reformers, Yonaguska’s resolve was strengthened by first-hand experience—he had been addicted to alcohol most of his life. When he was 60 years old and critically ill, Yonaguska fell into a trance. Certain that the end had come, his people gathered around him at the Soco townhouse and mourned him for dead. At the end of 24 hours, however, Yonaguska awoke to consciousness and spoke to his people, among whom was his adopted son William H. Thomas, a 14-year-old white boy who was destined to succeed him as chief and become the only white man ever to serve as chief of the tribe. When the chief addressed his people, he relayed a message from the spirit world: “The Cherokee must never again drink whiskey. Whiskey must be banished.” 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 spirituous liquors.” Yonaguska then signed it, followed by the whole council and town. 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 enforced the edict with the whipping post and lash.

Reeds in the River:

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 man, he had witnessed the havoc wreaked among his people when Gen. Griffith Rutherford and his North Carolina militia burned 36 Indian towns in 1776. Throughout the early 1800s Yonaguska was repeatedly pressured to induce his people to remove to the West. He firmly resisted every effort, declaring that the Indians were safer from aggression among their rocks and mountains and that the Cherokee belonged in their ancestral homeland. After the Cherokee lands on the Tuckaseegee River were sold as part of the treaty of 1819, Yonaguska continued to live on 640 acres set aside for him in a bend of the river between Ela and Bryson City, on the ancient site of the Cherokee town of Kituhwa. As pressure increased for Indian removal, Yonaguska became more determined than ever to remain in his homeland, rejecting every government offer for removal west. He refused to accept government assurances that his people would be left alone in the promised western lands. In the course of his life, he had seen settlers push ever westward. Yonaguska knew that nothing short of complete control would ever satisfy them. “As to the white man’s promises of protection,” he is said to have told government representatives, “they have been too often broken; they are like the reeds in yonder river—they are all lies.”

Establishing The Eastern Band Of The Cherokee

After the removal to the West of all but a handful of mountain Cherokee, Yonaguska gathered those left about him and settled at Soco Creek on lands purchased for them by his adopted son, Will Thomas. As a white man, Thomas 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 at Soco where, sitting up on a couch, he made a 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. Yonaguska, the most prominent chief ever of the Eastern Band, was buried beside Soco Creek, about a mile below the old Macedonia mission, with a crude mound of stones to mark the spot.