January 1st, 2013 Headsman
On this date in 1841, Archilla Smith was hanged over a tree branch in Cherokee Country (since the gallows hadn’t been delivered in time) for the murder of John MacIntosh.
Our narrative for this event is Indian Justice: A Cherokee Murder Trial at Tahlequah in 1840, a volume derived from the reports of 19th century poet John Howard Payne, who’s best known for writing “Home! Sweet Home!”.
Payne lived with the Cherokees in Georgia immediately preceding their forcible removal to Oklahoma along the Trial of Tears, and then repaired to Oklahoma with the evicted tribe. (Payne unsuccessfully lobbied the U.S. Congress against its removal policy.)
The procurement of Cherokee signatures on the treaty that gave legal cover to the tribe’s expulsion from Georgia was a source of bitter controversy … and a generation of internecine violence. Our principal for this date’s post, Archilla Smith, himself affixed an X-mark to this notorious document, and he was defended at the trial in question here by another signer, Stand Watie.
Payne’s book, however, does not much treat the political context of Indian removal, nor even read as something like a true crime book: the brawl between the killer and the victim, two aggressive men with a passing and private quarrel, is little more than the background fact; the question for the jury turned on little but the degree of wilfulness or intent in the fatal stab wound Smith dealt, and various witnesses describe the same scene of their melee with slight differences of shading.
Rather, it’s a courtroom drama, and an outsider’s sketch of Cherokee jurisprudence (amalgamating tribal and Anglo-Saxon practices) circa 1840. It’s also the first newspaper any Oklahoma trial.
There as no appearance of bitter feeling on either side. The accused and the judge and jury and spectators, all seemed in the best of humor with one another. The accused smoked much of the time; and his judge, and most of the jury, every now and then would get up and go across the log-court to him with “Arley, lend me your pipe;” and receive his pipe from his mouth (as is the Indian custom); and revel in the loan of a five minutes’ smoke. … The wife and handsome young daughter of the accused attended … His three young sons, one a boy about ten, — the others about twelve and fifteen, were in the court room nearly all the time, and often sat by their father’s side.
At one point, the judge digresses into the ancient right of clan vengeance and dismisses it in view of the “improved” system. But Payne’s postscript notes that one of Smith’s own jurors (from the first jury) would himself be killed just days after the execution when the juror attempted to exact family retribution on a murderer who had been acquitted in court. This is the snapshot of an evolving society.
Archilla Smith’s first jury hung. The second jury tried to hang, but was forced by the judge to come to a conclusion. Finally, it convicted Smith on December 26, 1840. Smith took word of his fate evenly.
“You are every one of you old acquaintances of mine, Jurors,” he remarked after hearing his fate. “You have been several days engaged about my difficulty. But I have no hard thoughts against any one of you, Jurors, nor Judge, against you. I believe your object has been that my trial should be a fair one.”
Cherokee law required that after five days, the sentence be executed. Accordingly, the hanging was fixed for New Year’s Day at noon.
Because there was also no tribal prison, Smith was simply held under guard in a log hut, and was able to get around the new Cherokee capital of Tahlequah with those guards. In Payne’s narrative, this invites no trouble on the part of the prisoner, whose bonhommie even after his death sentence belies the ill-tempered knife-slayer described by court witnesses. (Though Smith did once try to bribe his guard to let him escape.)
Accordingly, on one of those five days between sentence and hanging, Archilla Smith and his friends simply rode up to the Cherokee Chief John Ross to appeal personally for a pardon. He’d obtained about two hundred signatures on a petition supporting such an act of clemency.
Nevertheless, Ross, a foe of the removal treaty and of Stand Watie,* told them that the matter was out of his hands … but Smith and his party still ate dinner at Ross’s home that evening and nothing untoward occurred. Open hospitality was a Cherokee custom, and Ross regularly entertained dozens of visitors at his two-and-a-half-story log house, “as many as the table can accommodate.”
When the hang-day finally came, two different men preached under the noose.
The first, an Anglo named Worcester, who issued a bog-standard 19th century Anglo hanging sermon in English:
Almighty God! We see before us an awful instance of thy power. May it eventuate in an equally impressive exemplification of thy love. May the bitter fruit of the one sin for which atonement is now about to be exacted, procure the pardon of many. May it not only produce sincere penitence and consequent acceptance with thee, in the unhappy sufferer who now stands upon the threshold of eternity, but operate as a warning to all who either witness or hear of his fate. May it show this people to what dreadful results intemperance may lead; and when they see that the great commandment ‘whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed’ cannot be evaded; may it bring them to a salutary meditation through which all may be converted. In the name and through the meditation of our blessed Savior, we ask that the influences of the Holy Spirit may draw this blessing on the nation; and may the victim now offered up to the violated laws have cause to bless a doom, which if it awaken him to a proper knowledge of Thee and of himself will yet prove to him a happiness and a mercy into thy hands, oh blessed Savior, we commend his spirit.
The second gallows-preacher was a half-breed Protestant minister named Reverend Young Wolf — and this reverend had actually been the foreman of the jury which condemned Archilla Smith in the first place. Young Wolf preached in Cherokee, thus:
God of heaven! Creator of all things! Thou, who knowest our inmost thoughts I pray to thee have mercy on this man. He is standing on the threshold of death. He will presently leave this world to enter the world of spirits. Thou canst see into his heart. Thou art aware whether the charge for which he suffers is true or not. If he is guilty, I supplicate thee to forgive all his sins. Into thy hand we submit ourselves. We assemble together as a people to witness the death which our friend is about to suffer; and may it make us remember that we too, are born to die sooner or later, and prepare to meet thee in peace. May the view of thy power which we are now beholding, humble us before thee. May we continue humble. We are now about to part with our friend Archilla. We give him up to thee. May he receive thy pardon for his sins, that hereafter we may all come together again before thy throne and unite there in thy praise!
The doomed addressed the multitude last.
He, too, spoke in Cherokee, and the natives whom Payne spoke with were divided as to whether the “escapes” and “third time” which Smith mentioned referred to the two times that his juries refused to convict him, or to two previous, undetected crimes.
Friends, I will speak a few words. We are to part. You will presently behold how evil comes. I do not suffer under the decree of my Creator but by the law passed at Tahlequah. — Friends, you must take warning. — I think, perhaps, that my being hated has brought me to this. No man can hope every time to escape; and the third I have been overtaken by the law. But avoid such practices. — I suppose I was preordained to be executed in this manner. I am ready to die. I do not fear to die. I have a hope, there, to live in peace. (Tears now gushed from his eyes.) I should not have shed tears had not the women come here to see me. — I have no more to say.
* Ross and Watie were lead figures of the rival factions within the Cherokee polity, and they would be recognized as opposing chiefs by the Union and the Confederacy (respectively) during the coming U.S. Civil War. Stand Watie lives on in bar bets: he has the distinction of being the last Confederate general (and his First Indian Brigade the last Confederate force in the field) to surrender to the Union, on June 23, 1865.
Also on this date
- 1943: Rosanna and Daniel Phillips
- 1943: Lojze Grozde, beatified Slovenian
- 104 B.C.E.: Jugurtha
- 1892: Sylvester Henry Bell
- 2002: 'Ali bin Hittan bin Sa'id, Muhammad bin Suleyman bin Muhammad, and Muhammad bin Khalil bin 'Abdullah