1838: Tsali, Cherokee

5 comments November 25th, 2010 Headsman

The decade following establishment of the “permanent Indian frontier” was a bad time for the eastern tribes. The great Cherokee nation had survived more than a hundred years of the white man’s wars, diseases, and whiskey, but now it was to be blotted out. Because the Cherokees numbered several thousands, their removal to the West was planned to be in gradual stages, but discovery of Appalachian gold within their territory brought on a clamor for their immediate wholesale exodus. During the autumn of 1838, General Winfield Scott‘s soldiers rounded them up and concentrated them into camps. (A few hundred escaped to the Smoky Mountains and many years later were given a small reservation in North Carolina.) From the prison camps they were started westward to Indian Territory. On the long winter trek, one of every four Cherokees died from cold, hunger, or disease. They called the march their “trail of tears.”

-Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

This date in 2010 happens to be Thanksgiving in the United States.

Dating to the Civil War in its modern incarnation, its ancestral event is the “first thanksgiving” wherein European colonists* chowed down with the Wampanoags who had saved them from starvation in New England.

This moment of apparent amity obviously also presages the near-annihilation of native peoples by those European colonists over the succeeding centuries; even in 1621, the seeds of future conflict were at hand. By the very next year, Wampanoag chief Massasoit would demand the execution of legendary Pilgrim-befriender Tisquantum (Squanto).

So it’s also fitting to remember that this day in 1838** was the execution of Tsali, the hero of those escaped North Carolina Cherokee whom Brown mentions — a man tied to a tree and shot this date by the U.S. Army for resisting “Indian removal”.

While assimilated Cherokees like Chief John Ross were themselves right in the thick of the debate about deportation, Tsali was a traditionalist farmer in North Carolina who had little contact with such sketchy political machinations.

When Washington’s ethnic cleansing policy shed its diplomatic cover for naked force, Tsali and his family killed some of the soldiers sent to capture them for removal.** General Scott was not amused.

The individuals guilty of this unprovoked outrage must be shot down; & there is another object demanding equal & immediate attention, viz: –the protection of the white families, residing in that region, who are, doubtless, much alarmed (& may be in great danger) at the most unexpected spirit of hostility evinced by the fugitive Indians about them by the murders in question.†

And, of course, they were. Tsali is said to die in that fearlessness of the noble savage, a fitting aspect for any martyr at the last.

I have a little boy…If he is not dead, tell him the last words of his father were that he must never go beyond the Father of Waters, but die in the land of his birth. It is sweet to die in one’s native land and be buried by the margins of one’s native stream.

-Tsali’s recorded last words

It’s one of those ironies of empire (not unlike Thanksgiving Day itself) that Tsali’s dying wish was made possible by the very fact that other Cherokees collaborated in his death. Or at least, that’s how Tsali came to be remembered.

Other Cherokee with farms outside the boundaries of the formal Cherokee nation were then maneuvering to avoid the effects of the removal treaty — which by its own letter ought not apply to other Cherokee. William Holland Thomas, the remarkable Caucasian-born orphan adopted by the chief of these Cherokee, Dancing Bear, cut a deal with General Scott:

if [Dancing Bear’s Cherokee] would seize Charley [Tsali] and the others who had been concerned in the attack upon the soldiers and surrender them for punishment, the pursuit [for other Cherokee in the Great Smokies] would be called off and the fugitives allowed to stay unmolested … he could secure respite for his sorely pressed followers, with the ultimate hope that they might be allowed to remain in their own country …

It was known that Charley and his party were in hiding in a cave of the Great Smokies, at the head of Deep creek, but it was not thought likely that he could be taken without bloodshed and a further delay which might prejudice the whole undertaking. Thomas determined to go to him and try to persuade him to come in and surrender. Declining Scott’s offer of an escort, he went alone to the cave, and, getting between the Indians and their guns as they were sitting around the fire near the entrance, he walked up to Charley and announced his message. The old man listened in silence and then said simply, “I will come in. I don’t want to be hunted down by my own people.” They came in voluntarily and were shot … one only, a mere boy, being spared on account of his youth.†

Scott honored the deal, goes the story, and those un-removed Cherokee indeed persisted in North Carolina. Whether due to Tsali’s sacrifice or not, they remain there to this day: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, headquartered in Cherokee, N.C.

On November 25, 1838, Tsali was executed … They were ordered to kill him so they could stay in North Carolina. Tsali was killed. We are still here. Tsali is a Cherokee hero.

-Resolution of the Cherokee Tribal Council (Source)


Bilingual English/Cherokee street sign in Cherokee, N.C. (cc) image from Chuck “Caveman” Coker.

Nearby, you can hike, bike, or ride horses in the Tsali recreation area.

* Including the first man hanged at Plymouth Colony.

** Or at least, the most widely reported date. The sourcing is slightly inconsistent and ambiguous as to whether all the family turned itself in and was shot together, or whether Tsali’s three kinsmen were executed on a previous date with Tsali shot on this date.

† As cited by Paul Kutsche, “The Tsali Legend: Culture Heroes and Historiography,” Ethnohistory, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Autumn, 1963)

‡ These Cherokee would form a legion in the Confederate army which actually had the distinction — under then-Colonel William Thomas — of firing the last shots in the Civil War east of the Mississippi.

§ John Finger’s sacred cow-slaying take on the evolution of the Tsali legend in The Eastern Band of Cherokees: 1819-1900 is that only the family turned in voluntarily, but the army left Tsali alone once the younger men were killed, and the old man was mopped up (involuntarily) by the Cherokee themselves: “there was no noble sacrifice … [and] the capture and execution of Tsali little affected the right of the Qualla Cherokees to remain in North Carolina.”

That version would also resolve the apparent discrepancy in the date and number executed, with Tsali captured on the 24th and shot on the 25th.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,North Carolina,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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1847: The San Patricios

8 comments September 13th, 2009 Headsman

At 9:30 a.m. this day, as the American army raised the Stars & Stripes over Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American War, it simultaneously carried out a mass hanging of 30 Irish deserters who had gone over to Santa Anna — the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, or the San Patricios.

Irish had been migrating to the United States en masse even well before the Great Famine got rolling in 1845.

And for those of that great migration wave who wound up in the service fighting the Mexican-American War, there was a hint of deja vu — an Anglo and Protestant imperial power seizing land from a “black”* and Catholic neighbor?

Some of the Irish decided they were fighting for the bad guys, and switched sides.**

These were the plurality (though not necessarily the majority) of the couple hundred soldiers who comprised the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. German immigrants and other nationalities, along with American-born deserters (desertion during the Mexican-American War seems to have been rife), made up the balance.

Knowing full well the fate that would await them upon capture, the San Patricios were renowned for their ferocity in battle; at the hopeless Battle of Churubusco, they reputedly forced down a white flag that Mexican comrades were trying to hoist on three separate occasions.

Eventually, the ammunition ran out, and with it, the San Patricios’ luck.

Within days, courts-martial began handing out death sentences to almost the whole of the surviving unit. U.S. General Winfield Scott subsequently reduced a number of sentences, and those who had deserted before the war couldn’t legally be executed … but even the “lucky” ones suffered faint-inducing scourgings and branding on the cheeks with the letter “D”.

And 50 men more were still bound for the gallows.

Twenty hung in the days prior to this at two separate sites, but the Yanks’ piece de resistance was an orchestrated scene on the second day of the Battle of Chapultepec.

On September 13, 1847, at dawn, Harney ordered the thirty remaining prisoners to be brought forward. They stood on wagons with nooses placed around their necks. This included one man who had lost both legs and was unable to walk to his own execution. The site of these executions was within viewing distance of the site where the final battle — the outcome of which could not have been in doubt — was to be fought. There the sentenced soldiers watched until finally, at 9:30, the US victors raised the American flag atop Chapultepec Castle.† At that point the order was given, the wagons were pulled away and the men were all hanged.

It must be remembered that the San Patricios had been standing, bound hand and foot, each with his head in a noose, for nearly four hours in the burning Mexican sun. When Harney finally gave the order for the hangings to proceed, such was the relief that their sufferings were finally at an end that “some of the men actually cheered as the nooses tightened and the wagons pulled away.”

The cruelty of the punishments led a Mexican paper to spit,

these are the men that call us barbarians and tell us that they have come to civilize us … May they be damned by all Christians, as they are by God.

The San Patricios are still honored as heroes in Mexico.

They brand with hot irons the faces of the Irish deserters and then hang them from the gallows. The Saint Patrick Irish Battalion arrived with the invaders, but fought alongside the invaded.

From the north to Molino del Rey, the Irish made theirs the fate, ill fate, of the Mexicans. Many died defending the Churubusco monastery without ammunition. The prisoners, their faces burned, rock to and fro on the gallows. -Eduardo Galeano, Masks and Faces

* The “blackness” of the Irish and the process of their “becoming white” later in the 19th and 20th centuries is one of the more illustrative and well-documented case studies of race and racism as social rather than biological constructs.

** They weren’t alone in this opinion. Many hundreds of miles from the fighting, Henry David Thoreau famously landed in jail for tax resistance in 1846 largely because of his disgust with the war. From Civil Disobedience:

The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

Abraham Lincoln, then a young Whig delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, excoriated President James K. Polk for lying the nation into war.

† The capture of Chapultepec Castle, forgotten north of the Rio Grande, is still commemorated in Mexico for the heroism of six teenage cadets who died in its defense. The last of their number, Juan Escutia, leapt from the castle walls wrapped in the Mexican standard to prevent its capture.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Desertion,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Mexico,Military Crimes,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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