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Chief Red Bird by K. B. Tankersley

RED BIRD (Dotsuwa)

and the Cherokee History of Clay County, Kentucky

Kenneth Barnett Tankersley, Ph.D.
Director, Native American Studies
Northern Kentucky University

published September 2006 in Appalachian Quarterly

Copyright 2006, All Photographs Copyrighted by Dr. Tankersley

Used by Permission

Red Bird the Word

In Cherokee, the word Red Bird is "dotsuwa," which is pronounced doh-joo-wah. While there are three different red songbirds that live in the Cherokee homeland—the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), summer tanager (Piranga rubra), and scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea)—only the northern cardinal is synonymous with the Cherokee word Red Bird. The importance of the Red Bird in Cherokee culture can be found in the creation stories.

Red Bird the Creation Story

Cherokee creation stories are about the traditional way of life from the Creator. They talk about the origin of all that is. They are told to help keep alive cultural history, tradition, and legends, and provide lifelong values, explain key concepts, religion, and beliefs, and illustrate ceremonies and dances. Most importantly, Cherokee creation stories teach right from wrong, the ideals of good and evil, and the ways of the Creator.
Anthropologist James Mooney recorded one of the best-known versions of the Red Bird creation story while he was working with the Eastern Band in North Carolina for the Bureau of American Ethnography, between 1887 and 1890 (Neely 1991). Swimmer, a traditional storyteller and healer, a Didanawisgi, told it to him. Although there are many rewordings of this story, which vary from one storyteller to the next, the essence remains the same.

 The Sun lived on the other side of the sky vault, but her daughter lived in the middle of the sky, directly above the earth, and every day as the Sun was climbing along the sky arch to the west she used to stop at her daughter's house for dinner. Now, the Sun hated the people on the earth, because they could never look straight at her without screwing up their faces. She said to her brother, the Moon, "My grandchildren are ugly; they grin all over their faces when they look at me." But the Moon said, "I like my younger brothers; I think they are very handsome "—because they always smiled pleasantly when they saw him in the sky at night, for his rays were milder. The Sun was jealous and planned to kill all the people, so every day when she got near her daughter's house she sent down such sultry rays that there was a great fever and the people died by hundreds, until everyone had lost some friend and there was fear that no one would be left. They went for help to the Little Men, who said the only way to save them was to kill the Sun. The Little Men made medicine and changed two men to snakes, the Spreading-adder and the Copperhead, and sent them to watch near the door of the daughter of the Sun to bite the old Sun when she came next day. They went together and bid near the house until the Sun came, but when the Spreading-adder was about to spring, the bright light blinded him and he could only spit out yellow slime, as he does to this day when he tries to bite. She called him a nasty thing and went by into the house, and the Copperhead crawled off without trying to do anything. So the people still died from the heat, and they went to the Little Men a second time for help. The Little Men made medicine again and changed one man into the great Uktena and another into the Rattlesnake and sent them to watch near the house and kill the old Sun when she came for dinner. They made the Uktena very large, with horns on his head, and everyone thought he would be sure to do the work, but the Rattlesnake was so quick and eager that he got ahead and coiled up just outside the house, and when the Sun's daughter opened the door to look out for her mother, he sprang up and bit her and she fell dead in the doorway. He forgot to wait for the old Sun, but went back to the people, and the Uktena was so very angry that he went back, too. Since then we pray to the rattlesnake and do not kill him, because he is kind and never tries to bite if we do not disturb him. The Uktena grew angrier all the time and very dangerous, so that if he even looked at a man, that man's family would die. After a long time the people held a council and decided that he was too dangerous to be with them, so they sent him up to Gälûñ'lätï, and he is there now. The Spreading-adder, the Copperhead, the Rattlesnake, and the Uktena were all men. When the Sun found her daughter dead, she went into the house and grieved, and the people did not die any more, but now the world was dark all the time, because the Sun would not come out. They went again to the Little Men, and these told them that if they wanted the Sun to come out again they must bring back her daughter from Tsûsginâ'ï, the Ghost country, in Us'ûñhi'yï, the Darkening land in the west. They chose seven men to go, and gave each a sourwood rod a handbreadth long. The Little Men told them they must take a box with them, and when they got to Tsûsginâ'ï they would find all the ghosts at a dance. They must stand outside the circle, and when the young woman passed in the dance they must strike her with the rods and she would fall to the ground. Then they must put her into the box and bring her back to her mother, but they must be very sure not to open the box, even a little way, until they were home again. They took the rods and a box and traveled seven days to the west until they came to the Darkening land. There were a great many people there, and they were having a dance just as if they were at home in the settlements. The young woman was in the outside circle, and as she swung around to where the seven men were standing, one struck her with his rod and she turned her head and saw him. As she came around the second time another touched her with his rod, and then another and another, until at the seventh round she fell out of the ring, and they put her into the box and closed the lid fast. The other ghosts seemed never to notice what had happened. They took up the box and started home toward the east. In a little while the girl came to life again and begged to be let out of the box, but they made no answer and went on. Soon she called again and said she was hungry, but still they made no answer and went on. After another while she spoke again and called for a drink and pleaded so that it was very hard to listen to her, but the men who carried the box said nothing and still went on. When at last they were very near home, she called again and begged them to raise the lid just a little, because she was smothering. They were afraid she was really dying now, so they lifted the lid a little to give her air, but as they did so there was a fluttering sound inside and something flew past them into the thicket and they heard a Red Bird cry, "kwish! Kwish! Kwish!" in the bushes. They shut down the lid and went on again to the settlements, but when they got there and opened the box it was empty. So we know the Red Bird is the daughter of the Sun, and if the men had kept the box closed, as the Little Men told them to do, they would have brought her home safely, and we could bring back our other friends also from the Ghost country, but now when they die we can never bring them back. The Sun had been glad when they started to the Ghost country, but when they came back without her daughter she grieved and cried, "My daughter, my daughter," and wept until her tears made a flood upon the earth, and the people were afraid the world would be drowned. They held another council, and sent their handsomest young men and women to amuse her so that she would stop crying. They danced before the Sun and sang their best songs, but for a long time she kept her face covered and paid no attention, until at last the drummer suddenly changed the song, when she lifted up her face, and was so pleased at the sight that she forgot her grief and smiled (Mooney 1900).

While the Cherokee creation story suggests that Red Bird is a female name, "daughter of the sun," Cherokee men are traditionally given womanly names from the Creation stories to remind them in life of their feminine side (e.g. Red Bird Tiger of the Cherokee Nation and Red Bird Smith of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee). Likewise, it is a reminder that Cherokee kinship is matrilineal, a unilineal descent rule in which you join your mother's clan at birth, a membership for life. After marriage, it is customary to reside with your wife's clan so your children will grow up with their clan, that is, their mother's family (see Neely 1991 and Perdue 1998).

The clan represents a lineage based on a common apical totem ancestor—Wild Potato (Ani Gategewi), Blue Paint (Ani Sahoni), Long Hair (Ani Gilohi), Red Paint (Ani Wodi), Bird (Ani Tsiskwa), Wolf (Ani Waya), and Deer (Ani Ahwi). Marriage, mating, or sexual relations with a member of the same clan is taboo and considered incest. The name Red Bird also reflects the union of two acceptable clans—Red Paint and Bird.


Cherokee History of Clay County, Kentucky

Red Bird was a Cherokee who lived and died in what is known today as Clay County, Kentucky, after and before European colonization, a time when the Cherokee Nation extended to the Ohio River in the north, the Cumberland River in the west, and the Great Kanawha River in the east. Indeed, the Cherokee have lived in Clay County, Kentucky since time immemorial (Mooney 1900).

Archaeologically, artifacts from every known time period, from the Ice Age to the present, have been found in Clay County. Most of the sites such as Sullen Possum (15Cy193) near Oneida, show that the land was occupied and re-occupied generation after generation for thousands of years. For this reason, the Sullen Possum site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (#93000996) in 1993.

The well-known "Warriors Trail," which ran from Florida to Michigan, and served as an important trade route for many thousands of years, passes through Clay County. Remnants of the trail survive to this day, running up Goose Creek to the mouth of Otter Creek, up Otter Creek, and down Stinking Creek. Other segments of the trail are present on the bench tops of mountains along the Middle Fork (White 1932).
Clay County provided the Cherokee with a bounty of game, fish, and natural resources, many considered sacred to this day. There was an extremely large natural gas seep with jets that were several feet high and burned day and night over an area of more than twenty-square-feet, creating a mystifying fog in the surrounding hills, places today known as Burning Springs and Fogertown. Along Goose Creek, in present day Manchester, there were licks; saline springs where salt was collected, ceremonies conducted, and the dead were buried (Rafinesque 1824). Red ochre, the mineral hematite, was used to make paint for ceremonies of life and death. It is also the namesake of the Cherokee family clan, Ani Wodi. Cherokee mined this ore in Clay County on a small parcel of land between the South and Middle Fork rivers (Bush 1807).


 Figure 1. Confluence area of Little Goose and Goose Creeks in Clay County, Kentucky. From K. B. Tankersley's Kentucky Cherokee: People of the Cave.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, Europeans began to encroach the vicinity of Clay County. In 1769, expeditions including those of Daniel Boone and John Stewart came into the area (Draper 1851). It was the first of Boone's many encounters with William Emory Jr., also known as Will, a redheaded Long Hair Clan Cherokee who frequently traveled with the Shawnee. Will was the son of England born William Emory Sr. and Cherokee born Mary Grant. She was the daughter of Long Hair Clan Cherokee Elizabeth Idui Tassel and Scotland born Ludovic Grant (Starr 1972).

Another expedition, led by James Knox in 1770, met with a band of Cherokee on the Rockcastle River. Knox and his men recognized their leader as Dick (pronounced Dix) who frequented the lead mines on the Holston River. Realizing Knox's party was in need of food, Dick suggested they cross Brushy Ridge and hunt for game in his river valley, known today as Dix River in Rockcastle County. He ended the conversation with Knox's party by saying, "kill it, and go home" (Collins 1847).

While initial contact with the Cherokee was peaceful, increasing numbers of Europeans strained relations and fighting broke out in February 1772 on Station Camp Creek (Collins 1847). With the increase in European encounters, the Cherokee had trouble maintaining control over Kentucky, especially in the land north of the Cumberland River valley.

Not long after the skirmish, Boone accepted the job as an Indian agent for the entrepreneur and British colonial judge Richard Henderson. On the eve of the American Revolution, they met along the Watauga River with an estimated 1,200 Cherokee representatives. Over a period of twenty days, Boone illegally negotiated the cession of all of the land in between the Kentucky, Ohio, and Cumberland rivers to the privately owned Transylvania Company. Despite the enormous turnout for the negotiation of the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, the names of only three tribal representatives appear on the document—Oconastoto (Great Warrior of Chota), Attacullacullah (Little Carpenter), and Savanooko Coronoh (Raven of Chota).

While Red Bird's name does not appear on the March 17, 1775, treaty, it is quite likely that he was present given the lands under consideration. The Treaty of Sycamore Shoals was in direct violation of Great Britain's Royal Proclamation of 1763. On behalf of England, the colony of Virginia, which then included Clay County, revoked the treaty. The illegality of the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals did not stop Boone and the Transylvania Company from creating roads, which opened the way for an unstoppable and limitless flow of European immigrants into Clay County and in direct conflict with the Cherokee. Ironically, it is the negotiation of this illegal treaty, which is depicted in a mural on the ceiling of the west lunette of the current Kentucky State Capital Building.

The Treaty of Sycamore Shoals was negotiated just one month before the beginning of the American Revolution. Many Cherokee supported the British throughout the war. Following the example of the Delaware Chief Coquetakeghton (White Eyes), who served as a guide and lieutenant colonel in the American army, a number of Cherokee living in Kentucky agreed to serve as scouts. At the decisive Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, there were Cherokee warriors from Kentucky fighting on both sides (Tanner 1978).

By 1782, individual Cherokee political alliances had become extremely complex. Some traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, to seek protection from the Spanish government, while others moved north and joined the Shawnee on the Scioto River where they received supplies and council from the British military. At the same time, representatives of the Wyandot, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi traveled to the Cumberland River valley to council with the Cherokee about joining them in an all out war against the United States (Tanner 1978).

The American Revolution ended on September 3, 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The Cherokee were not consulted and many did not recognize England's cession of Clay County to the United States. Following the treaty, Boone personally wanted the Wilderness Road to cut through the Cherokee's sacred ceremonial and burial ground on Goose Creek because he knew the economic importance of salt. While Boone was never given a contract to extend the Wilderness Road to Goose Creek, he was employed as a Deputy Surveyor of Lincoln County (today known as Clay County) to survey 50,000 acres of Cherokee land for Phillip Moore, James Moore, and John Donaldson. In 1784, with the assistance of William Brooks, Septimis Davis, and Edmund Callaway, Boone began surveying one mile from the mouth of Sextons Creek. As the surveys increased so did the conflict between the Europeans and Cherokee (White 1932).

To make matters worse, a group of Tennessee colonists illegally created the State of Franklin with John Sevier as their Governor. On May 31, 1785, Major Hugh Henry, Sevier, and other representatives of the self-declared state met with Cherokee Chiefs to negotiate the Treaty of Dumplin Creek, which promised to redefine and extend the Cherokee boundary line. Because the United States government did not recognize the State of Franklin (1785-1788), the Treaty of Dumplin Creek was deemed illegal. Sevier and his Franklinites engendered a spirit of distrust between all subsequent treaty-makers and the Cherokee, which led to many bloody conflicts and, ultimately, genocide, ethnocide, and ecocide in Kentucky.

The first official treaty between the United States and Cherokee Nation was negotiated at Hopewell, South Carolina, on November 28, 1785. The Hopewell Treaty included the cession of all land in Kentucky north of the Cumberland River and west of the Little South Fork, including Clay County. Although many Cherokee leaders signed the treaty, representatives from Kentucky did not, which led to a war between the new American settlers and the Cherokee living in the Cumberland River valley. They fiercely resented the intrusion of immigrants and were determined upon their expulsion or extermination.

Subsequently, many Cherokee warriors from Kentucky joined the northern confederacy of the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and Miami who continued to be supplied and encouraged by England to defeat the newly formed country. For the next thirteen years, they waged war upon the settlements in their land. Although most American history books do not include this war, it was the first to be declared by Congress in 1790. It has been referred to as President George Washington's Indian War—the struggle for the old northwest. In December of 1790, Kentucky settlers petitioned Congress to fight the Cherokee in whatever way they saw fit. A Board of War was appointed and on May 23, 1791, it authorized the destruction of Cherokee towns and food resources by burning homes and crops (Collins 1847).

In an attempt to make peace with the Cherokee, and redefine the new boundary lines in Kentucky, the United States negotiated the Treaty of Holston on July 2, 1791. It restated that the Cherokee land in Kentucky would be restricted to the area east of the Little South Fork and south of the Cumberland River. This time, the treaty was signed by Kentucky-born Cherokee Taltsuska (Doublehead), his brother, Gvnagadoga (Standing Turkey), and Doublehead's sister's son, Ganodisgi (John Watts Jr.), and witnessed by Thomas Kennedy, representative of Kentucky in the Territory of the United States South of the Ohio River. Unfortunately, the boundary line remained unclear and disputed by Cherokee not present at the treaty signing, and the fighting continued.

On March 28, 1795, Cherokee warriors attacked a group of Americans who were trespassing on sacred ceremonial land and burial sites located at the Goose Creek salt lick. One of them was killed and their horses were taken in hopes that the Americans would not return (White 1932). It was the last documented Cherokee skirmish in Kentucky (Collins 1847).

The Treaty of Greenville, negotiated in Ohio on August 3, 1795, ended the war. It was made between Major General Anthony Wayne, commander of the army of the United States, and the Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Miami, Eel River, Wea, Kickapoo, Piankeshaw, and Kaskaskia. Although the treaty tried to settle controversies and to restore harmony and friendly intercourse between the United States and all Indian Nations, the Cherokee were not permitted to attend. Cherokees who were living north of the Ohio River returned to their homes in southern Kentucky (Tanner 1978). Within the next decade, more than 300 Euroamerican males above the age of twenty-one moved into the land ceded by the treaty, including Clay County (White 1932).


Red Bird's Murder


 Figure 2. Mouth of Jack's Creek, Clay County, Kentucky, where Red Bird's cabin was located. From K. B. Tankersley's Kentucky Cherokee: People of the Cave.

Red Bird spent a good deal of his time with his friend Will in the vicinity of two rock-shelters on the east and west banks of the Kentucky River, a stretch of the upper headwaters, known today as the Red Bird River in Spurlock. The opposing shelters are strategically located in a narrow constriction of the valley overlooking a shallow river crossing where game animals can be easily dispatched. Both shelters are well marked with traditional Cherokee symbols—engraved images of the Wild Potato, Bird, Wolf, and Deer clans. It was in this setting that Red Bird and Will were murdered, brutally and maliciously tomahawked to death by two men from Tennessee, Edward Miller, known as Ned, and John Livingston, known as Jack (see Sevier 1796a, 1796b, 1797a, 1797b, 1797c, 1797d, 1797e, 1797f, 1797g, 1797h).

  Figure 3. The 1810 mass grave behind Yahoo Falls, which was exposed during logging operations in the 1930s. At the time, it was impossible to walk into the shelter without stepping on human remains weathering out of the grave. It is hauntingly similar to the size and shape of the mass grave of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. From K. B. Tankersley's Kentucky Cherokee: People of the Cave.  

  Figure 4. The location of a Cherokee pictograph in the large rockshelter behind Yahoo Falls. From K. B. Tankersley's Kentucky Cherokee: People of the Cave.

 Figure 5. A close up of the Cherokee pictograph in the rockshelter behind Yahoo Falls, which is the double "hu," a symbol of death and killing. Given that the hu was a symbol in Sequoyah's original syllabary, the pictorgraph post-dates the massacre. Moss is growing from the organic pigment, possibly charcoal, and will eventually destroy it. From K. B. Tankersley's Kentucky Cherokee: People of the Cave.


Figure 6. The entrance to the rockshelter near the site where Red Bird and Jack were murdered, and thought to be their grave site. This photo was taken in 1969 prior to vandalism. From K. B. Tankersley's Kentucky Cherokee: People of the Cave.

 Figure 7. The entrance to the rockshelter near the site where Red Bird and Jack were murdered, and thought to be their grave site. This photo was taken after recent vandalism. From K. B. Tankersley's Kentucky Cherokee: People of the Cave.

Livingston lost family members at the hands of the redheaded Red Paint Clan Cherokee Robert Benge, also known as Ganvhidv Gasgilo (The Bench). He was the son of John Benge and Wurteh Watts; he was a brother of Sequoyah, and the first cousin of King David Benge who lived near Red Bird's shelters in Clay County (Wilson 1978).

In 1788, Benge successfully defeated John Sevier during his attack on the Cherokee village of Ustali on the Hiwassee River in North Carolina. It was during this battle that Thomas Christian coined the term "nits make lice" as he brutally murdered a Cherokee child. It was an incident that Benge never forgot (Summers 1903).

Benge repeatedly attacked the families of Sevier's militiamen, including the Livingston homestead near Moccasin Gap, Virginia (King 1976). Paul Livingston and his brother Henry Livingston, sons of Sarah and William Todd Livingston, were officers in the Holsten Militia and thus considered enemies of the Cherokee. Benge's first attack occurred on August 26, 1791, which resulted in the capture and death of Mrs. Livingston, the daughter of Elijah and Nancy Ferris, who were also killed. The second attack occurred on July 17, 1793, when Benge captured a woman enslaved by Paul Livingston. The final and best-documented attack began about 10 AM, on April 6, 1794 (Summers 1903).
Benge and a party of Cherokee warriors tomahawked Sarah Livingston and three children, and took Elizabeth Livingston, wife of Peter Livingston, her sister Susannah, known as Sukey, and their surviving children as well as all of the adults and children enslaved by the Livingston family. On April 9, 1794, Lieutenant Vincent Hobbs of the Lee County Militia hunted down and killed Robert Benge and freed his captives (King 1976).

John Russell and his men, who were traveling with Hobbs, pursued Benge's surviving Cherokee warriors to the shallow river crossing in the headwaters of the Kentucky River, in present day Clay County. Russell and his men took refuge nearby and shot to death two of the escaping Cherokee warriors and badly wounded another as they tried to cross the river (Summers 1903). Since then, the site was known as a place where the Cherokee could be found and killed. It was where John (Jack) Livingston and Edward (Ned) Miller found and cruelly murdered Red Bird and Will.

Red Bird, continued, p. 1, 2, 3