Turniptown . . . an African-American Village in the Old Cherokee Nation near Ellijay, Georgia
Free Black families were living among the Cherokees long before the Trail of Tears!
Driving north from Ellijay, Georgia on the GA 515 expressway, one soon crosses a beautiful mountain creek . . . just before it enters the Ellijay River. It is Turniptown Creek. Off to the right is a stone historical monument, dedicated to the full blood Cherokee “Chief” White Path. It is stated that he was the chief of the large Cherokee village of Turniptown, which was located nearby. In a recent People of One Fire article on White Path, we revealed that there were apparently two Cherokee men named White Path. Neither were full blooded. However, the man living in the cabin that formerly sat where the highway runs now, was a Quaker from northeastern North Carolina, whose mother possibly had a Native American first name. His children left the Cherokee Nation before the Trail of Tears and always presented themselves as “white people.” In fact their family name was White! However, long overlooked documents, held by the State of Georgia since 1828, reveal an even bigger surprise concerning Turniptown.
In 1828, the State of Georgia declared all existing treaties between the United States and the Cherokee Nation, no longer valid and that all Cherokees were now subject to the laws of Georgia. No textbooks and certainly no television documentaries ever tell you the complete truth about this event. Georgia’s treatment of the Cherokees was vile, but there was a legal basis for the state terminating the current arrangement.
When Georgia signed an agreement with the United States government in 1796, ceding most of what is now Mississippi and Alabama, the federal government promised in writing to relocate the Cherokees to Alabama within 10 years. However, two years earlier, the federal government had given the Cherokees most of Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama in return for the Cherokees ceding most of their lands in Tennessee and North Carolina. The Cherokees had owned only a tiny section of extreme western North Carolina since 1763 anyway. Their eastern boundary ran through Robbinsville and Murphy, NC . . . 45 miles west of the current Cherokee Reservation.
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson formally renewed the agreement with Georgia in the Compact of 1802 . . . again promising the removal of Cherokees to Alabama. Once the Louisiana Purchase was made, the destination of the Cherokees was shifted to Arkansas. A sizable number of Cherokees sold their lands and moved to Arkansas in 1817. The Cherokee National Council declared them to be traitors. In 1822, Congress appropriated funds to begin negotiation of the removal of both the Cherokees and Creeks from Georgia.
Thirty-two years had passed since the agreement between the federal government and the state government of Georgia. Rather than relocating the Cherokees, the federal government had allowed the Cherokees to start construction of a “national capital” in 1827. Georgia wanted to build improved roads and a railroad to connect its plantations and farms with the Tennessee Valley and Midwest. Given the very sparse population density of the Cherokee Nation, it would have been quite easy for Cherokees and whites to live beside each other, but Southern planters wanted bottom lands, where the affluent Cherokees lived, in order to establish cotton plantations.
Georgia’s legal position was that the Cherokees were not indigenous to the state . . . had arrived in North Georgia during and after the American Revolution as uninvited squatters . . . and that an agreement between the federal government and a state government took precedence over a treaty between the federal government and an Indian tribe.
Georgia’s General Assembly hired land surveyors to lay out the Cherokee Nation in Land Lots, Districts and Sections. The surveyors were also instructed to provide detailed information on the real estate improvements, so their legal occupants could be reimbursed, plus the names of all adults, number and age of children and slaves, so it would be easy for the soldiers to round them up. The more professional of the surveyors also measured the buildings, described their construction and even drew three dimensional sketches. The area of cultivated fields was measured and the number of fruit and nut trees counted. Some surveyors even listed the types and numbers of livestock. The race of the adult occupants was typically listed as Cherokee, mixed breed, quadroon, some Cherokee, Creek, White, Spanish, Jew, mulatto or Negro. These surveyor’s reports are an extremely valuable resource for obtaining an accurate understanding of the region.
The surveyor for Turniptown used much cruder language than was typical for describing the hamlets in the Cherokee Nation. He also did not list the names or number of family members. What he did do is sketch the three types of houses found in Turniptown and write over the village . . . nigger houses. Apparently Amajor White (White Path) was actually a Quaker missionary, ministering to the needs of a community of free Blacks and runaway slaves within the Cherokee Nation.
The African American residents of the Old Cherokee Nation lost their homes and their farms just like all of their neighbors and were forced to go on the Trail of Tears. Most probably had at least some Native American or Cherokee heritage, but could not prove it since they had no birth certificates and were illiterate.
In 2007, the citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma amended their constitution to evict all persons of predominant African heritage, who could not prove Cherokee ancestry. Approximately, 2,800 persons were expelled. The excuse given the public was that these were all persons, descended from slaves freed at the end of the Civil War.
The archives of the State of Georgia tell a very different story.
Now you know.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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