Tahlonteskee, whose name is roughly translated as “Common Disturber” or “Upsetter,” was the principal civil chief of the Arkansas Cherokee when they coalesced in the Arkansas River Valley about 1812. As the Arkansas Cherokee’s most respected member until his death in 1819, he represented them in their struggle to acquire legal control over lands in Arkansas and to secure relief from threats from both Osage and American settler incursions.
Son of a mixed-race couple, Tahlonteskee was Lower Town Cherokee (a group located primarily in what is now western South Carolina) and a supporter of efforts to stop American advances into Cherokee country after the Revolutionary War. In Cherokee opinion, Americans failed to keep previous agreements and treaty provisions and relentlessly encroached on Cherokee territory. Reciprocal raids created widespread tensions that were exacerbated by other factors, including social and political differences among Cherokee communities, and continuous American efforts to gain access to Cherokee lands. By the 1790s, some Cherokee were intermarried with white people and were deeply involved in mercantile and agricultural enterprises, while others struggled to maintain traditional Indian lifestyles.
Although he was involved in plans to confront the Americans militarily and was courted by Spanish Florida authorities in 1792–93 to embark on a war strategy, Tahlonteskee became involved in treaty-making after 1793, especially after he became a proponent of removal as a means of putting distance between the Cherokee and American settlers. He was one of several chiefs signing a 1798 treaty relinquishing some lands, and in the winter of 1805–06, he was member of a delegation to Washington that was pressured to grant more concessions for roads and settlements on Cherokee lands.
By 1806, the issues of land concessions and removal were so contentious that pro-removal leaders, including Tahlonteskee, were declared deposed from the governing council at a general Cherokee Council held at Hiwassee, near the modern border between Tennessee and North Carolina, that year.
By 1809, Tahlonteskee was ready to leave, declaring that over 1000 of his people would join him. The departure took place early in 1810 and included several hundred head of livestock, slaves, household items that included spinning wheels and looms used by women, and plows for reestablishing farming enterprises.
By June of 1810, Tahlonteskee’s group was living with other Cherokee in the St. Francis River valley, where they resided at several places in Arkansas and Missouri until early 1812, when they moved to the Arkansas River Valley. Within a short period of time, most Arkansas Cherokee were establishing farms and settlements along the Arkansas River between Point Remove Creek and the mouth of the Poteau River, near present day Fort Smith (Sebastian County). Tahlonteskee invited missionaries to establish a school to serve the Cherokee there, and he lobbied Washington and territorial authorities for a trading post and a military garrison. A government trade factory was relocated from the Memphis area to Spadra Bluffs, near modern day Russellville (Pope County), in 1818, and a garrison that became the site of Ft. Smith was established a year earlier.
The Arkansas Cherokee had three concerns that Tahlonteskee and his successor John Jolly, who was also his brother, were never able to resolve fully. The Osage, who had claimed north Arkansas as hunting territory, became a constant threat that led to years of reciprocal raids and murders. They also blocked Cherokee access to hunting grounds and salt sources on the southern plains. The Americans, meanwhile, never clearly established Cherokee land rights in Arkansas. Settlers and land speculators continually encroached on Cherokee improvements. An 1817 treaty meant to secure Cherokee boundaries in Arkansas carried additional provisions that were not acceptable to eastern Cherokee, renewing animosities between the two groups.
Tahlonteskee died in Arkansas in the spring of 1819. His brother continued working for Cherokee interests, but in 1828, the Cherokee agreed to give up their Arkansas settlements and move to Indian Territory, west of Arkansas and Missouri. As a measure of respect and remembrance, the newly-erected council house and community center at the mouth of the Illinois River in eastern Oklahoma was named Tahlonteskee. This became the central governing location for the former Arkansas Cherokee, who came to be known as the Old Settlers. The original council house still stands near Gore, Oklahoma, at the modern site of Tahlonteeskee, the first Cherokee Capitol in Indian Territory.
For additional information:
Bolton, S. Charles. Arkansas 1800–1860 : Remote and Restless. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
Everett, Dianna. The Texas Cherokees: A People between Two Fires, 1819–1840. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Hoig, Stanley W. The Cherokees and Their Chiefs. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
Washburn, Cephas. Reminiscences of the Indians. Edited by Hugh Park. Van Buren, AR: Press-Argus, 1955.
Ann M. Early
Arkansas Archeological Survey