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Book No. 95

To first story in the book press: 4142

To last story in the book press: 4267

Myths of the Cherokee

Mooney James

Mooney James, Myths of the Cherokee, From Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98, Part I, 1900


By James Mooney

From Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98, Part I. [1900]









The myths given in this paper are part of a large body of material collected among the Cherokee, chiefly in successive field seasons from 1887 to 1890, inclusive, and comprising more or less extensive notes, together with original Cherokee manuscripts, relating to the history, archeology, geographic nomenclature, personal names, botany, medicine, arts, home life, religion, songs, ceremonies, and language of the tribe. It is intended that this material shall appear from time to time in a series of papers which, when finally brought together, shall constitute a monograph upon the Cherokee Indians. This paper may be considered the first of the series, all that has hitherto appeared being a short paper upon the sacred formulas of the tribe, published in the Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau in 1891 and containing a synopsis of the Cherokee medico-religious theory, with twenty-eight specimens selected from a body of about six hundred ritual formulas written down in the Cherokee language and alphabet by former doctors of the tribe and constituting altogether the largest body of aboriginal American literature in existence.

Although the Cherokee are probably the largest and most important tribe in the United States, having their own national government and numbering at any time in their history from 20,000 to 25,000 persons, almost nothing has yet been written of their history or general ethnology, as compared with the literature of such northern tribes as the Delawares, the Iroquois, or the Ojibwa. The difference is due to historical reasons which need not be discussed here.

It might seem at first thought that the Cherokee, with their civilized code of laws, their national press, their schools and seminaries, are so far advanced along the white man’s road as to offer but little inducement for ethnologic study. This is largely true of those in the Indian Territory, with whom the enforced deportation, two generations ago, from accustomed scenes and surroundings did more at a single stroke to obliterate Indian ideas than could have been accomplished by fifty years of slow development. There remained behind, however, in the heart of the Carolina mountains, a considerable body, outnumbering today such well-known western tribes as the Omaha, Pawnee, Comanche, and Kiowa, and it is among these, the old conservative Kitu′hwa element, that the ancient things have been preserved. Mountaineers guard well the past, and in the secluded forests of Nantahala and Oconaluftee, far away from the main-traveled road of modern progress, the Cherokee priest still treasures the legends and repeats the mystic rituals handed down from his ancestors. There is change indeed in dress and outward seeming, but the heart of the Indian is still his own.

For this and other reasons much the greater portion of the material herein contained has been procured among the East Cherokee living upon the Qualla reservation in western North Carolina and in various detached settlements between the reservation and the Tennessee line. This has been supplemented with information obtained in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory, chiefly from old men and women who had emigrated from what is now Tennessee and Georgia, and who consequently had a better local knowledge of these sections, as well as of the history of the western Nation, than is possessed by their kindred in Carolina. The historical matter and the parallels are, of course, collated chiefly from printed sources, but the myths proper, with but few exceptions, are from original investigation.

The historical sketch must be understood as distinctly a sketch, not a detailed narrative, for which there is not space in the present paper. The Cherokee have made deep impress upon the history of the southern states, and no more has been attempted here than to give the leading facts in connected sequence. As the history of the Nation after the removal to the West and the reorganization in Indian Territory presents but few points of ethnologic interest, it has been but briefly treated. On the other hand the affairs of the eastern band have been discussed at some length, for the reason that so little concerning this remnant is to be found in print.

One of the chief purposes of ethnologic study is to trace the development of human thought under varying conditions of race and environment, the result showing always that primitive man is essentially the same in every part of the world. With this object in view a considerable space has been devoted to parallels drawn almost entirely from Indian tribes of the United States and British America. For the southern countries there is but little trustworthy material, and to extend the inquiry to the eastern continent and the islands of the sea would be to invite an endless task.

The author desires to return thanks for many favors from the Library of Congress, the Geological Survey, and the Smithsonian Institution, and for much courteous assistance and friendly suggestion from the officers and staff of the Bureau of American Ethnology; and to acknowledge his indebtedness to the late Chief N. J. Smith and family for services as interpreter and for kind hospitality during successive field seasons; to Agent H. W. Spray and wife for unvarying kindness manifested in many helpful ways; to Mr William Harden, librarian, and the Georgia State Historical Society, for facilities in consulting documents at Savannah, Georgia; to the late Col. W. H. Thomas; Lieut. Col. W. W. Stringfield, of Waynesville; Capt. James W. Terrell, of Webster; Mrs A. C. Avery and Dr P. L. Murphy, of Morganton; Mr W. A. Fair, of Lincolnton; the late Maj. James Bryson, of Dillsboro; Mr H. G. Trotter, of Franklin; Mr Sibbald Smith, of Cherokee; Maj. R. C. Jackson, of Smithwood, Tennessee; Mr D. R. Dunn, of Conasauga, Tennessee; the late Col. Z. A. Zile, of Atlanta; Mr L. M. Greer, of Ellijay, Georgia; Mr Thomas Robinson, of Portland, Maine; Mr Allen Ross, Mr W. T. Canup, editor of the Indian Arrow, and the officers of the Cherokee Nation, Tahlequah, Indian Territory; Dr D. T. Day, United States Geological Survey, Washington, D. C., and Prof. G. M. Bowers, of the United States Fish Commission, for valuable oral information, letters, clippings, and photographs; to Maj. J. Adger Smyth, of Charleston, S. C., for documentary material; to Mr Stansbury Hagar and the late Robert Grant Haliburton, of Brooklyn, N. Y., for the use of valuable manuscript notes upon Cherokee stellar legends; to Miss A. M. Brooks for the use of valuable Spanish document copies and translations entrusted to the Bureau of American Ethnology; to Mr James Blythe, interpreter during a great part of the time spent by the author in the field; and to various Cherokee and other informants mentioned in the body of the work, from whom the material was obtained.


Cherokee myths may be roughly classified as sacred myths, animal stories, local legends, and historical traditions. To the first class belong the genesis stories, dealing with the creation of the world, the nature of the heavenly bodies and elemental forces, the origin of life and death, the spirit world and the invisible beings, the ancient monsters, and the hero-gods. It is almost certain that most of the myths of this class are but disjointed fragments of an original complete genesis and migration legend, which is now lost. With nearly every tribe that has been studied we find such a sacred legend, preserved by the priests of the tradition, who alone are privileged to recite and explain it, and dealing with the origin and wanderings of the people from the beginning of the world to the final settlement of the tribe in its home territory. Among the best examples of such genesis traditions are those recorded in the Walam Olum of the Delawares and Matthews’ Navaho Origin Legend. Others may be found in Cusick’s History of the Six Nations, Gatschet’s Creek Migration Legend, and the author’s Jicarilla Genesis. [1] The Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other plains tribes are known to have similar genesis myths.

The former existence of such a national legend among the Cherokee is confirmed by Haywood, writing in 1823, who states on information obtained from a principal man in the tribe that they had once a long oration, then nearly forgotten, which recounted the history of their wanderings from the time when they had been first placed upon the earth by some superior power from above. Up to about the middle of the last century this tradition was still recited at the annual Green-corn dance. Unlike most Indians the Cherokee are not conservative, and even before the Revolution had so far lost their primitive customs from contact with the whites that Adair, in 1775, calls them a nest of apostate hornets who for more than thirty years had been fast degenerating. [2] Whatever it may have been, their national legend is now lost forever. The secret organizations that must have existed formerly among the priesthood have also disappeared, and each man now works independently according to his individual gifts and knowledge.

The sacred myths were not for every one, but only those might hear who observed the proper form and ceremony. When John Ax and other old men were boys, now some eighty years ago, the myth-keepers and priests were accustomed to meet together at night in the âsĭ, or low-built log sleeping house, to recite the traditions and discuss their secret knowledge. At times those who desired instruction from an adept in the sacred lore of the tribe met him by appointment in the âsĭ, where they sat up all night talking, with only the light of a small fire burning in the middle of the floor. At daybreak the whole party went down to the running stream, where the pupils or hearers of the myths stripped themselves, and were scratched upon their naked skin with a bone-tooth comb in the hands of the priest, after which they waded out, facing the rising sun, and dipped seven times under the water, while the priest recited prayers upon the bank. This purificatory rite, observed more than a century ago by Adair, is also a part of the ceremonial of the ballplay, the Green-corn dance, and, in fact, every important ritual performance. Before beginning one of the stories of the sacred class the informant would sometimes suggest jokingly that the author first submit to being scratched and “go to water.”

As a special privilege a boy was sometimes admitted to the âsĭ on such occasions, to tend the fire, and thus had the opportunity to listen to the stories and learn something of the secret rites. In this way John Ax gained much of his knowledge, although he does not claim to be an adept. As he describes it, the fire intended to heat the room – for the nights are cold in the Cherokee mountains – was built upon the ground in the center of the small house, which was not high enough to permit a standing position, while the occupants sat in a circle around it. In front of the fire was placed a large flat rock, and near it a pile of pine knots or splints. When the fire had burned down to a bed of coals, the boy lighted one or two of the pine knots and laid them upon the rock, where they blazed with a bright light until nearly consumed, when others were laid upon them, and so on until daybreak.

Sometimes the pine splints were set up crosswise, thus, ××××, in a circle around the fire, with a break at the eastern side. They were then lighted from one end and burned gradually around the circle, fresh splints being set up behind as those in front were consumed. Lawson describes this identical custom as witnessed at a dance among the Waxhaw, on Catawba river, in 1701:

Now, to return to our state house, whither we were invited by the grandees. As soon as we came into it, they placed our Englishmen near the king, it being my fortune to sit next him, having his great general or war captain on my other hand. The house is as dark as a dungeon, and as hot as one of the Dutch stoves in Holland. They had made a circular fire of split canes in the middle of the house, it was one man’s employment to add more split reeds to the one end as it consumed at the other, there being a small vacancy left to supply it with fuel. [3]

To the second class belong the shorter animal myths, which have lost whatever sacred character they may once have had, and are told now merely as humorous explanations of certain animal peculiarities. While the sacred myths have a constant bearing upon formulistic prayers and observances, it is only in rare instances that any rite or custom is based upon an animal myth. Moreover, the sacred myths are known as a rule only to the professional priests or conjurers, while the shorter animal stories are more or less familiar to nearly everyone and are found in almost identical form among Cherokee, Creeks, and other southern tribes.

The animals of the Cherokee myths, like the traditional hero-gods, were larger and of more perfect type than their present representatives. They had chiefs, councils, and townhouses, mingled with human kind upon terms of perfect equality and spoke the same language. In some unexplained manner they finally left this lower world and ascended to Galûñ′lătĭ, the world above, where they still exist. The removal was not simultaneous, but each animal chose his own time. The animals that we know, small in size and poor in intellect, came upon the earth later, and are not the descendants of the mythic animals, but only weak imitations. In one or two special cases, however, the present creature is the descendant of a former monster. Trees and plants also were alive and could talk in the old days, and had their place in council, but do not figure prominently in the myths.

Each animal had his appointed station and duty. Thus, the Walâ′sĭ frog was the marshal and leader in the council, while the Rabbit was the messenger to carry all public announcements, and usually led the dance besides. He was also the great trickster and mischief maker, a character which he bears in eastern and southern Indian myth generally, as well as in the southern negro stories. The bear figures as having been originally a man, with human form and nature.

As with other tribes and countries, almost every prominent rock and mountain, every deep bend in the river, in the old Cherokee country has its accompanying legend. It may be a little story that can be told in a paragraph, to account for some natural feature, or it may be one chapter of a myth that has its sequel in a mountain a hundred miles away. As is usual when a people has lived for a long time in the same country, nearly every important myth is localized, thus assuming more definite character.

There is the usual number of anecdotes and stories of personal adventure, some of them irredeemably vulgar, but historical traditions are strangely wanting. The authentic records of unlettered peoples are short at best, seldom going back much farther than the memories of their oldest men; and although the Cherokee have been the most important of the southern tribes, making wars and treaties for three centuries with Spanish, English, French, and Americans, Iroquois, Shawano, Catawba, and Creeks, there is little evidence of the fact in their traditions. This condition may be due in part to the temper of the Cherokee mind, which, as has been already stated, is accustomed to look forward to new things rather than to dwell upon the past. The first Cherokee war, with its stories of Âganstâ′ta and Ătă-gûl′kălû′, is absolutely forgotten. Of the long Revolutionary struggle they have hardly a recollection, although they were constantly fighting throughout the whole period and for several years after, and at one time were brought to the verge of ruin by four concerted expeditions, which ravaged their country simultaneously from different directions and destroyed almost every one of their towns. Even the Creek war, in which many of their warriors took a prominent part, was already nearly forgotten some years ago. Beyond a few stories of encounters with the Shawano and Iroquois there is hardly anything that can be called history until well within the present century.

With some tribes the winter season and the night are the time for telling stories, but to the Cherokee all times are alike. As our grandmothers begin, “Once upon a time,” so the Cherokee story-teller introduces his narrative by saying: “This is what the old men told me when I was a boy.”

Not all tell the same stories, for in tribal lore, as in all other sorts of knowledge, we find specialists. Some common minds take note only of common things – little stories of the rabbit, the terrapin, and the others, told to point a joke or amuse a child. Others dwell upon the wonderful and supernatural – Tsul'kălû′, Tsuwe′năhĭ, and the Thunderers – and those sacred things to be told only with prayer and purification. Then, again, there are still a few old warriors who live in the memory of heroic days when there were wars with the Seneca and the Shawano, and these men are the historians of the tribe and the conservators of its antiquities.

The question of the origin of myths is one which affords abundant opportunity for ingenious theories in the absence of any possibility of proof. Those of the Cherokee are too far broken down ever to be woven together again into any long-connected origin legend, such as we find with some tribes, although a few still exhibit a certain sequence which indicates that they once formed component parts of a cycle. From the prominence of the rabbit in the animal stories, as well as in those found among the southern negroes, an effort has been made to establish for them a negro origin, regardless of the fact that the rabbit – the Great White Rabbit – is the hero-god, trickster, and wonder-worker of all the tribes east of the Mississippi from Hudson bay to the Gulf. In European folklore also the rabbit is regarded as something uncanny and half-supernatural, and even in far-off Korea he is the central figure in the animal myths. Just why this should be so is a question that may be left to the theorist to decide. Among the Algonquian tribes the name, wabos, seems to have been confounded with that of the dawn, waban, so that the Great White Rabbit is really the incarnation of the eastern dawn that brings light and life and drives away the dark shadows which have held the world in chains. The animal itself seems to be regarded by the Indians as the fitting type of defenseless weakness protected and made safe by constantly alert vigilance, and with a disposition, moreover, for turning up at unexpected moments. The same characteristics would appeal as strongly to the primitive mind of the negro. The very expression which Harris puts into the mouth of Uncle Remus, “In dem days Brer Rabbit en his fambly wuz at the head er de gang w’en enny racket wus en hand,” [4] was paraphrased in the Cherokee language by Suyeta in introducing his first rabbit story: “Tsi′stu wuliga′nătûtûñ′ une′gutsătû′ gese′ĭ – the Rabbit was the leader of them all in mischief.” The expression struck the author so forcibly that the words were recorded as spoken.

In regard to the contact between the two races, by which such stories could be borrowed from one by the other, it is not commonly known that in all the southern colonies Indian slaves were bought and sold and kept in servitude and worked in the fields side by side with negroes up to the time of the Revolution. Not to go back to the Spanish period, when such things were the order of the day, we find the Cherokee as early as 1693 complaining that their people were being kidnaped by slave hunters. Hundreds of captured Tuscarora and nearly the whole tribe of the Appalachee were distributed as slaves among the Carolina colonists in the early part of the eighteenth century, while the Natchez and others shared a similar fate in Louisiana, and as late at least as 1776 Cherokee prisoners of war were still sold to the highest bidder for the same purpose. At one time it was charged against the governor of South Carolina that he was provoking a general Indian war by his encouragement of slave hunts. Furthermore, as the coast tribes dwindled they were compelled to associate and intermarry with the negroes until they finally lost their identity and were classed with that race, so that a considerable proportion of the blood of the southern negroes is unquestionably Indian.

The negro, with his genius for imitation and his love for stories, especially of the comic variety, must undoubtedly have absorbed much from the Indian in this way, while on the other hand the Indian, with his pride of conservatism and his contempt for a subject race, would have taken but little from the negro, and that little could not easily have found its way back to the free tribes. Some of these animal stories are common to widely separated tribes among whom there can be no suspicion of negro influences. Thus the famous “tar baby” story has variants, not only among the Cherokee, but also in New Mexico, Washington, and southern Alaska – wherever, in fact, the piñon or the pine supplies enough gum to be molded into a ball for Indian uses – while the incident of the Rabbit dining the Bear is found with nearly every tribe from Nova Scotia to the Pacific. The idea that such stories are necessarily of negro origin is due largely to the common but mistaken notion that the Indian has no sense of humor.

In many cases it is not necessary to assume borrowing from either side, the myths being such as would naturally spring up in any part of the world among primitive people accustomed to observe the characteristics of animals, which their religious system regarded as differing in no essential from human kind, save only in outward form. Thus in Europe and America the terrapin has been accepted as the type of plodding slowness, while the rabbit, with his sudden dash, or the deer with his bounding stride, is the type of speed. What more natural than that the story-teller should set one to race against the other, with the victory in favor of the patient striver against the self-confident boaster? The idea of a hungry wolf or other beast of prey luring his victims by the promise of a new song or dance, during which they must close their eyes, is also one that would easily occur among any primitive people whose chief pastime is dancing.[5]

On the other hand, such a conception as that of Flint and the Rabbit could only be the outgrowth of a special cosmogonic theology, though now indeed broken and degraded, and it is probable that many myths told now only for amusement are really worn down fragments of ancient sacred traditions. Thus the story just noted appears in a different dress among the Iroquois as a part of their great creation myth. The Cherokee being a detached tribe of the Iroquois, we may expect to find among the latter, if it be not already too late, the explanation and more perfect statement of some things which are obscure in the Cherokee myths. It must not be forgotten, however, that the Indian, like other men, does some things for simple amusement, and it is useless to look for occult meanings where none exist.

Except as to the local traditions and a few others which are obviously the direct outgrowth of Cherokee conditions, it is impossible to fix a definite starting point for the myths. It would be unwise to assert that even the majority of them originated within the tribe. The Cherokee have strains of Creek, Catawba, Uchee, Natchez, Iroquois, Osage, and Shawano blood, and such admixture implies contact more or less intimate and continued. Indians are great wanderers, and a myth can travel as far as a redstone pipe or a string of wampum. It was customary, as it still is to a limited extent in the West, for large parties, sometimes even a whole band or village, to make long visits to other tribes, dancing, feasting, trading, and exchanging stories with their friends for weeks or months at a time, with the expectation that their hosts would return the visit within the next summer. Regular trade routes crossed the continent from east to west and from north to south, and when the subject has been fully investigated it will be found that this intertribal commerce was as constant and well recognized a part of Indian life as is our own railroad traffic today. The very existence of a trade jargon or a sign language is proof of intertribal relations over wide areas. Their political alliances also were often far-reaching, for Pontiac welded into a warlike confederacy all the tribes from the Atlantic border to the head of the Mississippi, while the emissaries of the Shawano prophet carried the story of his revelations throughout the whole region from the Florida coast to the Saskatchewan.

In view of these facts it is as useless to attempt to trace the origin of every myth as to claim a Cherokee authorship for them all. From what we know of the character of the Shawano, their tendency toward the ceremonial and the mystic, and their close relations with the Cherokee, it may be inferred that some of the myths originated with that tribe. We should naturally expect also to find close correspondence with the myths of the Creeks and other southern tribes within the former area of the Mobilian trade language. The localization at home of all the more important myths indicates a long residence in the country. As the majority of those here given belong to the half dozen counties still familiar to the East Cherokee, we may guess how many attached to the ancient territory of the tribe are now irrecoverably lost.

Contact with the white race seems to have produced very little impression on the tribal mythology, and not more than three or four stories current among the Cherokee can be assigned to a Caucasian source. These have not been reproduced here, for the reason that they are plainly European, and the author has chosen not to follow the example of some collectors who have assumed that every tale told in an Indian language is necessarily an Indian story. Scores recorded in collections from the North and West are nothing more than variants from the celebrated Hausmärchen, as told by French trappers and voyageurs to their Indian campmates and halfbreed children. It might perhaps be thought that missionary influence would be evident in the genesis tradition, but such is not the case. The Bible story kills the Indian tradition, and there is no amalgamation. It is hardly necessary to say that stories of a great fish which swallows a man and of a great flood which destroys a people are found the world over. The supposed Cherokee hero-god, Wâsi, described by one writer as so remarkably resembling the great Hebrew lawgiver is in fact that great teacher himself, Wâsi being the Cherokee approximate for Moses, and the good missionary who first recorded the story was simply listening to a chapter taken by his convert from the Cherokee testament. The whole primitive pantheon of the Cherokee is still preserved in their sacred formulas.

As compared with those from some other tribes the Cherokee myths are clean. For picturesque imagination and wealth of detail they rank high, and some of the wonder stories may challenge those of Europe and India. The numerous parallels furnished will serve to indicate their relation to the general Indian system. Unless otherwise noted, every myth here given has been obtained directly from the Indians, and in nearly every case has been verified from several sources.

“I know not how the truth may be,

I tell the tale as ’twas told to me.”

First and chief in the list of story tellers comes A'yûñ′inĭ, “Swimmer,” from whom nearly three-fourths of the whole number were originally obtained, together with nearly as large a proportion of the whole body of Cherokee material now in possession of the author. The collection could not have been made without his help, and now that he is gone it can never be duplicated. Born about 1835, shortly before the Removal, he grew up under the instruction of masters to be a priest, doctor, and keeper of tradition, so that he was recognized as an authority throughout the band and by such a competent outside judge as Colonel Thomas. He served through the war as second sergeant of the Cherokee Company A, Sixty-ninth North Carolina Confederate Infantry, Thomas Legion. He was prominent in the local affairs of the band, and no Green-corn dance, ballplay, or other tribal function was ever considered complete without his presence and active assistance. A genuine aboriginal antiquarian and patriot, proud of his people and their ancient system, he took delight in recording in his native alphabet the songs and sacred formulas of priests and dancers and the names of medicinal plants and the prescriptions with which they were compounded, while his mind was a storehouse of Indian tradition. To a happy descriptive style he added a musical voice for the songs and a peculiar faculty for imitating the characteristic cry of bird or beast, so that to listen to one of his recitals was often a pleasure in itself, even to one who understood not a word of the language. He spoke no English, and to the day of his death clung to the moccasin and turban, together with the rattle, his badge of authority. He died in March, 1899, aged about sixty-five, and was buried like a true Cherokee on the slope of a forest-clad mountain. Peace to his ashes and sorrow for his going, for with him perished half the tradition of a people.

Next in order comes the name of Ităgû′năhĭ, better known as John Ax, born about 1800 and now consequently just touching the century mark, being the oldest man of the band. He has a distinct recollection of the Creek war, at which time he was about twelve years of age, and was already married and a father when the lands east of Nantahala were sold by the treaty of 1819. Although not a professional priest or doctor, he was recognized, before age had dulled his faculties, as an authority upon all relating to tribal custom, and was an expert in the making of rattles, wands, and other ceremonial paraphernalia. Of a poetic and imaginative temperament, he cared most for the wonder stories, of the giant Tsulʻkălû′, of the great Uktena or of the invisible spirit people, but he had also a keen appreciation of the humorous animal stories. He speaks no English, and with his erect spare figure and piercing eye is a fine specimen of the old-time Indian. Notwithstanding his great age he walked without other assistance than his stick to the last ball game, where he watched every run with the closest interest, and would have attended the dance the night before but for the interposition of friends.

Suyeta, “The Chosen One,” who preaches regularly as a Baptist minister to an Indian congregation, does not deal much with the Indian supernatural, perhaps through deference to his clerical obligations, but has a good memory and liking for rabbit stories and others of the same class. He served in the Confederate army during the war as fourth sergeant in Company A, of the Sixty-ninth North Carolina, and is now a well-preserved man of about sixty-two. He speaks no English, but by an ingenious system of his own has learned to use a concordance for verifying references in his Cherokee bible. He is also a first-class carpenter and mason.

Another principal informant was Ta′gwădihĭ′, “Catawba-killer,” of Cheowa, who died a few years ago, aged about seventy. He was a doctor and made no claim to special knowledge of myths or ceremonials, but was able to furnish several valuable stories, besides confirmatory evidence for a large number obtained from other sources.

Besides these may be named, among the East Cherokee, the late Chief N. J. Smith; Salâ′lĭ, mentioned elsewhere, who died about 1895; Tsĕsa′nĭ or Jessan, who also served in the war; Ayâ′sta, one of the principal conservatives among the women; and James and David Blythe, younger men of mixed blood, with an English education, but inheritors of a large share of Indian lore from their father, who was a recognized leader of ceremony.

Among informants in the western Cherokee Nation the principal was James D. Wafford, known to the Indians as Tsuskwănûñ′năwa′tă, “Worn-out-blanket,” a mixed-blood speaking and writing both languages, born in the old Cherokee Nation near the site of the present Clarkesville, Georgia, in 1806, and dying when about ninety years of age at his home in the eastern part of the Cherokee Nation, adjoining the Seneca reservation. The name figures prominently in the early history of North Carolina and Georgia. His grandfather, Colonel Wafford, was an officer in the American Revolutionary army, and shortly after the treaty of Hopewell, in 1785, established a colony known as “Wafford’s settlement,” in upper Georgia, on territory which was afterward found to be within the Indian boundary and was acquired by special treaty purchase in 1804. His name is appended, as witness for the state of Georgia, to the treaty of Holston, in 1794. [6] On his mother’s side Mr Wafford was of mixed Cherokee, Natchez, and white blood, she being a cousin of Sequoya. He was also remotely connected with Cornelius Dougherty, the first trader established among the Cherokee. In the course of his long life he filled many positions of trust and honor among his people. In his youth he attended the mission school at Valleytown under Reverend Evan Jones, and just before the adoption of the Cherokee alphabet he finished the translation into phonetic Cherokee spelling of a Sunday school speller noted in Pilling’s Iroquoian Bibliography. In 1824 he was the census enumerator for that district of the Cherokee Nation embracing upper Hiwassee river, in North Carolina, with Nottely and Toccoa in the adjoining portion of Georgia. His fund of Cherokee geographic information thus acquired was found to be invaluable. He was one of the two commanders of the largest detachment of emigrants at the time of the removal, and his name appears as a councilor for the western Nation in the Cherokee Almanac for 1846. When employed by the author at Tahlequah in 1891 his mind was still clear and his memory keen. Being of practical bent, he was concerned chiefly with tribal history, geography, linguistics, and every-day life and custom, on all of which subjects his knowledge was exact and detailed, but there were few myths for which he was not able to furnish confirmatory testimony. Despite his education he was a firm believer in the Nûñnĕ′hĭ, and several of the best legends connected with them were obtained from him. His death takes from the Cherokee one of the last connecting links between the present and the past.

[1] American Anthropologist, vol. XI, July, 1898.

[2] Adair, American Indians, p. 81, 1775.

[3] Lawson, Carolina, 67–68, reprint 1860.

[4] Harris, J. C., Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, p. 29; New York, 1886

[5] For a presentation of the African and European argument see Harris, Nights with Uncle Remus, introduction, 1883; and Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, introduction, 1886; Gerber, Uncle Remus Traced to the Old World, in Journal of American Folklore, VI, p. 23, October, 1893. In regard to tribal dissemination of myths see Boas, Dissemination of Tales among the Natives of North America, in Journal of American Folklore, IV, p. 12, January, 1891; The Growth of Indian Mythologies, in the same journal, IX, p. 32, January 1896; Northern Elements in the Mythology of the Navaho, in American Anthropologist, X, p. 11, November, 1897; introduction to Teit’s Traditions of the Thompson River Indians, 1898. Dr Boas has probably devoted more study to the subject than any other anthropologist, and his personal observations include tribes from the Arctic regions to the Columbia.

[6] See contemporary notice in the Historical Sketch.

Migration legend – In Buttrick’s Antiquities [1] we find some notice of this migration legend, which, as given by the missionary, is unfortunately so badly mixed up with the Bible story that it is almost impossible to isolate the genuine. He starts them under the leadership of their “greatest prophet,” Wâsĭ – who is simply Moses – in search of a far distant country where they may be safe from their enemies. Who these enemies are, or in what quarter they live, is not stated. Soon after setting out they come to a great water, which Wâsĭ strikes with his staff; the water divides so that they pass through safely, and then rolls back and prevents pursuit by their enemies. They then enter a wilderness and come to a mountain, and we are treated to the Bible story of Sinai and the tables of stone. Here also they receive sacred fire from heaven, which thereafter they carry with them until the house in which it is kept is at last destroyed by a hostile invasion. This portion of the myth seems to be genuine Indian (see notes to number 111, “The Mounds and the Constant Fire”).

In this journey “the tribes marched separately and also the clans. The clans were distinguished by having feathers of different colors fastened to their ears. They had two great standards, one white and one red. The white standard was under the control of the priests, and used for civil purposes; but the red standard was under the direction of the war priests, for purposes of war and alarm. These were carried when they journeyed, and the white standard erected in front of the building above mentioned [the ark or palladium], when they rested.”

They cross four rivers in all – which accords with the Indian idea of the sacred four – and sit down at last beyond the fourth, after having been for many years on the march. “Their whole journey through this wilderness was attended with great distress and danger. At one time they were beset by the most deadly kind of serpents, which destroyed a great many of the people, but at length their leader shot one with an arrow and drove them away. Again, they were walking along in single file, when the ground cracked open and a number of people sank down and were destroyed by the earth closing upon them. At another time they came nigh perishing for water. Their head men dug with their staves in all the low places, but could find no water. At length their leader found a most beautiful spring coming out of a rock.” [2]

At one point in this migration, according to a tradition given to Schoolcraft by Stand Watie, they encountered a large river or other great body of water, which they crossed upon a bridge made by tying grapevines together. [3] This idea of a vine bridge or ladder occurs also in the traditions of the Iroquois, Mandan, and other tribes.

Farther on the missionary already quoted says: “Shield-eater once inquired if I ever heard of houses with flat roofs, saying that his father’s great grandfather used to say that once their people had a great town, with a high wall about it; that on a certain occasion their enemies broke down a part of this wall; that the houses in this town had flat roofs – though, he used to say, this was so long ago it is not worth talking about now.” [4]

Fire of cane splints – Bartram thus describes the method as witnessed by him at Attasse (Autossee) among the Creeks about 1775. The fire which blazed up so mysteriously may have been kept constantly smoldering below, as described in number 111:

“As their virgils [sic] and manner of conducting their vespers and mystical fire in this rotunda, are extremely singular, and altogether different from the customs and usages of any other people, I shall proceed to describe them. In the first place, the governor or officer who has the management of this business, with his servants attending, orders the black drink to be brewed, which is a decoction or infusion of the leaves and tender shoots of the cassine. This is done under an open shed or pavilion, at twenty or thirty yards distance, directly opposite the door of the council-house. Next he orders bundles of dry canes to be brought in: these are previously split and broken in pieces to about the length of two feet, and then placed obliquely crossways upon one another on the floor, forming a spiral circle round about the great centre pillar, rising to a foot or eighteen inches in height from the ground; and this circle spreading as it proceeds round and round, often repeated from right to left, every revolution increases its diameter, and at length extends to the distance of ten or twelve feet from the centre, more or less, according to the length of time the assembly or meeting is to continue. By the time these preparations are accomplished, it is night, and the assembly have taken their seats in order. The exterior or outer end of the spiral circle takes fire and immediately rises into a bright flame (but how this is effected I did not plainly apprehend; I saw no person set fire to it; there might have been fire left on the earth; however I neither saw nor smelt fire or smoke until the blaze instantly ascended upwards), which gradually and slowly creeps round the centre pillar, with the course of the sun, feeding on the dry canes, and affords a cheerful, gentle and sufficient light until the circle is consumed, when the council breaks up.” [5]

[1] Antiquities of the Cherokee Indians, compiled from the collection of Reverend Sabin Buttrick, their missionary from 1817 to 1847, as presented in the Indian Chieftain; Vinita, Indian Territory, 1884.

[2] Buttrick, Antiquities of the Cherokee Indians, pp. 9–10.

[3] Schoolcraft, Notes on the Iroquois, p. 359, 1847.

[4] Buttrick, op. cit., p. 10.

[5] Travels, pp. 449–450.


In the preparation of the following notes and parallels the purpose has been to incorporate every Cherokee variant or pseudomyth obtainable from any source, and to give some explanation of tribal customs and beliefs touched upon in the myths, particularly among the Southern tribes. A certain number of parallels have been incorporated, but it must be obvious that this field is too vast for treatment within the limits of a single volume. Moreover, in view of the small number of tribes that have yet been studied, in comparison with the great number still unstudied, it is very doubtful whether the time has arrived for any extended treatment of Indian mythology. The most complete index of parallels that has yet appeared is that accompanying the splendid collection by Dr Franz Boas, Indianische Sagen von der nordpacifischen Küste Amerikas. [1] In drawing the line it has been found necessary to restrict comparisons, excepting in a few special cases, to the territory of the United States or the immediate border country, although this compels the omission of several of the best collections, particularly from the northwest coast and the interior of British America. Enough has been given to show that our native tribes had myths of their own without borrowing from other races, and that these were so widely and constantly disseminated by trade and travel and interchange of ceremonial over wide areas as to make the Indian myth system as much a unit in this country as was the Aryan myth structure in Europe and Asia. Every additional tribal study may be expected to corroborate this result.

A more special study of Cherokee myths in their connection with the medical and religious ritual of the tribe is reserved for a future paper, of which preliminary presentation has been given in the author’s Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, in the Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology.

[1] Asher & Co., Berlin, 1895.

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