Tale of Resolve: Remembering Cherokee Sand Town at St. John’s, Cartoogechaye

By Rachel Carr
Posted Jun 8, 2023

Pictured from left to right: Brett Riggs, Western North Carolina University professor; Tom Belt, Cherokee Elder; Jack Baker, president of the National Trail of Tears Association; Maysi Fields, Junior Miss Cherokee; and Little Cherokee Winnie Asbill. Photo: Rachel Carr

[Diocese of Western North Carolina] On the first Saturday in June, some 150 people gathered at St. John’s Episcopal Church in the Cartoogechaye community of Franklin for the unveiling of a sign that tells the story of Sand Town (Nvyohi), one of many post-removal Native American towns in North Carolina. The forced removal of Native Americans along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s is a tale marked by lament, but those behind the placement of the memorial signage say the tale is also one of resolve and resilience.

“The very fact that we are here today means that they didn’t win. Through an amazing amount of tragedy and a truckload of trauma, they didn’t win,” said Tom Belt, a Cherokee elder. “This is our history, all of us who are descendants of these events, the Silers and we as Cherokee people.”

The land of Sand Town was deeded to Cherokee Chief Chuttahsottee by William Siler, a white settler, in 1841, providing space for many Cherokee families to stay in North Carolina. In 1879, Chuttahsottee and his wife, Cunstagih, were buried by their request in the area that would become St. John’s graveyard. A granite monument was placed to mark the graves in 1932.

The Rev. Carl Southerland, rector of St. John’s, and his congregation partnered with the National Trail of Tears Association and the North Carolina TOTA Chapter, community groups and Cherokee leaders to remember the story of Sand Town with the sign unveiled on June 3. Southerland is a third-generation descendant of Albert and JoAnna Siler.

“I have to wonder what this area would be like if Albert [Siler] and Chuttahsotee were the models for our relationships back then, or what it would be like today,” Southerland said. “So often we tell the story from the Siler family perspective, but Chuttahsottee did not believe that people could own land, and the land deeded to him was land the Cherokee had lived on for centuries. Today we dedicate this sign to the memory of those people who lived here in this community known as Sand Town.”

The Rt. Rev. José McLoughlin, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, was not able to attend the event due to his sabbatical, but he shared his thoughts about the event.

“Western North Carolina is not only our home, but more importantly the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and we’re grateful that St. John’s has made a space to remember this important piece of history. Part of our commitment includes building relationships with Indigenous peoples so that we may learn and be propelled forward into a greater sense of community, much like the story of Sand Town,” McLoughlin said.

St. John’s was first consecrated in 1881 as St. John’s Episcopal Church, Nonah, through the efforts of Joanna Siler. The church was torn down in 1910 and rebuilt in the 1940s by Siler descendant the Rev. Rufus A. Morgan and consecrated as St. John’s Episcopal Church, Cartoogechaye, where services continue today.

“This educates us to what actually happened here because a lot of parishioners are not from here, so this brings us all back to something greater than just us,” said St. John’s parishioner Jim Sutton.

Also present at the June 3 event were Remember the Removal bike riders, who traverse nearly 1,000 miles along the Trail of Tears each year to bring attention to the history of the Indian Removal. Riders, ages 16 to 24, go through a rigorous application process and training, taking the summer to complete the ride. The riders, from both Oklahoma and North Carolina, began their trek on June 2.

“We train from December through May, and it’s not just physical training, it’s classroom work as well. They learn their language, they learn their culture and they learn their history during that time. These riders all have this information that they can share and provide accurate information about what happened to our people 185 years ago,” said Will Chavez, Remember the Removal legacy rider and assistant editor of the “Cherokee Phoenix.

The story of Sand Town

Sand Town was located along Muskrat Creek and came to be through a land deed sold by William Siler to his Cherokee neighbors: Chuttahsotee, who became chief of Sand Town, and his wife, Cunstagih. As landowners, the chief and his wife could not be forced out, and other families secured their place through Sand Town after the removal.

“The people who came together here were survivors who were determined, that no matter what, to remain in their ancient homeland and to maintain these ancient places, to guard those places and to watch over them,” said Brett Riggs, Sequoyah professor at Western North Carolina University.

Even before the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Indigenous peoples were wary of government removal and had made preparations to remain in their homeland.

“Many of the people who stayed had hidden back in the mountains to avoid capture. Others stayed right out in plain sight, in the open, because they had official exemptions to stay. But everybody was integral to a secret plan to resist [President Andrew] Jackson’s removal and remain behind. As part of the preparation, they recruited a whole bunch of white allies, mostly people who spoke the Cherokee language, and the allies they recruited included the Siler brothers,” Riggs said.

The Silers were longtime friends of Chuttahsotee and Cunstagih. Albert Siler, the son of William Siler, taught Cunstagih how to speak English, and in turn, learned Cherokee from her.

“The Silers were among those who aided the Cherokee ‘fugitives’ during the removal, and after 1838 made lands available for those to reside on as they began to feel out how to establish communities and get their own lands. The white allies made it possible by keeping the plan quiet and helping out,” Riggs said.

As time progressed, the Cherokee people left Sand Town to form the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

As the sign reads, “Sand Town thrived for two decades, but dwindled after the Civil War. Leaders from Sand Town (George Bushyhead and John Jackson) were involved in the struggle to create the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as a distinct tribe, and Jackson was elected 2nd Principal Chief in 1871.”

“I am not from here, and you are not from here. We are of this place, just like these trees and these rocks and these mountains,” Belt, the Cherokee elder, said. “We are of it, not from it. We are a part of it.”

-Rachel Carr is missioner for communications in the Diocese of Western North Carolina.