The year was 1838. As the first rays of early morning light crept through the dark and misty mountain valley, Tsali gazed out of his tiny cave with a heavy heart. As a young boy, he spent days running though the thick woods and scampering up the steep, rocky hillsides that surrounded his Cherokee village in western North Carolina. The mountains were his place of escape — a place where he could dream, and be alone with his thoughts.
But now, as an ailing, 60-year-old man, Tsali was hiding in these hills for a very different reason. The white man had taken away the land that his ancestors had lived on for centuries. And they would not stop until even these majestic, sacred hills were theirs.
Tsali looked out and saw his fellow villagers, who were also hiding in the tiny crevices that dotted the wooded hillside. Many were shivering in the early morning chill. In their haste to leave, they had had no time to pack their belongings. Some managed to smile back at Tsali, their teeth chattering in the bone-chilling wind. Tsali was one of the elders of the village, and was highly respected amongst his people.
Tsali managed to smile back, but in his heart he knew that, as long as he stayed here, he was a danger to all of them. For of all the fugitive Cherokees, he was the most wanted by the white man.
Now, as the bright morning light slowly burned through the bluish mist, Tsali knew he was about to make the most important decision of his life.
Only two weeks ago, Tsali had stubbornly woken up at dawn and joined his two strong sons for their normal round of farm chores. Tsali and his family lived in a modest log cabin on their own farmstead, raising corn and other vegetables. Although Tsali could feel his old age creeping through his brittle bones, he stubbornly refused to rest — for to him, hard work was what made the man.
The Cherokees who lived in these North Carolina mountains in the 1800s did not wear headdresses or live in teepees. They dressed like the white man and lived in small villages, complete with stores, churches and schools. They had their own alphabet, and even published their own newspaper. Even though the white settlers had taken over most of their land through the years, the Cherokees wanted nothing more than to be accepted by the white man and to live in peace.
But to many white people, no matter what advances the Cherokees made, they would always be an inferior race of “savages.” Gold was discovered down in Georgia, bringing a flood of white prospectors into the area. They harassed the Cherokees, looted their homes and stole their livestock. Meanwhile, other white settlers stood by like vultures, waiting to pounce on the Cherokee land if they fled. Certainly, the Cherokees thought, the U.S. government will send troops to help us, for we have been promised that we can stay on this land.
But no help ever arrived.
So it was no surprise to Tsali when word came into his village one day that U.S. President Andrew Jackson had made a stunning announcement. He ordered the Cherokees to move from their North Carolina homeland to strange lands way out West. This was a ridiculous order to Tsali — they were farmers, not hunters. How could they uproot everything and move? Their ancestors had lived on this land for centuries, and as long as their spirits remained there, Tsali’s people could never leave. So Tsali and his people refused the order, choosing instead to fight back the white man’s way — through the courts.
Two years had passed since the order, and as Tsali worked on his farm that morning, he had almost forgotten that he and his people were living in contempt of the U.S. government. He limped down to the barn to milk the cows, the crisp morning air throbbing in his aching knees.
Just as he reached the door, an ear-splitting scream filled the air, followed by a loud crash. Tsali dropped his bucket and ran to the side of the barn. As he looked down on the village, he could see a small army of white soldiers, armed with bayonets, kicking down the doors of the houses. Men, women and children were yanked screaming out of their homes and taken away, not even given time to look back. As they left, white looters ransacked their homes, snatching everything of value they could find.
Tsali’s sons ran up behind him. “What’s going on?” said the eldest son, his eyes filling with horror. “What are they doing?”
Tsali pushed them back toward the house. “Go get your mother,” he yelled. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
Tsali’s wife had come down with a bad fever that spring, and could barely muster up the strength to get of bed. Tsali’s sons grabbed her and, with Tsali leading the way, ran away from their home forever, taking nothing with them.
As they ran, they could hear the soldiers yelling for them to stop. “Don’t look back,” yelled Tsali to his family. “Keep moving!”
As they reached the outskirts of the village, a cavalry of soldiers suddenly encircled them on horseback. Tsali’s eldest son tried to escape, but a soldier clubbed him in the head with the butt of his bayonet. Tsali frantically looked around him, his pale wife gasping for breath on his arm — they were helplessly surrounded.
Tsali’s family was marched away from the village at gun point, along with other villagers who had tried to escape. One thing the Cherokees had not given up was their native tongue, and whenever the white soldiers weren’t looking, Tsali whispered to his fellow villagers along the trail. He learned that many Cherokees had managed to escape into the hills. He also learned that the white soldiers had stockades set up to imprison the Cherokees before they were forced out West.
Tsali looked over at his poor, feverish wife, barely able to stand. She won’t be able to live in such a place, he thought. His blood boiled inside him — for the first time in his life, he was helpless, his manhood taken away by these white soldiers. He could do nothing to help his family.
In the distance, they could see the stockade — a makeshift wooden fort bellowing smoke and misery from its depths. At the sight of it, Tsali’s wife suddenly froze, her eyes filled with fear. “Keep moving!” snarled the soldier behind her. In her sickness, she paid no attention to him. Impatient, the soldier jabbed her in the back with his bayonet. She tumbled to the ground.
Without thinking, Tsali leapt at the solider. They struggled for the gun, Tsali’s rage filling him with youthful strength. The gun suddenly exploded, and the soldier fell limp, a bloody hole shot through his chest.
The second soldier was in a state of shock, unsure what to do. In the distance, Tsali could see the other soldiers looking back at them, screaming for reinforcements. Tsali snatched the rifle from the soldier and shot him from his horse.
Now scores of soldiers were running toward them, guns drawn. Tsali frantically looked around him, unsure where to go. Then he looked up into the dark hills — the same hills he had lost himself in as a boy. He knew every inch of those hills, and if his family was going to be captured, they weren’t going to surrender without a fight.
Tsali lifted his wife onto his shoulder and turned toward the hills. “Run!” he screamed to his family.
Through the deep woods they ran — up and over the rocky hillsides, through treacherous mountain rivers, finally stopping in a remote valley farther away than any white soldier had ever traveled. A number of caves riddled the valley, and as Tsali expected, other fugitive Cherokees had also come here to hide. Tsali warmly greeted his friends and neighbors before finding his own crevice, hiding his family inside, and pondering what to do next.
For days they waited, but no white solider appeared. But Tsali figured it was only a matter of time. For he had just killed two white soldiers, and there was no way they were going to let him get away with it.
Then, almost a week after the invasion, some Cherokee scouts passed word up the valley that a white man was approaching the caves. The odd thing was, he was walking through the valley alone, with no weapons that they could see. Perhaps he was a white settler lost in the woods, they reasoned. No one made a motion to kill him, for the last thing they needed was more white blood on their hands.
Tsali peered out of his crevice as the white man slowly walked out of the woods. He was dressed like a mountain man in dirty, well-worn clothes. It was then that Tsali recognized him — he was William Thomas, a white trader who had done a lot of business with Tsali’s village. William knew these woods almost as good as Tsali, and must have known exactly where the fugitive Cherokees had gone to hide. Tsali and William weren’t friends, but Tsali respected him enough to know that he was a man of honor, and had come alone.
Tsali crept out of the cave and walked slowly down the hillside toward him. William shook his hand, then explained what business had brought him up there:
“General Scott is furious about what you’ve done, Tsali. He says he’s going to bring his men up here to hunt you down. You may be able to hide up in these hills for awhile, but one of these days, he’s going to find you. You and your people are going to spend the rest of your lives on the run.”
Tsali nodded and stared at the ground, William’s harsh words ringing true.
“But he’s sent me up here with an offer,” William continued. “He says if you’ll give yourself up, he’ll call off his search, and your people can stay in these hills as long as they want. He gave his word.”
Tsali glared at William and said, “His word means nothing to me. I’ve heard these promises from white people before. Why should I believe him?”
“What choice do you have?” asked William. “You stay here, he’ll come after you anyway. And he may be mad enough at that point to kill both you and your people. He doesn’t want to send his soldiers up into this wilderness – not when he’s only after one man. But he will if he has to.”
Tsali looked up into the cloudless sky, pondering the offer. In his heart, he knew that William was right. As long as he stayed in hiding, he was a danger to his family and his community. He sighed a deep sigh, then replied, “whatever decision I make, I must speak with my family first. Come back in one week, and I will give you my answer.”
As the morning sun rose over the valley a week later, Tsali had made his decision. He would give himself up to the white man, and face certain death. Throughout the night, he had consoled his frightened wife and children, trying to make them understand that it was his life for a thousand. To his sons, he asked that they always look after their mother and help the community rebuild itself. To his wife, he promised through his tears that they would be together soon, in spirit.
William returned that morning, and Tsali joined him for the long walk back to the village. Behind him, he could hear the cries of his entire community, filling the dark hills with their sorrow. Tsali could not bear to look back.
Tsali and William walked in silence though the thick forest. Tsali breathed in the cool mountain air for the last time, taking in every smell, sound and sight that he could. He prayed that his spirit would still walk through these hills long after he was gone.
The next day, Tsali arrived back at the village — or what was left of it. All the homes had either been vandalized or burned to the ground. Crops and farmland had been destroyed. Tsali hoped that William was right, and that the rest of his people would be spared further misery.
The soldiers roughly grabbed Tsali and pushed him toward the firing range. As a final affront to the Cherokees, two Cherokee prisoners were ordered to serve as Tsali’s executioners. As they tied Tsali, they begged him to wear a blindfold. But Tsali calmly refused, choosing instead to stare one last time at the sky as the bullets tore through his heart.
Thanks to Tsali’s heroic sacrifice, the white soldiers never marched into the hills after the Cherokee fugitives. They were allowed to stay, and in later years, their descendants became the Eastern Band of Cherokees. To this day, these Cherokees still live in Western North Carolina on land specifically designated for them. You can visit them today in the town of Cherokee, North Carolina.
As more hikers began exploring the area in modern times, reports began coming in of a mysterious, shadowy figure wandering through the dense forests. In the blink of an eye, the shadow would disappear, only to reappear again at night, silhouetted tall in the sky against the bright moon. Local newspapers wrote stories about this mysterious ghost, and curiosity seekers soon filled the area.
But the Eastern Band of Cherokees knew who this mystery figure was. They knew it was Tsali, returning to wander forever through the majestic hills he loved.