Yonaguska historical marker

Yonaguska ca. 1760-1839 (Q-12)

Chief of Oconaluftee Cherokee. He advocated temperance and opposed removal of his people from their homeland. Lived in this vicinity.

Location: US 19 northeast of Bryson City
County: Swain
Original Date Cast: 1939

Yonaguska, also called Drowning Bear, was the Chief of the Oconaluftee Cherokees in the early 1800s. Serving as chief, Yonaguska opposed the removal of the Cherokee from their lands during the Trail of Tears in 1838. He advocated temperance amongst his followers after observing the loss of power and control in other Cherokee tribes due to alcohol. The Oconaluftee were part of the Middle Cherokee, and lived along the Oconaluftee, Tuckasegee, and Little Tennessee Rivers near the Balsam Mountains.

The birthplace and date of Yonaguska are unknown, although it probably took place in the Balsam Mountain region around 1760. In 1819, he and fifty others from his tribe signed a treaty with the United States government withdrawing from the Cherokee Nation and pledging allegiance to the United States and the state of North Carolina. In exchange, they were given 640 acres of land per family, and made citizens of North Carolina. Yonaguska’s acreage was located on Governor’s Island, at the juncture of the Oconaluftee and Tuckaseegee Rivers. In 1820 though, Yonaguska sold his land and moved to Quallatown, in the area that became the present-day Qualla Boundary, or Cherokee Reservation.

While living in Quallatown, Yonaguska became close friends with William Holland Thomas, who served after Yonaguska’s death as the white Chief of the Cherokee. Through W. H. Thomas, he raised money and purchased large areas for the establishment of a privately owned Cherokee homeland, the Qualla Boundary. In the late 1830s, Yonaguska argued that his people existed independently of the Cherokee people, and therefore were not bound by the New Echota Treaty of 1835 that called for the forced evacuation of the Cherokee people to Oklahoma. With legal action and political work, the Oconaluftee were allowed to remain on their lands. Yonaguska died in 1839, and left his chiefdom to Thomas, who further developed Yonaguska’s course of action.

Although Yonaguska opposed the removal of the Cherokee Nation from its lands following the acceptance of the Treaty of New Echota, he focused on the protection of his own people, as opposed to the futile protection of the Cherokee nation as a whole. Through Yonaguska’s work, the Oconaluftee and other Middle Cherokee remained in North Carolina. The people were the basis for the present-day independent Eastern Band of the Cherokee, still residing on the Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina.

John R. Finger, The Eastern Band of the Cherokee, 1819-1900 (1984)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, VI, 293—sketch by Theda Perdue
William G. McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears (1993)
John Ehle, The Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (1988)
John Preston Arthur, Western North Carolina History from 1730 to 1913 (1915)
Hugh T Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome, The History of a Southern State: North Carolina (1973)

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