They are one major component of a new project I’ve begun, in collaboration with my wife Elizabeth Thomas, that deals with the complex entanglements between Cherokees and white settlers on the frontier in western North Carolina. The project has taken me rather far afield from my home discipline (art history) and yet even so I keep coming back to my core interests in space and landscape, and how they are imagined, represented, and negotiated.
Land deeds are a gold mine of information for genealogists and historians, but at the same time they are more than just sources. They are representations of the landscape – and of how people thought about land and how they interacted with it. Their very existence testifies to an elaborate set of cultural practices that transformed human relationships with the natural environment. And in this case they were weapons in the long war over Cherokee territory.
Deeds are connected uniquely to territory, to ground. Nowadays we like to talk about space – “public space,” “domestic space,” the “production of space,” “cost-space” – the list goes on ad infinitum. Space is an abstract mathematical concept that we impose on the world around us. An extraordinarily powerful and useful concept, for sure, but surprisingly in the nineteenth century you didn’t hear much about it. You heard a lot about ground instead. The ground wasn’t at all abstract. People walked it, rode horseback on it, dug it up, farmed it, slept on it. The physical quality of the terrain and the soil were huge factors in the daily life of much of the population, in a way that is hard to imagine today.
One of the primary purposes of deeds was to plot the ground that one person was claiming or selling to another. Sometimes the deed was accompanied by a rough little “plat” of the property, but this picture was nothing more than a schematic two-dimensional diagram – imprecise and oddly uninformative because it flattened out the ground and ignored its most important features. What really mattered was being able to tell someone how to walk the perimeter of this particular piece of ground, and for that purpose the visual representation was actually inadequate.
Therefore the language of most deeds included very specific directions tied to the natural landscape, particularly its trees and waterways. In Pittsburgh we joke about how old-timers give directions: “Do you know where the gas station is? Well you go up to the gas station and turn left…” But deed descriptions basically did the same thing, using landmarks as their guides. Typically they would start with language like “beginning on a black oak on the west side of the creek” then tell you to go north from that tree 320 poles (1 mile) to a stake, then turn east and go 160 poles, and so on. If there was no tree or waterway to mark where the line turned, then a stake driven into the ground by the surveyor would mark the spot instead. Sometimes the lines meandered along rivers or creeks but more often they were straight. This meant they were also mathematical fictions (like space), not always walkable because there would be obstacles in the way like trees or brambles or unfordable waterways. Even so, these lines were legally tied to the ground and whether you stood on one side or the other of that line on the ground was sometimes a matter of life or death.
In the mountains of western North Carolina during the early nineteenth century, Cherokees and white setters intermingled on the ground in various ways. But rarely did they do so in deeds because the Cherokee didn’t have a system of individual property ownership – at least not until they had to adopt a system in order to try to stay on their ancestral ground.
Every now and then, though, in early settler deeds one will come across a glancing reference to the world the Indians inhabited. A word or phrase will appear that is like a small stake in the ground, marking the presence of a people who otherwise remained invisible in the system of property relations that settlers imposed on the Indians’ landscape.
I recently came across one such example, a seemingly gratuitous sentence added as an afterthought at the very end of a deed, after the legal boilerplate language had run its course. It was a deed originally made in 1802 by a somewhat shady land speculator named Joseph Dobson who was selling to a German immigrant farmer George Shuler. The final sentence reads:
“The above tract of Land begins about a Quarter of a mile above the Indian Camp as he thinks where Dobson and Shuler lay all Night.”
Before you start thinking of Brokeback Mountain, here is some specific context: the tract in question was on a particular waterway called Scott’s Creek near where it emptied into the Tuckaseegee River. Today this is the location of Dillsboro, in JacksonCounty, North Carolina, though in 1802 white settlement was still many years away. Dobson and Shuler must have been scouting the area, and whether they “lay” that night within the Indian encampment or just upstream from it is hard to say given the mangled grammar of the sentence.
A couple of things are clear though. They had crossed the North Carolina border into “Indian country,” territory that still legally belonged to the Cherokee, over fifteen years before the Treaty of 1819 would cede the land to North Carolina. Of course, as the deed shows, this didn’t stop men like Dobson from charting the Indian land and selling it presumptively to white settlers who were willing to push over the boundary and take their chances. The Indians weren’t a party to the deed and it wasn’t meant for them anyway. It was meant for other white settlers. In effect it was a warning to them: if you want to settle on Indian land you better go somewhere else.
The other takeaway from this deed is that the local Cherokee must have known Dobson and Shuler were there that night and may even have invited the two white men into their “camp.” This camp was more likely a settlement, with log houses and cornfields under cultivation, not much different from what a white settler’s property would look like. The Cherokee by this time were a settled agrarian society with a long history of trade, intermarriage, diplomacy, and sometimes warfare with white immigrants from various European cultures. The Cherokee men that Dobson and Shuler encountered were almost certainly armed. But they used their guns to shoot animals, not people, because they had been down the road of armed resistance before and typically it ended in disaster. So forget John Wayne movies and think instead of negotiation, nonviolent resistance, and, always, adaptation. This was a world in which the whites ultimately had the upper hand but in which they and the Cherokee inhabitants were thoroughly enmeshed, and constantly pushing across their own physical, cultural, and familial boundaries. An essential point of the land deed system was to to erase that messy lived reality and hold tight to clear and fixed boundaries.
Dobson and Shuler sure look like bad guys in this story, but the truth is more difficult to gauge. Although the Indian land on which they were encroaching was officially opened to settlement in 1820, the treaty that made this happen actually created a legal mess of overlapping white and Indian land claims. In the sometimes violent conflicts that ensued, the Dobson and Shuler families appear in a somewhat different light.
Joseph Dobson’s son John, who lived a few miles from the plot described in the deed, took in some of the Indians who were displaced by the 1819 treaty. George Shuler, who ended up settling peacefully on a farm a few miles downstream from the plot, actually testified against some of his white neighbors who drove the Cherokee off nearby land, one of whom had boasted to him of whipping an Indian.
In a final irony, the piece of property described in the Dobson-Shuler deed later came into Cherokee ownership, after the 1819 treaty, within a tract known as “Indian Dick’s reservation.” Indian Dick was a Cherokee man also known as Richard Walker, himself a bilingual child of a white trader and a Cherokee woman. He was one of the few Cherokee who were able to establish land ownership in the area after the treaty, and the “Indian camp” where Dobson and Shuler lay that night in 1802 probably still existed on Walker’s “reservation” under his patronage. It would take more time, more treaties, and more deeds before the Indian camp was finally dispersed and the town of Dillsboro could rise from its ashes.