The CSS Junaluska was a steam tugboat that served in the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War, participating in some actions – despite being armed only with a couple of cannons – but having a short-lived active life, lasting just over a year (1861-1862). What matters here is that it was named after a Native American leader, a Cherokee who encouraged his people to support the Confederate side and who had saved the life of future President Andrew Jackson decades earlier, something he later regretted when Jackson ordered the forced removal of tribes from the southern Mississippi known as the Trail of Tears.

Junaluska was born around 1775 somewhere in Tryon County, North Carolina, probably not far from the cities of Franklin, Tennessee, and Dillard, Georgia, areas where during the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee had fought alongside the British. His early days were almost ended in tragedy when his cradle, which was hanging from a branch, fell; however, the baby survived and, according to Cherokee customs, that accident served to give him a name: Gu-Ka-Las-Ki or Gulkalaski, meaning “someone who falls from an inclined position”.

It should be noted that another custom was to change names if any new incident in life was significant enough. There is a well-known case, that of Geronimo, who was originally named Goyaalé (“the one who yawns”) and who changed his name after an altercation with Mexican rural guards. Well, Gulkalaski became Tsunu’lahun’ski (“he tries but fails” in Cherokee language, which adapts as Junaluska) after failing in a military action; he himself defined that with the expression Detsinulahungu (which means “I tried, but I couldn’t”).

As is logical, there is very little information about his youth, attributing episodes of dubious historicity to him. The first of these, transmitted by oral tradition, refers to 1811 when the Cherokees received a visit from Tecumseh, the famous Shawnee chief who had once led a Native American confederation to oppose the expansion of settlers resulting from US independence and now, given the persistent sale of Indian lands, resumed the path of war threatening to align with Great Britain with the imminent outbreak of a war with it.

Junaluska, despite not being a chief, would have been the spokesperson in charge of informing Tecumseh that the Cherokees, who, as we saw, had been traditional allies of the British, would not join that confederation. Finally, the conflict erupted in 1812, caused both by the commercial restrictions imposed by London – in the context of its confrontation with Napoleon – and by the forced recruitment of American merchant sailors carried out by the Royal Navy, but also by British interference in relations between the US and the Indian tribes by supporting them.

Thus, as often happened, the Indians were divided in the face of Tecumseh’s call, and most of them rejected joining him; however, a traditionalist faction of the Creeks did accept. To its members, mainly from the highlands and therefore with less contact with whites, they were called Red Sticks because of the color with which they painted their combat clubs. Following their messianic leader, they unleashed in 1813 the Creek War, which began as a civil strife among the members of the tribe but soon spread to actions against settlers.

The most famous of these was the Massacre of Fort Mims, in which the Red Sticks assaulted a poorly defended fort where soldiers, settlers, and slaves had taken refuge, annihilating half a thousand of them. However, the one that interests us here is the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, fought in March 1813, as Junaluska participated in it. He was part of an expedition under the command of General Andrew Jackson, composed of two thousand infantry, seven hundred cavalry, and an auxiliary Indian contingent of over six hundred Creek, Choctaw, Yuchi, and Cherokee.

The latter were the majority, approximately five hundred, many of them recruited by Junaluska and incorporated into a column led by William McIntosh, a Creek chief whose real name was Tustunnuggee Hutke (White Warrior) and who would become a brigadier. Jackson decided to assault the enemy camp, and as it was fortified by a stockade, he began to bombard it with artillery while sending thirteen hundred men under General John R. Coffee to surround and attack it from the other side.

For this, they had to cross the Tallapoosa River, something made possible by the heroic feat of Junaluska and some of his men, who swam across it and seized the canoes of the Red Sticks, using them to transport the soldiers to the position indicated by Jackson. Nevertheless, the fight was tough and dramatic, and it was necessary to charge with bayonets against the parapet; in this charge, led by Colonel John Williams, a young lieutenant named Samuel Houston played a prominent role, future architect of the independence of Texas, who received a wound that troubled him all his life.

Jackson himself was also about to lose his life. Apparently – there is no documentation to support it – a Creek prisoner managed to break free, grab a knife, and rush at him, with the general being saved because Junaluska saw everything and, despite being wounded in a shoulder, managed to intercept the attacker. Otherwise, the Red Sticks fought bravely and resisted for five hours, at the end of which they had been practically exterminated with eight hundred dead and two hundred six wounded compared to only forty-seven dead and one hundred fifty-nine wounded of their rivals. Their chief, Menawa, managed to escape with two hundred survivors and joined the Seminoles of Florida, whom Jackson also fought.

Five months later, the rebellious Creeks were forced by the victor to sign peace. Under the Treaty of Fort Jackson, they were to surrender nearly one hundred thousand square kilometers of their lands to the US government (half of central Alabama and part of southern Georgia), seven thousand seven hundred of which were ceded to the Cherokee as a reward. Later, Andrew Jackson, promoted to major general, enhanced his prestige with two new victories against the British in Pensacola and New Orleans, which served him to run for the presidency in 1828.

On March 4, 1829, replacing John Quincy Adams, he became the seventh President of the US representing the Democratic Party, which he himself had founded along with his vice president (and successor), Martin van Buren. Jackson had advocated being tough in repressing the Creeks and in that sense he also had no qualms when he faced his first major governance problem, the Second Seminole War – difficult to defeat because they entrenched themselves in the swampy jungles – and the danger posed by the density of Indian settlements in the South, especially in Georgia.

To solve it, he promulgated in 1830 the Indian Removal Act, a law of forced relocation that compelled the so-called Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee) to leave their lands and travel west of the Mississippi to settle in the newly created Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma. That march, undertaken in arduous conditions to the extent that thousands died along the way, was baptized as the Trail of Tears.

Despite having been allies, the Cherokee were not exempt from that law. They litigated in the US Congress and Supreme Court, but a judicial ruling signed by Judge John Marshall in 1831, Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia, ruled that this tribe did not constitute a sovereign and independent nation, so it had no right to the case. Although the Cherokee continued to appeal, in 1838 gold was discovered in the town of Dahlonega, and that unleashed the so-called Georgia Gold Rush, ending the last hope of the Indians.

Junaluska requested a meeting with Jackson; after all, the president owed him his life. But the meeting proved to be a disappointment for the native, dismissed by his former superior with the words Sir, your audience is over. There is nothing I can do for you. Junaluska, who was already unhappy because he had been deprived of the two and a half kilometers of land in Sugar Creek that the government had rewarded him for his services in 1819, also left a bitter phrase for posterity: If I had known that Jackson would drive us out of our homes, I would have killed him that day at Horseshoe Bend.

He had no choice but to join his people in that deportation, which began with the seventeen thousand Cherokees and their two thousand slaves taken from their homes at gunpoint by seven thousand soldiers led by General Winfield Scott. The Indians were concentrated in various camps, from where they set out on the march to eastern Oklahoma, with nearly two thousand kilometers ahead. Some went by horse or wagon, and others were able to travel certain stretches by train or boat, but most traveled on foot.

Junaluska was assigned to the section led by Jessie Bushyhead, a Cherokee Baptist pastor who was in charge of nine hundred and fifty people. They left Fort Montgomery (in Robbinsville, North Carolina), and it is assumed that Junaluska lost his wife and two children along the way, as they suddenly disappear from historical accounts. Even so, thanks to the good work of the reverend, eight hundred and ninety-eight reached their destination with only eight deaths and six births. They arrived at what Bushyhead baptized as Pleasant Hill, six kilometers from the present city of Westville (others called the place Breadtown, alluding to the distribution of food they received and later became known as Baptist Mission).

Seven weeks after starting the journey, Junaluska and fifty Cherokee escaped, but were captured very soon and forced to return to the column, so in the end he had no choice but to accept his fate and settle in Indian Territory. There he lived until 1847, when he decided to return to North Carolina on his own, making the entire journey on foot. For three years he lived poorly, but times had changed and the government had a more empathetic attitude towards those less rebellious tribes compared to those of the prairies, which were now considered an obstacle to westward expansion.

In fact, he obtained the favor of Colonel William Holland Thomas, a merchant, lawyer, and politician from Mount Prospect (North Carolina) who in his youth had worked as an apprentice in a store that supplied the Cherokee, managing not only to learn their language but also to be adopted by the tribe, helping them later in their lawsuit with the government and buying land for them to continue living on as residents. This allowed Thomas to manage the citizenship of many Cherokees who had served the US, and among the beneficiaries was Junaluska.

Indeed, as a citizen, he settled in Robbinsville, receiving land and slaves in ownership. There he formed a new family with his wife Ni-suh and three children, the boys Jim-my and Sic-que-yuh, and his daughter Na-lih, becoming embroiled in legal problems over his properties by alienating them. He did not experience the Civil War but its antecedents, in which he sided with the Confederacy because it defended slavery and also promised to grant Indians a state if they emerged victorious; in fact, there was a famous Confederate general (the last to surrender) of Cherokee origin, Stand Watie.

He died on November 20, 1858, collapsing while walking on the docks of Citico (Tennessee), and was buried in the local cemetery, in a traditional Cherokee-style grave (marked by stones instead of a tombstone, in his case a large stone block), although crowned by a sculptural monument that was later placed in his memory, something that is reinforced in Robbinsville itself with a museum about his figure.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on October 26, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Junaluska, el líder cherokee que salvó la vida al futuro presidente Andrew Jackson y se arrepintió después


Thomas E. Mails, The Cherokee people. The story of the Cherokees fron earliest origins to contemporary times | Stan Hoig, The Cherokees and their chiefs. In the wake of empire | Cherokee Chief Junaluska (ca. 1775 – November 20, 1858) | Gordon B. McKinney, Junaluska | Wikipedia

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