Note: Colonel Benjamin Hawkins was highly educated and left what is considered to be exemplary manuscripts of his Agent service. He was appointed by George Washington as a French interpreter during the Revolutionary War. Later he was appointed by Congress as Indian Agent to the southern frontier. He served as an early scout, negotiator and cultural leader among the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw. He eventually settled in Crawford county near Roberta, Georgia living and teaching among the Indians where he built a plantation and married a Creek woman. He died in 1818 and is buried in Crawford county. The following article documents Colonel Hawkins’ visit to what became Bartow County and his observations among the Native Americans in this area.
Keith S. Hébert, Assistant Professor of History, Auburn University
In 1796, Indian superintendent Benjamin Hawkins passed through what would become Cass County while en route to the Creek Nation. At this time, Hawkins and the Federal government were compiling information about the Cherokee, especially their economy and social networks, that would be used to further the government’s efforts to gain Native American lands by exposing them to various aspects of white society, particularly land ownership and patriarchy. Hawkins gained the trust of many Native Americans, most of whom wanted better access to manufactured trade goods. As he traveled across what would become Cass County, Hawkins tried to convince Cherokee, notably women, that their tribe’s best hope for the future rested on embracing white customs and economic practices. His account depicted a land occupied by people of mixed ethnicity who lived on secluded farmsteads. Unable to speak the Cherokee language, Hawkins communicated with local Indians through an interpreter. On November 28, the superintendent crossed the Etowah River heading along a “S.W. by W” course through a region filled with “sharp hills . . . . a large and beautiful savannah” and dense forests. Along his route, he passed peach trees, cotton stalks, sugar cane, and corn stalks sitting idly in the fields, seemingly left unattended. That night Hawkins stayed with a Cherokee woman who worried about the conditions of her corn crop. Hawkins recalled seeing fields lined with corn literally rotting on the stalks. The woman informed him, through the use of his translator, that she had planted her crop too late in the season. Sensing that the woman possessed some industrious qualities, Hawkins informed her of a government initiative designed to introduce a series of agricultural reforms throughout the Cherokee and Creek nation that planned to bolster their production, Plan of Civilization. Upon hearing this news, the woman “replied she had once made as much cotton as purchased a petticoat, [and] that she would gladly make more and learn to spin it, if she had the opportunity.” Hawkins felt confident that the Cherokee could produce substantial agricultural crops on this land. He learned, however, that carrying any crop to market was an arduous task for these Cherokee women. Immediately prior to his arrival, the women had returned from a seventeen mile round-trip to and from the nearest white settlements, where they had bartered corn in exchange for salt and fowls for binding.
The following day, destined for the village of Pine Log, Hawkins traversed a sizeable portion of what would become eastern Cass County. Along the way he encountered a number of whites living among the Cherokees as well as Christian Russell, a Sicilian tanner, who moved to the region with the hopes of selling leather goods to the local market. Throughout most of Hawkins’s journey across the county, the weather remained cloudy and cold. The overcast day cast a poor light upon the land as he entered Pine Log for the first time. He hired a black woman to serve as his interpreter. That evening as Hawkins visited the Downing residence, Cherokee women came to the home asking about the purpose of his visit. The women also told Hawkins that all of the men had left the village to go hunting and that in the future they would grow more cotton.
On December 1, Hawkins arrived at Etowah, the largest Cherokee town in what would become Cass County. After some difficulty locating an interpreter, Hawkins finally hired Sally Waters, “a halfbreed.” The local women pleased the agent informing him that in the spring they intended to grow more cotton and corn if he could help transport the crop to market. The following morning, while preparing to leave the Cherokee Nation for his final destination in the Creek Nation, Hawkins listened as the women complained about how men rarely helped with farm work. The agent left the Cherokee Nation assured that the women wanted to produce additional market goods.
During Benjamin Hawkins’s lifetime, the Cherokee had surrendered large amounts of territory to encroaching Georgians. In an effort to convince Americans that their tribe could co-exist alongside their Caucasian neighbors, leaders also adopted a policy of acculturation. In 1801, after years of resistance, they invited the Salem Moravians to organize a mission at a site along the Federal Road. The Moravians developed a close-knit relationship with the Cherokee. Their mission educated many of the tribe’s elite children and prepared several of them, including Buck Watie (Elias Boudinot), for entrance into some of the nation’s leading colleges. In a similar vein, a council of warriors held at Hightower requested the United States president provide funding to educate their children. Such requests allowed the spread of Christian missionaries throughout the Cherokee Nation.
Hawkins brief stint in Cass County sheds some light upon life in the region before thousands of white settlers would enter the area over the next two decades. Foremost, Cass County at this time was a tri-racial society where Indians, black slaves, and small numbers of white settlers (many of whom were European immigrants) had formed meaningful social and economic relationships. Also, Hawkins’s account tells us that black slavery was present in the area and played a noticeable role in the Cherokee economy. Equally important, long before mass numbers of white settlers arrived in the area, the Cherokee had transformed large parts of the county into substantial farms that grew both cash and subsistence crops. A brisk network of trade relations connected this relatively isolated area to regional centers of economic activity. Cherokee were used to seeing white men such as Hawkins and had become adept at evaluating their intentions. And finally, Hawkins’s writings, as well as those of Christian missionaries stationed in the area, tell us a lot about some of the internal disagreements happening within Cherokee society. Cherokee debates about how to best resist white encroachment on their lands would remain a central part of their tribal politics throughout the decades leading up to removal.