Mentone Alabama: A History
By Zora Shay Strayhorn
Copyright © 2001 Mentone Area Preservation Association, Inc. All rights reserved.
In the shadow of the West Brow of Mentone in Valley Head is a marker honoring Sequoyah, who sat under a huge tree to teach his pupils. The tree has long been gone. Now there remains the historic reality that Mentone’s earliest inhabitants were the Indians.
To understand about the Indians of the Southeast, one must go to the archaeologists, because not only did they give the names to ages or eras of prehistoric Indians, but they have studied remains or artifacts of different tribes.
Lookout Mountain, and particularly our environs of Mentone, Alabama, was occupied by the Creeks. But “Creek” is not an Indian name. The early English traders gave that name to the Ocmulgee River, Georgia, Indians. They shortened the name to “Creek” which includes all Indians belonging to the Alliance. They were the most important tribe belonging to their particular confederacy. Not only were they cosmopolitan, they fell heir to traditions of the immediate previous Stone Age Indians, the early Temple Mound and Hopewellian Indians.
The Creeks occupied great portions of the Southeast including Mentone, but were gradually pushed out by the arrival of the Cherokees who were forced to abandon their lands in North Carolina as white settlers moved into their previously occupied homeland. Despite treaties with the British, they were unable to police or guard roads as frontier people moved in.
As the white settlers moved into this area of Northeast Alabama, there arose a great cry that they possessed the land. Historically speaking, some Indian tribes had fought with the British in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812. There remained a lingering fear that some Indians would be disloyal to the federal government. But this was not the case. The Indian’s word was his bond.
The Indians of this area were rounded up like cattle, put in stockades, and later forced to abandon their beloved homeland and sent on their “Trail of Tears.”
Fort Payne, Alabama, near Mentone, was a center of such a stockade. The city was named for the officer in charge of the stockade, Captain John Payne.
Late in 1829, the Creek Indians of the southern end of Lookout Mountain held a council meeting and voted to remain in Alabama and submit to the laws of the state. Alabama had become a state Dec. 14, 1819.
However, intruders swarmed over the land and made life unbearable for the Indians. In the spring of 1832 the Creeks signed a treaty yielding all their land in Alabama.
The Creeks joined with their avowed enemy, the Cherokees, and also with the Chickasaws to remain rather than be sent West.
A civil war broke out when the Creeks took to acts of violence against the white settlers, and the secretary of war ordered their removal. (The Creeks had already signed with the state of Georgia in 1827 to vacate their land there). Finally 2,495 Creeks were transported by force to the West, and hundreds were hunted out among the Cherokees by the military.
A small group of Indians led by John Ridge and Elias Boudinot signed a treaty with the federal government to give up all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River. The Treaty of New Echota, signed Dec. 29, 1835, ceded the Cherokees’ lands in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia to the federal government for the amount of five million dollars and an interest in Western Indian territory.
Most of the Cherokees were not in agreement with the treaty. The Cherokee nation’s chief, John Ross, considered the treaty nonbinding; however, President Andrew Jackson enforced the treaty and appointed General Winfield Scott in charge of these federal forces, and on May 10, 1838, issued a proclamation to the Cherokees warning them that their emigration was to commence immediately.
A great number of Indians hid out in the many caves of Alabama; later they emerged and returned to North Carolina where they established a center. It is believed one of these families in hiding was that of Mentone’s fabled Granny Dollar.
In many stories, the Indians have been depicted as the “bad guys,” but actually, they had high moral standards.
Their having no written language handicapped them because the white men could wave a piece of paper in front of them, and they couldn’t read the small fine print of the contract or treaty.
Sequoyah arrived on the scene capturing words on paper or bark called a syllabary or an alphabet, to give the Cherokees a reading system in about 1821. A syllabary is a list of syllables or a list of characters representing syllables and serving the purpose or stages of writing an alphabet.
Sequoyah’s name in the Cherokee language means “the lame one,” from an injury to his leg in the War of 1812 when he fought with the federal troops. He was born about 1775 or 1776. His father was white, Nathaniel Gist, and came from a wealthy family of Baltimore, Maryland. Nathaniel, along with two other men, had a trading post on the Holston River.
Sequoyah’s mother, according to Indian custom, remained with her people after her Indian tribal marriage ceremony to Nathaniel, instead of returning to Baltimore, Maryland. She raised Sequoyah as a single parent.
About the age of seventeen, Sequoyah went to Spring Place, Georgia, where there was a mission school, and where he met John Ross, whose Indian name “Coaweescoowee” means “The Great White Bird.” Sequoyah learned to be a blacksmith; he made a loom for his mother and learned how to patch copper and to be a silversmith. When Sequoyah was about nineteen he married and had children.
Sequoyah enlisted with the United States forces in the War of 1812; he was enrolled as George Guess. At the end of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend at the Tallapoosa River in Georgia, 27 March 1814, war was over; he had been gone two years.
In 1782, the first Cherokees left for new home land in what is now Fort Smith, Arkansas. When the U.S. purchased Louisiana in 1813, Arkansas became part of the Union. By 1808, the western Cherokees were calling themselves the Nation West and inviting the Nation East to join them. By then the Cherokees had made new treaties with the United States.
On Sequoyah’s return home, he had a compulsion to create a written language. Because he would retreat to a cabin apart from his main house, he was suspected by family and neighbors. It is not known whether his wife or neighbors burned his cabin, but all his work was destroyed.
He left and took his little girl to Arkansas where he married a woman who apparently encouraged him in his endeavor. He was able to teach his wife as well as other members of his family to read and write in the Cherokee Ianguage.
At last he took his alphabet to the chief of the Cherokee nation, and after an amazing demonstration of the use of the alphabet by his young daughter in a meeting of the Council, the new system was adopted. Sequoyah had lived for a while at Willstown near the present city of Fort Payne, Alabama.
The four principal groups of Indians in Alabama were the Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Choctaws. They may be better identified as occupying sections of the state of Alabama, as in the southwestern corner were the Choctaws, Chickasaws in the northwestern, Cherokees in the northeastern part, and Creeks in the southeastern.
The Indians of Alabama had houses of upright logs, plastered over with mud, and each family had a small vegetable garden, but did not sell their produce. Grasses were woven together to make walls for their houses, and then plastered with mud. Roofs were braided of grasses into thatch. Most houses were weatherproof.
Beds were elevated. Couches were made to sit on or to sleep upon. Bed clothes were soft and often woven of turkey feathers or softened pelts. In some tribes men helped the women such as the Choctaw men, but other tribes refused to do any “women’s work.”
The women cultivated crops, gathered firewood, looked after the children, ground the corn, made clothing, and wove baskets. The men fished, hunted, and went to war; they also made hand tools such as needles and awls of bone for sewing and for fishhooks. Shells were used for cups, spoons, and other utensils; an axe was made of stone; Alabama clay was manufactured into pottery.
There was one negative facet to the culture of the Indians of Southeastern United States and that is they never knew about or used the wheel. They were not aware of metallurgy except copper; that was usually fashioned into jewelry.
The Indians did everything to music; they were not always silent, and some old warriors were great orators and storytellers; they loved to dance and to whoop and holler.
Their art depicted the life around them, birds, fish or other wild animals; very often it was geometric or symbolic art. The swastika form was used long before Hitler was born.
They believed in The Great Spirit or by other names as the Breath Keeper, or the One Above, and had elaborate ceremonies in their Indian religion.
In the Archaic Era of Prehistoric Indians, careful treatment of the dead showed they had a belief in an after life; also that they had strong emotional ties, even though the burial site was also the refuge heap. They also buried their dogs.
The Indians of Prehistoric time had a short life span of probably not more than fifty years. They were plagued with arthritis and absessed teeth.
The Early Woodland Indians buried their dead in round circular pits, shallow, only about two feet deep; the arms and legs of the corpse were tied to the sides; skeletons of whole families have been found in one grave and sometimes showed signs of violence.
A group of students and professors of the University of Georgia’s Anthropology Department in 1973 investigated an Indian mound near Trenton, Georgia, not far from Mentone, at The Tunacunnhee Site. The artifacts unearthed by the archaeologists were of the Hopewellian culture in the period 200 B.C. to 400 A.D. which indicated that before the time of Christ, there had been an extensive trade network with the Hopewellian Indians of Ohio.
Scientists do not always agree, but it is generally believed that Indians of Asiatic origin came to this continent by way of the Bering Straits some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. From studies made--the Carbon 14 method--scientists believe that Indians were in Alabama since about 8,000 B.C. and went through at least six stages before the arrival of the first Europeans. They were the ancestors of the Creeks and Cherokees who resided in the Mentone area. They, in turn, were here when the white explorers arrived.
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