In the spring of 1730 a Scottish nobleman, on no authority but his own, came into Cherokee territory during a time of general hostility and forever altered the course of Anglo-Cherokee relations. This man was Sir Alexander Cuming, Baronet of Culter, and his story has been told often in the hills of southern Appalachia, especially in Macon County, NC, where Nikwasi Mound still marks the site of his fateful visitation. Many call Cuming a hero. Many say he was mad. Beneath the stories, however, lies a real individual and it is that individual I intend to uncover.
We know a few hard facts about Cuming from the memoir he wrote in 1764, towards the end of his life. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on December 18th, 1691. When he was only 12 years old he obtained a Captain’s commission by Queen Anne in the Earl of Mar regiment (May 28, 1703). In 1713 he made Doctor of Law at the University of Aberdeen. During the Jacobite uprising of 1715, he led a company against the Jacobites. He later became a lawyer after the rebellion subsided, when in 1719 he was summoned into the employ of the Duke of Argyll, who paid him ?300 per annum from Royal Funds.
Life seemed to be going quite well with the young lawyer. He remained in Argyll’s employ until the Christmas of 1721. He was then offered the Governorship of Bermuda, but later denied it. In 1725, Cuming’s father died, making him the second Baronet of Culter. Cuming now had lands and title, and was set on making a better name for himself. It is at this point in the story that his ambitions begin to get the better of him.
He was a candidate in 1727 for a position in the Shire of Aberdeen, but did not win the election. This was perhaps when he set his sights on making his name outwith the British Isles. He was an elected fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge , and had as he himself put it, “His Majesty’s Leave of Absence to travel where he pleased.” In September of 1729, he took advantage of this freedom and set sail for the Carolinas.
What he hoped to accomplish there is not completely understood. Macon County historian Barbara McRae says that Cuming claimed to have made the trip overseas because of a strange, prophetic dream that his wife had. She had dreamed that Alexander would accomplish great things among the Cherokees of the New World, and it was this vision that inspired him to sail across the ocean and serve as a diplomat in dangerous territory, with no authority from his government. Cuming himself wrote in his journal that he established the silver standard for the economy in Charles Town. Regardless of his intent, we know that he arrived in Charles Town (present day Charleston, SC) in the first week of December and left on March 13, 1730, for Cherokee territory.
Cuming’s own account of his travels in his Memoirs is scant. He simply states that he established himself as their law giver, met with the emperor Moytoy of Teliqou, and was gifted the crown of their nation and the scalps of their enemies. His letters written closer to the time, however, paint a more detailed picture of his journey. With the help of these and other accounts, it is possible to put together a cohesive timeline of his travels.
At the time of his departure, the Cherokees were on the verge of allying themselves with the French, and were by all accounts rather hostile towards the British. Cuming was definitely aware of the situation with the French, as he recalled that year to the Duke of Newcastle in a letter. This knowledge definitely did not stop Cuming from venturing deep into what he called the “Cherokee Mountains.” There are some that would suggest he was fleeing financial peril. Others believe he was seeking yet again a great name.
He came first to the Lower Towns, where he met with a council at Keowee. There he knelt in the council house and demanded all others kneel as he did, and acknowledge King George II as their leader. According to McRae, they all did so. One could hardly expect the Cherokees to be fully aware of exactly whom or what they were giving their allegiance to, or to comprehend the European ceremony at all. But this would not be the only European custom that Cuming would introduce them to. Cuming then declared that the heads of all the Cherokee villages should meet in ten day’s time at the village of Nikwasi for a grand council. It now remained for Cuming to ensure that the Cherokees came.
Accounts of those traders travelling with Cuming describe him as either brave, brash, or mad, but by all interpretations he was a man with a momentum. When he heard of the legendary “Crown of Tannassy”-a dyed cap of opossum hair-he immediately desired to have it as a good symbol to give to King George upon his return. He traveled further into the mountains, and when he came to the village of Tassetcha, he won over the council there in a similar manner to Keowee. Most importantly, he gained their support in winning over the Overhill Towns. This area was key if he were to befriend the Tannassy Warrior who held the crown he sought, as well as Moytoy, a Cherokee leader whom he desired to name “Emperor” to represent the entire nation. This he did (most likely by promising great benefits to each of them personally) and they both agreed to be at the Nikwasi meeting.
This meeting occurred on April 3, 1730 . It was here that Cuming gave his support to Moytoy as Emperor of all Cherokees, to which the council agreed. Moytoy then expressed his desire to share this glory with Cuming, which prompted the other Cherokees present to lift Cuming up onto the seat reserved for Moytoy and perform the Eagle Tail Dance for him. This involved stroking him with the tail feathers of 13 golden eagles. Cuming understood this to be the dance they perform to invest their rulers. Armed with this authority, Cuming demanded of the gathered council that they hand over the Crown of Tannassy, along with the eagle tails used in this ceremony and scalps of their enemies as signs of submission, and demanded also that they acknowledge the sovereignty of King George II, “all of which they did on their knees, calling upon every thing that was terrible to them to destroy them, and that they might become his People, if they violated their Promise and Obedience.”
This unprecedented act of diplomacy was Cuming’s crowning achievement. Once he had secured the allegiance of the Cherokee Nation to Britain, he desired to return to his native land (and undoubtedly spread the fame of his own name). He wished to return with Moytoy, who refused, but seven other Cherokee warriors agreed to travel with him across the Atlantic. Whether these men were intended to be representatives of their Nation or mere tokens of Cuming’s travels is not known, but once in England they were treated as the former by the courts.
Cuming took these warriors back to Charles Town with him, passing through Oconee and Keowee on his way. On May 4, they set sail for England and arrived in London on June 5. After this date, Cuming secured lodgings for the Cherokees, who saw little of him for the next two weeks. It is at this point, when Cuming is back in Britain, that we have the most evidence of his ventures and begin to be able to see a clearer image of the man.
It was on June 18, 1730, when the Cherokees saw Cuming again, in the court of King George II. The Cherokees were said to have bowed down as subjects of the King. Of course, they may have been previously prompted to do so, or simply saw everyone else do it as English custom. This was the first time any Cherokee had ever been in an English court, and the warriors were treated to the knighting of a duke and two earls as Knights of the Order of the Garter. McRae does mention that the Cherokees were disappointed not to have been offered any food during the ceremony and festivities.
Four days later they were formally presented before the King. This meeting is described in Alexander Cuming’s Memoir.
On the 22d day of June 1730 Sir Alexander Cuming had an audience of His Majesty in Windsor Castle being attended by the seven Cherokee Warriors which he had brought over to England as witnesses of the Power conferred upon him on the 3d day of April 1730 at a place called Nequisee in the Cherokee Mountains and in virtue of the unlimited Power given him by the Cherokee Nation as their Lawgiver Sir Alexander laid the Crown of the Cherokee Nation at His Majesty’s feet as a token of their Homage and Submission [to] His Majesty as Subjects to the Crown of Great Britain, their Eagles Tails at His Majesty’s feet as Emblems of Glory and Victory, and four Scalps of their Indian Enemies at His Majesty’s feet to shew that in their State of Savage Liberty they were an over match for any one nation of their Indian Enemies and under the conduct of a proper leader might probably be an over match for many more.
A formal treaty was then drawn up in Cuming’s residence between Britain and the Cherokee Nation. The seven Cherokees were forced to sign it as representatives of their Nation.
This treaty, the first such treaty to exist between England and the Cherokees, stated that the seven warriors present, “You Scayagusta Oukah, Chief of the Town of Tassetsa-You Scate Casken Ketagusta-You Tethtone-You Clogoillah---You Colannah-You Oucounacou,” had all been made deputies by “Moytoy of Telliko, with the Consent and Approbation of the whole Nation of the Cherokee Indians.” These seven men were assumed to have the authority to make agreements for the entire nation of Cherokees, even though such a unified nation did not exist. Nevertheless, the treaty was written as “if the whole Nation of Cherokees, the Old Men, Young Men, Wives and Children were all present.”
The treaty decreed that the enemies of the English were the enemies of the Cherokees and likewise with their friends. It demanded that the Cherokees treat the English as their own brothers, and must be ready to fight against any one who opposes the English. Most importantly, though, the treaty called for the English to increase their lands so that they may stretch from Charles Town to the Cherokee Nation. “And as the King has given His Land on both sides of the great Mountains to His own Children the English, so He now gives to the Cherokee Indians the Priviledge of living where they please.”
In return, the Cherokee must “keep the trading Path clean, and that there be no Blood in the Path where the English White Men tread; even tho they should be accompanyd by any other People with whom the Cherokees are at War.” The treaty also prevents the Cherokees from trading with anyone other than the English, nor can they allow any other white nation to settle or build forts on their lands. The Cherokee and the English alike who live in the Cherokee Nation would be subject to English, not Cherokee law, should any such man be killed. This “Agreement of Peace and Friendship betwixt the English and the Cherokees” was to be binding “as long as the Mountains and Rivers shall last, or the Sun shine.”
The English basically forced this agreement upon the Cherokees. The seven warriors could not very well refuse while they were but seven in a foreign nation. When they returned home and told of the treaty, they faced the anger of their own nation.
Once Cuming had the Cherokees safely in Britain, he apparently had little to do with them. In a response to the treaty two days later, on September 9th, the Cherokees say, “There was a person in our Country with Us, he gave a Yellow token of his Warlike Honour, that is left with Moytoy of Telliko; And as Warriors, we received it. He came to Us like a Warrior from you, A Man he was, his talk was upright, and the token he left, preserves his Memory amongst Us. . . We have looked round for the Person that was in Our Country, he is not here, however We must say, that he talked upright to Us, and We shall never forget him.”
The Cherokees spent the remainder of the summer as spectacles in London, and continued to see little of Cuming. He was apparently having strenuous financial difficulties stemming from notes he had issued in the colonies, and was constantly seeking support from the Duke of Newcastle, and King George himself. While claiming no responsibility for the Cherokee men (thereby trying to avoid any bills they accrued), he found every opportunity to suggest that he be named Overlord of the Cherokee Nation-a position that was denied him. His story unfolds in the correspondence that survives.
On July 15, 1739, Cuming received a note from James Crowe, who had been providing lodgings for the Cherokee men. Crowe makes mention of a perhaps violent incident and refuses to allow the Cherokees to stay one more night in his residence. He then demands that Cuming pay their bill in full with haste. On this same day Cuming writes a letter to one Mr. Delafay, representing His Majesty. In this letter Cuming mentions that the King had set aside someone to take care of the Cherokees and also a sum of money for that purpose. He suggests that Mr. Crowe’s bill be paid out of that sum, but “I am not willing that any of the money should pass throw my hands, because what I have done was not for my own Advantage but for the Service of my King & Country.” Alexander Cuming is tactfully denying responsibility for the visitors (and their debts). Then he goes on in the letter to suggest that if he were granted more authority over the Cherokees, he could easily solve these problems, but unless this is done, “I’m afrayed I shall not be able to attend them.” In effect, he is asking for this authority over the Cherokees (as well as access to funds to support them).
Cuming repeats these exact same sentiments in a letter to the Duke of Newcastle. He once more denies responsibility of the Cherokees, asks that Mr. Crowe’s bill be paid out of provisional funds rumored to have been set aside for the Cherokees, and tactfully suggest that he would be happy to take responsibility for such matters given the authority. In his mind he relinquished all responsibility of the Cherokee visitors the moment he presented them to King George, and “cannot now take upon him to give any Directions or Assume to himself the Charge of those Peoples unless he receives first His Majestys authority for doing So.”
It would appear that Cuming is merely attempting to make a case for himself being named Overlord of the Cherokees. It is only natural for him to assume that this title would be granted to him, as he was the one who arranged for their allegiance (and submission) to the English. In fact it can be argued that the obtaining of such a position could be the very reason why Cuming made the dangerous voyage. In a letter written directly to King George II, Alexander Cuming reminds the King that it was he who won the Cherokees’ allegiance, and then asks outright “to enjoy by Your Majestys Gracious Favour, the Same Power over the Cherokee Nation which He has obtained by their own consent, and this will enable Your Memorialist to answer for their Behaviour with respect to Your Majestys Service.”
Apparently this request was not answered favorably, for in a later letter addressed to His Majesty, Cuming says that he “is willing to run all risks in living among them for three Years, and thereby promote Your Majestys Service, after such a manner, as to render it easie for any one to continue it afterwards.” This suggests a certain desperateness about Cuming. He is willing to leave behind his family, friends, and estates to live in the Carolina wilderness for years in order to gain this title. Of course, one could argue that Cuming would also be leaving his debts behind in England. And Cuming obviously received more admiration and respect from the Cherokees than from his own countrymen. After all, in the Carolinas he would have an Emperor answering to him!
In a letter to the Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations, Cuming says that the symbols of the Cherokee Nation were given over to him, and not to anyone else, and that the Cherokees came to England not to enter into any agreements, but only did so at his own command. He then states that the Cherokees have already chosen him to be their Director, “and if His Majesty approves He shall Direct them for their own Good and for His Majesty’s Service.”
This request was ultimately denied. At some point during that summer it must have become apparent to Cuming that he would never be named Overlord of the Cherokees, for the requests ceased. Even a final request for one of the Cherokee warriors to remain in England with him (which Cuming claimed was the desire of the Cherokee) was denied by the Board.
The Cherokees returned home to a nation that would be forever changed by the events of that year. And Alexander Cuming saw no profit or recognition for his actions. In 1736 he was thrown in debtor’s prison. He sent numerous letters to the Duke of Argyll asking to be reinstated for the ?300 per annum wages. He reminded King George of a decades old promise. Cuming’s father had allegedly saved King George from drowning, after which the King promised to make him the highest man in all England. Cuming argued that since he had not kept that promise to his father, the King should at least take care that Alexander was provided for. The King did not recall that promise being made.
Later, in a letter dated August 6, 1737, Alexander Cuming wrote to King George;
I made the Cherokee Indian, the most considerable Nation of the American Savages pay their Homage to Your Majesty by my laying the Crown of their Nation at Your Majestys feet on virtue of a Power which I obtained by means of Providence without either fraud or force. I neither had nor desired any reward for this proof of my Loyalty and Zeal.
After writing these words he once more requests that the King make good on the promise made to his father and support him financially.
The end result for Cuming was a brief tour of duty as a Captain once more in Jamaica under Gov. Trelawney (Cuming had sought that Governorship for himself as well, but had it denied him). He died in 1775, and is remembered by a small sign posted by Nikwasi Mound in Franklin, NC. For the Cherokee Nation, Cuming’s visit meant a greater interest in them on the part of the English-this manifested itself as increased trade and increased settlements in their land. It also brought a period of relative peace between the Cherokees and the British settlers, at a time when the Cherokees were about to join with the French in a war against them. Whatever the motives behind Cuming’s visit, he was a pioneer in many respects, and the influence of his connecting these two cultures cannot be denied in Cherokee, and American, history.