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This webpage reproduces an item in
The North Carolina Booklet

Vol. 3 No. 2 (Jun. 1903), pp5‑24

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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p5 North Carolina Cherokee Indians


By William W. Stringfield,
(Lieutenant-Colonel 69th N. C. T.)


It was my intention, in the beginning, to record only my personal recollections of those Indians left in North Carolina after the Removal — known as the "Eastern Band of Cherokees." While I have not confined myself strictly to their story, such was my original intention, and for this reason, I have made no mention of many prominent members of the tribe who were identified with the "Nation" rather than the "Eastern Band," notably John Ross, Elias Boudinot, and the "Cadmus of his race," George Gist (Sequoya), invader of the Cherokee alphabet.

It would take an article such as I have written to adequately describe their present condition and surroundings. However, as we are told "It is a foolish thing to make a long prologue and to be short in the story itself," I submit this sketch without further explanation or apology.


It is not of the mythical or traditional, but of the real Cherokee that I write — and not so much of the ancient as the modern.

Mrs. Helen Hunt Jackson, in her "Century of Dishonor," says the Indians are peculiarly the wards of the nation. While claiming to be as good a friend of "the poor Indian" as Mrs. Jackson, I cannot altogether agree with her in some of her statements and conclusions. As I mention later, I had several hundred of the Eastern Band of Cherokees in my p6command during the Civil War, and since that time I have lived near them. I can, therefore, speak from a personal knowledge of their racial peculiarities and characteristics, such knowledge being as necessary when writing of the Indian as when writing of our other race problem, the more vexed one of our "brother in black."

A great deal has been written about the "mountaineers" of Western North Carolina, but very little about the native mountaineers — these lords of the forest, who roved from one "happy hunting ground" to another in this beautiful "Land of the Sky" for centuries before the white man came to disturb their Arcadia, and, eventually, take their lands.

The name "Cherokee" is a corruption of "Tsalgi," and has no meaning in their own language. We find it first in the Portuguese recital of De Soto's expedition, published in 1557 as "Chalaque." In a French document it appears as "Cheraqué," the English form "Cherokee" appearing as early as 1708.

Linguistically the Cherokees are related to the Iroquoian stock, their marked differences being due to their long separation.

The Cherokee language had many dialects, as is the case with tribes scattered over a large territory. We find these dialects divided into three principal ones — the Eastern, Middle and Western. The Eastern, also called the Lower Cherokee, was spoken by the tribes in South Carolina and Georgia. The Middle dialect was originally spoken in the towns along the Tuckasegee, and is the dialect used by most of the Indians p7now residing in the Qualla Reservation. The Western dialect was spoken by the tribes of Tennessee by some in upper Georgia and North Carolina. It is the "literary dialect," and is spoken by those who reside in the West.

It will be seen, therefore, that Adair's classification of "Ottari" (among the hills) and "Erati" (lowland) will have to be rejected as insufficient. Also the derivation of the word Cherokee from "Cheera," meaning fire. This element was held in great respect by them, the "sacred fire" being kept constantly burning in their "town house." They believed if this house was destroyed by their enemies the sacred fire would sink into the ground, where it would continue to burn, though unseen by them. The older Cherokees believe this fire still burns within the mounds at Franklin and Bryson City. Some of their men, who were in the Confederate service and stationed near there, claimed to have seen smoke arising from them.

We are told that the Cherokees were the most intelligent of the tribes, and that it was due to their military prowess that they were able to hold the most beautiful, picturesque and secure homes of all the American tribes. Their love for their mountain home was, and is, intense, many of them dying of broken hearts when forced by the Federal Government to remove to the West. Of this blot on the escutcheon, I shall speak later.

They possess a keen and delicate appreciation of the beautiful in nature, and their language is soft and melodious — when spoken by them. Their most beautiful names lose p8their soft resonance of sound when spoken by English lips. Tlâge‑si Se‑le‑tah, my Indian name, I like still to hear from the lips of my old comrades in arms. A pity it is that the euphonious names given our mountains and rivers by them, such as "Tocheeostee," "Zillicoah," "Wayeh," etc., should have been replaced by such prosaic ones as at present designate them.

The Cherokees, like their kindred, are very credulous and superstitious. They people the dark solitudes of the mountains with spirits, evil and good. The "Devil's Court-house," "Devil's Looking-glass," and other places believed to be the abode of His Satanic Majesty, were carefully avoided. Bravery atoned for a multitude of sins, and it was always the most courageous in arms who were most esteemed.

Many beautiful legends of the Balsams, whose majestic peaks, gloomy forests and sparkling cascades appealed strongly to their imaginations, are handed down to us. The following one is taken from Zeigler's "The Heart of the Alleghanies," and is as descriptive of the scenery now as in former days:

The Indians believed they were originally mortal in spirit as well as body, but above the blue vault of heaven there was, inhabited by a celestial race, a forest into which the highest mountains lifted their dark summits. It is a fact worth noticing that while the priests of the Orient described heaven as a great city with streets of gold and gates of pearl and fine gems, the tribes of the Western Continent aspired to nothing beyond the perpetual enjoyment of wild nature.

p9 "The mediator, by whom eternal life was secured for the Indian, was a maiden of their own tribe. Allured by the haunting sound and diamond sparkle of a mountain stream, she wandered far up into a solitary glen, where the azalia, kalmia and the rhododendron brilliantly embellished the deep, shaded slopes, and filled the air with their delicate perfume. The crystal stream wound its crooked way between moss-covered rocks, over which tall ferns bowed their graceful stems. Enchanted by the scene, she seated herself upon the soft moss and, overcome by fatigue, was soon asleep. The dream-picture of a fairyland was presently broken by the soft touch of a strange hand. The spirit of her dream occupied a place at her side, and wooing, won her for his bride.

"Her supposed abduction caused great excitement among her people, who made diligent search for her recovery in their own villages. Being unsuccessful, they made war upon the neighboring tribes in the hope of finding the place of her concealment. Grieved because of so much bloodshed and sorrow, she besought the Great Chief of the Eternal Hunting Grounds to make retribution. She was accordingly appointed to call a council of her people at the forks of the Wayeh (Pigeon) river. She appeared unto the chiefs in a dream, and charged them to meet the spirits of the hunting ground with fear and reverence.

"At the hour appointed the head men of the Cherokees assembled. The high Balsam peaks were shaken by thunder and aglow with lightning. A cloud as black as midnight settled over the valley, then lifted, leaving upon a large rock p10a cluster of strange men, armed and painted as for war. An enraged brother of the abducted maiden swung his tomahawk and raised the war-whoop, but a swift thunderbolt dispatched him before the echo had died in the hills. The chiefs, terror-stricken, fled to their towns.

"The bride, grieved by the death of her brother, and the failure of the council, prepared to abandon her new home and return to her kindred in the valleys. To reconcile her, the promise was granted that all brave warriors and their faithful women should have an eternal home in the happy hunting ground above after death. The Great Chief of the forest beyond the clouds became the guardian spirit of the Cherokees."

The Cherokees dwelt in villages, usually near some stream where fish and game were plentiful. In Echota, their "city of refuge" and their capital, their councils were held, and there lived the Archi-magus, Oconostata, and the prophetess, the famous Nancy Ward, their "Beloved Woman," who though not as well known to the general reader as Matoaka, deserves as high a place in our regard as the Virginia maiden. This city of refuge was like the sanctuary of ancient times. Here an enemy, or even a criminal, could abide in safety.

The first account we have of the Cherokees dates back to 1540, when De Soto, the great Spanish explorer, traversed the southern and middle part of their domain, searching for gold. This march was one of destruction and devastation, equalled only in later times by Sherman's "March to the Sea."

p11 In the century following De Soto's march there were numerous hostile incursions by the Spanish and their Indian allies, in which they carried off many Cherokees as prisoners and sold them into slavery in the West Indies. Being stalwart fellows, they were more valued as slaves than the less hardy negro. These incursions were usually from the south, as any one familiar with the topography of the country will see how their interior position kept them long from any intercourse with the settlers on the coast.

Cornelius Doherty is the first white man of whom we have any knowledge as living among them. In 1690 he settled among them as a trader, and I am sorry to chronicle that his influence, like that of many of his compatriots, was rather more degrading than elevating. Under his tutelage they soon became expert horse thieves, and the whites in retaliation would incite hostile tribes to make war upon them. So many braves were captured and sold into slavery by the colonists, that at last, in desperation, they appealed for aid to the Governor, who interfered and stopped the nefarious trade, securing thus, with but few lapses, the future loyalty of the tribe.

The French made and accepted similar overtures along the northern borders, but their persuasive powers were of no avail among the Cherokees, who remained friendly to the English.

It would be impossible to definitely locate the original boundaries occupied by the Cherokees, but they covered an area of at least 40,000 square miles, extending from near Pittsburg, Pa., on the north, to the Santee in middle South p12Carolina, covering, as will be seen, the Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Cumberland regions.

The Cherokees are not without the trait possessed by all other Indians — they are good haters as well as fighters. Adair, who lived among them for forty years, has this to say of their thirst for revenge:

"I have known them to go a thousand miles in pathless woods, over hills and mountains, through large cane-swamps full of grape-vines and briars, over broad lakes, rapid rivers, and deep creeks, exposed to the extremities of heat and cold, the vicissitudes of the seasons, to hunger and thirst, to fatigue and other difficulties. Such is their over-boiling, revengeful temper, that they utterly disregard all these things as imaginary trifles, if they are so happy as to get the scalp of the murderer or enemy, to satisfy the supposed craving ghosts of their deceased relatives."

While contact with civilization has subdued the wild nature of the red man somewhat, much of his spirit still remains.

Not long since, at a game of La Crosse on their "reservation," between the clans, so great was their excitement over the game, that the squaws, when everything else had been "put up," cut off their "raven tresses" and cast them into the pile, which, as is their custom, was set on fire at the close of the game — all joining hands and dancing wildly around the bonfire, while they made the welkin ring with their uncanny war-whoop and unearthly screams.

The Cherokees had and have many redeeming traits of character. They did not always put their prisoners to death, p13but adopted some whites into the tribe, turned others loose and allowed many to "run the gauntlet" to freedom. Their houses of refuge I have already mentioned.

As we look backward, shame to us! the atrocities committed were not all on the side of the savage. It seems incredible, yet history teaches us (white man's history too) that the Plymouth Rock settlers and their descendants not only scalped, but beheaded their prisoners. However, as they hanged and burnt witches of their own flesh and blood, they were no respecters of persons. The Cherokees being further west and south, knew little and suffered less from King Philip's War,a but they heard much about these "northern barbarities."

It is only too true that the early settlers, as a rule, utterly disregarded every personal, private right an Indian was ever supposed to have. Treaty after treaty was made, only to be broken before the change of the moon. After treating or ceding awayº all of Kentucky — that "dark and bloody ground" — with parts of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, still the white man reached out for more, and took it, until finally little more than the backbone of the rugged mountains was left, and, as will be seen later, much of that was taken!

At the close of the Revolutionary War the Cherokees, broken in spirit and shattered in fortune, made a final peace with the whites. They were at war with the Creeks and other Indian tribes constantly — retiring to the mountain fastnesses of Western North Carolina and North Georgia.

In the Creek War they were appealed to by the great warrior p14Tecumseh to join him in a general uprising. This chieftain had been made a general by the British, and he made a personal visit to the Cherokee chief, Junaluska, at his home, and at the town house on Soco creek, in Swain county, which was near the home of the late "Black Fox," an old Methodist minister.

Tecumseh is said to have used his most persuasive arts and flattering promises upon the sturdy old warrior, but he remained true to his friends then and ever after.

It is a peculiar and, to the writer, a pleasing coincidence, that the vital conference was held here, where, on February 6, 1864 (improperly stated March 6th in "North Carolina Regimental History," Sixty-ninth Regiment), the writer, in command of two hundred whites and one hundred and fifty Indians, fought back, and but for lack of ammunition would have captured the notorious Kirk with his five or six hundred followers.

The Indians were led by a grandson of Junaluska, and both whites and Indians were descendants of the soldiers of 1812‑'14. This was the only time during the Civil War that armed Federals were in their midst. The Indians remained loyal, but were greatly excited. It was impossible to keep them quiet. The war-whoop and crack of the rifle resounded everywhere. They followed close upon the heels of Kirk, even across the Smoky Mountains. However, this is anticipating somewhat.

When the War of 1812 was declared, Junaluska, at the head of eight hundred Cherokee warriors, did valiant service p15for the United States, and, at the battles of Emukfaw Creek and Horse-shoe Bend, their services were indispensable.

In the former the father of the writer, a pioneer Methodist minister, then but a lad, was shot down in the immediate presence of General Jackson, and would have been killed and scalped but for the timely succor of the General, who personally aided in carrying him to the rear. He bore, hence, on his forehead, an honorable scar to his grave.

North Carolina remembered Junaluska and as a slight reward he was given a farm in what is now Graham county, where he afterwards lived, died and lies buried. His grave may still be seen on the outskirts of Robbinsville.b

Another great chief, by many considered the greatest, was Yonaguska (Drowning Bear). Tall of stature and of commanding presence, standing six feet five inches, and of strikingly handsome presence, he possessed qualities which made him both loved and feared by his people. He was considered by Colonel Thomas to be as great a man as John C. Calhoun. Certainly a man who wielded as great an influence for good over rude warriors as he deserves a place in history. He knew how to appeal to their superstitions as well as guard their weaknesses, as the following facts will show: having been addicted to the use of whiskey himself, he realized its demoralizing influence, and determined upon the reformation of the tribe. And now he proved himself to be a master! With the cunning of the Indian and wisdom of a statesman, he appealed to their superstition. He fell into a trance, which lasted for fifteen days. During that time p16the warriors, twelve hundred of them, marched and counter-marched around his supposedly dead body. At last came the time for burial, but just as they were ready to perform the last rites — according to their custom — the dead chief was seen to over, and the well-known voice was heard again.

In an awe-stricken silence they listened to the voice of their new prophet. He told them of his long service. How he had always tried to serve their interests, and how the "Great Spirit," in His great love and pity for them, and grief over their excesses, had called him to the "happy hunting ground" that he might return and warn them. Tears streamed down the faces of all who listened, and they were eager to do the will of their prophet. Colonel Thomas was asked to write a pledge, which the old chief signed, then his followers. From that time the use of spirituous liquors was abandoned, any violation of their pledge being punished at the whipping-post. A good remedy at the present time!

A lack of humor is characteristic of the Indian — but Yonaguska was not wanting in this trait. Some one having brought a Cherokee translation of Matthew from New Echota, he would not allow it to be read until he had passed judgment upon it. He always held to his Indian faith, and was very suspicious of missionaries. However, after hearing several chapters read, with a grunt of satisfaction he dryly remarked: "It seems to be a very good book. Strange the white people are not better, after having had it so long."

During the life of Yonaguska pressure was frequently brought to bear upon him to induce him to move west with p17his people. This he always indignantly refused to do, and he counseled them to the last to remain in their old homes, as they might go to a State where their liberties would be more curtailed than in North Carolina. He died at a very old age, a year after the removal.

Of this removal, a Georgia soldier then, afterwards a colonel in the Confederate service, had this to say: "I fought through the Civil War, and have seen thousands of men shot to pieces, but that Cherokee Removal was the most cruel work I ever knew." The manner of removal is indeed a stain upon our flag!

This treaty (1835), it seems, was demanded by the people of Georgia, and enforced against the wish of the Cherokees, almost to a man. The Federal authorities (Jackson was President) hesitated and delayed in the matter, Jackson, no doubt, remembering the valiant service of these same Cherokees at the "Horse-shoe." His conscience pricked him sorely. A burning, stinging, acrimonious debate rang through both halls of Congress. Democrats for the bogus treaty, Whigs against it — the latter led by Clay, Webster, Everett, Wise and Davy Crockett. President Van Buren coming in, was disposed to give more time, but Governor Gilmer of Georgia was relentless. The Cherokees must go; and the majority did go. But how? Seventeen thousand were forced to move, two thousand left voluntarily.

State and Federal troops made the move. The Indians were hunted down like wild beasts. Many of the officers and soldiers protested against such cruelties; but the Cherokees p18had to go. Soldiers guarded every one everywhere. One old man, when thus surrounded, calmly gathered his children around him, and all, in their own language, commended themselves to God; after which he said to the astonished soldiers: "Take us where you will, our God is with us."

Another brave ran off to the mountains, was followed for weeks; finally he came home and was found at sunrise half starved, prone upon the ground between the graves of his father and mother. Another notably cruel case was that of "Old man Charley." In his party were his wife, his three sons and their families. They were ordered in a rough mention to "move up"; a soldier at the same time prodded the old squaw, who was foot-sore and weary, in the side with his bayonet. Exasperated beyond endurance, Charley and his sons sprang upon the soldiers, and in the confusion which followed one soldier was killed. The Indians made their escape, but later, hearing that others would suffer if they did not surrender, Old Charley bravely came forth to his own death. By order of General Scott he and his two sons were shot, their friends being compelled to do the shooting, as it was thought this would have a salutary effect on the others. And so the work of removal went on! Junaluska said of General Jackson: "If I had known he would allow us to be treated so, I would have killed him at the Horse-shoe."

I quote from the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology concerning this tragedy in the lives of the Cherokees: "The history of this Cherokee removal of 1838, as gleaned by the author from the lips of the actors in p19the tragedy, may well exceed in weight of grief and pathos any other passage in American history. Even the much-sung exile of the Acadians falls far behind it in its sum of death and misery. Under Scott's orders the troops were disposed at various points throughout the country, where stockade forts were erected for gathering in and holding the Indians preparatory to removal. From these, squads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in the caves or by the side of mountain streams, to seize and bring in as prisoners all the occupants, however, or wherever they might be found. Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the door-way, and rose up, to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trail that led to the stockade. In many cases, on turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, they saw their homes in flames, fired by the lawless rabble that followed on the heels of the soldiers to loot and pillage. So keen were these outlaws on the scent that in some instances they were driving off the cattle and other stock before the soldiers had fairly started their owners in the other direction." Indian graves were robbed of silver medals and other valuables placed with the dead. Some future Harriet Beecher Stowe may here find the truth to embody in a story of the oppressed!

The Eastern Band of Cherokees, of whom I am supposed to write, were, originally, the fugitives who refused to go, and could not be caught!

Colonel William H. Thomas, upon whose shoulders the p20mantle of Yonaguska fell, needs no mention at the hands of the writer. As his history is so closely interwoven with that of his native State, it has been often written. The Indians lost nothing and gained largely under his leadership. Although a Democrat and true Southerner, he, at first, refused to take the Indians into the war, until forced to do so by public opinion, then for local defense. As the emergency of the times arose, a company was increased to a battalion, a battalion to a regiment, the regiment to the "Legion," and finally to two regiments, two battalions and a battery of artillery. None of this, however, has place here except the four Indian companies.

In thus going into the Southern army the Indians were actuated solely by their respect and veneration for their chief, Colonel Thomas. East Tennessee, where most of their military duties were performed, was just across the great Smokies from their homes. As one of the regimental officers of the "Legion," the writer can truthfully declare that in all of the conduct of the Indians towards the Federals they were always humane and generous, with no excesses beyond those of ordinary soldiers. In only one instance did the savage come to the surface. At Baptist Gap, in the Cumberland mountains, September, 1862, in a fight with the Federals, one of our lieutenants — a splendid Indian warrior, and a grandson of Junaluska — was killed in a gallant charge. His followers were so much incensed that they dashed forward with their war-whoop and battle-cry, and before they could be restrained they had scalped several of the wounded enemy. p21This officer, Lieutenant John Astoogastoga, was a handsome, manly, Christian fellow, and would have been a man of mark in any community. Many of the Indians later on during the war had many good opportunities to desert, had they wished to do so. I must say that I cannot believe the statement sometimes made by Federals that the Indians deserted whenever they found an opportunity to do so.

As many intelligent and patriotic whites differed in opinion about the war, it would not have been so surprising had the Indians done so. A few months after the collapse of the Confederacy, I had occasion to travel through the Indian settlement, and I was astonished to learn how angry they were with the whites for surrendering so tamely, as they thought. It was more than a year after the close of the war before they would permit those who had fought on the Union side to return to their homes, and then only at the command of Colonel Thomas.

I wish to say, further, that while there was some confusion and drunkenness, their average behavior was better than that of the whites. I think it worthy of mention, and germane to the subject, to further state that the Indians were the last troops to surrender in the South — east of the Mississippi river. This surrender took place in the town of Waynesville, on May 10, 1865. It should be borne in mind that the entire Department of Western North Carolina, being isolated, after the surrender of East Tennessee reported directly to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lee. After his surrender and the surrounding and capture of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Johnston's army, the Federals, in the meantime, having p22pushed forward, the Department was cut off from all communication with the outside world.

A truce had been called, when very unexpectedly Colonel Bartlett of New York (Third N. C. Federal) broke loose from flag of truce agreements at Asheville and went rapidly over Buncombe and Haywood counties stealing horses.

Colonel Thomas, with three hundred Indians, and Colonel James R. Love, with three hundred men, confronted him at Waynesville. He was driven into the town and surrounded. Colonel Thomas, with his Indians, retired to the mountain west of town (Mt. Maria Love), which was within shooting distance. Hundreds of camp-fires were built over the face of the mountain, and the night was made hideous by the war-whoop of the Indians. One Federal was killed and many more wounded by their sharp-shooters.

The bonfires and hideous yells had the desired effect. The following morning Colonel Bartlett sent out a flag of truce and asked for a conference. Colonel Love, with several of his men, and Colonel Thomas, with twenty of his largest and most warlike-looking Indians, stripped to the waist and painted and feathered off in fine style, entered the town. An agreement was made by which the Legion was paroled, the officers and men being allowed to keep their arms.

This surrender had a salutary effect upon all. Both whites and Indians returned to their homes and began work on their farms — the Indians the most peaceable of all, and less to be feared.

When these Indians were allowed to remain in the East a p23small annuity was allowed each one. This fund had accumulated and had become quite a "plum." As we all know, "carpet-baggers" loved "plums," so it happened that the Cherokees were not allowed to escape the fate of their unfortunate white friends. This would not have happened but for the unfortunate illness of their much-loved chief, who was stricken in body and mind when his services were most needed. Rival claims for the chieftainship arose, and great confusion ensued. The younger generation growing up "knew not Joseph," and were the easy prey of designing men. However, the best citizens of the country, duly appreciating the gravity of their own and the Indians' surroundings, lent a helping hand, and alleviated much suffering.

For the last eighteen or twenty years the Federal Government has not been remiss in its efforts to train and educate the younger Indians in the necessary and useful arts of living. A Training and Industrial School, with extensive buildings, shops, gardens, etc., is in full operation on the banks of the beautiful Oconolufty at Cherokee, formerly "Yellow Hill," at the old Arneechee ford. How much permanent benefit is to arise remains yet to be seen.

Recently graduates from this school and Carlisle, Pa., were on the streets of Waynesville — husband and wife. She, in the usual way, had upon her back a great load of baskets, and a papoose. He was loaded down with a bow and arrow. She made the baskets, carried them to Waynesville, sold them and bought him a pair of shoes and a hat. For herself she p24purchased a red bandana and some artificial roses, which she displayed with many grunts of satisfaction and pride.

Many tourists now visit this Reservation, and it certainly calls up a curious, if not startling, train of thought, to stand upon one of the many beautiful hillocks surrounding this school and hear the beat of "long roll" and the full swelling notes of the "Cherokee Band" of twenty-four brass horns, well tuned to music, daily drilling upon the beautiful green sward.

On the "Reservation" of one hundred thousand acres of land immediately surrounding the school, the Indians are now fairly happy and contented, and with each returning year are better able to support themselves. This school is located five or six miles from Whittier, N. C., by a good driving road, on the banks of the beautiful, sparkling and romantic Soco and Oconolufty rivers — one of the most favored spots in this beautiful Land of the Sky, "where God has written His love in trailing-arbutus, flowering azalia and many-tinted rhododendron; and has recorded His majesty on heights where centuries have slept, and woke to find their brows unchanged by marring stroke of time's rude pen."


Thayer's Note:

a King Philip's War was the earliest formal war fought by European settlers in America against native Americans. It is covered onsite by two complete books: John Easton's short but contemporaneous Narrative of the Causes which led to Philip's Indian War, of 1675 and 1676 [a primary source], and King Philip's War by George Ellis and John Morris.

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b His grave may still be seen; there are several photographs of it on this page at Find-a‑Grave.


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Page updated: 14 Oct 11