Yonaguska (1760?-1839)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Considered by many to be the last great chief of the Cherokee, Yonaguska (also known as Drowning Bear) consistently cooperated with the United States government and later in life warned against the effects of “the black drink” on the Cherokee.  Yonaguska ensured that the Treaty of 1819 was observed and his people recognized as North Carolina citizens.  As a result, the United States did not remove Yoganuska’s followers from their home in the North Carolina mountains.

Undoubtedly understanding the technological and numerical superiority of the United States military, Yoganuska always discouraged waging war against the United States.  In 1811, for instance, he refused to join forces with Tecumseh and the British. 

In 1819, he and the heads of approximately 50 families signed a treaty with the United States and officially withdrew from the Cherokee Nation.  As citizens of North Carolina and the United States, each head of household received 640 acres on a reservation located where the Oconaluftee and Tuckasegee rivers flowed together.

During the 1820s, land speculators, with the help of alcohol, convinced many Oconaluftee Cherokee to sell their lands.  At this time, Yonugaska was reported to have been an alcoholic, but after recovering from an illness and what some have called a trance, the chief gathered his followers, including his adopted son William H. Thomas (a 14-year-old white boy) and recounted the unfortunate history of the Catawba and discussed ways in which to improve his people’s happiness and state of life.  That day he declared, “The Cherokee must never again drink whisky” and ordered a temperance pledge to be drafted.  The Oconaluftee agreed to never imbibe liquor again, and if they did, risk enduring the lash.

But Yonaguska is most noteworthy for resisting peacefully the U.S. government’s attempt to remove his people to Oklahoma.  In 1835 at the New Echota convention, Cherokee chiefs discussed the cessation of land to the U.S.  But Yonaguska was noticeably absent, for he had always opposed removal of Cherokee.  Instead, the chief dispatched Thomas to Washington, D.C. to lobby for Oconaluftee interests and be a watchdog for government dealings with any Cherokee.  Meanwhile, Thomas persuaded other Cherokee chiefs to recognize the Oconaluftee land claims in the Treaty of 1819 and the North Carolina citizenship of Yonaguska’s followers.  As a North Carolinian and American citizen, Yoganuska helped the United States Army after the removal in locating fugitive Cherokee in the mountains.

In the end, Yonaguska’s temperance reform helped his followers keep their land, and his and Thomas’s diplomacy kept the Oconaluftee from being forcibly removed. 

Mount Yonaguska (6,150 ft.) is located on Haywood-Swain County line.