Blair v. Path Killer

Path Killer’s connection to Loudon, Tenn., is one of the better documented because of a famous Tennessee Supreme Court Case, the records of which are housed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville.

In 1817, a treaty ceding certain Cherokee lands to the United States was negotiated and signed by Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, Tennessee Gov. Joseph McMinn and David Meriwether, collectively serving as commissioners plenipotentiary of the United States, and a number of Cherokee chiefs and other representatives, including Charles R. Hicks. Two years later, however, that treaty was renegotiated by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun as the Treaty of Washington 1819, often called the Calhoun Treaty in the history books. In article II of the 1819 treaty, language was included that allowed the head of any “Indian” family residing within the previously ceded territory to claim 640 acres of land on condition of becoming a citizen of the United States.

In Loudon, James Blair was operating a ferry across the Tennessee River. Path Killer invoked his right to 640 acres following the treaty, claiming an area that included Blair’s ferry. Blair naturally counter sued against Path Killer in order to maintain his property rights. Path Killer took legal action in 1821 to order Blair from the property, starting a back and forth of land and title disputes, damages claims and trespass charges that went on until the late 1830s. Both James Blair and Path Killer had died long before the case was settled between Blair’s sons John and Wily and Path Killer’s daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and James Gardenhire. The case was ultimately decided in favor of the Blairs, after which they constructed the Blair Ferry House still standing today in Loudon.

The stone in Loudon commemorating Path Killer claims the chief died in Arkansas in 1843, which would mean he was a shocking 101 years old if born in 1742. Path Killer’s name, often written as Pathkiller, passed down to his descendants as a surname. Given that Path Killer’s family inherited his case against the Blairs, it may be that one of them was confused with the chief, leading to the error in date and location of death on the memorial.

New Echota, Cherokee capital

It seems unlikely, I’d say impossible, that Principal Chief Path Killer is buried in Arkansas. There are at least two contemporaneous mentions in print of Path Killer’s passing. In the June 9, 1827, edition of Niles’ Weekly Register, the deaths of both Path Killer and Charles R. Hicks are mentioned in brief in a reprint of an article from the Tennessee Hiwassean newspaper. The article covers the number of Cherokees still east of the Mississippi and the preparations being made for formation of a Cherokee constitutional government.

The second mention comes from the March 20, 1828, edition of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American language newspaper, wherein an author named only as “A Cherokee” wrote a letter to the editor under the title “Money and Principles.” It’s quite a long letter, but about two-thirds of the way in, it mentions that Principal Chief Charles R. Hicks had “called his cabinet council, in order to remove the Treasury to Echota; but, in the mean time, the Path Killer’s death, and his own, prevented the accomplishment of the necessary arrangement.” Neither of the papers gives a precise date of death.

Path Killer wrote letters to Andrew Jackson from Turkey Town, Ala., (not to be confused with the modern rural community) by means of his translator and Second Principal Chief Charles R. Hicks. Digital scans of the correspondence, written between October and December 1813 during the Creek War, are available through the Library of Congress, along with letters written by Path Killer to Jackson in February 1818 from Major Ridge’s home and December 1818 from Rossville. A single letter from Return Jonathan Meigs Sr. to Path Killer is also online at the Library of Congress. The later letters to Jackson from points east and north of Turkey Town, however, in addition to Path Killer’s presence at Newtown, located at the confluence of the Coosawattee and Conasauga Rivers to form the Oostanaula, for the Nov. 12, 1825, meeting of the Cherokee National Committee and Council, illustrate the shift in the center of gravity for the Cherokee nation to New Echota. Given New Echota’s preeminence in the days before the Trail of Tears, it’s not entirely unreasonable to think of Principal Chief Path Killer being there just before his death.

There are minor clues about the New Echota grave site in a pair of articles from the Atlanta Journal, one of two predecessors to today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The first, on page 34 of the Nov. 9, 1930, edition, reveals that the historic marker at the foot of the New Echota Cemetery hill was placed through the efforts of Congressman M.C. Tarver and the Calhoun Women’s Club. The follow-up article, from page 9 of the Sept. 17, 1931, edition, covers the ceremony for the placing of the historic marker. Near the end of the article it is mentioned that the Daughters of the American Revolution, “wishing to preserve the grave of Chief Pathkiller for future generations, has requested the government for a marker and hope to mark this grave of the friendly Indian of the Cherokees at New Echota with appropriate ceremonies in the early fall.”

The articles are tantalizing but in effect only tell us that people in the early 1930s believed the grave at New Echota to be Path Killer’s. Neither tells us why they believed that.

Check back next week for Part III of this four part series. Ross Rogers is a newsroom assistant and staff writer at Rome News-Tribune. He may be contacted at JRogers@RN-T.com.