Tsali (Cherokee: ᏣᎵ), originally of Coosawattee Town (Kusawatiyi), was a noted leader of the Cherokee during two different periods of the history of the tribe. As a young man, he followed the Chickamauga Cherokee war chief, Dragging Canoe, from the time the latter migrated southwest during the Cherokee–American wars. In 1812 he became known as a prophet, urging the Cherokee to ally with the Shawnee Tecumseh in war against the Americans.
Later, during the 1830s roundup of Cherokee for Indian Removal, Tsali, his wife and brother, his three sons and their families were taken by surprise and marched at bayonet point toward the Indian Agency on the Hiwasee River. When Tsali's wife paused to care for the needs of her baby, one of the guards whipped her and prodded her with his bayonet, to force her on her way.:235 According to a secondhand account by Wasidana, Tsali's son, the mother and baby were forced onto horseback and, in the process, "she got her foot hung in the stirrup. Then her baby dropped. It went that way, out yonder, and bust the head. And it died right then." In response, a surprise attack was made on the soldiers, one guard was killed and the rest wounded or subdued. Tsali and his relatives fled to the mountains and hid out in a cave in the Smoky Mountains. His successful evasion was reported to the other Indians by grapevine and soon the mountain Cherokees by dozens, then by hundreds, joined him in the hideout, living off roots and berries on the border of starvation.
General Scott was baffled by the situation. He had not the troops to track down Indians in that impervious and secret region. Nor was he certain that he wanted to. But if Tsali's freedom went unchallenged, a fateful example would be set for other Cherokees. Scott enlisted the services of William Holland Thomas, a white attorney who had been adopted into the tribe in his youth and would later become its chief. He also represented the tribe in negotiations with the federal government regarding the removals. Thomas was given a message to the leader of the fugitives. If Tsali and his family would surrender themselves to military justice, the rest of the Cherokees in the mountains could remain free.
He and his brother and sons came down from the mountains and gave themselves up. Tsali's youngest boy Wasidana was spared; the others were executed. According to Wasidana, they were shot by a firing squad of Cherokee prisoners, compelled to the act as a means of impressing on the Indians the hopelessness of their position.
Tsali's martyrdom, however, marked not a hopeless end but a beginning. The three hundred fugitives remaining free became the forebears of some five thousand Cherokees living today in the North Carolina mountains, legatees of the once-proudest Nation in Native American Indian history. And Tsali's story survives close to the scene of its original enactment, in the annual presentation of a Cherokee drama entitled Unto These Hills.
During the turbulent years leading up to the War of 1812 and the Creek War, Tsali first became known as a major figure on the Cherokee national scene. The teachings of Tenskwatawa, known as the "Shawnee Prophet", began to filter down to the Native Americans of the Southeast, where they sparked a traditionalist cultural and religious revival. Tenskwatawa was the brother of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who led a pan-Indian resistance against the Americans.
Tenskwatawa's influence inspired what the later anthropologist James Mooney called the "Cherokee Ghost Dance movement." This revival increased Tecumseh's fame. He visited the council of the Upper Muscogee and representatives of the other tribes of the Southeast at Tuckabatchee. He called on them to band together, abandon the ways of acculturation, and take up arms together in a united war against the Americans.
The Cherokee National Council had sent a small delegation led by Major Ridge (known as The Ridge), to hear Tecumseh. He was generally well received but, when Tecumseh asked the Cherokee delegation when he could speak to their National Council, The Ridge replied that if Tecumseh set one foot inside the Cherokee Nation The Ridge would kill him. The chief considered Tecumseh a threat to Cherokee stability, although he had fought alongside many of the Cherokee leaders in the late 1780s during the Cherokee–American wars.
Some weeks after that Council, the 1812 New Madrid earthquake struck, affecting the entire continent of North America, with aftershocks for weeks afterwards. The legend spread that after his rejection by the Cherokee at Tuckabatchee, Tecumseh had promised that when he returned home, he would stomp his foot down on the earth so that the anger of the Great Spirit would come upon the Earth.
In a Council meeting at Ustanali some weeks later, the traditionalist prophet Tsali from the town of Coosawattee came to speak. He was eloquent in favor of alliance with Tecumseh. The Ridge, widely acknowledged as the best orator among the Cherokee Nation, argued against what he had said. Supporters of Tsali attacked The Ridge, who was saved by the intervention of a friend.
The Ridge's defiance of Tsali caused the prophet to lose face with the Council, which had been at the point of voting nearly unanimously to support Tecumseh's war. Tsali prophesied a great apocalypse for the Cherokee Nation and said the only safe haven would be the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, to which he then departed.
The National Council refused The Ridge's efforts to gain support for the Americans in their conflict with the British during the War of 1812. The Council got involved in the Creek War only after being recruited by the Lower Muscogee.
After the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, the federal government began to round up Cherokee in preparation for the forced removal to what was to become Indian Territory. When the soldiers came into the small group of farmsteads owned by Tsali's extended family in the Snowbird Mountains of western North Carolina, they were attacked, and some of them killed.
Both John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and Yonaguska, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, condemned Tsali's actions. They offered to capture him and his warriors—in the strongest of terms—and offered to help run him and his family down. Yonaguska was given the task, and asked for assistance from his friend Utsala on the Nanthahala River, hoping to gain him permission to stay in the state as compensation for his effort. The Cherokee captured Tsali and his family, and executed him and two of his sons. The rest of his large family was allowed to remain under the umbrella of the Eastern Band.
Tsali Boulevard, a major artery of traffic in Cherokee, North Carolina, is named in his honor.
A highly fictionalized account of the affair can be seen at the Qualla Boundary in the play Unto These Hills, which was written by Kermit Hunter in 1950. New, updated versions have been written.