Treaties – Boundaries – Speculators

Politics, Land Speculators and Cherokee Land


Following the 1775 Henderson Purchase at Sycamore Shoals and disregard for the British Proclamation Line of 1763, the business and speculation of Cherokee land changed forever. One of the most important expose’s of the filthy politics and the influence and power of drooling land speculators was researched by Linda Hoxit Raxter of Western Carolina University. She has written two papers that are essential to anyone interested in this little-known and understood part of American-Cherokee history. The primary paper is titled “Speculation and Cherokee Lands,” published in the Tuckasegee Valley Historical Review, Volume VIII, Spring (2002). The second is titled “The Orphan Strip Community: Crucible of Cultural Change

According to Raxter:

“Land speculators would learn their lessons quickly. Over the next twenty-five years, speculation activity on all levels adapted to a constantly changing political landscape. By the time of the Treaty of Tellico in 1798 such business had become a well oiled machine capable of consuming hundreds of thousands of acres in a single transaction with the promise of massive future profits. Speculators learned to manipulate access to land, investment capital, markets, and government power and policy to their advantage. And when it came to speculation of Cherokee Territory, speculators learned from the Transylvania Colony that direct involvement in negotiations and government activity was the key to successful land speculation.”[1]

After 52 towns in the Cherokee country were burned in 1776 by American armies under Griffith Rutherford (NC), Andrew Williamson(SC) and William Christian(VA), “the right of conquest” would be the marching song of speculators hungering for millions of acres of lands to buy for little of nothing and sell for fortunes. The Cherokee empire was about to be systematically subdivided by the richest men in America.

“In the meantime, the thoughts of the soldiers changed from warfare to business. North Carolina developed a system of granting land in 1777. The bill for the establishment of a Land Office was presented by three men, including General Rutherford. Individuals were required to locate unoccupied land and enter a claim for that land at the county courthouse. If there were no challenges to the claim, a warrant was issued. The claimant could sell this warrant, or use it to have the property surveyed by the county surveyor. Once the warrant holder had the survey, he could pay the proper fees and obtain a grant from that state which specified the price, location and amount of land, orders to register the grant at the local courthouse within a year and instructions to pay taxes.”[1]

The Cherokees would have been much better off to have remained neutral during the Revolutionary War. Besides the decimation and loss of life, the four thousand soldiers who marched through the Cherokee lands never forgot the beauty and fertility of the valleys. Just how many came back is not calculated, but it must have been in the hundreds.

[1] Linda Hoxit Raxter, “Speculation and Cherokee Lands,” Tuckasegee Valley Historical Review, Volume VIII, Spring (2002), 45.


This concept of empty lands not being used by the Cherokee failed to acknowledge the “empty” lands were the life blood of the Indians who hunted the buffalo, elk, deer and bear as well as manufactured commodities including salt which was found in the Tennessee-Kentucky claims.  The empty land were important game preserves that could only be maintained away from human settlement since the buffalo would not range near settlements.


One of the most outrageous and blatant attempts to get rich illegally was speculator John Holdiman’s entry to take most of modern Macon, Jackson and Swain Counties prior to any cession or treaty with the Cherokees.  Such men were encouraged by members of the North Carolina General Assembly who claimed the State owned all the lands by “right of conquest” and the Cherokees were simple tenants who were tolerated by and subject to the whim of the State.


The most informative book written on land titles in Western North Carolina was written by George Henry Smathers. This map is from his book which is rare today. Western Carolina University Hunter Library holds a copy. Some of the grants are highlighted for clarity.

George Henry Smathers, The History of Land Titles in Western North Carolina (Ayer Publishing, 1979, reprint)


Felix Walker became one of the first and eventually the most influential men to connected to the Qualla Boundary area before 1800.  In 1792, he was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly.  By 1795, he had become a land speculator. “In the year 1795 I engaged in a large land speculation in the Western counties of Buncombe and Haywood, calculated I had made an immense fortune by entering lands. I was not mistaken, and had the line between the United States and the Cherokee Indians been run according to treaty, I would have realized a fortune indeed; but it was run otherwise by the commissioners, and divested me of 10,000 acres of the best land I entered. What I saved I was forced into a lawsuit with Col. Avery for 12 years. Although I gained it, it profited me little, having expended so much money in the defense of the suit.”  In 1799, he was reelected to the General Assembly and served through 1806.  He owned one or more stores including what later became the Qualla Town store.


It appears that these land speculators did not heed President Madison’s admonition that no one had a right to more land than they could use. It applied to Indians and exempted greedy Anglo-Americans.


Morris Town is modern Asheville, NC.  Note that unceded Cherokee lands of their sovereign nation are identified as in the jurisdiction of Haywood County which at the time included modern Cherokee, Graham, Clay, Swain, Macon, and Jackson Counties.


The Meigs and Freeman Line was run after the failure to protect the Cherokee boundaries as defined in the Treaty of Tellico in 1798. Whites flooded over the treaty lines and instead of removing the whites, the Federal Government just arbitrarily moved the lines to include the white settlers within North Carolina and Tennessee.  Three attempts to run the northeast boundary of the Cherokee Nation before it was established in 1802 to the disgust and dismay of the Cherokees.  The Meigs line opened the west slopes of the Balsam Mountains including Scott Creek valley and modern Sylva  area to a flood of settlement.


See Cherokee American Citizens & Reserves 1817-1819 page for more detailed history of this era.