The Aberdeenshire man who became “chief” of the Cherokee

The seven Cherokee leaders brought to Britain by Aberdeenshire aristorcrat Sir Alexander Cumming. PIC: Creative Commons.
The seven Cherokee leaders brought to Britain by Aberdeenshire aristorcrat Sir Alexander Cumming. PIC: Creative Commons.
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He left Aberdeenshire for America in the early 18th Century in search of the Cherokee and ended up being “crowned” chief of the tribe in a ceremony where he was brushed head to toe with the tails of 13 Golden Eagles.

Sir Alexander Cumming, of Peterculter, set off on his journey to meet the Cherokee in 1730, convinced of his mission following a dream had by his wife.

The bizarre voyage resulted in Cumming bringing seven senior Cherokee leaders back to Britain to kneel at the feet of George II at Windsor Castle.

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Newspapers of the day closely reported the Cherokee’s presentation to the King, where they stood naked apart from aprons around the middle and horse tails trailing down their backs.

Details of their stay were also covered, including a spell at the Mermaid’s Inn at Windsor and later in lodgings in Covent Garden, where at least one of the Cherokee was the victim of a robbery after two silver rings were taken by a street thief.

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Cumming, the son of a MP who led a Jacobite brigade during the 1715 uprising, appears to have motivated by a mix of ambition and curiosity on his travels, during which he took on board the role of a self-appointed ambassador for British and Cherokee relations.

As he journeyed into Cherokee land after arriving in South Carolina in 1730, he travelled to an underground cave with two associates who made several marks to show they had been there.

Cumming was minded to go a step further to register his presence on Cherokee country.

“Not content to enter just his own name, Cumming branded the cave, and symbolically the land, for Britain engraving “King George of Great Britain, wrote by S.A.C,” said Ian David Chambers, in an article in Journal of Backwater studies.

Colonisation of South Carolina by the British had started around 80 years before Cumming’s arrival.

Clearly, he felt he was the man of the job to bring the Cherokees into British space and the imperial fold.

His audacity is, at times, startling as his mission gathers momentum.

On March 23 1730, shortly after hearing of French manoeuvres into Cherokee territory, Cumming called a public meeting at Keowee Town House, which 300 Cherokees and nine British traders attended.

After telling the Cherokee he had come as an individual citizen, not as an official ambassador, remarkable scenes unfolded as he proposed a toast to the King.

Chambers wrote: “After encouraging the shocked traders to fall to their knees, he turned to the Cherokee, revealed the four firearms and the cutlass he had under his cloak, and demanded that the ‘head Warriors…acknowledge his Majesty King George’s Sovereignty over them on their knee.”

Cumming later told his guide that, if the Cherokee had refused to follow his instructions, he would have set fire to the house and killed anyone who tried to escape.

Just a few days later, on April 3, a form of coronation of Cumming was taking place.

Kings, princes, warriors and conjurers gathered with Cumming making prominent leader Moytoy the emperors of all Cherokees, who in turn would answer to Cumming.

Cumming was then lifted up on a throne-type seat where the Eagle Tail Dance was performed for him.

He believed this was the way that rulers were invested, but others believe it was more of a welcome ceremony.

Nevertheless, he was presented with the Crown of Tanasi - the former capital of the Cherokee - along with the eagle tails used in the ceremony. With his new perceived authority, Cumming called for them to submit authority to the King, which they did while bending down on their knees.

Shortly after, seven Cherokee warriors were on their way to Britain with Cumming to meet the King and sign a formal treaty.

On June 6, 1730, Cuming landed in Dover with seven Cherokee representatives: King Ouka, Prince Catorgusta, General Tethtow, Gen. Clogoitta, Gen. Calannah, Gen. Unnowconnowe and Capt. Owean Nakan.

Maytoa stayed at home with his wife.

A report from the British Weekly on June 27 1730 recorded a meeting with the Cherokee court and George II at Windsor.

It said: “The King had a scarlet jacket on, but all the rest were naked, except an apron about their middles, and a horse’s tail hung down behind; their faces, shoulders, &c. were painted and spotted with red, blue, and green. They had bows in their hands, and painted feathers on their heads.”

A a dinner of mutton was served to the party at the Mermaid Inn at Windsor.

The report added: “The King lies on a table in a blanket; but the Prince, and the chief of his Court, lie on the ground.”

After staying four months, the Indian representatives signed a formal treaty with Great Britain which recognized the Cherokee nation as subjects of the crown.

Cumming barely saw the Cherokee while they were in London. Financial schemes that he had laid out in, South Carolina had started to collapse and he was being roundly pursued by his investors.

In 1737, he was sent to Fleet Prison for over twenty years for fraud related crimes. He died penniless in 1775.