Origin of ‘tahlequah’ name lost in mists of time news tahlequahdailypress.com storing electricity in water


Along Bear Creek, numerous springs gushed pure water into the crystal-clear stream. The fertile hollow was protected on all sides by high hills clad with dense stands of mature, mixed timber. The lush grass surrounding the council ground gave proof of a soil capable of yielding bumper crops. And with an elevation more than 100 feet above the level of the river to the east and rolling terrain that provided good drainage, the site offered settlers a healthy, stimulating environment.

Most of the Cherokees attracted to the three councils convened near the center of their new homeland in summer 1839 returned to the cabins they were building and fields they were clearing and planting after they approved the constitution, but a few remained. T.L. Ballenger, who joined the faculty of Northeastern Normal School in 1914, wrote: "The main settlement began in 1839. Tahlequah began its corporate existence under the direction of the Cherokee national government, and all at once. It was not built up gradually by individual accretion, at least not in its beginning."

Tahlequah’s first buildings were governmental. A square of about three acres was designated the Council Ground and eventually set off with a rail fence. The first structure was a shed that housed popular assemblies and joint sessions of the Council and Committee, the two branches of the National Council, the tribe’s legislature. Later, enclosed structures were constructed for both houses.

A U.S. Army officer visiting Tahlequah in 1841 "attended a meeting of the Committee of the Nation in a log house, earth floor, no windows, but 2 or 3 benches." Assistant Chief Joseph Vann presided from a chair behind a podium, "which had been a merchant’s box of goods." The officer later visited the Council in "the same kind of a house."

Log houses on the square were also built for the chief of the tribe and the judicial branch of government. Others were erected to accommodate elected officials. The Council Ground contained "public tables," where cooks, employed by the nation, prepared food for anyone who wished to eat there and "the nation pays the expense."

Several historians have tried to map the original layout of the square where the brick Cherokee Capitol now stands. Their diagrams vary markedly and are probably more orderly than the location of the structures actually used in the early years when Cherokee officials met in Tahlequah to govern their nation.

William P. Ross, nephew of the chief, wrote: "After it became the seat of government a number of ‘log cabins’ were ‘thrown up’ about the place, without, however, much regard to order, as they were designed for the temporary accommodation of those engaged in the transaction of public business."

In addition to the government buildings and log cabins of those who made the new town their home, other early structures sprang up to provide accommodations for commercial establishments, such as mercantile businesses, boarding houses, restaurants, and a livery stable. Unfortunately, no one documented the buildings that appeared haphazardly around the Council Square.

Neither are the next few years after the establishment of the town well defined in the historical record. A few missionaries and governmental officials mentioned the town in their reports, but no one seems to have provided an account of its birth and early development.

Nevertheless, officials who gathered annually in the little town on Bear Creek must have been satisfied with the location and its growing community. The Third Legislature enacted the following measure: "An Act Establishing the Seat of Government: Be it enacted by the National Council, That the seat of ‘the Cherokee Government is hereby established at Tahlequah. Tahlequah, Oct. 19th, 1841…Approved–A. M. Vann, Acting Chief."

At the same session, the National Council authorized the establishment of 11 common schools throughout the nation, including one in the Tahlequah District. That school was built at Fourteen-Mile Creek instead of the growing community along Bear Creek. The capital city would not have a tribally-funded grade school for four more years.

Bloody strife within the Cherokees’ new homeland diverted many members of the tribe from devoting their full energy to the labor necessary to lay the foundation of the nation. Perhaps to divert attention from domestic strife, John Ross invited tribes throughout the entire region to attend a Grand Council at Tahlequah, which opened June 9, 1843.

Ten days after it convened, Tahlequah lost one of its pioneer citizens. Rev. Mr. Young Wolf, who had played a significant role in supporting Chief Ross’s effort to secure control of the united tribe in its new homeland, died on June 29. His tombstone in the Tahlequah cemetery proclaims his existence, but reveals nothing of his part in founding the community.

John Ross’s Grand Council continued, attracting as many as 10,000 Native Americans to the tribe’s new capital city. Newspapers throughout the U.S. published reports of the "international" gathering on Tahlequah’s Council Square, which seemed to energize members of the Cherokee Council.

In the 1843 session, the people’s representatives enacted a number of measures that improved the quality of life in the Cherokees’ capital city. In addition to directing the publication of a national newspaper, they authorized a school for orphans near Tahlequah, directed that Tahlequah be surveyed and laid out in town lots, and funded the construction of a building to house the Supreme Court.

The preparation for the Grand Council and the excitement it generated occupied much of the summer. The annual meeting of the tribal council each fall always attracted local interest, and the 1843 session had been particularly productive, but the months following its adjournment seemed uneventful to at least one resident.

A letter dated Dec. 18, 1843, published in the Van Buren, Arkansas, Intelligencer by a writer, who identified himself as "E.," claimed, "Tah-le-quah, is unusually dull, as we have no public amusements, no speeches in Council, nor preaching to break the monotonous course of public proceedings."

Their activity was "all for the good of the people," but "E" apparently craved a more charismatic ministry in town. While other amusements would not be long in coming, Dr. Ballenger wrote, "There were church services of different kinds held in Tahlequah almost from the establishment of the town but there were no church buildings until after the Civil War."

Area missionaries may not have begun delivering sermons that provided the "public amusement" sought by "E," but developments in 1844 altered the appearance of Tahlequah, gave the community and nation an official voice, and spurred a building boom.