Please welcome Tim Hooker, author of ‘Looking for a City,’ ‘Duncan Hambeth: Furniture King of the South,’ and ‘Rocket Man: A Rhapsody of Short Stories.’ Tim is currently an English instructor at Cleveland State Community College in Cleveland, TN.
It calls into question the definition of civilization.
Hollywood and pop culture would have you think that Native Americans are poor, uneducated, lazy, shiftless relics of a bygone era who can’t handle their firewater and are dependent on the federal government for a hand-out. But, one look at the Chief Vann House and all of that goes out the window.
The Chief Vann house is located on Spring Place Road, three miles west of Chatsworth, Georgia, at the intersection of Highways 225 and 52-A. It is one of the oldest remaining buildings in North Georgia, featuring beautiful hand carvings, a 12 foot mantle, and a cantilevered ‘floating’ staircase that left me speechless, when I first saw it as a kid on a school trip. It is one of the few buildings in the Southeast Tennessee/North Georgia area that I would feel comfortable in calling a mansion.
In the 1790s, Chief James Vann, a half-Scots/half-Cherokee leader and instrumental force in the Cherokee Renaissance, created the largest and most prosperous plantation in the Cherokee Nation, covering 1,000 acres of what is now Murray County. He was “feared by many and loved by few.” But, at the start of the 19th Century, he was one of the richest men in the Western Hemisphere and a member of the Cherokee Triumvirate. He was responsible for bringing in the Moravian missionaries, to teach the children Christianity. In 1804, he finished building his 2½ story Federal-style brick home that has been called “the Showplace of the Cherokee Nation.”
Chief James Vann had three wives and five children. After he was murdered in 1809 for killing his brother-in-law in a duel a year earlier, his eldest son, Joseph, inherited the mansion and plantation, and eventually became even wealthier than his father. In 1819, “Rich Joe” entertained and lodged President James Monroe at the house.
After the Georgia Gold Rush, Joseph hired a white man to run the plantation, unknowingly violating a new Georgia law forbidding whites from working for Cherokees without a permit. The Georgia Guard tried to take over the house. Spencer Riley claimed he won the house in the Land Lottery of 1832 and the Vanns were caught in a struggle between Riley and the Guard. Col. Bishop, of the Guard, threw a smoldering log on the cantilevered steps and smoked Riley out of the house.
The Vanns were eventually forced out of the house in March, 1835. That November, Col. Bishop imprisoned John Howard Payne (the composer of Home, Sweet Home) for 13 days on the grounds, charging him with sedition for supporting the Cherokee over the state of Georgia.
The rest of the story, though, is that Chief James Vann also owned approximately 200 slaves. According to the house’s tour guide, the house had two rooms in the basement. One served as a wine cellar. The other served as a torture chamber for misbehaving slaves.
And, this brings us back to our original issue– what does it mean to be civilized?
Two hundred years later, it’s still a beautiful house. It is filled with items that scream refinement. You cannot walk through the house and claim the Vanns were barbarians.
But, they owned other people. And, when those people didn’t act like they wanted them to, they tortured them.
And, I’ve got a problem with that.
I try to tell myself, “He was a man of his time.” I walk around the house and I say to myself, “This wasn’t just a mansion; it was early 19th Century siegecraft.”
But, I can’t get past the irony, that underneath the house was a universal symbol of refinement and opulence, as well as a universal symbol of tyranny and evil.
[Sources: http://www.gastateparks.org/info/chiefvann/; http://ngeorgia.com/ang/Chief_Vann_House_Historic_Site; http://chieftainstrail.com/sites/chief_vann_house.html; http://www.northga.net/murray/vann.html; http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2726]