Jocassée. A Cherokee Legend from Upcountry South Carolina

Posted by | August 12, 2013

Special thanks to Sonja Crone Eddleman of Williamston, SC,  for steering me back to the wonderful old 19th century tales of the South from William Gilmore Simms:

 

The Occonies and the Little Estatoees, or, rather, the Brown Vipers and the Green Birds, were both minor tribes of the Cherokee nation, between whom, as was not unfrequently the case, there sprung up a deadly enmity.

Carolina Parakeet , Conuropsis carolinensis, hand-colored engraving from 1825 painting by John Jay Audubon / Wikipedia

Carolina Parakeet , Conuropsis carolinensis, hand-colored engraving from 1825 painting by John Jay Audubon / Wikipedia

The Estatoees had their town on each side of the two creeks, which, to this day, keep their name, and on the eastern side of the Keowee river. The Occonies occupied a much larger extent of territory, but it lay on the opposite, or west side of the same stream.

Their differences were supposed to have arisen from the defeat of Chatuga, a favourite leader of the Occonies, who aimed to be made a chief of the nation at large. The Estatoee warrior, Toxaway, was successful; and as the influence of Chatuga was considerable with his tribe, he laboured successfully to engender in their bosoms a bitter dislike of the Estatoees. This feeling was made to exhibit itself on every possible occasion. The Occonies had no word too foul by which to describe the Estatoees. They likened them, in familiar speech, to every thing which, in the Indian imagination, is accounted low and contemptible.

Brown viper with Colocasia, Plate #45 from Mark Catesby’s “Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” 1754

Brown viper with Colocasia, Plate #45 from Mark Catesby’s “Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” 1754

In reference to war, they were reputed women,–in all other respects, they were compared to dogs and vermin; and, with something of a Christian taste and temper, they did not scruple, now and then, to invoke the devil of their more barbarous creed, for the eternal disquiet of their successful neighbours, the Little Estatoees, and their great chief, Toxaway.

In this condition of things there could not be much harmony; and, accordingly, as if by mutual consent, there was but little intercourse between the two people. When they met, it was either to regard one another with a cold, repulsive distance, or else, as enemies, actively to foment quarrel and engage in strife.

But seldom, save on national concerns, did the Estatoees cross the Keowee to the side held by the Occonies; and the latter, more numerous, and therefore less reluctant for strife than their rivals, were yet not often found on the opposite bank of the same river. Sometimes, however, small parties of hunters from both tribes, rambling in one direction or another, would pass into the enemy’s territory; but this was not frequent, and when they met, quarrel and bloodshed were sure to mark the adventure.

But there was one young warrior of the Estatoees, who did not give much heed to this condition of parties, and who, moved by an errant spirit, and wholly insensible to fear, would not hesitate, when the humour seized him, to cross the river, making quite as free, when he did so, with the hunting-grounds of the Occonies as they did themselves. This sort of conduct did not please the latter very greatly, but Nagoochie was always so gentle, and at the same time so brave, that the young warriors of Occony either liked or feared him too much to throw themselves often in his path, or labour, at any time, to arrest his progress.

In one of these excursions, Nagoochie made the acquaintance of Jocassée, one of the sweetest of the dusky daughters of Occony. He was rambling, with bow and quiver, in pursuit of game, as was his custom, along that beautiful enclosure which the whites have named after her, the Jocassée valley.

The circumstances under which they met were all strange and exciting, and well calculated to give her a power over the young hunter, to which the pride of the Indian does not often suffer him to submit.

It was towards evening when Nagoochie sprung a fine buck from a hollow of the wood beside him, and just before you reach the ridge of rocks which hem in and form this beautiful valley.

With the first glimpse of his prey flew the keen shaft of Nagoochie; but, strange to say, though renowned as a hunter, not less than as a warrior, the arrow failed entirely and flew wide of the victim. Off he bounded headlong after the fortunate buck; but though, every now and then getting him within range,–for the buck took the pursuit coolly,–the hunter still most unaccountably failed to strike him.

Shaft after shaft had fallen seemingly hurtless from his sides; and though, at frequent intervals, suffered to approach so nigh to the animal that he could not but hope still for better fortune, to his great surprise, the wary buck would dash off when he least expected it, bounding away in some new direction, with as much life and vigour as ever.

What to think of this, the hunter knew not; but such repeated disappointments at length impressed it strongly upon his mind, that the object he pursued was neither more nor less than an Occony wizard, seeking to entrap him; so, with a due feeling of superstition, and a small touch of sectional venom aroused into action within his heart, Nagoochie, after the manner of his people, promised a green bird–the emblem of his tribe–in sacrifice to the tutelar divinity of Estato, if he could only be permitted to overcome the potent enchanter, who had thus dazzled his aim and blunted his arrows.

He had hardly uttered this vow, when he beheld the insolent deer mincingly grazing upon a beautiful tuft of long grass in the valley, just below the ledge of rock upon which he stood. Without more ado, he pressed onward to bring him within fair range of his arrows, little doubting at the moment that the Good Spirit had heard his prayer, and had granted his desire.

But, in his hurry, leaping too hastily forward, and with eyes fixed only upon his proposed victim, his foot was caught by the smallest stump in the world, and the very next moment found him precipitated directly over the rock and into the valley, within a few paces of the deer, who made off with the utmost composure, gazing back, as he did so, in the eyes of the wounded hunter, for all the world, as if he enjoyed the sport mightily.

Nagoochie, as he saw this, gravely concluded that he had fallen a victim to the wiles of the Occony wizard, and looked confidently to see half a score of Occonies upon him, taking him at a vantage. Like a brave warrior, however, he did not despond, but determining to gather up his loins for battle and the torture, he sought to rise and put himself in a state of preparation. What, however, was his horror, to find himself utterly unable to move;–his leg had been broken in the fall, and he was covered with bruises from head to foot.

Nagoochie gave himself up for lost; but he had scarcely done so, when he heard a voice,–the sweetest, he thought, he had ever heard in his life,–singing a wild, pleasant song, such as the Occonies love, which, ingeniously enough, summed up the sundry reasons why the mouth, and not the eyes, had been endowed with the faculty of eating. These reasons were many, but the last is quite enough for us. According to the song, had the eyes, and not the mouth, been employed for this purpose, there would soon be a famine in the land, for of all gluttons, the eyes are the greatest.

Nagoochie groaned aloud as he heard the song, the latter portion of which completely indicated the cause of his present misfortune. It was, indeed, the gluttony of the eyes which had broken his leg. This sort of allegory the Indians are fond of, and Jocassée knew all their legends.

Certainly, thought Nagoochie, though his leg pained him woefully at the time, ‘certainly I never heard such sweet music, and such a voice.’

The singer advanced as she sung, and almost stumbled over him.

‘Who are you?’ she asked timidly, neither retreating nor advancing; and, as the wounded man looked into her face, he blessed the Occony wizard, by whose management he deemed his leg to have been broken.

‘Look!’ was the reply of the young warrior, throwing aside the bearskin which covered his bosom,–‘look, girl of Occony! ’tis the totem of a chief;’ and the green bird stamped upon his left breast, as the badge of his tribe, showed him a warrior of Estato, and something of an enemy.

But his eyes had no enmity, and then the broken leg! Jocassée was a gentle maiden, and her heart melted with the condition of the warrior. She made him a sweet promise, in very pretty language, and with the very same voice the music of which was so delicious; and then, with the fleetness of a young doe, she went off to bring him succour.

 

“Jocassee. A Cherokee Legend,” from The Wigwam and the Cabin, by William Gilmore Simms, New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845 / collection University Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

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