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Chasing Path Killer: A Mystery- Part I

May 3, 2019

Call it a firsthand lesson in historiography.

Path Killer, in Cherokee “Nungnoheeahdahee,” may be a familiar name if you’re from the Southeast. He was Principal Chief of the Cherokees from 1811 until his death in 1827, succeeded as chief first by Charles Renatus Hicks then John Ross, who lived before the Cherokee removal on or near the grounds of Floyd Medical Center.

Path Killer fascinated me after I learned he lived near the same lands I call home and was buried (or so I thought) within a short drive of my house at the Garrett family cemetery on a peaceful, wooded bluff overlooking the Coosa River, about a mile down College Street off Second Avenue in Centre, Ala. On the southeastern edge of the cemetery is a stone-capped grave site for “Chief Pathkiller.” A foot marker commemorates him as “Powerful, Intellectual, Progressive,” and a headstone reads, “Referred to as the last of the Cherokee Kings.” It was the dates on the headstone, 1764 to 1828, that first raised an eyebrow. Principal Chief Path Killer was supposed to have been born in 1742 and have passed on in 1827.

It was time to go back to the books.

As it turns out, three different states are claimed to hold Chief Path Killer’s bones: the site in Centre, Ala., the small graveyard near the old Cherokee capitol of New Echota north of Calhoun and, according to a small monument in Loudon, Tenn., an unnamed site in Arkansas.

A Note on Sources and Cherokee Names

Many of the sources available that mention Path Killer’s life are secondary, such as newspaper, journal and magazine articles and academic books. It is for lack of a primary source explicitly naming the principal chief’s burial site that the mystery lives.

Add to that the difficulty of researching Cherokee names. For example, the Cherokee muster rolls for the Battle of Horseshoe Bend list four different men named Path Killer. The appendix in Susan Abram’s “Forging a Cherokee-American Alliance: From Creation to Betrayal” clears this up, listing the name, rank, type, term and commanding officer, one of whom was the principal chief, for each of the Cherokee soldiers, but in other instances we are not so lucky.

Path Killer or Pathkiller may not exactly be a “common” name among the Cherokees, but there has been confusion over time of different men with the same name, adding an obstacle to sorting the facts of the principal chief’s life.

Who was Path Killer?

Path Killer’s youth is the most difficult part of his life to tease out. William G. McLouglin’s “Cherokees & Missionaries: 1789 — 1839” says that Path Killer was born in 1749, seven years later than the earliest date on the tombstones, fought in the Revolution on the British side and between 1783 and 1794 was engaged in the Chickamauga Wars under the Cherokee leader Tsiyu Gansini, known in English as Dragging Canoe. The Tennessee Historical Society’s “Tennessee Encyclopedia” has Dragging Canoe’s engagements against European settlers falling in the 1770s and 80s before his death on March 1, 1792. If it’s true that Path Killer was born in the 1740s, he would have been in his thirties and forties during these skirmishes.

Path Killer rose in prominence in the early 19th century, according to Henry Thompson Malone’s “Cherokees of the Old South: A People in Transition,” with Black Fox, who served as principal chief from 1801 to 1808, when he was deposed for supporting a removal plan and agreeing to the sale of millions of acres of Cherokee lands in Tennessee. Path Killer, Black Fox’s second principal chief, was selected to take over as principal chief, serving until September 1809, when a Cherokee national council voted to end the division between the Upper and Lower Cherokee towns and reinstall Black Fox. Black Fox’s second term lasted until his death in 1811 and Path Killer again ascended to principal chief.

A description of Path Killer in his later years by the missionary Ard Hoyt is included in the Brainerd Mission journal, Oct. 30, 1818, reprinted on pg. 82 of Malone’s “Cherokees of the Old South:” “On entering I observed the King (Path Killer) seated on a rug ... He is a venerable looking man 73 years old; his hair nearly white. ... The chiefs were seated in chairs, in a semicircle, each facing the king.”

Path Killer spent the remainder of his life as principal chief dealing with the tremendous forces moving within and against the Cherokee nation. He worked in tandem with Second Principal Chief Charles R. Hicks, allowing the English-literate Hicks to deal with external pressures on the nation while Path Killer, who read and spoke no English, dealt with the nation’s internal stresses. Path Killer and Hicks had to balance the speed of Cherokee acculturation so that not all aspects of Cherokee culture where overwhelmed, according to McLoughlin’s “The Cherokee Ghost Dance.” Path Killer was also faced with the outcry of Chief White Path, a Cherokee leader from the area of what is now Ellijay who believed the nation should have nothing to do with the European-American way of life.

In some sources Path Killer was touted as a mere figurehead while others had him playing a larger, more independent role.

In January 1827 Path Killer died and the leadership role fell to Hicks, who himself died only two weeks later and was buried near Chatsworth at the site of the Spring Place Mission, then John Ross, who served in the role until his death in 1866.

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