Eoneguski, or The Cherokee Chief
The Senator's Novel
Robert Strange was a circuit judge of the Superior Court during frontier days in Western North Carolina (1827-1836). He traveled to Waynesville for court sessions and, after 1828, to Franklin as well. He had an ear for story and an eye for detail. He also had a literary bent. At some point, be began to plan an epic novel along the lines of The Last of the Mohicans.
When Strange's schedule took him to Franklin, he stayed with Silas McDowell, who served as the clerk of court. McDowell also had literary tastes and aspirations, though his work ran more to monographs and essays than to novels. He had a reputation as a storyteller, and in Strange he found a ready listener.
In 1836, Strange was elected to the United States Senate. He completed the novel in July 1838 and signed a contract with Peter Force, a Washington printer, to publish and distribute it. Strange received a $600 advance, reflecting the hopes of both publisher and author.
Suppressed, or Just a Literary Flop?
Eoneguski, or The Cherokee Chief was an ambitious border romance in the Cooper tradition, and also the first North Carolina novel. However, several factors worked against the author. The book presented unflattering portraits of some powerful Western North Carolina families, leading to theories it was suppressed. Timing was bad, for the Indian Removal had commenced and people did not want to be troubled by Strange's humanistic presentation of the Cherokees. Also the printer lacked the resources for adequate promotion.
A Tale Based on Real Life
Strange packed rich detail into his novel, drawing his characters and scenes directly from life. The result is a rare look at frontier life in Western North Carolina, on the eve of the Cherokee withdrawal.
The author did not view the worthy frontiersmen he encountered through a rosy lens. Most emerge as crude and ignorant creatures, living in filthy conditions. Some of Strange's portrayals of living people were devastating. No wonder some believed the book was suppressed.
John Welch, who is half French, half Cherokee, was living with his Indian relatives when Chesquah, a clansman, was killed. The task of revenging the death fell to him. Welch killed Leech, the murderer of Chesquah, and became the next targeted victim in the chain of blood vengence.
Eoneguski assumed responsibility for revenging the death of Leech, his clansman. He pursued Welch into the frontier, where he visited the home of Robert Aymor.
Aymor's daughter Atha was in love with Welch. Partly out of sympathy for her, Eoneguski decided to stop the blood killing. He returned to Cherokee country with young Gideon Aymor.
Eoneguski's home was in Eonee, on the site of present Franklin, NC. His sweetheart, Little Deer, lived in nearby Tesumtoe. Gideon fell in love with her (and her wealth) and determined to win her, despite his friendship with Eoneguski.
As the story unfolds, John Welch's mother is revealed as Yenacona, Little Deer's aunt.
The book includes detailed descriptions of minor characters, which obviously must have been drawn from life, and vivid, unflattering depictions of court scenes in the frontier village of Waynesville (where Strange, as a circuit judge, held court).
Silas McDowell, the source for much of this material, appears in the book's forward as Mr. McDonald. He, at least, receives sympathetic treatment in the book.