Hiwassee Island, located in Meigs County where the Hiwassee River joins the Tennessee River, used to be commonly called "Jolly's Island" after the Cherokee leader who lived there. John Jolly, whose Cherokee name was Ahuludegi or Oolooteka, spoke no English and wore a buckskin hunting shirt, leggings and moccasins. After his brother, Tahlolnteeskee, departed for the West in 1809, Jolly became headman of Cayuga town on the island.
In that same year, the young Sam Houston came to live with the Cherokee on the island. Jolly adopted the boy and gave him the Cherokee name of Ka'lanu or Colonneh, meaning "The Raven." Born in Rockbridge County, Va., in 1793, Houston emigrated to Tennessee in 1807 with his widowed mother and siblings to land near Kingsport. He went to school and kept the store before running away at the age of 16 to live with the Cherokees on Jolly's island.
"This running wild among the Indians," Houston later wrote, "seemed a pretty strange business, and people used to say that I would either be a great Indian chief, or die in a mad-house, or be governor of the State — for it was very certain that some dreadful thing would overtake me!" He lived among the Indians until he was 18, when he returned to Maryville to become a schoolmaster. He would not become governor of Tennessee until 1827, after first serving in the U. S. House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government through agent Return J. Meigs was encouraging Cherokees to relocate on land west of the Mississippi River. The Turkeytown Treaty of July 8, 1817, provided for the exchange of land in the east for land in northwest Arkansas. In February 1818, Chief John Jolly with 331 Cherokees left on 16 boats to emigrate to the Arkansas Territory. About 4,000 relocated altogether, becoming known as the Western Cherokee. After 1818 John Jolly served as principal chief. In 1819 British naturalist Thomas Nuttall described the Western Cherokee as having prosperous, well-tended farms. Upon meeting John Jolly and his wife on April 9, 1819, Nuttall wrote: "I should scarcely have distinguished him from an American, except by his language. He was very plain, prudent, and unassuming in his dress and manners; a Franklin among his countrymen, and affectionately called the beloved father."
Seven years later, on April 16, 1829, Sam Houston resigned as governor of Tennessee, disgraced by his failed marriage to young Eliza Allen of Sumner County. He departed Nashville on a steamboat to the Mississippi, heading for the Indian country.
"I was in an agony of despair and strongly tempted to leap overboard and end my worthless life," he wrote. "At that moment, however, an eagle swooped down near my head, and then, soaring aloft with wildest screams, was lost in the rays of the setting sun. I knew that a great destiny waited for me in the West."
After ascending the Arkansas River to Little Rock, Houston went 400 miles northwest to the falls of the Arkansas, arriving at night. The 65-year-old chief, John Jolly, whose dwelling was nearby, came down with his family to meet his adopted son. The Cherokees needed his help, as treaties were being violated and unscrupulous agents were robbing them. Houston, with a goatee, mustache and hair plaited in a queue, cut quite a figure in his white doeskin shirt, yellow leather leggings, feathered or silk headpieces, and a blanket over his shoulder. In October 1829, Chief John Jolly approved him as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and in December dispatched him to Washington, D.C., as an ambassador. Well-received by his mentor, President Andrew Jackson, Houston became a powerful advocate for the Cherokees, Osages and Creeks. After his return to Arkansas at the end of May 1830, Houston began living with Chief Jolly's niece, Tiana Rogers. One of the girls he had known on Jolly's island, she was now a beautiful woman of about 30. The Cherokees considered them as man and wife. They lived in a log house on the Neosho River for three and a half years before Houston went to Texas on Dec. 1, 1832.
John Jolly served as principal chief until his death in 1838 in Webbers Falls, Okla. He is memorialized at the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park in Birchwood, Tenn., near Hiwassee Island. This island, formerly known as Jolly's Island, is owned by TVA and cared for by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Jolly's village stood on the northern tip of the island.
Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.