Every year thousands of tourists travel to the mountains of North Georgia to visit the Chief Vann House and walk the expansive grounds of the Diamond Hill plantation. The grand homes of the pre-Civil War South have long held the collective American imagination captive and evoke a mythic southern past of garden parties, mint juleps, and an easy life of leisure. But, as Tiya Miles reminds us in The House on Diamond Hill, "these scenes of nostalgia" obscure more than they reveal (11). After touring the historic site and attending a 2002 dedication ceremony, Miles felt compelled to ask the question, "what does this house stand for?" (xv). Indeed, Cherokee women and African-descended slaves were conspicuously absent from the Chief Vann House narratives.
In The House on Diamond Hill, Tiya Miles reconstructs the history of the plantation and the multiple worlds that intersected on its grounds—African, Cherokee, and European-American. She then places Diamond Hill into the broader context of American colonization of the Cherokee (and their resistance to it) and the growth of racial slavery. At the center of the book sits James Vann, a Euro-Cherokee and the first patriarch of Diamond Hill. While most accounts of Vann—past and present—describe him as a vicious, churlish, and impulsive drunk, Miles's treatment of him is much more nuanced. Vann was a man of contradictions—shrewd, violent, and self-interested, but also principled and a fierce defender of his fellow Cherokee. Vann's demons, Miles argues, are best understood in the "context of colonialism" (38). He amassed his wealth just as the Cherokee faced increased pressure to accommodate to American encroachments. While Vann rejected some American ways, he adopted others. His inability to navigate to his satisfaction both of the worlds he simultaneously traversed likely contributed to his turbulent character. [End Page 87] Moreover, his accumulation of a vast and private fortune "set him apart" from his fellow Cherokee (60). Indeed, Vann resembled many elite white men of the slaveholding South—men who built their fortunes on the backs of black slaves and by marrying for profit. In large part, James Vann's success "depended on the subjugation" of African slaves, whose labor he exploited and Cherokee women, whose "wealth he pilfered" (55).
While the complicated figure of James Vann has most captivated the imaginations Diamond Hill's visitors, his story is but one fragment of the plantation's history. One of Miles's most important contributions is her careful reconstruction of the histories of the slaves of Diamond Hill. She details the world of over one hundred enslaved men and women belonging to the Vann family. In particular, she describes the lives of four enslaved women—Caty, Grace, Pleasant, and Patience—in order to remind us that "every slave on Diamond Hill possessed a name, a life, a story" (86). Their stories represent a vital, if forgotten, part of the Diamond Hill history. The men and women owned by the Vann family were a diverse group, including American-born English speakers, recently arrived Africans, and Afro-Cherokees. The slaves of Diamond Hill created a vibrant black community and a rich "cultural identity rooted in the memory of African values and practices" (97). The indigenous Cherokee context, Miles suggests, allowed for the retention and adaptation of "African ways of life" (103). Indeed, the parallels between Cherokee culture and African cultures—such as the belief in the supernatural and the acceptance of polygamy—provided a "supportive environment" for an African-influenced slave community (103).
Miles also reconstructs the histories of the Cherokee women of Diamond Hill, most notably Peggy Scott Vann, James Vann's wife. Miles uses the life of Peggy Vann to trace the ways in which American conquest displaced Cherokee gender practices and subjugated Cherokee women to Cherokee men. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, the United States made attempts to "civilize" the Cherokee by encouraging them to adopt American gender ideals. While James Vann did not embrace all white settlers' cultural practices, he did accept...