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  • Ga-ne-tli-yv-s-di (Change) in the Cherokee NationThe Vann and Ridge Houses in Northwest Georgia
  • Jennifer Elliott (bio)

A two-story brick house sits prominently atop a low hill in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northwest Georgia (Figure 1). The bricks on the rear façade gleam in the setting sun. Gently sloping fields stretch across an expansive vista with the mountains in the distance. Built between 1804 and 1805, the Vann House dominates the landscape, commanding attention from its perch. At first glance, the Vann House appears to be a typical elite plantation house firmly entrenched in the neoclassical mode. However, this building stood within Cherokee territory, and its owner, James Vann, was a Cherokee regional chief. Some years later, Vann’s good friend The Ridge, another regional chief, whose Cherokee name means “He Who Walks On Top of Mountains,” also built a plantation house not far away. On the banks of the Oostanaula River, The Ridge converted his Cherokee-constructed dogtrot log cabin into a fashionable five-bay house (Figure 2). From this central location in the Nation, the warrior-trained The Ridge rose to prominence in Cherokee politics. He eventually became the Speaker of the Cherokee Nation, officially representing his people in Washington, D.C., three times during the course of his career. James Vann, although also a regional chief, became a planter and merchant who annually traveled on business to Charleston, South Carolina, and other cities along the Atlantic Coast.

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Figure 1.

Front façade of the Vann House, Chief Vann House Historic Site in Calhoun, Georgia, 2010. The building is located on a prominent hill facing the Federal Road. Photograph by the author.

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Figure 2.

Front façade of the Ridge House, Chieftains Museum in Rome, Georgia, 2010. This is the current front of the building. Photograph by the author.

Traveling to major cities widely exposed these leaders to a variety of consumer goods and building forms that were typical of Atlantic culture and underscored the importance of gentility, originally a British cultural system that emphasized refinement and propriety and relied on specific forms of etiquette. Wealthy men and women had more leisure time to learn these skills. Their genteel performances required certain material items: tea tables, tea sets, and a game table to entertain guests; individual place settings for dining; and a house with specialized rooms in which to enact these learned behaviors and a center hall passage through which to filter visitors. Additionally, many of these objects and buildings had classical ornamentation, which during the Early Republic represented a renewed interest in the architecture [End Page 43] and material culture of the Roman Empire. As people living on the coast and points further west embraced an emerging national political identity after the Revolutionary War, they applied classical ornament to buildings and objects to represent the republican ideals upon which the new nation was founded. Although Americans conferred new political meaning upon the neoclassical mode, they also linked the new republic to the Atlantic world.1

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Figure 3.

Map of Georgia counties from 1831. Franklin and Burke counties are along the western border of the state; Franklin County is near the Cherokee Nation and Burke County is near Augusta. The map, “Georgia,” was published in an unidentified atlas in Philadelphia by A. Finley in 1831. Courtesy of the Georgia Archives (Historic Maps, Surveyor General, RG 3-8-65).

Vann and The Ridge directly engaged and embraced these emerging systems as politicians and merchants, and as a result they straddled Cherokee and Atlantic cultures. They appealed to the predominant Atlantic culture of gentility by creating houses in neoclassical mode and used these residences as stages in which to perform the elite behaviors that demonstrated their wealthy status. Yet Vann and The Ridge entertained their Cherokee friends and guests in every room of their new residences, following long-established Cherokee norms, and subtly incorporated certain aspects of Cherokee cosmology into their dwellings. This article will examine how James Vann and The Ridge used their plantation houses to negotiate their...


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