- Cherokee in Controversy: The Life of Jesse Bushyhead by Dan B. Wimberly
Jesse Bushyhead was a Cherokee leader, Baptist preacher, and ally of John Ross. He is best known for overseeing a detachment of nine hundred Indians along the infamous Trail of Tears and for helping construct the postremoval Cherokee government in modern-day Oklahoma. Historian Dan B. Wimberly has written a book aimed at correcting previous accounts that relied too much on myths and legends while at the same time underscoring Bushyhead's historical significance as a figure who represented "an important bridge in the conversion of Cherokees to Christianity" (p. 198). To support his arguments, Wimberly has consulted Ross's papers, Baptist church records, government documents, military reports, periodicals, and newspapers. His book analyzes the major events of Bushyhead's life from 1804 to 1844, including efforts among Cherokees to adjust to white encroachment, Bushyhead's conversion to Baptism, legally dubious treaties that ceded Cherokee lands to the U.S. government, Bushyhead's experience as an interpreter and diplomat, the unforeseen and tragic consequences of Indian removal, and the formation of a new Cherokee government in which Bushyhead presided as chief justice.
The cultural diversity within the Cherokee Nation was something that Bushyhead carefully navigated throughout his life and was something, too, that white people exploited to their advantage. Wimberly correctly notes that Cherokees were fiercely divided over language, religion, social status, ethnicity, and the desirability of selling Indian lands. Many of the so-called mixed-bloods—Cherokees like Bushyhead with white and Native American ancestry—formed financial and interpersonal relationships with white people and owned African American slaves. Bushyhead's ownership of five slaves brought him unwelcome scrutiny from some of the Baptist Church'sleading authorities, many of whom were northeastern abolitionists, thus illuminating larger regional animosities over slavery and the degree of autonomy afforded to local Baptist congregations.
Although Wimberly writes that Bushyhead's personal life "mirrored some of the cultural, economic, and social changes" of this era, Wimberly's primary focus is biographical (p. ix). Typically, accounts of the Cherokee experience in Indian removal examine the cultural assumptions undergirding white notions of civilization, disputed legal claims to Indian sovereignty, and white people's feverish ambition to mine for gold and grow cotton in the lands that Cherokees occupied. Unfortunately, there is little to none of that essential context here, and it is not entirely clear how this work engages the central questions that have animated the scholarly literature. Was religion a democratizing force in American life? Was Andrew Jackson a calculating imperialist? Readers of Cherokee in Controversy: The Life of Jesse Bushyhead learn how agents [End Page 721] working for private firms in contract with the federal government repeatedly bribed, defrauded, and shortchanged the Cherokees through price gouging and theft, but the author seems reticent to make a broader point about white racism. Perhaps we can infer from the numerous references to Bushyhead's success in converting Cherokees to Christianity, as well as from the author's statement that "Christianity offered hope not found in the old Native religion," that Wimberly is inclined to find a small silver lining in an otherwise terrible human tragedy (p. 35). Undoubtedly, many Cherokees felt the way Wimberly describes. And while the author does mention that removal was "deadly" and "devastating," and that "[s]ome Cherokee traditionalists resisted Christianity," the notion that Cherokees experienced spiritual death after being forcibly expelled from the land of their ancestors seems understated (pp. 116, 35). At the very least, Wimberly has made a plausible case for why Jesse Bushyhead and the political and religious issues that shaped his life deserve greater attention from students of Native American history.