- Natives, Women, Debtors, and SlavesChristian Priber's American Utopia
Between 1736 and 1743 Christian Gottlieb Priber, a German lawyer and intellectual living among the Overhill Cherokees, attempted to form a republic of Indian nations that has been variously described as a "lost utopia" or a "new red empire."1 Priber married into the family of a prominent Cherokee leader and came to be an influential man himself, advising the Overhill towns to embrace both French and British traders but not to part with any more of their land. He also taught them how to build and operate their own steelyards so as not to be cheated by European merchants, and he promised to bring someone to the Cherokee country who could teach them how to make their own gunpowder. In 1738, after having received a number of inflammatory letters from Priber (which he signed as secretary of state), the Charles Town council sent forces to arrest the German, but the Cherokees would not allow it. For the next five years Priber worked to establish his vision of society, a society that embraced liberty and equality for all its members—male and female; black, white, and red; princes, paupers, and slaves alike. Priber was finally apprehended by the English in 1743 while attempting to recruit the Creek Indians into his "empire," and he was taken along with all his papers to Fort Frederica on the Georgia coast, where he apparently "died in Goal."2
Priber, a man who, on the one hand, "spoke Latin, French, Spanish, and German fluently and English brokenly" and had the education and upbringing to entertain the gentlemen of Frederica and, on the other hand, "ate, drank, slept, danced, dressed, and painted himself with the Indians, so that it was not easy to distinguish him from the natives," has long intrigued students of southern colonial history.3 Yet although [End Page 56] Priber has been referenced in dozens of secondary sources throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, only four papers of original scholarship concerning Priber have been published in English, the most recent of which appeared over forty years ago.4 Those papers give us a tantalizing glimpse of Priber's history, motives, and actions but leave much unanswered. To be sure, some of our questions are unanswerable, but the available evidence, sparse as it is, can be taken further. We can begin to tackle some of the most important questions by contextualizing Priber's story. What was Priber really trying to do, and what were his inspirations? Why did he choose to carry out his experiment in America among the Cherokees? How did Priber gain acceptance among his Native hosts? What did the Cherokees think of him, and how did they influence his vision? Why did South Carolina officials fear him? How close did Priber come to succeeding, and what stopped him?
The primary sources regarding Priber are limited in the extreme. In addition to being briefly mentioned in a number of colonial records, letters, and newspapers, Priber is discussed in more detail in only half a dozen sources. Ludovick Grant, an English trader with a factory in the Overhill towns, sent an account of the German to the council in Charles Town, informing them of the politics he was espousing among the people of the nation.5 Antoine Bonnefay spent a considerable amount of time with Priber between February 13 and April 29, 1743, while Bonnefay was a prisoner of the Cherokees.6 The published journal of his experiences includes the fullest description of Priber's plan that remains, along with a few tantalizing hints of the German's history.7 James Adair, an English trader who corresponded with him for part of a year in 1738–39, devoted three pages to Priber in his book The History of the American Indians, published in 1775, including a detailed (perhaps eye-witness) description of the second failed attempt to arrest the German in 1739.8 A journalist known only by his nom de plume, Americus, spoke with Priber at length over a period of several months during his captivity at Fort Frederica in 1743–44. The...