Western North Carolina church partners with Cherokee Nation on marker for historic settlement

By Carl Southerland
Posted May 22, 2023

[Diocese of Western North Carolina] For some time, St. John’s Cartoogechaye and the North Carolina Trail of Tears Association have been planning the placement of a sign at St. John’s designating the location of the Sand Town Indian settlement. The sign will be dedicated at St. John’s at 2 p.m. June 3 with representatives of many Native organizations represented.

The history of St. John’s and the Cherokee people in this settlement goes back to the time of the removal of the Cherokee people from the mountains. William Siler and his family settled in this area in 1818 — when it was Cherokee Indian country. Some 20 years later, when the government started removing the Cherokee from this land, the Silers hid an Indian couple: Chief Chuttahsotee and his wife, Cunstagih. The Silers deeded them the land so they would never be removed.

Alber Siler, the son of William, had a special relationship with the chief. Albert taught the chief English, and the chief taught Albert the Cherokee language. The chief, who died in 1878, had requested a white man’s burial. Cunstagih died a natural death after saying to her son, “I am going with your father when the sun goes down.” They were buried on land owned by the Silers.

Albert and Joanna Siler deeded two acres of land for the church site of St. John’s. The Rev. John Archibald Deal was sent to initiate the work. The burial site of Chuttahsotee and Cunstagih was on the site where the first church was built and consecrated in 1881.

The work of St. John’s radiated out to Franklin with St. Agnes and St Cyprian’s, to Cullowhee with St. David’s, to Highlands with Transfiguration and to country communities like Prentiss, Rainbow Springs, Tusquitee. The work of the Rev. Deal continued almost until the end of his ministry. The last recorded ministrations at St. John’s were in 1910, and after the church declined and, in most instances, was abandoned. The church was torn down, and many of the graves were moved into cemeteries in Franklin.

In 1940, the Rev. Rufus Morgan, the grandson of Albert and Joanna Siler, came as the priest to St. Agnes, and he started clearing the land around the old church site of St. John’s. With much effort, a church was built, and many of the original artifacts (altar, bell, baptismal font) were returned to the new church. The original church was St. John’s Nonah (a Cherokee word meaning evergreen tree) and the new church is St. John’s Cartoogechaye (a Cherokee word meaning “the town over beyond”).

On June 3, the congregation and community we will remember the connection between the Siler family and the chief and his wife. The chief and Cunstahgih took on English names, Jim and Sally Woodpecker, and they are remembered by their family and this community.

-The Rev. Carl Southerland is the rector of St. John’s Cartoogechaye in the Diocese of Western North Carolina.