Address: 120 E. Illinois Ave. Vinita, OK 74301 County Craig
Started: Completed 1941

Description:

Cherokee History

by Randall Davey. 1941 (tempera on canvas?)

Randall Davey’s involvement with Robert Henri, John Sloan, and the New Mexican art community encouraged him to develop a subtle abstraction of form and a bright palette. Cherokee History is stylistically conservative compared to most of his work of the 1930s and 1940s because of his desire for veracity. Davey paid close attention to details of dress and clearly relied on historical photographs as in the portrait of John Ross in the central panel of the eastern wall. The desire for a faithful representation in the Vinita murals was prompted in part by the controversy surrounding his 1939 Claremore, Oklahoma Post Office mural. That mural, Will Rogers, drew significant criticism from local residents who felt that Davey had overemphasized Rogers’s career with the Ziegfield Follies. When Davey won the commission for the Vinita mural, Oklahoma Senator Josh Lee, concerned about the Claremore debate, cautioned publicly that the artist might have too little knowledge of Native Americans to complete the mural. With a second controversy brewing, Davey approached his second mural, a survey of Cherokee leaders and their conflicts with the British and Americans, with careful planning and research. Davey received some assistance on historical matters from popular journalist John Oskison, who had been born in the Cherokee Nation and was part Cherokee. Oskison’ s concern for the social plight of contemporary Native Americans may have had some influence on Davey’s decidedly political images. [3]

Cherokee History focuses on two periods of tribal history: Cherokee conflict with the British in the 1760s and the events surrounding the removal of the tribe to Indian Territory in the 1830s. The six scenes are not presented chronologically suggesting that Davey intended to stress an ideological point through the arrangement. The three panels on the western wall begin the cycle and depict the Cherokee siege of British troops around 1 760, the release of Chief Oconostota by the South Carolina Governor William Henry Lyttelton, and finally a composite scene which includes both Cherokee warriors harassing the British retreat from Cherokee territory and the Cherokee withdrawal from South Carolina to Georgia, respectively. Davey placed the catalyst for the scenes at left and right in the central panel. Lyttelton’s detention of Oconostota was the result of a complicated series of events beginning with an alliance between the Cherokee and British in the 1750s. In exchange for Cherokee assistance against the French, the British built Fort Loudoun to protect the Cherokee from the pro-French Choctaw. Relations quickly soured, however, when a series of raids and retaliations between small Cherokee bands and British settlers resulted in deaths on both sides. Oconostota attempted to resolve the burgeoning conflict but met with evasion from most British officials. Lyttelton had organized a British response in the meantime and had imprisoned a large number of Cherokee. When Oconostota and Lyttelton finally met, the Governor insisted that twenty¬≠four Cherokee be held accountable for the twenty-four deaths of British citizens, including Oconostota himself. Cherokee leader Attakullakulla negotiated Oconostota’s release and promised to deliver the Cherokee personally responsible for British deaths. Davey’s central panel depicts Lyttelton presenting the terms of release to a defiant Oconostota while British soldiers detain other Cherokee in the background. Angered at British policy, Oconostota sought a treaty with the French and began a campaign to expel the British from South Carolina. He besieged Fort Loudoun and prevented reinforcements under Colonel Archibald Montgomery from quelling Cherokee resistance. Davey’s left panel probably represents Oconostota’s ambush of Montgomery’s troops before they could arrive at Fort Loudon. The somewhat generalized conflict set in the midst of dense foliage lacks either a view of the fort or the spectacle usually associated with a siege.

The Cherokee assault temporarily succeeded in driving the British out of South Carolina. Oconostota assured the British leadership of safe passage out of Cherokee territory, but several rogue bands continued to harass British troops. A British response to the harassment soon followed, and the Cherokee were forced south out of South Carolina and into Georgia. The right panel includes both events with Cherokee warriors firing at retreating British in the background and the Cherokee exodus from South Carolina in the foreground.

Taken together, the first three panels offer a narrative of conflict, resistance and oppression. Although Davey does not omit the violence committed by the Cherokee from his cycle, he generally casts Cherokee opposition in a noble, heroic light. Davey’s residency in the Southwest had made him particularly sensitive to Native rights, and it is probable that he intended an image in support of Cherokee solidarity. This same cycle of resistance and oppression also dominates the last three murals, which includes Thomas Buffington addressing the Cherokee, the arrest of John Ross by the Georgia Guard, and the Trail of Tears, respectively. Like the first three panels, the last three are not arranged chronologically, suggesting a conceptual arrangement in which the first panel begins a narrative that is continued in the two flanking panels.

The first panel depicts the arrest of Chief John Ross, a political scandal that resulted from a complicated series of events. For nearly a century after resettlement in Georgia, the Cherokee coexisted relatively peacefully with the British and then the United States, which had taken over control of eastern North America after the American Revolution. Conflict arose again in the 1830s when President Andrew Jackson decided to remove the Cherokee from eastern North America to make way for American settlement. The American government offered to purchase Cherokee territory in Georgia, but most of the tribal leadership opposed the sale. However, Cherokee leader Major Ridge supported the purchase and signed documents accepting the offer. Ross, acting in opposition to the Ridge’s bargain, collected signatures from 16,000 Cherokee claiming that Ridge had no authority among the tribe to accept the sale. The state of Georgia responded in October 1835 by arresting Ross and seizing the signed documents. Davey depicts this very scene with Ross seated before the documents as the Georgia Guard enter to arrest him.

Despite Ross’s protests, the American government moved the Cherokee from Georgia and Tennessee to Indian Territory in 1838-39. The resulting removal under armed guard has become known as the Trail of Tears to indicate the misery, sickness and death that accompanied the long, forced march during the winter months. In the right panel, Davey has depicted the physical and emotional hardship of the march through the sorrowful expression of the Cherokee and through the supine woman, who may be either sick or dead.

The Cherokee eventually resettled in the 1840s along the northeastern comer of Indian Territory, an area that would include the site of Vinita. Davey represents the continuity of Cherokee leadership and its transfer to Indian Territory in the left panel, which depicts Thomas Buffington addressing a collection of tribal members. Buffington is sometimes referred to as the last chief of the Cherokee because he wielded greater political power than any subsequent leader of the tribe. Buffington had held the position of Mayor of Vinita in the early 1890s before his ascent to chief in 1899, and it is uncertain as to whether Davey captures the leader during his earlier or later post. Regardless, the artist considered Buffington’s populist manner important, and the artist depicts the leader speaking from his buggy. The Cherokee leader had gained a popular following by meeting regularly and informally with his constituents.

Davey’s concern for the historical details of his scenes proved successful. After the installation of the murals, the Postmaster of Vinita, Frank Bailey, reported to the Section of Fine Arts “that the murals and their installation are very satisfactory- and we consider them as a beautiful addition to this fine building.”[4]

Sources:

  1. The Living New Deal
  2. Park and Markowitz, Democratic Vistas, Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal, 1984.
  3. Nicholas A. Calcagno, New Deal Murals in Oklahoma (Miami, Oklahoma: Pioneer Printing, Inc., 1976), 39.
  4. Ibid.