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Cherokee stickball: the first written documentation

Winter ball play in Tugalo, Estatoe, and Keowee

On January 11th, 1715–16, an officer from the Carolina Colony on an expedition into the Cherokee Country wrote in his journal that

this day ther was a greatt ball play att Esttohee agenst ye peapl of Tugaloe1

This contemporary Cherokee ceramic alludes to the origin of Bat’s wings in a stickball game between the Birds and the Animals.2

With a modernization of the orthography the text reads as, “This day there was a great ball play at Estatoe against the people of Tugalo (the town hosting the author).”

The journaler had also made note of a ball play in his entry for January 8th, which reads:

this day mr Wigan and Doctt: Conyers went to a Town called tohowee abought 25 milles from hence ther was a greatt ball play among the Indens this day.3

This orthography is a bit more difficult to modernize and the text is also a little more challenging to make sense of. Given the distance between the author at Tugalo and <tohowee>, I would modernize the orthography to read, “This day Mr. Wigan and Dr. Conyers went to a town called Keowee about 25 miles from here. There was a great ball play among the Indians this day.” It is not certain from the text, but I read the entry to indicate that the day’s ball play took place at Tugalo.

The journal entries are of interest in the study of Cherokee ethnohistory and Southeastern ethnology because they document stickball matchgames in the dead of winter during the early part of the 18th century.4 This was not the case in the late 19th century when James Mooney conducted his fieldwork on the Qualla Boundary, where he found the winter to be the offseason for the game.5

Notes

1. See “Journal of the march of the Carolinians into the Cherokee mountains, in the Yemassee Indian War. 1715–1716,” in Yearbook of the City of Charleston (1894), ed. Langdon Cheves ([Charleston, S.C.], 1895), 339. The authorship of the unsigned journal is typically attributed to George Chicken.

2. See myth 36, the ball game of the birds and animals, in James Mooney, “Myths of the Cherokee,” in Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1897–98 (Part 1) (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1900), 286–87.

3. See “Journal of the march of the Carolinians into the Cherokee mountains,” pp. 338–39.

4. On the matchgame institution in Southeastern social life, see Jason Baird Jackson, Yuchi ceremonial life: performance, meaning, and tradition in a contemporary American Indian community, (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska, 2005), 151–53.

5. “The ball season begins about the middle of summer and lasts until the weather is too cold to permit exposure of the naked body, for the players are always stripped for the game. The favorite time is in the fall, after the corn has ripened, for then the Indian has abundant leisure, and at this season a game takes place somewhere on the reservation at least every other week, while several parties are always in training.” See James Mooney, “The Cherokee ball play,” American Anthropologist, o.s. 3, no. 2 (April 1890): 109–10. doi:10.1525/aa.1890.3.2.02a00010.

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