Visiting Our Past: Legislative phenom Clingman arrived in Asheville in 1836

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When Thomas Lanier Clingman rode his horse into Asheville in early October 1836, he had reason to stop midway. A freak snowstorm had bowed down the trees in the Black Mountains, through which he passed.

"A day previous to leaving Yancey County," he told an Asheville Citizen story writer in 1887, snow had fallen "to the depth of several inches. ... There had been no previous frost, and the leaves were in their full summer green."

Ahead of Clingman lay a boomtown — a courthouse outpost of a couple dozen homes bustling to accommodate turnpike business, land claims and a rising political party, the Whigs. Wealthy estate builders had been coming into Flat Rock and Fletcher from the south by stage. Lawyers were congregating to engineer land purchases in Cherokee territory.

Clingman had many friends and a personal story that gave him fuel. He graduated at the top of his class at UNC in 1832 and then went down with a monthslong painful blindness. Emerging, he waged a successful campaign to get elected assemblyman from Surry County.

In Raleigh, Clingman shot forward. He was one of those new guys whom the old party leaders tell, "Hey, you go represent us. People like how you speak."

One of Clingman's friends, Gov. Edward B. Dudley, a leading Whig, gave Clingman the job of prosecuting nonpaying claimants of Cherokee lands in Haywood County. The connection led to one of the cases that Clingman argued in the N.C. Supreme Court, an ambitious arena.

The court's "decisions usually turned on arcane points of legal procedure," writes biographer Thomas Jeffrey. "For that reason, few local practitioners dared match wits against George E. Badger, Duncan Cameron, Thomas Ruffin" and others.

In 1842, Clingman argued for the defendant John C. Moore, whose hold on a piece of land in Cherokee territory was being opposed by the plaintiff, a man named Sutton. Sutton said his ownership had been guaranteed by the Treaty of 1817, by which lands ceded by the Cherokee to the U.S. first went to heads of Indian households.

Clingman pointed out that Sutton's property lay outside the 1817 boundaries. He then argued that the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which ceded new lands, including Sutton's, did not have to follow in the former treaty's unprogressive footsteps.

The justices agreed with Clingman that the 1835 treaty "makes no reservations out of that territory for any Cherokee families, but, in the plainest terms, declares that the cession is of the entire territory, unencumbered by reservations, or promises of reservations."

State coffers would flow.

Citizen Times columnist Rob Neufeld
Citizen Times columnist Rob Neufeld

Rob Neufeld wrote the weekly "Visiting Our Past" column for the Citizen Times until his death in 2019. This column originally was published Dec. 14, 2009.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Visiting Our Past: Thomas Lanier Clingman arrived in Asheville in 1836

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