17. Christian Priber, Communism and the Cherokee

Cherokee settlement

Christian Priber is not a name we’ll likely come across in the standard American histories of Turtle Island after the European entrance. Save for early histories of Georgia and the hinterlands of the Carolinas now known as Tennessee, where he was a minor if fascinating character, he would be far below the radar.

Yet he fits into an essential part of these narratives which aim at telling larger stories, sometimes counterfactual to the dominant ‘frontier settler colonialism’ we all learned. One point my accounts imply is that just because something happened, it wasn’t always inevitable—at least not in any strict sense. History, even in the historical materialism school, often has a contingent dimension. There are forks in the road where choices are made. And sometimes, some counter-events are contradictory but prescient in specific ways. They can be brushed aside as ‘duds’ or ‘dead ends’ or praised as ‘ahead of their times.’

Christian Priber (1697-1744) is a case in point. He was a utopian communist who decided the Cherokee people were best suited to his ideas, which, among other things, included forming a vast confederacy of native peoples to resist and defend against the contending forces of European colonialism. He was not alone, and I have earlier noted a few other cases–the Fort Christina commune in New Sweden, the African autonomous zone of Fort Mose, the Albemarle Settlement of intermingled Quakers, Levelers, and Native Peoples in North Carolina, and the maroon colonies in the Great Dismal Swamp. Save for the latter, all these were short-lived, even if they made waves for a while. We will discuss more of them going forward.

But let’s return to comrade Priber. He was raised in a middle-class German family, well-off enough to get him through Erfurt University, where he studied law and philosophy. He had embraced radical notions of natural law, not unlike the radical wing of the Cromwellian ‘diggers’ in England. He came to oppose not only private property as the means of creating wealth but also all hierarchical class rule based on such property. His efforts to organize around his outlook found him in deep trouble, first in Germany and then in England, where he had fled. He soon requested and received permission to migrate to the new colony of Georgia.

Priber arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1735. Oddly, or so it seemed, he quickly took out an ad to sell all his worldly goods, and did so, save for what he needed to make a journey far inland to the homeland of the Western Cherokee. He had studied these people and decided they were best suited for his ideas on an ideal social order–but not in the ways other settler-colonial missionaries had set out on projects of ‘Christianizing savages.’ In this period, the size of the Cherokee was also nearly cut in half by smallpox.

Despite troubles and some differences, Priber liked the Cherokee pretty much as they were. So he set about to transform himself into one of them as best as he could. Already a master of four or five languages, he quickly learned Cherokee and worked on learning all about their ways and culture, wearing their clothes, paint, and ornaments. Visiting traders found it hard to tell him apart, except when he spoke with them in their languages. Down on their luck, other young Europeans of the day had sometimes decided on ‘living among the Indians’ and rarely returning. But few did it with the same approach as Priber.

Over several years, Priber tried to be helpful to the Cherokee. Seeing traders often cheating them because they lacked appropriate standards of weights and measures, he created a set and taught them how to use them in transactions. He also taught them how to make and shape iron and even steel for themselves and projected making gunpowder as well. He encouraged them to welcome all escaping debtors, bondservants, or slaves of any color or nationality. For their part, the Cherokee adopted him, gave him the title ‘beloved man,’ and rejected all English attempts to return him.

The Cherokee already had a communal approach to property and the produce of their farming and hunting. Women already held a degree of power in a matrilineal society where the homes and tools were mainly in their collective hands, even while the males were relegated to hunting and warfare. Priber was a bit more radical on ideas of marriage and divorce, arguing his version of ‘free love,’ that either men or women should form or dissolve unions at will. It likely raised an eyebrow or two even among the Cherokee, whose children were bound to their mothers and their mother’s siblings. Priber argued they were simply the responsibility of all in a given village.

“Women would live with the same freedom as the men; they should be free to change husbands every day; the children who would be born would belong to the republic and be cared for and instructed in all things that their genius be capable of acquiring.” (from the journal of Antoine Bonnefoy, a French trader who met Priber at Tellico, [a large Cherokee town]).

But the broader politics of the ‘Kingdom of Paradise,’ as the Priber project was called, had more impact among its adversaries. First, it was open to all Indians and to be ruled by Indians, as an anti-colonial project. Second, Priber argued that the Cherokee should stop any more ceding of land to the Europeans, explaining it was all part of a larger plot to take all of the Native lands. Third, he argued for a broad alliance or confederacy of all Southern Native peoples against the Europeans, tactically playing one or another against the other if need be.

When venturing out to win the Creeks to this project, Priber was captured by a small group of them, who sold him to the English, and he ended up in a Georgia jail. But even there, he was undeterred, turning his cell into an evening salon for intellectual discussions with any and all of his more literate captors. By all accounts, they were somewhat stunned and spellbound by his ideas and acting as free even while under lock and key. Eventually, he fell ill and died there. The exact circumstances remain unknown, but his ‘Paradise,’ save for a few principles, such as the Cherokee welcoming of outlaw rebels, was also soon lost. More to come.

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