Toka Will was an old man in 1826. He’d lived a long life, seen plenty, and now wanted to ensure that his family were well taken care of after he was gone. So, Toka Will acquired title to 640 acres of land, nestled along the Little Tennessee River. Problem was, Toka Will, a Cherokee elder, wasn’t the only one who wanted this land and its prime river access. In response, Toka Will got a lawyer and fought for his land and his river. This, however, is more than another property dispute case in America’s first frontier. To understand this case and its historical implications we must first understand Toka Will? Who was he, and why did he fight so hard for this land and the river access it provided? Was he really the last Cherokee at Toqua, a place with a deep history? And what, if anything, does the case of Toka Will foretell not about the future history of the Cherokees, the rich alluvial soils, and fast-flowing rivers of Southern Appalachian’s Little Tennessee Valley?
Gregory Smithers is a professor of American history and Eminent Scholar (2019-2024) in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis. He has taught in California, Hawaii, Scotland, and Ohio, and is presently a British Academy Global Professor, based in the Treatied Spaces research cluster at the University of Hull. Professor Smithers’ research centres on the histories of Indigenous people and African Americans from the eighteenth century to the present, with a focus on the rich history of the Cherokee people, Indigenous history from the Mountain South to California and the Southwest Pacific, and environmental history. His work is devoted to narrating the past in ways that are publicly accessible and connect with issues of social justice, environmental sustainability, and racial and gender equity. His many publications include the award-winning Reclaiming Two-Spirits. Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal and Sovereignty in Native America (2023).
Please note that the School of History seminars will run in-person only this semester.