[This article is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.]
At the turn of the nineteenth century, James Vann, a Cherokee chief and entrepreneur, established Diamond Hill, the most famous plantation in the southeastern Cherokee Nation. In The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, the first full-length study to reconstruct the history of the plantation, MacArthur Fellow Tiya Miles tells the story of Diamond Hill’s founding, its flourishing, its takeover by white land-lottery winners on the eve of the Cherokee Removal, its decay, and its renovation in the 1950s. Vividly written and extensively researched, this history illuminates gender, class, and cross-racial relationships on the southern frontier.
The House on Diamond Hill was awarded the 2011 Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin Prize from the American Society for Ethnohistory, the 2011 National Council on Public History Book Award, and the 2011 Lilla M. Hawes Award from Georgia Historical Society. The first paperback edition was released this month.
Following is an excerpt from the prologue of The House on Diamond Hill:
“Something about this house inspires lunacy in people.”
—Julia Autry, interpretive ranger, Chief Vann House State Historic Site, December 2006
I had trod this Georgia road many times before, but never at night, never in winter. The air was frigid, the sky gloweringly black. But out of the darkness, off in the distance, the grand house glowed. Candles shone in every window. Beribboned wreaths of evergreen hung from the double doors. The promised warmth of interior spaces, hidden from view, beckoned through the gloom. It was lovely, this old plantation house, perched, as it was, atop a hillside. Striking in its grandeur. Alluring in its light. I could almost believe, staring up at the glowing, Palladian window panes, that the year was 1806, that Cherokees still possessed the lands of northern Georgia, that the wealthy Cherokee family who once dwelled in this home would appear at a doorway in waistcoats and bustles.
But this was not 1806. It was 2006. The family who had built this house had long passed into memory, and the home was owned and cared for by Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. I had come here to attend the Chief Vann House State Historic Site’s Christmas by Candlelight celebration. And I found that, as William Chase Parker, an eighteen-year-old employee of the Vann House had put it, the “Christmas Spirit of the community” was very much in evidence. A team of local volunteers from the nonprofit group Friends of the Vann House had readied the home for show. In the place of modern lighting, candles had been lit throughout the house and luminaries positioned along exterior pathways. Natural embellishments of dried okra pods, oiled magnolia leaves, and fanned cedar boughs festooned the interior rooms. The hand-carved mantels were topped by crimson-bowed wreaths, and inside every working hearth, a warming fire had been lit. The ornate dining table was set for a sumptuous holiday meal fit for a king or an Indian chief.
In addition to staging this event, the Friends group volunteers also hosted it, standing in the stead of the long- gone Vann family. The women Friends who guided visitors on the house tour were dressed to match the stately rooms, in festive red wraps and shawls and gold- toned jewelry that shone in the candlelight. In the parlor, Tim Howard, past president of the Whitfield- Murray Counties Historical Society, played a tune on the piano. A female tourist joined him, singing an impromptu Christmas carol to spirited applause. Children of the Friends of the Vann House members, wearing period dress of breeches and homespun cotton, also guided visitors through the home. On the third floor, in what would have been the Vann family’s children’s rooms, young tour guides described the games that Cherokee boys and girls would have played.
In a cozy cabin adjacent to the main house, chief interpretive ranger Julia Autry, one of the two full-time employees at the Vann House, welcomed visitors with cookies and cocoa by warming firelight. She answered questions about the home and described colorful individuals in the Vann family. Christmas by Candlelight was the most popular annual event that the Vann House museum sponsored, and Ranger Chase Parker captured in words the recurring magic of the scene:
The Christmas Candlelight Tour is the most authentic celebration held at the site today. . . . I believe that when walking through the home during those candle lit nights, one gets the closest glimpse possible of how the home looked during Joseph [Vann’s] time. The night hides so much of the modernization inside and surrounding the home. Also, the way that candlelight affects people today is probably the same way that it affected people two hundred years ago. So the feeling people get when they see the candle’s flame flicker and the fires’ reflections sway on the walls is a feeling much like the visitors of the Vanns’ did in the early eighteen hundreds.
The rare feeling that Ranger Parker described of being transported into the past was one that the public hungered for, as evidenced by the one hundred to two hundred people who were expected to tour this tucked-away historic house over the course of the two-day event. This particular 2006 holiday season, Ranger Autry explained, their numbers had reached that projected highpoint on the very first evening. And as I write these words in the spring of 2009, the Vann House has just announced that the 2008 Christmas event broke past records, drawing over eight hundred visitors to the “delightful” fires “inside the old mansion.”
Throughout the year, visitors travel to the Vann House from nearby towns, the city of Atlanta, the states of Tennessee and Oklahoma, across the United States, and even around the world. This night, almost all of the tourists were white and southern: young adults with babes in arms, elderly couples, adolescents. Latino teens made up the second largest group, reflective of the changing population dynamics of many southern cities. As the only African American person I could visually identify, I may have stood out among the crowd. Nor did I note, on the single night that I was there, the presence of Cherokees or other Native American people. Some visitors were seeing the Vann House for the first time, but many others had been there on several occasions before. The latter spoke animatedly and knowledgeably about members of the historical Vann family, debating theories about the Vanns’ personalities and the motivation for acts undertaken long ago. The second set of guests returned to this place again and again, as if it were their own ancestral home.
The volunteers, too, had walked these grounds many a time, following in the footsteps of generations of family members from Murray County, Georgia, and surrounds, a predominantly white area. The children who guided tours on the upper floor of the home spoke of their grandparents’ work as volunteers at the Vann House. A young man who led guests through a Cherokee cabin on the grounds explained that he was following in his elder brother’s footsteps as a Vann House worker. The inherited aspect of Vann House volunteerism was so pronounced that site employees recognized it in their seasonal newsletter, writing: “[T]he Vann House somehow seems to produce this special type of generational selflessness.” The devotion of local volunteers amazed Ranger Autry, who compared their unflagging love for this house to a rather less enthusiastic embrace of Cherokee political historic sites in Georgia. A woman of wry but good-natured humor, Autry called some volunteers’ passion for the Vann House a form of “lunacy.”
And perhaps this manor home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains did hold just a bit of the moon’s magic. People fell for this place—the home, the hills, the mountains on the horizon. The Vann House has a way of casting spells, creating an aura of eras past. Its massive porticoed entry doors, framed in brightest white, double as a portal to another time. For many visitors and volunteers alike, the effect has been a sense of connection, a feeling of comfort, serenity, pleasure, and release from the cares of our day-to-day world. And I was really no exception. This Christmas marked my fifth visit to the site, and if I had been immune to the house’s beauty, it is doubtful I would have chosen to write this book. But, I am compelled to ask, what is it we are connecting with when we walk the oak halls of this exquisite plantation home—one hundred and seventy years after Cherokees were forcibly removed from the South, one hundred and forty years after African Americans slaves were emancipated from slavery? What really took place on these well-worn grounds? What does this house stand for?
That wintry evening, during the Christmas tour, I visited the cellar of the Chief Vann House. Unlike the above-ground rooms that hummed with the movement of scores of guests, this space that formed the home’s foundation was quiet, empty. A lone volunteer, a young man of about thirteen dressed in period clothing, stood ready to describe the cold, desolate rooms. “This is where the slaves would have worked,” he told me. “Shackles were found in the corner,” he said.
Instead of climbing the basement stairs to reenter the warm, bright body of the house, I made my way outside through the cellar’s slim side door. From this angle, facing away from the burnished brick home, all was dark, all was chill.
Tiya Miles is the Elsa Barkley Brown Collegiate Professor of African American Women’s History and professor of history, American culture, Afroamerican and African studies, and Native American studies at the University of Michigan. Her first book, Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, won the Organization of American Historians’ Turner Prize and the American Studies Association’s Romero Prize. In 2011 she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.
- Interview with William Chase Parker, May 10 and June 3, 2007, Vann House Oral History Project, Conducted by Tiya Miles, Fall 2006-Fall 2008.↩
- “Christmas Program Sets New Attendance and Revenue Records,” Friends of the Vann House Newsletter, Winter 2009.↩
- “Vann House Volunteerism Passed down through Generations,” Vann HouseStaff Notes, Winter/Spring 2006.↩
- Julia Autry, conversation with Tiya Miles, December 2006, Spring Place, GA.↩