By Danny Crownover
There was news recently about some Native American writings found in Manitou Cave in Fort Payne. The inscriptions inside the cave are evidence of the Cherokee tribe’s syllabary, which Sequoyah, also known as George Guess, developed using symbols for each sound. Sequoyah’s alphabet was formally adopted as the tribe’s official written language in 1825.
One inscription on a wall deep inside the cave translates as, “leaders of the stickball team on the 30th day in the month, April 1828.” The inscription likely referring to a game that was played that day. The writings are ceremonial and spiritual, and some were addressed to the “Old Ones,” as the Cherokee called their forebears. The inscriptions include evidence of a signature by Sequoyah’s son Richard Guess, who is believed to be the leader of the stickball team.
Author’s note: Both Sequoyah and his son Richard Guess lived inside what is now Etowah County near the south side of Bristow Cemetery. There was an old Methodist church at the location that dated back to 1840 and probably was there at the same time as the Cherokees. The old oak tree that Sequoyah studied under and invented his syllabaries had been gone for several years but many persons today still remember it.
Cherokee stickball is a version of lacrosse played between communities to achieve spiritual renewal. It is far more than a simple game; it is a ceremonial event that often continues over days, focusing on competition between two communities who epitomize the spirit and power of the people and their ancestors.
The actual location where the Cherokees played the game on April 30, 1828, is not known.
However, four years later in December of 1832, a ball game using stickball was played in the eastern portion of Etowah County where the community of Ballplay is now located. It was the scene that settled the ownership of a large strip of territory along what is now Ball Play Creek. The game was won by the Creeks.
The stake was probably the largest ever thrown into the balance in any athletic contest in the south, perhaps in the whole country. The game was played by picked teams of the Creek and Cherokee tribes of Indians that flourished in that section of Alabama as late as 1838.
The two nations had set aside a strip about four miles wide and 20 miles long as a neutral territory. The area was a common meeting ground for the chiefs when they were called together to settle some dispute, hold a powwow on any subject or for competitive athletic games between the young braves of the two great tribes.
There were white men living in Gadsden in the 1890s who witnessed the 1832 game that near precipitated a bloody war between the nations. The warriors were drawn up in battle array on either side of the neutral territory and were in full regalia. According to the whites who were there, a more tense situation could hardly have been imagined. Several thousand painted Indians were rooting on either side.
The warriors, women and children pulled for their favorite team, and their yells of victory and groans of defeat could be heard for miles. They also played their war drums to add to the discomfort of the other side.
The ball was composed of animal skins wrapped tightly with rawhide. The players used the sticks to handle the ball, which was never touched by human hands. The ball was batted and thrown around with the sticks, and if someone’s head got in the way of a bat, it was unfortunate for said head.
History does not record the deeds of the stars of the game, except that the participants played with skill and daring. It was recalled by the white spectators that the warriors “ran bases like deer and battled like fiends.” When the contest was over, the Creeks celebrated the victory as befitted the occasion. They danced and feasted all night and far into the next day.
The Cherokees took their defeat sullenly. For a time, it looked as if a massacre might occur, for there was the business of formally surrendering to the victorious Creeks a territory that always had been regarded as common property.
The community of Ballplay, a voting precinct and once a post office in Etowah County, got its name from the strip that was the stake in the game. However, “ball play” is actually a big strip of territory in Etowah and Cherokee counties. It was full of game and fish through the early1890s. Deer, turkey, squirrels and quail also abounded there. The area’s timber was a gold mine for the early sawmill men of Gadsden and today features farms and woodlands.