The Chief Vann House is a stately red brick mansion in North Georgia built in 1804 by the Cherokee chief, James Vann. Constructed as part of his Spring Place Plantation, the mansion overlooks the Cohutta Mountains, on the outskirts of what is present-day Chatsworth.
Vann’s mixed ancestry of a Scottish father and Cherokee mother led him to encourage education and acculturation. His business success made him one of the richest men in the United States.
Known as the “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation,” the Chief Vann House preserves the Cherokee leader’s influence and wealth against a backdrop of an often-conflicting period in U.S. history.
Architectural Significance of the Chief Vann House
Vann was born in 1765 in the heart of Cherokee territory in northern Georgia. His father was one of the first white fur traders in the area. He grew up learning both European and Cherokee traditions and was completely bi-lingual, often translating documents to and from English. He made his money running several successful businesses; he was a fur trader, owned saw and grist mills, ferries, toll booths and taverns.
James hired a German architect to design a house that reflected his success. The result was a Federal style brick mansion with the first two floors having 12-foot high ceilings and the third floor ceiling being only six feet high. The basement contained a wine cellar. Construction began in 1803 and completed the following year. Workers included a brick mason from Virginia, Cherokee craftsmen, members of the local Moravian mission, and African-American slaves.
According to Julia Autry, Interpretive Ranger at the Chief Vann House State Historic Site, there is one thing that particularly prompts reactions from visitors upon seeing the site for the first time. She said that they are surprised to learn that some members of the Cherokee Nation lived in stately homes on large plantations. As she points out, “Teepees have never been a part of Cherokee culture.”
The “Floating” Staircase
The item that particularly captures visitors’ attention inside the Chief Vann House is the “floating” staircase. Autry said this is Georgia’s “oldest example of cantilevered construction.”
The staircase does not have any visible means of support, looking as though it is suspended above the first floor hallway. However, a portion of one side is secured in the brick wall. That acts as a balance scale, with the weight on the supported side far greater than weight applied to the side left unsupported.
The Surrounding Grounds and Outer Buildings of Spring Place Plantation
The Chief Vann House itself is not the only aspect of the property that preserved the Cherokee leader’s immense wealth and contribution to history. The surrounding grounds and outer buildings also indicated the significance of Spring Place Plantation.
The property had 800 acres with several barns, smokehouses, mills, blacksmith shops, a trading post, slave cabins, a still and a vegetable garden. Hundreds of peach and apple trees also grew on the plantation.
Vann had given the farm next to his to the Moravian missionaries after the Cherokee Council approved their request to establish a school. The Springplace Mission opened in 1801.
The Cherokee accepted the school and several of the students went on to achieve positions of leadership, including Vann’s son, Joseph. When Vann’s mansion was under construction, the Moravians helped with the work. In 1805, he invited the missionaries to his home for what would be one of the first Christmas celebrations ever held in the Cherokee Nation.
He convinced the Cherokee Council to support the U.S. government’s plan to build a federal road through the area. Instead of resenting the plan, he saw it as an opportunity to further enhance his various businesses.
The Death of Chief James Vann and Future of Spring Place Plantation
Vann would become increasingly violent after drinking whiskey. He killed three slaves, his brother-in-law and a soldier. On February 20, 1809, he was drinking heavily in a tavern and got into a fight. As he stepped outside, someone fired a shot and killed him.
He left all of his property and businesses to his son, Joseph Vann, even though he had other sons. Joseph, or “Rich Joe,” became wealthier than his father. Like his father, he was a chief and respected by both the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation. President James Monroe came to visit and stayed at the Vann House in 1819.
As word spread about the discovery of gold in the mountains of North Georgia in 1829, white surveyors were taking Cherokee land and awarding it to settlers in a lottery. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this was illegal but that did not stop the surveyors or the settlers. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Officials evicted the Moravian missionaries in 1833 because they were living on Vann property. The Georgia government passed more laws to make life difficult for the Cherokees. Vann broke one of those laws when he hired a white overseer. In 1835, the government forced Vann and his family to move from their home and they relocated in Oklahoma, following the Trail of Tears. He later sued for the loss of his property and received $19,605 as compensation.
The house had several owners after Vann left. When the Georgia Historical Commission purchased it in the 1950s, it was vacant and in poor condition. After a six-year restoration, the property earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
Chief Vann House Offers Tours and Special Events Throughout the Year
The Chief Vann House State Historic Site offers guided tours from Thursdays through Sundays. The house that was part of two cultures mixes European and Cherokee traditions. Special events throughout the year give visitors a chance to help cultivate the garden or repair the split rail fence. There are also workshops of Native American arts and crafts. In December, visitors can see the house decorated for Christmas.
As the Chief Vann House is committed to preserving the Cherokee leader’s wealth and history, it is also diligently researching the stories of James’ and Joseph’s slaves. According to interpretive rangers at the site, the Moravian Springplace Mission records reveal the identification of more than 120 slaves. These stories are part of the exhibit Patchwork in the Quilt. For more information regarding tours and events, please visit the Chief Vann House website.
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Photos courtesy of Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, used with permission. All rights reserved.