Chief Joseph Vann

Chief Joseph Vann was an early-19th-century Cherokee leader in Georgia. After the U.S. government seized his property, Vann went to court, securing $19,605 in compensation.


Chief Joseph Vann was born on February 11, 1798, in Murray County, Georgia. He became a prominent Cherokee leader and successful businessman. Vann was evicted from his home as part of the U.S. government’s Indian removal policy. He went through the U.S. courts and won financial compensation for his seized property. He left Georgia in 1834, settled in Tennessee and then in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). He died in a steamship accident on October 23, 1844.

Early Life

Joseph Vann was born in Murray County, Georgia, on February 11, 1798, to Cherokee Chief James Vann and Peggy Scott Vann. His Scottish grandfather, Clement Vann, had moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to Cherokee territory and married a Cherokee woman there. Joseph’s father, James, succeeded both in business and in Cherokee politics, where he was a dominant chief. James Vann was killed when Joseph was only 11 years old.


Joseph Vann, like his father, succeeded in business and politics, enjoying high status among both white American politicians and Cherokees. After he inherited his father’s land in 1817, Vann had a brick plantation house built on the family property. His workforce was comprised of enslaved people of African descent. It was not uncommon for intermarried Cherokees to own slaves, and Vann treated them severely. One historian describes Joseph Vann as “shrewd, ambitious, avaricious, and often unfeeling when property was at stake”—and that included the human beings he counted as part of his property.

In 1819, U.S. President James Monroe visited Vann’s plantation, and in 1827, Vann was elected to the Cherokee National Council. However, after the United States passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, Vann, like other Cherokees, was evicted.

Life After Georgia

Joseph Vann and his family left their Georgia plantation in 1834, but Vann did not accept his displacement. Instead, he took his case to the U.S. courts, where he eventually won a settlement of $19,605.

After leaving Georgia, Vann and his family settled on 300 acres in Hamilton County, Tennessee. In 1836, they moved to Webbers Falls in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Vann’s grandson later reported that Joseph Vann—called “Rich Joe” Vann—had another home, similar to the Georgia plantation, built along the Arkansas River.

After the Cherokees were removed from their land in Georgia, Vann became Second Chief of the relocated Cherokee Nation. He continued his business ventures, which included agriculture and a fleet of ferry boats used to transport the plantation’s products.

Some of Vann’s slaves took part in an 1842 uprising among those enslaved by members of the Cherokee and Creek. The rebels tried to get to Mexico—and freedom—but the Cherokee militia pursued and eventually caught them.

Joseph Vann died—along with several of the captured rebels—on October 23, 1844. The story is told (but not universally accepted) that Vann—along with many friends and enslaved servants—was aboard his steamboat, the Lucy Walker, traveling to New Orleans when he saw a steamboat going faster than his. Vann allegedly told his engineer, Jim Vann, to stoke the engines, including adding slabs of meat for fuel. Jim Vann did so reluctantly, then jumped overboard, believing, correctly, that the engine would explode if over-stoked. Joseph Vann died in the explosion of the Lucy Walker. Reportedly, his arm was retrieved and shipped back to his plantation.    

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