Peaches originated in China. The Spanish introduced them to the New World and by 1571 peaches were introduced by Franciscan monks to St. Simons and Cumberland islands along Georgia’s coast. How they got to Cherokee country is anybody’s guess, but by the time the Cherokees had regular interaction with Europeans, those same Europeans noted the Cherokees and Creeks were cultivating large peach orchards. Two varieties have been documented as growing in the Cherokee country, the “Blood Peach”, also called the Cherokee Peach or the Indian Blood peach and the Georgia Black peach. Thomas Jefferson grew a Blood Peach in his garden at Monticello. According to Peter Hatch, Director, Monticello Gardens and Grounds:
“One “Blood” peach tree was sent Jefferson in 1807 by the Washington nurseryman Thomas Main. In 1810 Jefferson planted forty-one stones of the “black plumb peach of Georgia” in the “New Nursery.” These likely came from William Meriwether, who had passed on “black soft peaches of Georgia” in 1804 and “Georgia black” peaches in 1809. When pomological writers such as Philip Miller, William Coxe, A. J. Downing, and U. P. Hedrick discussed the Blood Cling peach, they attributed its origin to a French variety known as Sanguinole, a curiosity suitable mostly for preserving. Today the peach is known as the Indian Blood Cling, a name that unites the “Blood” peach of the French Sanguinole with the “Indian” peach that grows wild in the southeastern states of Georgia and Florida and was obtained by Jefferson as the “black plumb peach of Georgia.” The fruit, entirely splashed and mottled with scarlet, tiger-like stripes, is sometimes twelve inches round. The skin resembles a beet: scarlet, tough, and meaty, although pleasantly flavored and brisk. Blood Cling is a fine peach to eat out of hand but is mostly used for pickling and preserving. It was commonly listed by early nineteenth-century nurseries and is still offered in the trade.
Peaches in the garden
While the Cherokee lands were held in common, individual improvements to the land were valued. It was not uncommon for those improvements to include 40-50 peach trees per orchard and to a lesser extent, apple trees. In the late 18th century the Moravian missionary Martin Schnieder noted that: “Near every House is a Circle of pretty large but very wild grown Fruit Trees.” The State of Georgia, in 1836-1837, in preparation for removal of the Cherokees conducted property valuations. They counted 80,000 fruit trees, of which 63,000 were peach trees.
It is evident that Cherokees love their peaches. The fruit trees allowed the Cherokees to reduce their dependence on native fruits like mulberries, paw paws and persimmons. They fed their excess to hogs and Cherokees traveling could help themselves to the bounty of fruit they found in their neighbors orchards. This wasn’t at all uncommon and the practice of communal sharing continued to modern times. My grandmother had two peach trees in her garden, one in each corner on the west side. One day I came out of the house and the neighbor was standing outside the garden fence with five or six peaches rolled up in the tail of his shirt. I went back inside and told my grandmother he was stealing the peaches. She laughed and said “he only wants enough for a cobbler. There will be plenty left for us.” She was right. When it came time to put up the peaches, my mother came over and helped her peel and slice all those peaches. There were more than plenty. By the end you’d wished he’d taken a few more.
Some of my fondest memories are those canned peaches. After Sunday dinner my grandmother would bring out the peach cobbler made from those canned peaches. We didn’t care that the old oven had made the house so hot we had to open the kitchen door…and front door…and at times a couple of windows. Sometimes, especially in the summer, she’d just open up a jar of peaches and that was dessert, a sweet bowl of home canned peaches, sprinkled with a little cinnamon or mixed with a splash of heavy cream, or both. It seems there were always peaches around. She even left a small bowl of peaches on the dining room table, under a white flour-sack dish cloth. “Those are for the little people”, she said, “Keeps them from making trouble.” Peaches had become woven into the fabric of Cherokee culture.
“Wilder than a peach orchard boar.”
One day I was talking to my father about the son of a neighbor. He shook his head and said “that boy’s turned out wilder than a peach orchard boar.” Even without explanation I knew what he meant. A visual image in my head came of something out of control, stumbling and staggering. The phrase comes from the fact that if hogs eat the rotting, fermenting peach fruit that has fallen to the ground, they actually get drunk, stagger around, fall down, and run into things. A few days later it dawned on me the significance of the statement in terms of Cherokee culture. Firstly, the saying is thoroughly southern, in the way Southerners use metaphor to literally picture emotion. You won’t likely hear that saying in Minnesota or New York State. Secondly, it is a reflection of the southern flavor of Cherokee culture OR the Cherokee flavor of southern culture. The saying is a hold-over from the time in Cherokee, and southern culture in general, when folks were familiar and comfortable with the nature of their surroundings and the things in it.
Cherokees love them some peaches.
While peaches are not indigenous to Cherokee country, the Cherokees have made the sweet, juicy fruit their own. One could argue that Georgia would not be the Peach State, without the vast orchards of peaches left behind by the Cherokees when they were removed to Indian Territory. Peaches remain a staple of the Cherokee culinary experience. Ask a Cherokee what their favorite dessert is and one of the top three answers will be peach cobbler. There’s even a festival to get your fill of everything peach. Every year, since 1960, the town of Porter, Oklahoma, located on the boundary between the Creek and Cherokee Nations, hosts the Porter Peach Festival. Check it out. If you can’t make it to the festival, you’re still in luck. Try a simple but mouthwatering recipe for Brown Sugar Grilled Peaches.