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Junaluska was born around 1775, approximately 15 miles (24 km) south of Franklin, North Carolina near present day Dillard, Georgia. A few days after his birth, he was given his first name when the cradle board holding him fell over. He was called in the Cherokee language Gu-Ka-Las-Ki (also spelled Gulkalaski), which in English, translates to "One who falls from a leaning position". Later, after an unsuccessful military venture he was named Tsu-Na-La-Hun-Ski (also spelled Tsunulahunski) or, "One who tries but fails." Other spellings of his name included Chunaluska, in the diaries of Col. William Holland Thomas, Ja-ne-lus-kee in the Siler rolls, and Junoluskee by the North Carolina General Assembly. Junaluska's own description of the event that gave him the name was "Detsinulahungu," meaning "I tried, but could not".
Legend has been passed that Junaluska met with Tecumseh in Soco Gap in 1811 although this is not verified. Junaluska however sent word at least to Tecumseh that the Cherokee would not join an Indian confederacy against the whites.
In 1813 when the Cherokee raised up 636 men against the Red Stick Faction of the Creek Indians in Alabama, Junaluska personally recruited over 100 men to fight at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Cherokee unit was incorporated into the combined Creek-Cherokee-Yuchi-Choctaw army under the command of Brig. General William McIntosh, a "Friendly" Creek from Georgia. Junaluska's actions turned the tide when he swam the Tallapoosa River retrieving Redstick Creek canoes and ferrying the Cherokee to the rear of the Creeks. He is also credited with saving Andrew Jackson's life during this battle.
According to the provisions of an 1819 treaty with the United States, Junaluska applied for 640 acres (2.6 km2) of land at Sugar Creek near Franklin, NC when his land was usurped by white settlers. He moved to the remaining portion of the Cherokee Nation.
Jackson is said to have told Junaluska, "As long as the sun shines and the grass grows, there shall be friendship between us, and the feet of the Cherokee shall be toward the east." But one source says Junaluska later said, "If I had known that Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day at the Horseshoe". Another version of the story says that Jackson met with Junaluska but said, "Sir, your audience is ended. There is nothing I can do for you." And when Junaluska saw his people being moved, he cried and looked toward the sky saying, "Oh my God, if I had known at the battle of the Horse Shoe what I know now, American history would have been differently written".
During the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838, Junaluska and many other Cherokee people were incarcerated and held in nearby stockades. One, known as Fort Montgomery, was located near present day Robbinsville, North Carolina. From this stockade, Junaluska was forced to march to Indian Territory in present day Eastern Oklahoma Junaluska was assigned to Jesse Bushyhead's detachment.
About seven weeks into the journey, Junaluska deserted and led approximately 50 other Cherokee. He was soon captured and returned to Oklahoma but after only a couple of years, Junaluska made the trip back to North Carolina on foot, and in 1847 after a plea by Col. Thomas, the state legislature rewarded him for his service by making him a citizen and giving him land near present-day Robbinsville.
Junaluska married Ni-suh and had three children—two boys Jim-my and Sic-que-yuh, and one girl Na-lih.
Junaluska died October 20, 1868 and was buried in Robbinsville. His grave was originally marked, in traditional Cherokee style, with a pile of stones, but in 1910 the General Joseph Winston Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (Winston-Salem) erected a monument at his gravesite. A museum and memorial stands in his honor at this location.