On the eve of the American Revolution in 1775, the Cherokees were ensnared in an economic, political and social quagmire. Cherokee leaders, desperate for economic relief, agreed to a large land scheme. In March 1775, land speculators from North Carolina sought to create a new colony based on Daniel Boone’s forays into “Kaintuckee,” to gain title to highly valuable Cherokee hunting grounds. Cherokee elders met the speculators in southwest Virginia at the Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga River to hammer out a deal for 27,000 square miles of Cherokee land in exchange for a few blankets, knives and gunpowder.
Dragging Canoe (ca. 1738–1792), son of a conciliatory Cherokee elder and soon to be focus of the hard-line resistance, instinctively knew the scheme would bring further destruction to his people. He leveled a stern warning of the coming days of destruction if more land deals were made with the encroaching colonists. He stomped the ground, saying, “Nations have melted like snowballs in the sun. We never thought the white man would come across the mountains, but he has, and has settled on Cherokee land. He will not leave us but a small spot to stand on. Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences rather than submit to further laceration of our country?” (This speech has also been attributed to Shawnee resistance leader Tecumseh, who may have served with Dragging Canoe as a young man.) Young men, prepared to fight and die, rallied behind Dragging Canoe.
Settlers at the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals had illegally built settlements, such as Watauga, Nolichucky and Horse Creek, and came hoping to have their illegal land grab legitimized. As Dragging Canoe put it, “They wish to have their usurpations sanctioned by treaty.”
Dragging Canoe, son of diplomat Little Carpenter who was at the helm of the talks, publicly rebuked the elders, including his father, for exchanging their hunting grounds for goods that would soon be worthless. Furthermore, the Cherokees felt hemmed in by the colonists’ expanding illegal settlements. Dragging Canoe believed armed struggle was the only way to regain sovereignty over their homeland.
Who were these people settled on Cherokee land? Many were from the British Isles and had come to America hoping to own land, which was impossible in England, Scotland or Ireland. Beautiful, fertile land with no British authority was very inviting, but in 1763 the King had outlawed colonial settlement on land reserved for the Indians west of the Boundary line. The Indian Boundary was the line of demarcation along the eastern Continental divide and the Appalachian Mountains. The 1763 Royal Proclamation reinforced the line, which was made by blazing, or stripping bark from trees. British agents had repeatedly told the Cherokees they were fully within their rights to drive off the squatters and seize their horses and cattle as a penalty for breaking English law.
To advance the rebellion against King George, southern rebels launched a powerful anti-British rumor campaign. The British Parliament, rebels claimed, planned to restore British authority, in part, by dispatching Cherokee war parties to attack rebels in the outlying settlements. John Stuart, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs living in Charleston, S.C., was accused of using his influence with the Cherokees to bring the rumored plan into effect. Charleston’s revolutionaries, who called themselves the Liberty Boys, threatened his life, so Stuart fled.
Alexander Cameron, Stuart’s emissary, had by 1775 lived among the Cherokees for more than a decade. Cameron, a Highland Scot, was likewise accused of planning to lead Cherokee raids against his neighbors in South Carolina’s backcountry. To defuse the perceived threat of Cameron’s influence with the Cherokees, Charleston rebel William Henry Drayton dispatched an envoy to bribe Cameron into abandoning his loyalty to the king. After all, while drinking with friends in a tavern at Ninety-Six, Cameron had heartily agreed that taxation without representation was unjust. But Cameron refused Drayton’s overtures, so Drayton dispatched his henchmen to arrest or kill Cameron. With his Cherokee wife and three children, Cameron fled his 2,000-acre estate in South Carolina and found refuge in the Overhill towns, the Cherokee seat of diplomatic and military power.
There, Cameron heard Dragging Canoe make passionate speeches in defense of liberty, dignity and survival – the same sentiments expressed by those in rebellion against King George. Young warriors, eager to regain sovereignty, expressed their resolve to drive off the settlers. They vowed to spread incendiary devastation along the frontier – the very thing Cameron was being accused of instigating. In reality, Cameron opposed war, and offered to dispatch appeals to the settlers, strongly suggesting they move. Dragging Canoe reluctantly agreed to Cameron’s gestures of diplomacy.
Cameron and Dragging Canoe had for years developed a close association. As the rebellion against Britain escalated, Cameron was ordered to keep Dragging Canoe and his people firm in their alliance with the Crown but to restrain warriors from striking the frontier. This mission would not be easy. Indian commissioners appointed by the Continental Congress hindered his task. The commissioners badmouthed Stuart and Cameron and sought to buy Cherokee neutrality with gunpowder and provisions. Cherokees were heavily indebted to their traders, and much-needed goods might induce neutrality, the commissioners thought. John Stuart also promised the Cherokees ammunition so they could hunt and maintain trade with Britain.
Stuart dispatched his brother, Henry, as an emissary to escort the ammunition to the Cherokees. Henry Stuart left St. Augustine, sailed down Florida’s coast and landed at Pensacola and then went on to Mobile. There, he joined Dragging Canoe, who had traveled 500 miles from the Overhills with 80 warriors to meet the British entourage.
Henry Stuart and Dragging Canoe journeyed together to the Overhills, and along the way encountered colonial emigrants heading toward the Mississippi. The emigrants spoke of the rebel militia holding musters, building forts and dispatching posses to capture or kill Cameron. Dragging Canoe became incensed at hearing of the rebels’ intent to harm Cameron, so he dispatched runners to the Overhills. His message: prepare for war.
When the British agents arrived in the Overhills, they saw Cherokees making preparations for war. Henry Stuart and Cameron convened with Cherokee headmen. In Chota, the Cherokee mother town, Dragging Canoe argued that if warriors did not drive off the settlers, the Cherokee people would be destroyed. Cameron warned that if they did attempt driving off the settlers, the Cherokee people would be destroyed. Preventing those squatters from building in the first place would have been easier than driving them off, Cameron argued. In the preceding 12 years, as their resident British emissary, he had warned them repeatedly never to suffer colonials settling on their land, but it was too late. Seven years earlier, a renegade Cherokee named Cold Weather agreed to lease land to settlers at Watauga in exchange for annual supplies.
Dragging Canoe’s fervent talk of waging war to regain sovereignty appealed to young warriors eager for justice. Desperate for a solution, Henry Stuart and Cameron wrote letters to the Watauga and Nolichucky settlers, offering land grants in Florida to those who would leave. They also warned of attacks by a justly enraged people. The letters warned Watauga’s leader John Carter to leave or warriors would kill, scalp, take captives and burn cabins.
About this time, a delegation of Mohawk, Delaware and Shawnee Indians appeared in Chota. They appealed to Dragging Canoe to take up the hatchet with them against the destructive colonials. The delegates argued that a pan-Indian confederacy united in war would be the only answer to stave off extinction. Dragging Canoe took up the war belts and pledged his resolve to join the federation. Cameron and Henry Stuart again advised against war.
Meanwhile, a trader named Isaac Thomas delivered the British agents’ letters to settlers huddled in William Bean’s cabin in Watauga. The Cherokees had declared war on the Watauga and Nolichucky settlements, he told them. On hearing the alarming news, settlers were determined to defend their settlements, but hadn’t the guns and ammunition to repel war parties, so, they came up with a plan. Carter authored fictitious letters, affixing the signatures of the British agents. The forgeries alleged that thousands of British troops and warriors would invade rebels on the frontier. The forgeries were laid before the Continental Congress and published in a Virginia newspaper as gospel. Cameron and Henry Stuart vehemently denounced the letters as forgeries, but the Continental Congress believed the propaganda and authorized military aid for the settlers.
Meanwhile, Isaac Thomas returned to the Overhills with daunting news for the Cherokees. In a war council, he testified seeing American rebels mobilizing troops to invade Cherokee towns. He described the recently built Watauga fort. An enraged Dragging Canoe protested that it would have been better to attack first, rather than send the letters, which only served to “to put the settlers on their guard.”
The Cherokees had a serious dilemma. The elder headmen did not want yet another war with colonials. The young warriors saw it as the only way. Dragging Canoe’s argument won the day, and warriors struck the warpath.
On July 20, 1776, Virginia militiamen near the Holston River suddenly heard a sound like distant thunder. They looked behind to see Dragging Canoe and 160 warriors swiftly advancing. The battle was intense. Many were wounded. Some were killed. Dragging Canoe, wounded in the thigh, withdrew from the field.
Elsewhere, war parties bludgeoned to death, mutilated and scalped settlers not holed up in overcrowded forts. Cattle and horses were scattered and sheep and hogs shot dead. Militiamen, discovering the massacred bodies, quickly buried the remains of their families and neighbors and passionately vowed to have revenge or die in the attempt.
Rebels believed the raids were British policy, not Cherokees defending their rights, but British emissaries had repeatedly told the Cherokees they were within their rights to drive off the squatters. Nevertheless, John Hancock, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson called for the destruction of the entire Cherokee nation. Three militia armies totaling 6,000 soldiers prepared to take revenge for loved ones and neighbors killed, and also pursue plunder and slaves.
On the North Carolina frontier, Cherokee warriors mercilessly hacked to death 37 settlers on the Catawba River. Enraged and terrified colonials besieged Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford with desperate pleas for the militia to act. Rutherford wrote the Council of Safety begging for ammunition and orders to send him to attack the Cherokee Nation. Soon, Rutherford led over 2,400 militiamen through rugged, mountainous country to burn Cherokee towns in North Carolina.
In South Carolina, Maj. Andrew Williamson marched his army to burn 13 Cherokee towns before joining Rutherford’s forces in North Carolina to burn 23 more towns. The armies destroyed thousands of bushels of corn and other crops.
Virginian Col. William Christian, appointed by his brother-in-law Patrick Henry, led 1,800 troops to destroy the Overhill towns. While Christian’s army camped along the French Broad River, a runner with a white flag interceding for Chota brought Christian an appeal for peace. Christian railed against the offer because the Cherokees still held captives, horses and slaves. “How can the Nation think of asking peace of me?” he asked. Christian rejected the overture and continued toward the Overhills.
Christian established base camp in Dragging Canoe’s town as a gesture of defiance because Dragging Canoe had bred the war. Christian summoned Dragging Canoe and other chiefs to a parlay. Dragging Canoe, with insulting contempt, refused to attend, but Little Carpenter and Oconostota met Christian and agreed to remain neutral in the Revolutionary War. Christian then burned towns allied with Dragging Canoe, but spared towns that had promised neutrality. Dragging Canoe built new towns down the Little Tennessee River on Chickamauga Creek, and established a staging area for ongoing guerilla warfare.
Meanwhile, Cherokee headmen met Col. Christian at Fort Patrick Henry on the Holston River for further talks. Dragging Canoe continued raiding the frontier, killing dozens of settlers near the fort. The infuriated Christian demanded that the Cherokee headmen compel Dragging Canoe to stop raiding and give himself up.
The Cherokee leaders then traveled 500 miles to Williamsburg, Va., to meet Governor Patrick Henry. They agreed to restrain their young warriors and vowed to give up more land, which those warriors had so earnestly fought to defend. Southern rebels, after decimating over 50 Cherokee towns, soon realized that their massive militia campaign had not defeated Dragging Canoe, who continued punishing frontier settlers. Dragging Canoe remained resolved to liberate his land and maintain his alliance with King George. All efforts by posses and militiamen failed to capture or kill Dragging Canoe, who sustained his pan-Indian confederacy for another 15 years.
This article is based on the historical narrative A Demand of Blood: The Cherokee War of 1776 by Nadia Dean (Valley River Press, Cherokee, N.C., 2013)