Cherokee Attacks on the Frontier Settlements
Such was the posture of defence assumed by the inhabitants after the receipt of the intelligence brought by Thomas Fallin and Williams. The former had proceeded on his mission to the authorities of Virginia for succour against a threatened invasion. The promised incursion of the Cherokees, as communicated by Nancy Ward to Thomas, was this: Seven hundred warriors were to attack the white settlements. They were to divide themselves into two divisions of three hundred and fifty each, under chosen leaders, one destined to fall upon the Watauga settlements, by a circuitous route along the foot of the mountains. The other division, to be commanded by the Dragging-Canoe in person, was, by a more northwardly route, to fall upon and break up the settlements in the fork of the two branches of the Holston, and thence proceed into Virginia.
Dragging Canoe's Attack on Heaton's Station
The alarm produced by this intelligence hastened the completion of the defences and the embodiment of such a force as the western settlements of Virginia and North-Carolina could supply. Five small companies, principally Virginians, immediately assembled under their respective captains, the eldest of whom, in commission, was Captain Thompson. They marched to Heaton’s Station, where a fort had been built, by the advice of Captain William Cocke, in advance of the settlements. Here they halted, as well to protect the people in the station as to procure information, by their spies and scouts, of the position of the enemy, of their number, and, if possible, of their designs. In a day or two it was ascertained that the Indians, in a body of three or four hundred, were actually on the march towards the fort. A council was immediately held to determine whether it was most advisable to await in the fort the arrival of the Indians, with the expectation that they would come and attack it, or to march out in search of them and fight them wherever they could be found. It was urged in council by Captain Cocke, that the Indians would not attack them in the station, and enclosed in their block houses, but would pass by them and attack the settlements in small parties; and that for want of protection the greater part of women and children would be massacred. This argument decided the controversy, and it was determined to march out and meet them. The corps, consisting of one hundred and seventy men, marched from the station and took their course down towards the Long Island, with an advance of about twelve men in front. When they reached what are called the Island Flats, the advance guard discovered a small party of Indians coming along the road meeting them, and immediately fired on them; the Indians fled and the white people pursued for some time, but did not meet the enemy. A halt was then made, and the men were formed in a line. A council was then held by the officers, in which it was concluded that, probably, they would not be able to meet any others of the enemy that day, and, as evening was drawing on, that it was most prudent to return to the fort. But before all the troops had fallen into ranks and left the place where they had halted, it was announced that the Indians were advancing, in order of battle, in their rear.* Captain Thompson, the senior officer, who was at the head of the left line, ordered the right line to form for battle to the right, and the line which he headed, to the left, and to face the enemy. In attempting to form the line, the head of the right seemed to bear too much along the road leading to the station, and the part of the line further back, perceiving that the Indians were endeavouring to outflank them, was drawn off, by Lieutenant Robert Davis, as quickly as possible, and formed on the right, across the flat to a ridge, and prevented them from getting round the flank. The greater part of the officers, and not a few of the privates, gave heroic examples to cause the men to advance and give battle; of the latter, Robert Edmiston and John Morrison made conspicuous exertions. They advanced some paces towards the enemy and began the battle by shooting down the foremost of them. The battle then became general.
The Indians fought, at first, with great fury; the foremost hallooing, the Unacas are running, come on and scalp them. Their first effort was to break through the centre of our line, and to turn the left flank in the same instant. In both they failed of success, by the well directed fire of our riflemen. Several of their chief warriors fell, and, at length, their commander was dangerously wounded. This decided the victory. The enemy immediately betook themselves to flight, leaving twenty-six of their boldest warriors dead on the field. The blood of the wounded could be traced in great profusion, in the direction of the enemy’s retreat. Our men pursued in a cautious manner, lest they might be led into an ambuscade, hardly crediting their own senses that so numerous a foe was completely routed. In this miracle of a battle, we had not a man killed and only five wounded, who all recovered. But the wounded of the enemy died till the whole loss in killed amounted to upwards of forty.† The battle lasted not more than ten minutes after the line was completely formed and engaged before the Indians began to retreat; but they continued to fight awhile in that way, to get the wounded off the ground. The firing during the time of the action, particularly on the side of the white people, was very lively and well directed. This battle was fought on the 20th of July, 1776.
Old Abraham Attack on Fort Watauga
Another division of the Cherokees invaded the settlements at another point and from another direction. This was commanded by Old Abraham of Chilhowee. That chieftain was distinguished more for stratagem and cunning, than by valour and enterprise. He led his division along the foot of the mountain by the Nollichucky path, hoping to surprise and massacre the unsuspecting and unprotected inhabitants upon that river. The little garrison at Gillespie’s Station, apprised of the impending danger, had prudently broken up their fort and had withdrawn to Watauga, taking with them such of their moveable effects as the emergency allowed, but leaving their cabins, their growing crops and the stock in the range, to the waste and devastation of the invaders. The Indians arriving at the deserted station soon after the garrison departed from it, hoped, by rapid marches, to overtake and destroy them. In the rapidity of the pursuit, the standing corn, stock and improvements of the settlers, remained untouched and uninjured. The garrison reached Watauga in safety. The next morning, at sunrise, the Indians invested that place and attacked the fort, now strengthened by the small reinforcement from Gillespie’s. Captain James Robertson commanded the forces at Watauga, amounting in all to but forty men. Lieut. John Sevier and Mr. Andrew Greer were also present. The assault upon the fort was vigorous and sudden. But, by the unerring aim of the riflemen within it, and the determined bravery of men protecting their women and children from capture and massacre, the assailants were repulsed with considerable loss. No one in the fort was wounded. Mrs. Bean had been taken prisoner by the Indians on their march, the preceding day. The killed and wounded of the Cherokees were carried off in sight of the people in the fort. The number could not be ascertained, as the Indians remained skulking about in the adjacent woods for twenty days. During that time expresses had succeeded in escaping from the besieged fort at Watauga, and in communicating to the station at Heaton’s the dangerous condition in which the siege involved them. Col. Russell was requested to send them succour: and five small companies were ordered to proceed to Watauga. These could not be well spared from Heaton’s—and some delay occurring, Col. Shelby raised one hundred horsemen and crossed the country to the relief of his besieged countrymen. Before his arrival at Watauga the siege was raised, and the Indians had hastily withdrawn. The attack of the Cherokees under Old Abraham, was on the 21st of July, the next day after the Dragging-Canoe had made his unsuccessful march upon Heaton’s Station near Long Island.
Relief of Fort Watauga
The fort at Watauga, when attacked, had one hundred and fifty settlers within its enclosure. The women from the fort had gone out at daybreak to milk the cows and were fired upon, but made a safe retreat to the fort. The brisk fire was then made upon the garrison, and kept up till eight o’clock, without effect. The assault was repelled with considerable loss to the assailants, as was inferred from the quantity of blood left upon the ground. In a short time after the Indians renewed the attack and continued for six days.
In the meantime, a soldier effected his escape from Watauga and went to Holston express for reinforcements. A detachment of one hundred rangers was instantly forwarded under the command of Col. Wm. Russell. On their way the rangers fell in with a party of forty Cherokees, who were busy skinning a beef at a deserted plantation, fifty miles east of Long Island. Of these Col. Russell’s men killed five and took one prisoner, who was mortally wounded, and also made prize of twenty rifles belonging to the Indians.*
During the time the Indians were around the fort, James Cooper and a boy named Samuel Moore, went out after boards to cover a hut. When near the mouth of Gap Creek, they were attacked by Indians; Cooper leaped into the river, and by diving hoped to escape their arrows and bullets, but the water became too shallow and he was killed by them and scalped. The firing by the Indians and the screams of Cooper were heard in the fort, and Lieutenant John Sevier attempted to go to his succour. Captain Robertson saw that the Indians were superior in force to that within the fort, and that it would required all the men he commanded to protect the women and children from massacre. The firing and screaming without, he believed to be a feint on the part of the enemy to draw his men from the fortification, and he recalled Sevier and his party from the attempted rescue. Moore was carried prisoner to the Indian towns, and was tortured to death by burning. A few mornings after the battle a man named Clonse was found in the thicket below the fort, killed and scalped. He had probably chosen the darkness of the night to reach the fort from some of the settlements, and had been intercepted and slain. The intelligence of the defeat at the Island Flats had probably reached the division commanded by Old Abraham, and occasion the precipitate retreat from Watauga.
Raven's Attack on the Lower Holston
Another division of the Cherokees, commanded by Raven, had struck across the country, with the intention of falling upon the frontier people of Carter’s Valley. They came up Holston to the lowest station, and finding the inhabitants securely shut up in fort, and hearing of the repulse at Watauga and the bloody defeat at the Flats, they retreated and returned to their towns.
Attack on the Clinch
A fourth party of Indians had crossed the country still lower down, and fell in upon the inhabitants scattered along the valley of Clinch. To this body of the enemy no opposing force was presented. They divided themselves into small detachments, and carried fire and devastation and massacre into every settlement, from the remotest cabin on Clinch, to the Seven Mile Ford, in Virginia. One of these detachments made a sudden inroad upon the Wolf Hills Settlement. A station had been built there, near the present town of Abingdon, at the house of Joseph Black. This station was a centre or rallying point for the infant settlements then being extended down the Holston Valley, into what is now Tennessee. As early as 1772, a congregation was organized and two churches built among these primitive people, to whom the Rev. Charles Cummings regularly preached. On this occasion, Mr. Cummings and four others, going to his field, were attacked by the Indians. At the first fire William Creswell, who was driving a wagon, was killed, and during the skirmish two others were wounded. Mr. Cummings and his servant, both of whom were well armed, drove the Indians from their ambush, and with the aid of some men from the fort, who, hearing the firing, came to their relief, brought in the dead and wounded....
British and Tory Activity
John Stuart was sole agent and Superintendent of his Majesty’s Indian Affairs for the Southern District. For a long time he had been suspected of endeavouring to influence the Indians against the American cause. In support of these suspicions, a gentleman from North-Carolina had given some particulars to the committee of intelligence, in Charleston, which he had collected from the Catawba Indians. Stuart departed suddenly from Charleston, just before the meeting of the Provincial Congress, and went to Savannah. There his offical letter-book was seen, by Mr. Habersham, in which a full confirmation was found of the suspicions excited against him, and proving that his intention was, evidently, to arouse the resentment and stimulate the bad passions of the savages in their neighbourhood against Anglo-Americans struggling against oppression, and vindicating the rights of freemen. In the letter-book was found a despatch from Mr. Cameron, saying to Mr. Stuart, “that the traders must, by some means or other, get ammunition among them, or otherwise they may become troublesome to him for the want of it.” The ammunition was, doubtless, furnished, and went into the outfit of the several detachments of warriors that soon after invaded the quiet and unoffending pioneers of Tennessee.
Only one of these written disclosures of the murderous policy adopted by England against American citizens, had yet reached the frontier; but there were other sources of information, not less authentic or reliable, from which the machinations of the enemy were soon made known. The traders noticed at first a spirit of suspicion and discontent, and directly after unmistakable evidences of fixed resentment and hostility. This discovery was communicated to the settlers, and along with the friendly interposition of the Cherokee Pocahontas, saved the settlements from a surprise that might otherwise have proved fatal.
Simultaneously with these several invasions of the frontier settlements of Virginia and North-Carolina by the Cherokees, that warlike nation was carrying into execution the murderous policy instigated by British officers against South-Carolina and Georgia. A plan for compelling the colonies to submission, had been concerted between the British commander-in-chief, General Gage, and the Superintendent of Southern Indian Affairs, John Stuart. That plan shall be given in the words of a British historian:
A part only of this complicated plan was executed. Sir Peter Parker appeared with a British squadron in May, off the coast of North-Carolina, and early in June prepared to attack Charleston with a large naval and military force. The Indians were true to their engagement. Being informed that a British fleet with troops had arrived off Charleston, they proceeded to take up the war club, and with the dawn of day on the first day of July, the Cherokees poured down upon the frontiers of South-Carolina, massacring without distinction of age or sex, all persons who fell into their power. Several white men with whom Cameron and Stuart had been intriguing, painted and dressed as Indians, marched with and directed their attacks upon the most defenceless points of the frontier. The news of the gallant defence at Sullivan’s Island, and the repulse of Sir Peter Parker, in the harbour of Charleston, on the 28th of June, arrived soon after that glorious victory, and frustrated in part the plan as concerted.
Attacks on the Cherokee Towns
Preparations were immediately made, to march with an imposing force upon the Cherokee nation. The whole frontier, from Georgia to the head of Holston, in Virginia, had been invaded at once; and the four southern colonies, now on the point of becoming sovereign and independent states, assumed an offensive position, and determined in their turn to invade and destroy their deluded and savage enemies.
The Cherokee nation at this time occupied, as places of residence or as hunting grounds, all the territory west and north of the upper settlements in Georgia, and west of the Carolinas and South-western Virginia. They were the most warlike and enterprising of the native tribes, and, except the Creeks, were the most numerous. Intercourse with the whites had made them acquainted with the use of small arms and some of the modes of civilized warfare. They had made some advances in agriculture. They lived in towns of various sizes—their government was simple, and in times of war especially, the authority of their chiefs and warriors was supreme. Their country was known by three great geographical divisions: The Lower Towns, the Middle Settlements and Vallies, and the Over-hill towns.
The number of warriors were,
To these may be added such warriors as lived in the less compact settlements, estimated at five hundred.
McBury's and Jack's Expedition from Georgia
To inflict suitable chastisement upon the Cherokees, several expeditions were at once made into their territories. Colonel McBury and Major Jack, from Georgia, entered the Indian settlements on Tugaloo, and defeating the enemy, destroyed all their towns on that river.
Williamson's Expedition from South Carolina
General Williamson, of South Carolina, early in July began to embody the militia of that state, and before the end of that month was at the head of an army of eleven hundred and fifty men, marching to meet Cameron, who was, with a large body of Esseneca Indians and disaffected white men, encamped at Oconoree. Encountering and defeating this body of the enemy, he destroyed their town and a large amount of provisions. He burned Sugaw Town, Soconce, Keowee, Ostatoy, Tugaloo and Brass Town. He proceeded against Tomassee, Chehokee and Eustustie, where, observing a recent trail of the enemy, he made pursuit and soon met and vanquished three hundred of their warriors. These towns he afterwards destroyed.
Rutherford's Expediation from North Carolina
In the meantime, an army had been raised in North Carolina, under command of General Rutherford, and a place of joining their respective forces had been agreed upon by that officer and Colonel Williamson, under the supposition that nothing less than their united force was adequate to the reduction of the Middle Settlements and Vallies. Colonel Martin Armstrong, of Surry county, in August raised a small regiment of militia and marched with them to join General Rutherford. Benjamin Cleveland was one of Armstrong’s captains. William (afterward general) Lenoir was Cleveland’s first lieutenant, and William Gray his second lieutenant. Armstrong’s regiment crossed John’s River at McKenney’s ford, passed the Quaker Meadows and crossed the Catawba at Greenlee’s ford, and at Cathey’s Fort joined the army under General Rutherford, consisting of above two thousand men. The Blue Ridge was crossed by this army at the Swannanæ Gap, and the march continued down the river of the same name to its mouth, near to which they crossed the French Broad. From that river the army marched up Hominy Creek, leaving Pisgah on the left and crossing Pigeon a little below the mouth of the East Fork. Thence through the mountain to Richland Creek, above the present Waynesville, and ascending that creek and crossing Tuckaseigee River at an Indian town. They then crossed the Cowee Mountain, where they had an engagement with the enemy, in which but one white man was wounded. The Indians carried off their dead. From thence the army marched to the Middle Towns on Tennessee River, where they expected to form a junction with the South-Carolina troops under General Williamson. Here, after waiting a few days, they left a strong guard and continued the march to the Hiwassee towns. All the Indian villages were found evacuated, the warriors having fled without offering any resistance. Few were killed or wounded on either side, and but few prisoners taken by the whites—but they destroyed all the buildings, crops and stock of the enemy, and left them in a starving condition. This army returned by the same route it had marched. They destroyed thirty or forty Cherokee towns. The route has since been known as Rutherford’s Trace.
Christian's Expedition from Virginia
While the troops commanded by McBury, Williamson and Rutherford, were thus desolating the Lower Towns and Middle Settlements of the Cherokees, another army, not less valiant or enterprising, had penetrated to the more secure, because more remote, Overhill Towns. We have seen that the great chieftains of these interior places, Dragging Canoe, Old Abram of Chilhowee, and Raven, had, at the head of their several commands, fallen upon Watauga and the other infant settlements, and although signally repulsed, some of them had united with another detachment, under another leader, and were spreading devastation and ruin upon the unprotected settlements near the head of Holston and Clinch, in Virginia. The government of that state, indignant at aggressions so unprovoked and so offensive, soon acted in a manner suitable to her exalted sense of national honour. Orders were immediately given to Col. William Christian to raise an army and to march them at once into the heart of the Cherokee country. The place of rendezvous was the Great Island of Holston.
This service was undertaken with the greatest alacrity, and so active were the exertions of the officers and men that by the first of August several companies had assembled at the place appointed. This preparatory movement was itself sufficient to drive off the Indians who still remained lurking around the settlements. Soon after Col. Christian was reinforced by three or four hundred North Carolina militia under Col. Joseph Williams, Col. Love and Major Winston. To these were added such gunmen as could be spared from the neighbouring forts and stations. The whole army took up the line of march for the Cherokee towns, nearly two hundred miles distant. Crossing the Holston at the Great Island, they marched eight miles and encamped at the Double Springs, on the head waters of Lick Creek. Here the army remained a few days, till the reinforcement from Watauga should overtake it. The whole force now amounted to eighteen hundred men, including pack-horse men and bullock drivers. All were well armed with rifles, tomahawks and butcher knives. The army was all infantry, except a single company of light horse. While on the march the precaution was taken to send forward sixteen spies to the crossing place of the French Broad.
The Indians had boasted that the white men should never cross that river. Near the mouth of Lick Creek were extensive cane-brakes, which, with a lagoon or swamp of a mile long, obstructed the march. The army succeeded, however, in crossing through this pass. The packs and beeves did not get through till midnight. At the encampment that night, Alexander Harlin came in and informed Col. Christian that a body of three thousand warriors were awaiting his arrival at French Broad, and would certainly there dispute his passage across that stream. He was ordered into camp with the spies. At the bend of Nollichucky the camps of the enemy were found by the spies, deserted, but affording unerring evidence that the Indians were embodied in large numbers, This, with the message of Harlin, put the commander on his guard, and the march was resumed, next day, with every precaution and preparation against a surprise. Harlin was dismissed with a request from Col. Christian that he would inform the Indians of his determination to cross not only the French Broad, but the Tennessee, before he stopped. The route to be pursued was unknown and through a wilderness. Isaac Thomas, a trader among the Cherokees, acted as the pilot. He conducted the army along a narrow but plain war path up Long Creek to its source, and down Dumplin Creek to a point a few miles from its mouth, where the war path struck across to the ford of French Broad, near what has since been known as Buckingham’s Island. As they came down Dumplin, and before they reached the river, the army was met by Fallen, a trader, having a white flag in his rifle. Christian directed that he should not be disturbed and that no notice should be taken of his embassy. He departed immediately, and gave to the Indians information that the whites, as numerous as the trees, were marching into their country.
Arrived at the river, Col. Christian ordered every mess to kindle a good fire and strike up tent, as though he intended to encamp there several days. During the night a large detachment was sent down the river to an island, near where Brabson’s mill now stands, with directions to cross the river at that place, and to come up the river, on its southern bank, next morning. This order was executed with great difficulty. The ford was deep, and the water so rapid as to require the men to march in platoons od four abreast, so as to brace each other against the impetuous stream. In one place the water reached nearly to the shoulders of the men, but the ammunition and the guns were kept dry.
Next morning the main body crossed the rier near the Big Island. They marched in order of battle, expecting an attack from the Indians, who were supposed to be lying about in ambush; but to their surprise no trace was found even of a recent camp. The detachment met no molestation from the enemy, and, joining the main body, a halt was made one day, for the purpose of drying the baggage and provisions which had got wet in crossing the river.
When it was understood in the Cherokee nation that Christian was about to invade their territory, one thousand warriors assembled at the Big Island of French Broad to resist the invaders. The great war path, which led through it, was considered as the gate to the best part of their country; and the island being the key to it, the Indians determined to maintain and defend that point to the last extremity. From that place, a message was sent by Fallen, as already mentioned, addressed to the commanding officer, not to attempt the crossing, as a formidable host of their braves would be there to dispute the passage. After the departure of the messenger, a trader named Starr, who was in the Indian encampment, harangued the warriors in an earnest tone. He said that the Great Spirit had made the one race of white clay and the other of red; that he had intended the former to conquer and subdue the latter, and that the pale faces would not only invade their country, but would over-run and occupy it. He advised, therefore, an immediate abandonment of their purpose of defence, and a retreat to their villages and the fastnesses of their mountains. The trader’s counsels prevailed—all defensive measures were abandoned, and, without waiting for the return of their messengers, the warriors dispersed, and the island was found deserted and their encampments broken up and forsaken.
The next morning the army resumed its march. The route led along the valley of Boyd’s Creek and down Ellejay to Little River. From there to the Tennessee River not an Indian was seen. Col. Christian supposed that, as the Cherokee settlements and towns were upon the opposite bank, he would meet a formidable resistance in attempting to cross it. When the troops came within a few miles of the ford, he called upon them to follow him in a run till they came to the river. This was done, and, pushing through, they took possession of a town called Tamotlee, above the mouth of Telico. The army, pack horses, &c., were all safely crossed over before night, and the encampment was made in the deserted town. Next morning they marched to the Great Island Town, which was taken without resistance. The fertile lands in the neighbourhood furnished a supply of corn, potatoes and other provisions, and the Indian huts made comfortable bivouacs for the troops. The commander, for these reasons, made this place, temporarily, head-quarters and a centre for future operations. A panic had seized the Cherokee warriors, and not one of them could be found. Small detachments were, therefore, from time to time, sent out to different parts of the nation, and finding no armed enemy to contend against, they adopted, as not a less effectual chastisement of the implacable enemy, the policy of laying waste and burning their fields and towns. In this manner Neowee, Telico, Chilhowee and other villages were destroyed. Occasionally, during these excursions, a few warriors were seen, escaping from one town to a place of greater safety, and were killed. No males were taken prisoners. These devastations were confined to such towns as were known to have advised or consented to hostilities, while such, like the Beloved Town, Chota, as had been disposed to peace, were spared. Col. Christian endeavoured to convince the Cherokees that he warred only with enemies. He sent out three or four men with white flags, and requested a talk with the chiefs. Six or seven immediately came in. In a few days several others, from the more distant towns, came forward also and proposed peace. It was granted, but not to take effect till a treaty should be made by representatives from the whole tribe, to assemble the succeeding May, at Long Island. A suspension of hostilities was, in the meantime, provided for, with the exception of two towns high up in the mountains, on Tennessee River. These had burnt a prisoner, a youth named Moore, whom they had taken at Watauga. Tuskega and the other excepted town were reduced to ashes.
Colonel Christian finding nothing more to occupy his army longer, broke up his camp at Great Island Town, marched to Chota, recrossed the Tennessee and returned to the settlements. In this campaign of about three months, not one man was killed. A few, from inclement weather and undue fatigue, became sick. No one died. The Rev. Charles Cummings accompanied the expedition as chaplain, and was thus the first christian minister that ever preached in Tennessee. A pioneer of civilization, of learning and of religion—let his memory not be forgotten!
Most of the troops commanded by Christian were disbanded at Long Island, where they had been mustered into service. A portion of them were retained and went into winter quarters. A new fort was erected there, which, in honour of the patriotic Governor of Virginia, was called “Fort Henry.” Its ruins are still pointed out on the lands of Colonel Netherland. Supplies of provisions were brought to it from Rock Bridge and Augusta counties, in wagons and on pack-horses.