Indian Treaties and Settlement History

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Southwest Virginia Project
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From: Source:Campbell, 1921


See Also:Dunmore's Treaty


Clearness of understanding as to progress of settlement will be facilitated if the Highland country be pictured as consisting of two parts: first, the Valley section, which includes the Greater Appalachian Valley and the larger river valleys of the two belts that border it; and secondly, the more rugged portions of the mountain country composed of the ridges and mountains which separate the larger valleys. There are, of course, within the ridge and mountain sections lesser valleys, and the rivulets and branches which find their way down the mountain slopes are tributaries of the larger streams of the major valleys, and also trails or "traces" from minor valley to minor valley, and from minor to greater valley. There is often, too, bordering these lesser streams, much fertile and tillable land, so that settlement has been pushed at times to the springs which feed them.

Viewing the Southern Highlands as a whole, the accessible valleys were first settled. The passage of military expeditions and western settlers over the mountain trails, from the Carolinas into Tennessee, early advertised the fertility of the broader valleys and led toward the close of the eighteenth century to the rise of such mountain communities as Morganton and Asheville,1 North Carolina. The country along the main routes of travel would naturally be soonest developed, although this was by no means always true. As late as 1790 there was a stretch of one hundred miles on the Wilderness Road with no sign of habitation, and Michaux, in 1796, traveling a much used trace in North Carolina, reports many miles along the road desolate and unpopulated.

The cessions, at different periods, of lands held by the Indians were determining factors in settlement. The Highlands were not open to white occupation by one treaty but by a series of treaties. Consequently some mountain areas were available earlier than some valley areas, though it was true that with each cession the valleys were settled earlier than the ridges.

The last treaty of the Colonial Period that affected the Highlands was that of July 20, 1777, when a tract of 6,064 square miles, largely of mountain land within western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee abutting it, was given over by the Cherokees. Including this cession there was thus open to entry by 1777, all of our territory in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, almost all of the limited upland section of South Carolina, and about one- fourth of western North Carolina and east Tennessee — in all, an area of approximately 68,000 of the 112,000 square miles of the Southern Highlands.

The first Indian treaty made after the establishment of the Federal Government was that of November 28, 1785, when the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation were defined. These boundaries, however, did not enlarge the amount of land available within the Southern Highlands, save for an area of 550 square miles along the French Broad River in North Carolina, lying just west of the land ceded on July 20, 1777. By successive treaties more of the Highlands was opened to occupation, but it was not until 1805 that Indian claims to the Cumberland Plateau section of Tennessee were extinguished; and not until 1835-1838, when the Cherokees gave over all of their land east of the Mississippi and were finally removed to their reservation beyond it, that the larger part of our territory in northern Georgia and northeastern Alabama and the last mountain lands in western North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee were legally free for entry. Even then a few Cherokees, still unresigned to banishment from the land of their ancestors, refused exile and hid themselves in the wilderness. A small reservation was later set aside for them in western North Carolina, where their descendants still live.

It is not to be supposed, however, that there were no cabins raised on Indian soil prior to the drawing of treaties. Early descriptions of lands, metes, and bounds, were inaccurate, and unintentional transgression often took place. There was also wilful transgression in the appropriation of lands, and individual squatters would occupy tracts apparently with the hope that later treaties with the Indians would legalize their holdings. Speaking generally, however, there were few settlements in the mountain-ridge section until the last decade of the century and none in large numbers until after 1800. The Watauga Settlement in 1769 served as an advance guard The Watauga Settlement in 1769 served as an advance guard to that of the mountain-ridge section. While in general it may be said that the broad central valleys of the Holston, Watauga, and Nolichucky offered sufficient opportunity for the expansion of population for some years, yet, from the time of William Bean's entrance into this mountain region, the valleys of the neighboring ranges began to receive a scattering immigration. Almost contemporaneously, home seekers made their appearance in western North Carolina, which is geographically a part of the same mountain area. These sections were settled partly from the Watauga district of Tennessee, and partly from the North and South Carolina Piedmont frontier....