Over the spring of 1779, the southern colonies were struggling to mount a defense against the British operating out of Savannah. The British had hoped to enlist a Tory army made up of loyalists in the southern colonies. Their efforts to date had proven disappointing. While the British had the advantage in the south, leaders knew that even if they took key cities like Savannah and Charleston, they could not maintain control over these colonies unless large numbers of loyalists backed them up. The British simply could not afford to keep large standing armies of regulars all over North America. It was simply too expensive.
In their search for allies, the British also focused on Indian tribes. Native tribes had long-running disputes with colonies that seemed to have an insatiable hunger for more and more western lands. British agents appealed to those tribes, arguing that the King had proclaimed western lands off limits to new settlements, but that the Americans were ignoring that proclamation. The only way for tribes to protect their land was to back the King in this rebellion.
Over past episodes I’ve talked about the Mohawk and other tribes in New York and Canada who backed the British. I’ve also discussed some of the Delaware, Mingo, Shawnee, and other mid-Atlantic tribes doing the same. Those cases led to mixed results. Usually, after a few massacres, the patriots sent out larger forces to crush and dispel the loyalist tribes and remove them as a threat to the region.
This week, we are going to look at the Cherokee who, at this time, lived in the areas to the west of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. I’ve already talked about two other Cherokee uprisings in the podcast. One occurred in 1760, near the end of the French and Indian War. That led to the destruction of a bunch of Cherokee villages and a treaty where the Cherokee were forced to cede much of their lands to North Carolina (see, Episode 15).
In the summer of 1776, the Cherokee rose up again at the instigation of British agents. The agents assured the Cherokee that, without British support, the colonists would be easier to defeat and they could recapture some of their tribal lands. The patriot governments, however, were able to lay waste to Cherokee lands. The Cherokee were forced to sign the Treaties of Long Island of Holston and Dewitt’s Corner, where they ceded millions more acres of territory to Virginia and the Carolinas (see, Episode 102).
Many of the Cherokee warriors who had fought in 1776 were not happy with the treaties signed by other chiefs. Among them was a Cherokee chief whom I’ve mentioned before, by the name of Dragging Canoe, aka Tsiyu Gansini. As a young warrior from what is today southeastern Tennessee, Dragging Canoe fought in the Cherokee wars of 1760 and was unhappy with the appeasers who had given up lands to end that war.
Dragging Canoe broke away from the larger Cherokee tribe at that time. He formed what became known as the Chickamauga Cherokee who settled farther west along the Chickamauga Creek. Unlike the larger Cherokee tribe that accepted their losses and tried to maintain a peaceful coexistence with the settlers, the Chickamauga continued to raid frontier settlements and kill settlers in the years following. Among the settlers that the warriors killed in 1777 were David and Elizabeth Crocket. At the time, their son John Crocket was away on militia duty. John would go on to have a son of his own, named after John’s father. That grandson, Davy Crocket would become rather famous in his own right decades later at the Alamo.
As I said, with the continued low-level fighting, Dragging Canoe had to move west to keep the tribe’s women and children away from North Carolina settlers, moving about eighty miles west to an area known as Chickamauga Creek. There his people established new villages and tried to rebuild their lives. He still hoped that the Cherokee would recapture their old lands to the east when the opportunity arose.
When British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton called on tribes along the western frontier to join in an effort to attack the patriots, Dragging Canoe and his Chickamauga Cherokee warriors answered the call. Hamilton, who I discussed a few weeks ago, was operating out of Detroit, but took responsibility for the entire western frontier, operating as far south as present day Tennessee. Over the winter, Hamilton had travelled down to Fort Vincennes, as part of his overall effort to exert British influence and encourage the native tribes to combine and fight against patriot settlements.
Dragging Canoe’s warriors were further south and did not participate in the fighting over Fort Vincennes. However, British agents had provided them with arms and supplies, most of which had been moved north from Pensacola in West Florida. By the spring of 1779, he had amassed a force of about 1000 warriors.
Living nearby was John McDonald, a Scotsman who had settled with his family on Chickamauga Creek years earlier. McDonald had immigrated to South Carolina and almost immediately began trading with the Cherokee. He married a woman who was half-Cherokee and received a commission as the British Assistant Superintendent for Indian Affairs. His trading post became a commissary for the local tribes and an outpost for the British government.
As Dragging Canoe prepared for a campaign against the patriots, McDonald became his chief supplier. British agents in Pensacola sent guns, ammunition, wagons, cattle, and other supplies for a military campaign. As the British in Savannah moved into the Carolinas along the coast, Dragging Canoe’s warriors could attack along the Carolina frontier.
Word of the potential Indian threat reached the patriots in early 1779. Another Scottish trader from the region, Ellis Harlan, heard rumors of Dragging Canoe’s plans and witnessed the warriors who were gathering around Chickamauga Creek. Harlan made his way to a frontier settlement on Holsten Creek, in what is today upper East Tennessee. There, he informed Colonel Even Shelby of the plans.
Shelby was an experienced Indian fighter. As a boy, he had immigrated to America from Wales with his parents. They had settled on the Pennsylvania frontier. As an adult, Shelby established his own farm on the Maryland frontier, where he also served as a militia officer. He served as a scout for the Braddock Campaign, and later supervised the surveying and building of the Forbes Road, which allowed British forces to reach Fort Duquesne from Pennsylvania, a plan that a young Colonel George Washington had vehemently opposed.
Following the war, Shelby made a living as a fur trader. But the native uprising known as Pontiac’s War forced Shelby to suspend his business since traders could not operate in the area. He also lost his business records in a fire, thus making it impossible for him to collect on his business debts. Eventually, the situation forced him to sell his Maryland farm. Shelby then moved further south, to western lands along the Virginia-North Carolina border. There, he built a small fort and trading post which supplied colonists who were moving into western lands.
In 1774, Shelby served as a militia captain and helped organize the effort to put down another Indian uprising. He commanded troops at the Battle of Point Pleasant, in what became known as Lord Dunmore’s War.
|Warning of Chickamauga|
When the war began, Shelby considered riding to Boston to join George Washington. The two men had known each other since their days on the Braddock Campaign. However, Governor Patrick Henry urged Shelby to remain in Virginia and to help organize Virginia’s frontier. He received a commission to the rank of major in 1776 and led militiamen against the Cherokee in the Tennessee Valley. That was the fighting that forced the Cherokee to cede even more land and which had set Dragging Canoe on the warpath.
In 1777 he was appointed a colonel and commanded militia against the Chickamauga tribe. For the next few years, Shelby remained active in the effort to suppress Indian raids in the region.
After being alerted to the growing threat from Dragging Canoe, Shelby alerted Virginia Governor Patrick Henry and North Carolina governor Richard Caswell. Shelby also received intelligence from Captain James Robertson, who was the Indian agent for North Carolina and from Captain Joseph Martin, agent for Virginia.
At this time, Colonel Shelby served in the Virginia militia. A later survey would establish that his plantation was actually in North Carolina. But in 1779, he thought it was in Virginia, and served under that state’s militia. In fact, the area where he lived was so confused between Virginia and North Carolina that it was sometimes just called the “squabble state.” Many veterans of the fight in their pension claims state that they did not know whether they were serving in the Virginia or North Carolina militia. They state only that they knew the names of their local commanding officers. There was no real fight between the states at the time. There just wasn’t a good survey to confirm in which state they were located. Everyone just fought alongside their neighbors.
As I said, a later survey would confirm that the bulk of Shelby’s land was in North Carolina and he would later hold a commission in the North Carolina militia. That is why he is often held up as a North Carolina hero of the Revolution.
But in 1779, Virginia Colonel Shelby, alerted the governors of both states were alerted to the danger of a major Indian attack being organized. However, their focus was more on the impending British offensive into South Carolina They could not afford to provide any support in terms of men or money to suppress the imminent attack by Dragging Canoe.
Colonel Shelby organized local meetings to discuss their options. He and his neighbors recognized the need to attack first, before the organized warriors went on the offensive against their towns and villages. Many of the local militia were already away in the Carolinas with General Benjamin Lincoln. But Shelby managed to scrape together a fighting force of about 350 men.
Shelby did manage to get some additional support. Militia Colonel John Montgomery was from the same area of the Virginia frontier. Montgomery came from an old Virginia family and had spent years exploring the backcountry. He was an ardent patriot who had signed the Fincastle Resolves, along with Shelby, back in 1775. The two men had worked together before.
Montgomery had left his home in the area the prior year as a militia captain. He led a company to fight under George Rogers Clark to capture Fort Vincennes and secure the Illinois territory for Virginia. Clark had promoted him to lieutenant colonel and gave him a larger command. After securing Fort Vincennes and capturing the British Governor Henry Hamilton in late February, Clark received Shelby’s call for support in his campaign against Dragging Canoe. Clark dispatched Montgomery with about 150 men to join Shelby.
With Montgomery’s men joining with Shelby’s, they had assembled a total force of around 500. Shelby called on his militia to rally at a point on Big Creek, near modern day Rogersville, Tennessee. The force gathered there on March 20. There his volunteers spent several weeks building canoes in order to make their way to the Cherokee village. By April 10, the fleet embarked down the Tennessee River, led by a local guide named John Hudson.
The force managed to surprise the Indians, who had not expected an attack. According to at least one account, Dragging Canoe was not even present for the fighting. He was likely out on a recruiting mission in preparation for the offensive planned for later in the spring. A great many of the 1000 warriors who were expected to gather were not there yet either. The villages were largely populated by women and children, along with the British supplies that were intended for the spring offensive.
Most of the warriors who were in the area fled into the mountains without a fight. Shelby’s men discovered a trove of supplies that the British agents had gathered for a spring offensive. The Virginians were able to capture or destroy them, and also to destroy the villages along the creek. This included the destruction of McDonald’s trading post.
The militia continued its rampage, looting and burning eleven villages along Chickamauga Creek. The warriors were not ready for a fight and were in these villages with their women and children. For the most part, they focused on saving their families and did not engage in combat with the raiders. Shelby and his men went about their business, seizing and destroying tons of supplies. The raiders helped themselves to whatever they could carry, driving off hundreds of cattle and horses as well. They also captured large numbers of furs. It was later estimated that the militia returned with about £20,000-£25,000 worth of supplies. Whatever they could not take with them, they burned.
After spending about two weeks looting and destroying anything they could find, Shelby prepared to return home. Paddling downriver had been quick and easy. Taking all their captured supplies upriver would be more difficult. Shelby ordered the boats destroyed. His men would take the cattle, horses, and wagons overland on their journey home. The return trip took longer, and there are some reports that the men lacked enough provisions and grew hungry. Even so, the force made it back to their communities along the Holston without suffering any sort of counter-attack.
The march also allowed the men to get a look at the wilderness area that makes up much of modern day eastern Tennessee. With the Cherokee dispersed, many of the militiamen took advantage of the opportunity to move their families onto new farms in this area.
The Chickamauga expedition was considered an unqualified success for the Americans. The Continental Congress passed a resolution thanking Colonel Shelby for his efforts in commanding the successful campaign to end the Indian threat. Between Clark’s taking of Fort Vincennes a short time earlier, which led to the capture of British Governor Henry Hamilton, and Shelby’s Chickamauga Expedition, the Americans had effectively snuffed out any organized threat along the southern frontier.
While the campaign met its immediate goal, it did not destroy the larger Indian threat. Dragging Canoe and the other chiefs saw it as a setback. They did not see it as a reason to give up their fight. The warriors were not killed nor captured. Most were prepared to continue the fight.
McDonald reported personal losses of over 100 cattle and 150 horses, as well as over 20,000 bushels of grain. His trading post had been destroyed. Rather than rebuild at the current site, McDonald moved farther south down the Tennessee river to a new location, farther away from the settlers. Dragging Canoe and others, also moved further downriver. These new villages later became known as the five lower towns of the Cherokee. They remained in use well into the federal era.
Without the supplies needed for the offensive, Dragging Canoe and his warriors did not go on their planned attacks that spring. But neither did they cede anything or admit to defeat.
The warriors would spend most of the remainder of 1779 fighting off the stream of Virginia settlers who began moving into the Tennessee Valley. Dragging Canoe set up a blockage on the Tennessee River to prevent settlers from travelling inland by water. But his blockade had only limited success.
Some historians have argued that the Chickamauga Expedition does not get its just recognition because it was fought by militia, and that there are few written records of the actual events. The expedition was valuable, but mostly as a way of delaying any large organized attack by the Cherokee. However, the campaign also did not dissuade the Cherokee under Dragging Canoe from continued smaller attacks on frontier settlements in the region.
Next week, we head back to Europe. Britain’s situation grows even more desperate as Spain finally enters the war.
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Dragging Canoe and the Chickamauga Cherokees: https://www.tngenweb.org/campbell/hist-bogan/DraggingCanoe.html
John McDonald: https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/john-mcdonald
The Chickamauga Expedition: http://lewis-genealogy.org/genealogy/History/Chickamauga.htm
Evan Shelby: https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/shelby-evan
Land, Robert H. “The Shelby Family Papers.” Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions, vol. 11, no. 3, 1954, pp. 140–153. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29780743
Shelby’s Fort and Squabble State: https://www.tngenweb.org/tnland/squabble
Goodpasture, Albert V. “Colonel John Montgomery” Tennessee Historical Magazine, vol. 5, no. 3, 1919, pp. 145–150. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42637425
Inman, Natalie. “‘A Dark and Bloody Ground’ American Indian Responses to Expansion during the American Revolution.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 4, 2011, pp. 258–275. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42628217
Knapp, David. “The Chickamaugas.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 2, 1967, pp. 194–196. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40578680
(from archive.org unless noted)
Dockstader, Frederick J. Great North American Indians: Profiles in Life and Leadership, Van Norston Reinhold Co. 1977 (borrow only).
Henderson, Archibald Isaac Shelby: Revolutionary Patriot and Border Hero, Raleigh: Commercial Printing Co. 1917.
Ramsey, J. G. M. The Annals of Tennessee, Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1860.
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Armstrong, Zella The History of Hamilton County and Chattanooga, Overmountain Press, 1931 (reprint 1992).
Cox, Brent Heart of the Eagle: Dragging Canoe & the Emergence of the Chickamauga Confederacy, Chenanee Publishers, 1999.
Dockstader, Frederick J. Great North American Indians: Profiles in Life and Leadership, Van Norston Reinhold Co. 1977.
Schmidt, Ethan A. Native Americans in the American Revolution: How the War Divided, Devastated, and Transformed the Early American Indian World, Praeger, 2014.
Wrobel, Sylvia and George Grider Isaac Shelby: Kentucky's First Governor and Hero of Three Wars, Cumberland Press, 1974.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.