Sunday, June 23, 2019

Episode 102 Cherokee War in the South

While the British were focusing their forces on New York and to a lesser extent Canada, the southern colonies / states could not take it easy.  Southerners had defeated an organization of Tory militia at Moore’s Creek Bridge North Carolina in February 1776.  They had then defeated the regulars at Fort Sullivan outside of Charleston South Carolina in June.

British Indian Agents

But even with the Tories captured and dissipated, and the British Army and Navy chased back north in abject failure, there was still one hostile group with which to contend.  On July 1, 1776, the Cherokee began a series of coordinated raids on western settlements all through Georgia, the Carolinas, and even Virginia.

Cherokee Warriors (from Wikimedia)
Patriots accused the area’s British agent, John Stuart, for encouraging the Cherokee to go to war.  Stuart had tried to encourage the Cherokee to fight in 1775 and early 1776, even supplying them with ammunition.  But Stuart had been forced to flee from his home in Charleston to St. Augustine Florida in early 1776.  Stuart had made clear that the British would be happy if the Cherokee attacked rebel forces, but he now had to operate from afar.  To make things even more difficult, patriots kept his family under house arrest in Charleston.

Another loyalist named Alexander Cameron, who had a Cherokee wife, was apparently more active in motivating the Cherokee to go to war.  When he left his farm to join the Cherokee in the spring, many were concerned that his intentions were to start a Cherokee uprising.  Those concerns proved correct, though Cameron was far from the only instigator.

Treaty of Sycamore Shoals

The Cherokee did not need much provocation.  They believed, correctly, that the colonists would continue to push them further west, out of their lands.  The main reason they were not fighting, was a fear that the colonists would win a military confrontation as had happened during the Cherokee Uprising in 1760 that I discussed way back in Episode 15.  Now the British Indian agents only had to say, go for it.  Britain would not back up the colonies because they were in rebellion, the Cherokee saw the opportunity to fight back.

The most recent incident that had convinced the Cherokee of the need to fight was the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, signed in March 1775.  There a group of colonists from North Carolina, with Daniel Boone acting as their agent, agreed to purchase about 20 million acres of land covering most of what is today Kentucky and part of northern Tennessee.  In exchange the various tribes received roughly £10,000 in cash, debt forgiveness, and trade goods.

Land purchased under Treaty of Sycamore Shoals
(from Wikimedia)
At the time, the treaty violated the King’s Proclamation of 1763, which forbade colonists from moving into lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.  Many Cherokee Chiefs also objected to the Treaty and refused to sign.  Those who did agree took all the cash and prizes offered. Many later argued they thought they were simply granting hunting and travel rights over the territory, or temporary leases, not exclusive ownership.  By 1776, most Cherokee recognized that enforcement of this treaty would spell their doom.

Cherokee Chiefs from all over the region met and debated the merits of an all out attack.  They were convinced that military victory was the only way to prevent further colonial encroachments onto their land.  Also attending the meeting were representatives of the Iroquois, who still maintained official neutrality.  However, those attending the conference encouraged the Cherokee to go to war, and told the assembled about patriot attacks on Iroquois settlements farther north.  Delaware and Shawnee representatives from the Ohio Valley had similar stories to tell.

British agents let be known that they would supply arms and ammunition.  They also hoped the Cherokee would coordinate their attacks with General Henry Clinton’s attacks along the coast, which I already discussed in the Battle of Fort Sullivan, fought at the end of June.

Seizing the opportunity while the colonists and British were divided, the summer of 1776 seemed like the ideal time for the Cherokee to reassert control and take back the frontier.  With British logistical support and promises that the King had no objections to them retaking this territory, this was their best opportunity to push back the colonists and reclaim their land.

McCall Expedition

Patriots were well aware of Cherokee support for the Tories in the western parts of the colonies and also heard stories about the plans for an all out war. In June the patriot militia sent a small contingent of 33 men led by James McCall, to visit the Cherokee villages in the Carolina backcountry.  Their purported mission was to negotiate for the return of stolen property on earlier raids.  Their true, secret mission was to capture the British Indian Agent Alexander Cameron and bring him back as a prisoner.  They met with several villages without incident.

On the evening of June 26, McCall met with a group of elders at the Cherokee village of Seneca.  There, a group of warriors burst into the room and took him prisoner.  At the same time, another group attacked his soldiers, who were camped just outside of town.  The Cherokee killed four men, but the rest escaped, spending the next few weeks quietly making their way back east to friendlier territory.  Captain McCall remained a prisoner for several months, regularly threatened with torture and death.  Months later, he was able to make his escape with the help of a friendly female Cherokee and made his way to Virginia.

Cherokee Attack

The July 1 attacks struck all along the western borders of the southern colonies, hitting isolated farms and villages, ruthlessly killing men, women, and children.  They took some prisoners to return to camp as slaves.  The Cherokee tortured some of their prisoners to death, including children.  There was a reason settlers genuinely feared the natives.

The Cherokee were clearly siding with the British in their attacks, not striking at colonists randomly.  Loyalist farms and towns marked their homes with “passover poles,” basically a pole with a white cloth wrapped around it, so that the Cherokee would know to pass over them without harm.  As for the patriots, anyone not killed in the first strike fled to area forts, for protection, while the militia mobilized to do battle.

Gen. Charles Lee

These attacks came on the heels of the American victory at Fort Sullivan at the end of June.  General Charles Lee was still in the Carolinas when the attacks began. As commander of the Southern Department, Lee provided some strategic advice, but did not seem ready to deploy his Continentals anywhere, or march himself into the field of battle.  Instead, he remained near the coast, moving down to Savannah at one point.  He planned to attack British outposts in Florida, but nothing seemed to come of it.  Militia did most of the fighting along the frontier and Lee did not seem to bother himself that.

Instead, Lee spent much of his time writing letters to Washington in New York and Congress in Philadelphia.  During this time, he seemed deeply concerned of rumors that a British general might join the Continental cause and be placed ahead of him in the command structure.  He also wrote to the French Governor of Haiti asking for arms and ammunition, though it does not appear that got very far with that either.  Most of the fighting consisted of short hit and run raids rather than major campaigns that would need a strategic commander.  As a result, Lee accomplished rather little.

Inland though, fighting broke out all over.  It is going to be impossible to discuss every little raid or massacre that took place over the summer without making this a 20 part episode, so I’ll try to cover a few of the larger events only.

Western Raids

While there were few colonists living as far west as present day Tennessee and Kentucky, those few who were there, deep inside Cherokee territory, found themselves surrounded by hostile warriors, although I guess I need to start calling the colonists Americans, since after July 4, the people living in the south considered themselves living in states independent of Britain. One of the Chiefs who had opposed the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals and who had walked out of the signing was a man named Dragging Canoe.  He became a leading warrior in the Cherokee raids.  On July 20, at an area known as Indian Flats in present day Tennessee, Dragging Canoe sent an advance party forward looking for militia.  The militia ambushed the advance party and wounded several.  About 150 militia chased the retreating party back to the main body of Cherokee.  The two sides fought a pitched battle in which the Cherokee suffered 13 killed and more wounded, including Dragging Canoe.  The militia suffered only four wounded before the Cherokee broke off the attack and retreated.

Fort Caswell (from Wikimedia)
Around the same time, the Cherokee began to lay siege to another inland fort where a small group of Americans had gathered for protection.  A militia force of about 75 defended Fort Watauga, aka Fort Caswell.  The Americans, discovered the Cherokee before the attack and successfully secured the fort.  The Cherokee attacked for about three hours, attempting to set fire to the fort wall.  One woman fended off such an attack by dumping boiling water over the wall. After the initial attack failed, the Cherokee began to besiege the fort.  Following his retreat from Indian Flats, Dragging Canoe joined the siege with his warriors.  The Cherokee managed to capture at least two defenders who left the fort.  They burned one of them at the stake, a teen aged boy.  They also planned to burn a captured woman but relented when another long time female prisoner who lived with the Cherokee for years begged them not to kill her. After about two weeks, a large militia relief force arrived to break the siege.

McDowell’s Station (NC)

In North Carolina, Cherokee raids killed dozens along the Catawba River, leading about 120 women and children to take refuge at an area fort commanded by Militia Lt. Col. Charles McDowell.  The fort only had about ten soldiers.  The Cherokee had ambushed another contingent of eight soldiers in nearby Quaker Meadows, killing and scalping seven while an eighth survived by hiding under a log and returned to tell the tale.  The remaining soldiers at what became known as Fort McDowell were able to hold the Cherokee at bay for several weeks until a larger militia relief force arrived.

Lindley’s Fort (SC)

A number of settlers in South Carolina took refuge at Lindley’s Fort (aka Lyndley’s Fort).  A group of about 150 militia also took shelter there while awaiting a larger contingent to do battle with the Cherokee.

A around 1:00 AM on the morning of July 15, a group of nearly 200 attackers, about half Cherokee and half loyalist militia, attacked the fort, thinking it was only civilians, and not realizing the militia had entered the fort only a few hours earlier.  Both sides traded shots all night until the attackers learned a much larger relief force was on the way.  They broke off their attack and left the fort, but the much larger force of around 430 patriot militia pursued them and captured 13 of the attackers.  The prisoners were shipped to the jail at Ninety-Six.


North Georgia saw some raiding, but much of its frontier was spared by the fact that mostly Creek Indians lived there, not Cherokee.  The Creek had debated going to war alongside the Cherokee.  However, the southern colonies and the Continental Congress had requested the services of George Galphin, a popular trader who had a good relationship with the Creek Chiefs.  Galphin managed to keep the Creek out of the war and reduced Georgia’s exposure to Indian Attack.

Patriots Fight Back

The Patriots, of course, organized themselves quickly to meet the serious Cherokee threat.  As I have already alluded to in the relief of several besieged forts, by early August, the Patriots had militia brigades in the thousands from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, marching through the backcountry to relieve outposts and protect civilians.

The patriots also had more than protection on their minds.  They aimed to push the Cherokee out of the frontier area once and for all.  This meant a brutal campaign of burning Cherokee villages, killing men, women, and children, and stealing or destroying all Cherokee crops and food stores, which would inevitably lead to starvation later in the year.

Rutherford Expedition (from Sutori)
One campaign known as the Rutherford Campaign, was led by militia General Griffith Rutherford, through what is today western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Rutherford teamed up with another large brigade from South Carolina.  They also had the support of the Catawba Indians who occupied limited areas on the northern frontier.  The combined force burned dozens of Cherokee villages during the late summer and early fall.  The army fought several pitched battles with Cherokee warriors, including Dragging Canoe.  The militia’s superior numbers and better access to arms and ammunition eventually forced the Cherokee to retreat to the west.

Another group from Virginia led by Militia Colonel William Christian, sometimes called “Christie” led nearly 2000 Virginia militia on a rampage over the fall and early winter of 1776, driving the Cherokee out of southern Virginia and northern North Carolina.

The fighting, which went on for months, brought out savagery on both sides.  Provincial governments paid for Cherokee scalps.  Soldiers on both sides made little distinction between combatants and civilians.  Fighting was often hand to hand, and neither side had much interest in accepting a surrender.  You won or you died.  Death was usually preferable to either side than to be captured.  Americas were happy to torture any captured Cherokee as payback for what the Cherokee were doing with American prisoners.

By some estimates, the patriots had killed over 2000 Cherokee, out of a population of an estimated 13,000.  The Cherokee had only about 3000 armed warriors, but many of those killed were civilians, including women and children.  Patriots burned at least 52 Cherokee towns, and innumerable smaller encampments.

The Catawba had allied themselves with the patriots and assisted in attacks on the Cherokee.  Only a small number of Creek joined the fight, with most of the Creek opting for neutrality.  Even worse patriots’ scorched earth policy of burning all villages and food stored met that many Cherokee would go without much food or shelter over the winter.

Attempts on St. Augustine

The fighting continued throughout the summer and fall, and into the winter.  General Lee worked out a plan with General Moultrie to mount an expedition against St. Augustine.  This was where British Indian agents continued to operate and attempt to encourage the Indians to fight the patriots.  Others agents operated out of Pensacola and Mobile, but those were farther away.  St. Augustine also held some prisoners of war, making it an attractive target for the Continental Army.  General Lee had actually set off on an expedition against St. Augustine in September, when he received orders to return to New York.

Around the same time, General Moultrie received notice that the Continental Congress had granted him a commission as a brigadier general in the Continental Army.  General Moultrie mounted several expeditions to St. Augustine, but resistance from Creek Indians, the offensive measures by British Regulars in St. Augustine, and most importantly, malaria outbreaks among the soldiers caused all expeditions to turn back before reaching St. Augustine.


By spring 1777, most of the older chiefs were ready to make peace with the Americans, ceding land and returning captured property.  In May the South Cherokee signed the Treaty of DeWitt’s Corner, where the Cherokee ceded almost all of their land in what is today South Carolina, as well as parts of Georgia.  In July, the Middle and Northern Cherokee, in the Treaty of Long Island of Holston confirmed the cession of the lands from the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, as well as additional lands to Virginia and North Carolina.  In total, the treaties to end hostilities cost the Cherokee over five million acres of land.  The treaties also required the Cherokee to return any prisoners, as well as stolen horses, runaway slaves, or other property.  They also agreed to turn over any loyalists or British agents to Fort Rutledge for trial.  Beyond land, one Chief even offered 500 warriors to fight alongside the patriots against the British, though the Americans declined this offer.

Treaty of DeWitt's Corner
The final Article of the Treaty of DeWitt’s Corner ended with “The hatchet shall be forever buried, and there shall be a universal peace and friendship established between the Cherokee and South Carolina and Georgia”  So, yeah, after this treaty, a close and tender relationship could grow into peace and harmony between the two groups.  Except, no there was no way that would happen, and no one seriously believed it even at that time.

Many of the younger warriors refused to surrender.  Although they could not continue to fight in the face of overwhelming forces.  They moved their warriors further west, into what is today mid-Tennessee and northern Alabama.  Dragging Canoe was one of these chiefs.  He formed a confederacy of displaced Tories, his own Cherokee, as well as members of  Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Shawnee tribes who all wanted to continue the fight against the settlers.  They would continue to raid and attack settlements for the remainder of the war, and would continue for more than a decade after the British recognized American independence.

So, once again, the Cherokee battling the settlers only led to another large loss of land, just as it had in 1760.  Beyond that, the raids accomplished almost nothing for the British, except perhaps tying up a few munitions, men, and supplies that might have been deployed further north.  But the Continental Army did not deploy any troops south beyond those who probably would have been there as a guard against a British coastal landing anyway.  Most of the fighters came from local militia.  If anything, the attacks mostly provided the militia with combat experience that benefitted them when the British tried to attack the south a few years later.  The experience also meant that the Cherokee would be unwilling to engage and cooperate with British regulars during that later invasion.  The Cherokee had been weakened, and also had no assurance that future cooperation would not result in the loss of even more land and property to the southern states.

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Next  Episode 103: The Battle of Brooklyn

Previous  Episode 101: The British Land at Staten Island

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Further Reading
Resources to learn more about today’s topic.


John Stuart:

Cherokee in the Revolutionary War:

Cherokee War (1776):

Treaty of Sycamore Shoals:

The Treaty of Sycamore Shoals:

A Revised History of Fort Watauga, by Brian Compton (E.Tenn. State U. Master's thesis, 2005):

Battle of McDowell’s Station:

Battle of Quaker Meadows:

Battle of Lindley’s Fort:

Capt. McCall & Alexander Cameron in the Cherokee War, by Wayne Lynch JAR (2013):

George Galphin and the War in the South, 1775-1780 by Bryan Rindfleisch (JAR 2015).

Treaty of Dewitt’s Corner (May 1777):

The Treaty of Long Island of Holston (July 1777):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Drayton, John Memoirs of the American Revolution: From its Commencement to the Year 1776, inclusive, as relating to the state of South-Carolina, Vol II, A.E. Miller, 1821.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 2, M. St. Clair & Peter Force, 1837.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, M. St. Clair & Peter Force, 1837.

Gibbes, Robert Documentary History of the American Revolution, consisting of letters and papers relating to the contest for liberty chiefly in South Carolina, 1764-1782, Vol 2, D. Appleton & Co. 1855.

McCall, Hugh The History of Georgia, Vol. 2, William T. Williams, 1816.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Dean, Nadia A Demand of Blood: The Cherokee War of 1776, Valley River Press, 2012 (book recommendation of the week).

Hatley, Tom The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Era of Revolution, Oxford Univ. Press, 1995.

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South, Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1981.

Mazzagetti, Dominick Charles Lee: Self Before Country, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2013.

Raphael, Ray, A People's History of the American Revolution, New Press, 2001.

Vine, Deloria Jr. & DeMallie, Raymond J. (eds) Documents of American Indian Diplomacy: Treaties, Agreements, and Conventions, 1775-1979, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Michael - I just came across this terrific project of yours! By any chance, have you done, or might you do, a post on the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, that took place around what's now Castine, Maine? Thanks for this excellent work!