November 17, 1994
Proposed title: "Cherokee Militancy in the Old South,
My proposed dissertation topic is the military
history of the Cherokee nation from 1775-1794.
I intend this to be a "full" military history in the broadest
sense. While the "event
history" cannot be neglected, it has been reasonably well-studied in the
past, in such works as James Mooney's Myths
of the Cherokee, John Brown's Old
Frontiers (1938), and John Swanton's The
Indians of the Southeastern United States (1946). What has been missing from this literature, however, is any
serious attempt to understand these events from the Cherokee perspective. The most important contribution of my study
will be in uncovering the political, economic, and social parameters which
drove and constrained Cherokee warmaking, thus throwing new light on a story
which has been only partially told until now.
While this study will be focused primarily on the Cherokee, I
necessarily will have to deal with the many other players involved in conflict
with them: other Indian tribes, settlers, land speculators, state and federal
governments, traders, British agents, Spanish governors.
In the literature of the late eighteenth century,
the military history of the Old Northwest looms large. George Rogers Clark, the northwest Indian
confederacy, the defeats of American armies under Generals Harmar and St.
Clair, Joseph Brant, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the Treaty of Greenville--these
are all familiar names, places, and events, with an extensive and up-to-date
literature. By contrast, the Old
Southwest has been relatively neglected.
Attakullaculla, Dragging Canoe, John Sevier, the Chickamauga, the Treaty
of Tellico Blockhouse--these names and events of Cherokee militancy occupied
the attention of the southern states and the federal government during this
same period, but have not received similar attention from historians. My study will help to fill in the picture of
the "Old West" in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
My study will begin in 1775 when Richard
Henderson, a North Carolina land speculator, "purchased" a vast tract
of land (essentially all of Kentucky and a large part of Tennessee) from the
Cherokee. Henderson's purchase set in
motion the last chapter of Cherokee military resistance to European
expansion. Land pressure on the
Cherokees had increased steadily following the Seven Years War. The Cherokee leadership was reluctant to go
to war again after their severe defeat in the early 1760s, but by 1775 European
settlers were encroaching on Cherokee lands on three sides. The early 1770s saw the intruders cross the
mountains and settle on Cherokee land in the Watauga and Holston valleys to the
north. John Stuart, the British Indian
agent for the Southern district, had for the most part aided the Cherokee in
resisting legal encroachment, but the colonial governments of Virginia, North
Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia would not or could not prevent settlers
from trespassing on land guaranteed to the Cherokee by treaty. Henderson's "purchase" was tainted
in several ways. Not only was it
illegal under British law (the Proclamation of 1763 prohibited private land
deals with the Indians), other tribes had claims on the land in question (it
was used as hunting grounds by several tribes, including the Shawnee), and it
was even questionable whether the Cherokees actually sold Henderson the land as
he claimed. Worse, the cession was
denounced during the negotiations by Dragging Canoe, leader of the militant
Cherokee faction and the son of Attakullaculla, one of the chiefs who signed
the treaty with Henderson.
Henderson's purchase did not immediately lead to
war, but it discredited the leaders who had negotiated the treaty
(Attakullaculla, Oconostota, and the Raven), thus strengthening the position of
the militant Cherokees. As the turmoil
of the Revolution reached the frontiers of European settlement, the militants
prevailed and the request for war delivered by a delegation of northern Indians
in 1776 was accepted. The result was
disastrous for the Cherokee. Three
separate militia armies invaded the Cherokee lands during 1776, burning towns
and crops and leaving devastation in their wake. At the price of additional land cessions, the Cherokees managed
to secure peace with the state governments in 1777. Dragging Canoe refused to accept this policy and his militant
faction seceded from the Cherokee, moving west and establishing new towns on
the Tennessee River. The Chickamauga,
as they became known, remained at war with the foreign settlements west of the
mountains almost continually for the next 17 years.
The situation was thus established as it would
remain until 1794. The leadership on
both sides (the Cherokee chiefs, and the state and federal governments)
generally wanted peace, but neither could control their own militants. On the Cherokee side, the Chickamauga
provided a rallying point for the disaffected young men of the Cherokee nation
proper. The fact that the Chickamauga
acted independently of the rest of the Cherokee nation did not stop the
frontier settlers from retaliating against the peaceful towns for Chickamauga
attacks. On the American side, the
settlers constantly violated lands guaranteed to the Cherokee by treaty, and
conducted independent warfare against them.
During the 1780s the situation was further complicated when several
western counties (what became eastern Tennessee) formed themselves into the
State of Franklin in open rebellion against North Carolina. When the states' western land claims were
ceded to Congress and reorganized into the Southwest Territory in 1790, the
federal government became directly involved without having much more control
over the situation.
After 1776, the Cherokee were only drawn into
general war once more, in 1788-89, when the murder of a negotiating party,
including Old Tassel, one of the most distinguished chiefs, inflamed the whole
nation. In general, however, the
Cherokee as a whole both paid the price and reaped the benefits of the
continued Chickamauga warfare. The
Chickamauga certainly slowed down the expansion of some foreign settlements,
especially the isolated Cumberland towns established in 1779. On the other hand, the Cherokee nation
repeatedly suffered for Chickamauga actions, being both easier to attack and in
possession of the lands nearest to the expanding settlements of north Georgia,
western North Carolina and Virginia, and East Tennessee. Cherokee military resistance finally ended
in 1794 when the Chickamauga made peace with the United States at Tellico
Blockhouse. Most rejoined the Cherokee;
the rest emigrated west across the Mississippi.
I plan to divide my study into three main
chronological periods: (1) The American Revolution (1775-1783), a
confused situation with loyalists, Whigs, Cherokees, British, and state
governments all pursuing their own aims.
Kentucky and Tennessee see massive foreign settlement in this period,
with continuous encroachment and invasion of Cherokee territory. (2)
The middle period (roughly 1784-1790), with the aggressively
expansionist State of Franklin conducting constant war against the Cherokee and
also in conflict with North Carolina.
(3) The period after the
establishment of the Southwest Territory (1790-1794), which saw the success of
the northern Indian alliance and then its crushing defeat in 1794, the same
year that the Chickamauga towns were finally invaded and brought to the peace
table. I recognize that this is not a
Cherokee-centered periodization, but at this point in my research it seems the
most logical way to proceed. The
Cherokee freedom of action was severely constrained by outside pressures during
this entire period, which makes the larger political/diplomatic environment
crucial to understanding Cherokee actions.
In order to properly understand the military
history of the Cherokees during the late 18th century, I will have to answer
the following questions:
were the economic constraints and pressures on warfare? This is one of the most vital questions for
my study. I will need to investigate
the Cherokee economy in detail, how it changed over the two decades. I have only the most general knowledge of
this area, since this is what is most often glossed over in narrative
histories, but it bears heavily on all aspects of the conflict between the
Cherokees and the settlers. By the
mid-eighteenth century, the Cherokee were heavily involved in the deerskin
trade through Charleston. They were
dependent on trade for guns, ammunition, and metal goods certainly. The extent of this dependence remains to be
seen; they seem to have retained bow-making technology into the 1780s, but they
also apparently did not consider hunting or war possible without firearms. How was this vital trade affected by the
American Revolution? How was it
affected by the foreign settlement on Cherokee hunting grounds? What was the economic relationship between
the Cherokee and the frontier settlements?
There are hints that the Cherokee may have been trading food to the
settlers; this is only surprising because the normal picture of
Cherokee-settler relations is one of unremitting hostility, and the existence
of a substantial trade would seriously undermine the validity of such a
The subsistence of the Chickamauga is especially
mysterious. British traders continued
to operate in the Chickamauga towns after the Revolution, based in Spanish
Pensacola, but it is not clear whether they were trading with the Chickamauga
or simply delivering supplies furnished by the British government. If they were trading, what were the
Chickamauga giving the traders in exchange?
During the Revolution, at least, the Chickamauga certainly attempted to
continue trading: a party intercepted trying to reach Savannah in 1781 was
carrying 15,000 pounds of deerskins and 1,500 beaver pelts. How did
this need to continue hunting and processing deerskins affect Chickamauga
military operations? How much was the
defeat of the Chickamauga economic rather than military, as the settlement of
Tennessee deprived them of the hunting grounds they needed to carry on this
trade, and thus the war? The answer to
these questions might put Chickamauga warfare in a whole new light.
was the Cherokee and Chickamauga strategy in war? What were their goals when they went to war, how were these goals
decided, and how successful were the Cherokees in achieving them? I suspect that economic considerations
played a larger role than is usually recognized, as I suggested above. The Chickamauga may have employed a strategy
of economic strangulation against the isolated Cumberland settlements by
preventing travel over land or water routes, while preventing the settlers from
planting crops or hunting by constant raids.
It may be that Chickamauga raiding also had an economic motivation, if
they were using plunder to trade for needed war supplies, or were joint hunting
and raiding parties. Even the location
of the Chickamauga towns may have had an economic motivation (aside from being
closer to British posts): this area of Tennessee was "a great park of
buffalo and deer." Richard
White's interpretation of the Plains wars of the mid-nineteenth century is
suggestive: "Between the
established hunting territory of each people lay an indeterminate zone . . . In
this area only war parties dared to venture; it was too dangerous for any band
to travel into these regions to hunt.
Because little pressure was put on the animal populations of these
contested areas by hunters, they provided a refuge for the hard-pressed herds
of adjacent tribal hunting grounds." The
establishment of the Chickamauga towns, located as they were between the
Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, may have constituted an
"invasion in force" of just such an area.
Investigation into Cherokee strategy may help to
better explain the difference between a Cherokee offensive and a settler
offensive. In general, the Cherokees
did not defend their towns. Their main
defensive successes came when invading armies were ambushed in difficult
terrain, but the Cherokees would usually withdraw if the settlers continued to
attack. By contrast, when the Cherokees
would attack, the settlers would "fort up" in their blockhouses,
which usually were successful in holding out against even large Cherokee armies. No difference in military technology seems
sufficient to explain this difference; both the settlers and the Cherokee seem
to have been similarly equipped (except that attacking militia armies were
usually mounted, while the Indians were not).
The Cherokee aversion to suffering losses may partially explain the
difference, but further investigation is necessary to explain why the settler
invasions were usually "successful" in destroying Cherokee towns,
while the Cherokee invasions usually "failed" to destroy the target
settlements. I suspect that at least
part of the apparent difference lies in a difference in strategy.
Related to this is the question of Cherokee tactics: what were they, and
how did they adapt to changing circumstances?
I have already suggested an apparent difference in defensive
tactics. As they are normally
portrayed, the tactics of the Cherokee seem to fall into a standard native
American pattern. For example, they
sought to attack by surprise and to avoid casualties. Whether or not there is any history to add to this picture seems
worth investigating. At the very least,
the Chickamauga seem to have begun using cavalry in the 1790s. An example will illustrate how this might
shed new light on Cherokee warfare. In
a typical Cherokee ploy to draw the enemy into an ambush, a lone Cherokee
appeared before a blockhouse one morning, fired wildly, and fled. When the settlers mounted their horses and
pursued him, the Cherokee closed in behind and trapped them. Most of the settlers escaped, because
"in their desire to capture [the horses], some of the savages left a
breach in the line . . ." The
normal assumption is that this was simply due to a lack of discipline on the
part of the Cherokees--if they had not pursued the horses, they could have
destroyed the entire party. But perhaps
the whole purpose of the ambush was to capture horses, not to kill
settlers? Either economic or tactical
considerations might be at work here (or both): seeking to get horses for
trade, or for military use.
were the Cherokees organized for war and peace? This can be divided into two parts: the decision making which led
up to war, and the organization of the actual military operations. The Cherokee are sometimes treated as if
they were a relatively unified "nation," with a supreme Chief and
National Council which conducted diplomacy and deliberated decisions for war. On the other hand, it is clear that the
geographical division of the Cherokee towns into Lower, Middle, Valley, and
Overhill was also a de facto political division. Towns also sometimes seem to have acted independently, sending
out their own war parties to retaliate for some specific injury. These are not mutually contradictory, of
course, but I will need to understand the basis for the various levels of
Cherokee leadership, and its history during my period of study. My initial impression is that in the short-term,
the Cherokee became more fragmented during this period of conflict, but that
the long-term result was a centralization of authority which led to the 19th
century formalization of Cherokee political organization. The second half of this question concerns
the direction of military operations, but is directly connected with the same
issues of where authority lay and how decisions were made.
social pressures were working for and against war? War and changing economic conditions would have disrupted the
traditional gender roles of the Cherokee economy. The devastation of war fell hardest on the fields and crops
tended by women, while the occupation of hunting grounds would make men less
important as economic providers (possibly elevating the importance of
war). Since women played an important
role in Cherokee decision-making and diplomacy, both of these would have direct
(as well as indirect) effects on the Cherokee view of war.
did inter-tribal relations affect the Cherokee during this period? Did the Cherokee view relations and/or war
with other Indians as fundamentally different from relations with
Europeans? These questions are easy to
ignore and will be difficult to get at, due to the nature of the sources, but
potentially could drastically alter the view of Cherokee military history. For example, Cherokee war with the Chickasaw
during the early 1770s seems to have facilitated the Watauga settlement by
keeping the Cherokee militarily occupied.
Relations between the Cherokee and the Chickasaw never seem to have been
very good during this period; the Chickasaw helped the Cherokee only once,
briefly, when George Rogers Clark built a fort in Chickasaw territory and they
retaliated against the Cumberland settlements.
Diplomacy and war with the Iroquois and other northern tribes was a
normal part of Cherokee life that was threatened by the foreign settlement of
Kentucky and Tennessee. It also seems
appropriate to explore whether the Cherokees viewed relations (including war)
with Europeans differently from relations with "other Indians": if and when that view developed, and how it
affected Cherokee actions.
It should be obvious already that most of these
questions are not really separate from the others. The question of decision-making at all levels will say a lot
about the strategies and tactics available, and how they were carried out. Economic considerations must be integral to
an understanding of social pressures as well as strategy. For this reason, any military history that
fails to consider all the facets of what war meant to the Cherokee is
It remains to be seen whether answers to these
questions can be found in the available primary sources. Part of the reason that these questions have
not been dealt with in the existing secondary literature may be that the
sources are silent on many of these areas.
I am confident, however, that much more of the problem was failure to
ask the right questions. While reading
the secondary literature, I have repeatedly come across instances where the
author casually mentions some piece of information directly relevant to my
study (a sampling of these suggestive hints is included in my discussion
above). These essentially accidental
references leads me to believe that much more is contained in the primary
sources than has reached the secondary literature. Also, recent ethnohistorical studies, such as Thomas Hatley's The Dividing Paths or Richard White's The Middle Ground, successfully dealt
with similar issues, which may not be directly addressed by the primary sources
but nevertheless can be uncovered.
These studies will provide a useful model for my own work.
I am still working through the secondary
literature, which is voluminous due to the synthetic nature of my proposed
topic. I hope that for some aspects of
my study the existing literature will prove adequate without requiring further
primary research on my part, but it will depend on whether that literature
proves adequate for my needs. If not, I
may have to scale back my topic somewhat.
The main areas for which I hope to rely on secondary literature are the
military, economic, and social organization of the settlers; and the social
organization of the Cherokee. I do not
doubt that my primary research will uncover material relevant to these areas,
but I do not want to make it my main focus.
No existing work covers my proposed topic. In fact, no Cherokee military history of any
kind exists, outdated or not. John
Brown's Old frontiers: the story of the
Cherokee Indians from earliest times to the date of their removal to the west,
1838 (1938) is an old-fashioned narrative history of the southern frontier
and the Cherokee. It includes a lot of
good anecdotes on the conflict between the Cherokees and the settlers, but it
is outdated and contains little analysis.
James Pate's The Chickamauga: A
forgotten segment of Indian resistance on the southern frontier (1969) is
the closest thing to what I propose to do.
It covers the same period, but it is focused on the Chickamauga alone,
and it is mainly concerned with showing that the Chickamauga put up a good
fight without going any deeper into the story.
While it is suggestive, it is unsatisfactory even as a military history
of the Chickamauga.
From there, the literature fragments or becomes
more general. In the literature on the
Cherokee, this period is dealt with briefly or partially. The most recent book that covers this
period, Thomas Hatley's The Dividing
Paths (1993) ends in 1785, and it focuses on different questions. It will, however, be useful for getting at
the social and economic issues connected to my study. Other works are focused on specific areas which are relevant but
only tell part of the story in which I am interested, such as Jack Sosin's The Revolutionary Frontier, 1763-1783
(1967) and Fred Gearing's Priests and
Warriors: Social Structures for Cherokee Politics in the 18th Century
(1962), or are too general to cover the topic in detail, for instance John
Alden's South in the American Revolution
(1957) and James O'Donnell's Southern
Indians and the American Revolution (1973).
The secondary literature I will need to consult in
my research is too extensive to list.
The primary literature is also quite extensive. Much of the most important material is
available within North Carolina.
Perkins Library has microfilm of some British Colonial Office papers, as
well as a complete microfilm of the Draper Manuscripts. The library at Western Carolina University Library
in Cullowhee also has an extensive collection of Cherokee documents on
microfilm, especially Colonial Office documents. Many important documents relating to the Cherokee have been
published in various sources, as the following partial list shows.
Anthony Wayne Papers, Historical Society of
Cherokee Collection, Archives Division, Tennessee
State Library and Archives, Nashville.
British Public Record Office, Colonial Office
Papers -- C.O. 5/ seems to have most relevant material.
Lyman Copeland Draper Manuscripts, State
Historical Society of Wisconsin, microfilm at Perkins Library.
Governor's Letter Books, 1777-1787, NC Dept. of
Governor's Letter Books, 1786-1794, Georgia Dept.
of Archives (Atlanta).
Haldimand Papers, British Museum Additional
Manuscripts -- photostats in the Library of Congress.
Nathanael Greene Papers, Duke University.
"Pennsylvania Packet", Historical
Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Papers of the Continental Congress, National
Papers of General Thomas Gage, William Clements
Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Boyd, ed., The
Papers of Thomas Jefferson.
Carter, Clarence, ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States, IV, The Territory South of the River Ohio,
Chandler, Allen D., ed., The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia.
Clark, Walter, ed., The State Records of North Carolina.
Cruikshank, E. A., ed., The Correspondence of John Graves Simcoe.
Davies, K. G., ed., Documents of the American Revolution.
McDowell, William L., ed., Documents Relating to Indian Affairs, Colonial Records of South
E. Tennessee Historical Society Publications --
published many useful documents.
Fliegel, Carl John, Vernon H. Nelson, et. al.,
eds., Records of the Moravian Mission
among the Indians of North America -- 40 microfilm reels available at the
American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.
Journal of Cherokee Studies -- many primary
Connelly, William E., ed., John Heckewelder's Narrative (Cherokee diplomacy with the
Henry, William W., ed., Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches
Collections of the Joseph Habersham Chapter of the Daughters of the American
Collections of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, v. 10, 20, and 24 have information on Cherokee
militants after 1783.
Keith, Alice B. and William H. Masterson, eds., The John Gray Blount Papers
Kinnaird, Lawrence, ed., Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765-1794: Translations of Materials
from the Spanish Archives in the Bancroft Library.
Lowrie, Walter and Matthew St. Clair, eds., American State Papers, Documents . . .
(1789-1815), Class II, Indian Affairs -- vol. I especially.
McIlwaine, H. R., ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia, 3 vols.
Palmer, William, ed., The Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 1652-1781.
Payne, John Howard, "Papers concerning the
Cherokee Indians," 14 vols. (1789-1839).
Sevier, Cora B. and Nancy Madden, Sevier Family History: With the Collected
Letters of Gen. John Sevier . . .
St. Clair, Arthur, A Narrative of the Campaign Against the Indians, and the Command of
Maj. Gen'l. St. Clair.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold and Louise P. Kellogg, eds.,
The Revolution on the Upper Ohio,
Williams, Samuel C., ed., Early Travels in the Tennessee Country, 1540-1800.