Named as the British Indian Agent to the Cherokee after the First Cherokee War, Alexander Cameron cultivated a very close relationship with the tribe. He married a prominent Cherokee woman and purchased plantations near Long Cane just outside the Cherokee lands in South Carolina. The couple raised 3 children and furnished their home in the finest style available. The twin plantations named Lochaber and Diamond Hill represented enough wealth to maintain Cameron for life. When he abandoned them and disappeared into the Cherokee villages in the summer of 1775, the settlers of the South Carolina backcountry took notice and sounded alarm at the situation. Rumors of British sponsored Indian uprisings had spread like wildfire. In an effort to stop the fear, John Stuart allowed an examination of his letters and papers. He headed the Southern Indian Department and knew that no instructions had been received nor given for any assault. Unfortunately, the examination actually caused greater fears as one of Cameron’s letters to Stuart had announced the Indians ready for Stuart’s instructions. The Council of Safety reacted strongly which had triggered Cameron’s disappearance.[i] Nothing stirred the passions of backcountry folk like talk of Indian raids and the South Carolina Council of Safety learned to use the rumors effectively.
By June of ’76, concern about Alexander Cameron and his continuing influence among the Cherokee grew among members of the Council of Safety. New stories of Cameron and Stuart plotting against the frontier settlements had already spread through the backcountry. Tired of this problem, the Council sent instructions to Major Andrew Williamson of the Ninety-Six District to take action. Williamson chose James McCall of the Long Canes regiment for the task at hand. Captain McCall was publicly instructed to lead a 33 man expedition into the Lower Villages of the Cherokee for the purpose of negotiating the return of property taken in recent raids against the colonists. His true mission remained unknown in a sealed packet of orders from Williamson.[ii]
McCall’s expedition crossed the Savannah at Cherokee Ford on June 20th to begin their move into the Lower Villages. Cane Creek marked the beginning of Cherokee country. On reaching that entrance, McCall broke the seal on his orders and advised the men of their true mission. They were looking for Alexander Cameron and, once located, they would make an attempt to capture him for return to South Carolina. Not a single voice of opposition came forward as the men unanimously determined to push forward.[iii]
Over the next few days, they traveled to a number of Indian villages. At each stop, McCall would meet with local leaders and attempt to negotiate a return of property previously taken in raids. He professed peaceful intentions and tried to convince each chief to return the expressions of good will. Everything progressed smoothly until they reached the large village of Seneca on the 26th. As usual, Captain McCall had the men make camp outside of town while he entered to meet with the chiefs and old men. The meeting seemed to go well and McCall felt at ease. The men spoke late into the evening when, much to McCall’s surprise, a number of warriors rushed in and took him and his interpreter prisoner.[iv]
At the same time McCall was taken his camp also fell under surprise attack. The troops had grown a bit lax in their sentry placement and the troopers were caught sleeping when a large group of warriors attacked late in the night. Even though unable to organize a defense, some of McCall’s men gave a good account of themselves in fierce hand to hand combat with the Cherokee. James Little of Georgia killed two braves with his knife but his courage would not be enough as Indians quickly overran the camp. Lt. Calhoun and three of the soldiers were killed while the others scattered into the night. It would be almost two weeks before they straggled back into the settlements in small groups of 3 or 4 at a time.[v]
On the night of June 30, 1776, the Cherokee attacked along the entire frontier from Georgia to Virginia. Known as the second Cherokee War, the action came mostly from “small parties of Indians, who fell upon single families at a fixed period. They murdered the weak and helpless, and made prisoners of a few” who seemed strong enough for a quick march back to the villages. It was time for the wheat harvest and the Indians opened all the fences which allowed cattle and hogs free access to destroy the crops. Hugh McCall later wrote that, while the people sheltered in stockades, “the promising appearances of a plentiful harvest, exhibited a mass of desolation and destruction.”[vi]
While wreaking havoc on the frontier, the Cherokee held Captain McCall in an Overhill village deep in the heart of the nation where he remained captive for several weeks. Even though the Indians remained apprehensive about killing McCall, they enjoyed putting him in great mental distress. Several times over the period of his capture, McCall was forced to witness executions of other captives. Once he described the torture of a young boy. Warriors suspended the boy off the ground between two poles while they tossed burning darts into his body. Whenever one succeeded in sticking a dart without extinguishing the fire, the whole crowd shouted and clapped. This terrible scene went on over a two hour period before the boy died. Maybe to torture him further or perhaps in sincere debate, the Indians frequently had meetings to decide McCall’s fate. He would plead with the Indians and remind them the whites would likely be very angry should their emissary be murdered.[vii]
During captivity McCall tried several times to contact Alexander Cameron. He even used an Indian woman as messenger but Cameron steadfastly refused to see him or to communicate in any way. After telling the story later there would be speculation that Major Williamson had tipped off his old friend Cameron concerning McCall’s secret mission and therefore refused all attempts at contact. The speculation grew more prevalent in 1780 when Williamson turned his back on the rebellion and returned his loyalties to the crown.[viii]
Early in September the Cherokee guards grew lax and distracted. At that point, James McCall found an opportunity to escape. The same Cherokee woman who tried to help him with Cameron now aided him again. She provided a horse (but no saddle) and a few ears of corn. Over the next nine days, McCall wandered up the rivers toward Virginia. He finally met up with Colonel Christian at the head of his column from Virginia on their way to chastise the Overhill Cherokee.[ix] McCall learned that reactions to the Cherokee attacks had gone very well. Columns from North Carolina under General Rutherford and South Carolina under Major Williamson had already pushed through the Lower Villages and the Middle Villages. They spared almost nothing as village after village was put to the torch. There were a few small battles at first but mostly the columns moved unopposed with the Cherokee people in flight ahead of them.
After establishing himself with Colonel Christian’s army, McCall started wondering about his original mission. He still wanted to go after Alexander Cameron. Captain McCall requested permission to recruit a small group of rangers. He planned to move several days ahead of the column and try again to find the hated Indian agent. With three other men dressed as Indians they moved quietly into the Overhill territory. McCall successfully infiltrated the main village but Cameron and Dragging Canoe had already headed south for Mobile. The two leaders knew Christian had demanded they be handed over and wanted no part of it. Traveling south with a mixed group of loyalist refugees and Cherokee Indians, they remained free and determined to avoid capture.
When Christian’s army arrived in the village of Chote, McCall recognized the hut of the woman who helped him escape. She had saved his life and Captain McCall made sure her home was spared in return.[x]
As the war progressed, Alexander Cameron and Dragging Canoe returned from Mobile and established villages separate from the Cherokee who made peace. The new group lived where northwest Georgia is today and established the Chickamauga tribe. They continued to make war on the Patriots in the south and worked in conjunction with the British. Sometime after John Stuart’s death, Thomas Brown became agent to the Cherokee and Creek tribes while Alexander Cameron was transferred to the post of agent to the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes. He never got around to making a journey out to his new territory. Instead, Cameron fell ill and traveled back to his house in Savannah. He died there in 1781.
James McCall stayed active in the Patriot cause for the remainder of his life. Refusing to give parole with Andrew Pickens after the fall of Charlestown, Major McCall joined with Elijah Clarke and fought at such little known engagements as Musgrove’s Mill, Siege of Augusta, Fish Dam Ford and Blackstock’s Plantation. Following that service McCall was promoted to Lt. Colonel and given command of his own company of dragoons. Even though a separate command, they joined William Washington’s cavalry and helped rout Banastre Tarleton at the Cowpens.
Source Note – Almost all of the details concerning James McCall’s mission to the Cherokee come from Hugh McCall’s book, The History of Georgia (volume one published in 1811 and volume two in 1816). In that text, Hugh McCall has access to the Journal of James McCall. Not much seems to be known of this journal and, other than references in Hugh’s work, it appears lost to time.
[v] Ibid, McCall noted the men later broke into 3 or 4 man groups. Each group made its own way back to the settlements. Most had arrived by the 10th of July. Of course they were too late to warn the settlements.