In the early years of the American Revolution, war in the northern theater raged in Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. The southern theater looked far different. From Virginia to Georgia, newly elected Revolutionary governments and self-styled Patriots looked west at the trans-Appalachian region, hoping to finally traverse the stern border the British had set. The only problem was that the land was already inhabited. The Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee—to name the most prominent—had inhabited the land for centuries, and didn’t exactly welcome Anglo-American settlement.
Conflict between American settlers/revolutionaries and the Cherokee nation erupted in the early years of the Revolution. This conflict is particularly interesting when viewed from the perspective of the Cherokee, especially two of their most prominent leaders, Dragging Canoe and Nancy Ward (or Nan-ye-hi in Cherokee).
Brief Introduction to the Conflict
The tensions that eventually boiled over into the Cherokee-American War went back decades, if not longer. Following the French and Indian War, the British government issued a Royal Proclamation that set a boundary line, called the “Indian Boundary,” that prohibited American settlers from crossing into the Appalachian and trans-Appalachian regions. To American settlers, this was a slap in the face. The French crown had ceded vast swaths of territory to Britain that its citizens were now barred from inhabiting. As part of the laws surrounding this proclamation, the British government recognized the right of Native nations to drive white settlers from their territory and would even send troops of their own to rout out trespassers.
Nevertheless, American colonists persisted in crossing into Cherokee territory. Unsurprisingly, these actions only took a tense situation from bad to worse. People from up and down the Cherokee Nation became increasingly incensed as white settlers continued to settle on their hunting grounds, chipping away at their borders and way of life with each new farmstead.
The most famous of these settlements was Watauga. In 1769 in what is now Elizabethton, Tennessee, British colonists rented a huge tract of land from a Cherokee noble who agreed to the terms without the consent of the Cherokee powers that were. For the next five years, the governments of Virginia and North Carolina continued to declare Watauga illegal, but the settlers did not move.
Then, in 1774, a North Carolina land speculator named Richard Henderson negotiated with the Cherokees. The result was the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, in which Henderson claimed the Cherokee not only ceded the land upon which Watauga was built, but “all of their hunting grounds south of the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers and north of the Cumberland River.” Basically, Henderson claimed the Cherokee had ceded all of what would become Kentucky and Middle Tennessee.
In a letter dated February 22, 1774, a British emissary to the Cherokee named John Stuart wrote to the governor of North Carolina saying, “I received a message from the Cherokees . . . The Nation is extremely uneasy at the encroachments of the white people on their hunting ground.” Stuart also warned of the “the consequences” of this settlement and that it “may in a little time prove fatal” as the Cherokee would seek to “redress themselves” should the Watauga settlers “neglect to move off.” Speaking on behalf of the Cherokee, Stuart showed the true feelings of a majority of the nation when it came to Watauga.
The colonial governments repudiated these claims by Henderson, the governor of North Carolina even issuing a proclamation “enjoining . . . the said settlers immediately to return from the Indian Territory.” If they didn’t, they could “expect no protection from his Majesty’s government.”
Despite this hardline stance by colonial governors, the revolutionary governments that came to power during the American Revolution were more than happy to treat Sycamore Shoals as a legitimate accord.
The Treaty of Sycamore Shoals
At this time the Cherokee Nation was not a unified state, but rather a complex web of villages and clans who each had their own leaders. As the towns in Watauga became an issue, the most important people within the nation convened on how to deal with the threat.
As white settlers began to move into Cherokee territory as a result of the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, Cherokee leadership became divided. One the hand, famed diplomat Little Carpenter and military leader Oconostota wished for peace, their country having found itself in the middle of one European war or another for decades. The other faction, led by Dragging Canoe, who was, in fact, Little Carpenter’s son, wanted war. To Dragging Canoe, force was the only means by which the Cherokee could retain their sovereignty. In a stirring speech, he addressed the grievances of his people and put forth an ominous, though rather prophetic, message:
We had hoped that the white men would not be willing to travel beyond the mountains. Now that hope is gone. They have passed the mountains, and have settled upon Cherokee land. They wish to have that usurpation sanctioned by treaty. When that is gained, the same encroaching spirit will lead them upon other land of the Cherokees. New cessions will be asked. Finally the whole country, which the Cherokees and their fathers have so long occupied, will be demanded, and the remnant of Ani-Yunwiya, the Real People, once so great and formidable, will be compelled to seek refuge in some distant wilderness. There they will be permitted to stay only a short while, until they again behold the advancing banners of the same greedy host. Not being able to point out any further retreat for the miserable Cherokees, the extinction of the whole race will be proclaimed. Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences, rather than submit to further loss of our country? Such treaties may be alright for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me. We will have our lands. I have spoken.
Ultimately, Dragging Canoe’s argument carried the day. His notion that white settlers wished “to have their usurpations sanctioned by treaty,” won over the minds of many of his countrymen. While Little Carpenter and Oconostota had their reservations, war was now unavoidable.
Dragging Canoe and the Path to War
The Cherokee-American War, also known as Dragging Canoe’s War and the Chickamauga Wars, was a series of conflicts between Americans and Cherokees that spanned twenty years, ultimately ending in 1795. In this article, though, we’ll focus solely on the first year of this conflict, from the summer of 1776 to the summer of 1777.
As tensions continued to grow between American settlers and Cherokee, the Revolutionary governments attempted to win over Cherokee leaders by sending gunpowder and other supplies. Dragging Canoe, however, could not be deterred. The Watauga settlements had proven Americans’ true intent for his people and their land. “The white men have almost surrounded us,” he told Stuart and another British agent to the Cherokee, Alexander Cameron, “leaving us only a little spot of ground to stand upon, and it seems to be their intention to destroy us as a Nation.”
Despite his certainty that war was the only way, British representatives to the Cherokee convinced Dragging Canoe to send one final olive branch. Dragging Canoe consented and the British agents offered the Watauga settlers land in Florida if they vacated their steading in the Appalachians. This offer fell on deaf ears and, rather than choosing peace the Watauga settlers, backed by their new revolutionary governments, began fortifying their towns.
Incensed that this final attempt at reconciliation had seemingly only put the Americans on their guard, taking away his army’s advantage of surprise, Dragging Canoe officially went to war. Using the geography of the Cherokee Nation to his advantage, he divided his attack into three stages: the Upper Cherokee would attack Virginia and North Carolina, the Middle Towns would focus on North Carolina, and the Lower Towns would attack South Carolina and Georgia.
The Cherokee did not go into battle alone. At the behest of the British lieutenant governor in Detroit, Henry Hamilton, Northern nations including the Shawnee, Lenape, Ottawa, and Iroquois met the Cherokee and other prominent Southern nations, including the Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw. At this meeting in May 1776, Dragging Canoe and other Cherokee leaders accepted war belts from the Northern leaders, cementing a Native nation alliance determined to halt American encroachment on their lands.
At this meeting Dragging Canoe also affirmed his continued friendship with those British subjects who did not endanger Cherokee land or sovereignty. “If any of you choose to join the war, I will be glad, but I will not insist upon any of you going.”
The Cherokee-American War Begins
The conflict began on the frontiers of South Carolina, in the space between American and Cherokee soil. In late June 1776, the Lower Towns sent their troops against the western settlements of South Carolina. A few days later, on July 1, Cherokee forces from the Middle Towns (as well as from smaller districts called the Out and Valley Towns) launched their attack on the frontier settlements of North Carolina. The third prong was then launched against the American settlements of the Upper South, in what is now North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
In each of these offensives, Cherokee forces went after Anglo-American forts that dotted their eastern border. Several of these pushes seem to have been all-out attacks, intended to overtake the forts and kill or push out white inhabitants. In others, Cherokee forces attempted to besiege the forts, probably hoping to starve out the American garrisons.
While this three-pronged strategy met with moderate success, the Cherokee ultimately failed to take any forts. And, what’s more, their military leader, Dragging Canoe, was wounded in one of the attempts. While advancing on a fort known as Eaton’s Station, in what is now eastern Tennessee, Dragging Canoe faced five companies of militia, comprising some 170 men. In a brilliant maneuver, Dragging Canoe feigned retreat before ambushing the now-relaxed militiamen. Forming his troops into “a cone—the apex towards the centre” of the militia’s line, Dragging Canoe charged, severing the defender’s line and temporarily separating their captain from the main body of their forces.
Despite this initial success in what has come to be known as the Battle of Island Flats, the Cherokee forces were ultimately repelled, with Dragging Canoe taking a shot to the leg and his brother, Little Owl, somehow surviving eleven gunshot wounds.A member of the militia later recounted how Dragging Canoe’s troops attacked with “the greatest fury imaginable” and that “there were streams of blood” that ran “every way” after the battle.
Cherokee Troops Lose Ground
Though the large, three-pronged attack failed to destroy their enemy’s forts, Dragging Canoe and his forces continued to fight on. In smaller raiding parties, they sought to ambush colonial militia and regiments of the Continental Army as they marched through mountain passes. Again, this tactic met with varying success. Several times, Cherokee parties pushed back American troops, forcing them to wait for reinforcements.
As the war dragged on, Cherokee forces began to lose ground to the relentless army of would-be setters. All along the border, American troops launched a scorched earth campaign. And with each victory the Continental forces earned, they burned Cherokee towns and took survivors prisoner. By the end of the campaign, they had destroyed over fifty Cherokee towns, including crops and livestock, and killed hundreds of Cherokee, enslaving the survivors and sending them as far off as the Caribbean.
These losses devastated the Cherokee. Their homes had been razed, their food destroyed, and their people slaughtered. Before the Cherokee-American war began, the nation was home to some 12,000 souls living in forty-three villages across the southern Appalachians. Having seen their population decline for decades in the face of European disease and warfare, these latest losses left most of the Cherokee people hoping for peace.
With the desire to make peace growing, Cherokee leaders met in the Overhill Towns to discuss how to move forward. Little Carpenter and Oconostota wanted to end the war however they could, no matter the cost of land. And who could blame them? With their people dying and their country being put to the torch, it may well have looked like there was no other way. In fact, their desire to end the war was so great that they even offered to give Dragging Canoe and Alexander Cameron over to the American forces in exchange for their guarantee that the Overhill Towns would be spared the same fate as so many other towns.
Little Carpenter, Nancy Ward, and the Peace Faction
Throughout the war, Little Carpenter and his niece Nancy Ward stood firm as staunch advocates for peace. To them, war would only beget more conflict, thus the only true path forward that would ensure the sovereignty and borders of the Cherokee nation was peace. Their desire for peace was so staunch, in fact, that while Dragging Canoe’s forces had the formal blessing of the Cherokee Nation, Little Carpenter and Nancy Ward continued to work toward a peace with the Watauga settlements and others. And one can see their point. White settlers across the thirteen rebelling colonies had not proven shy about enacting violence against Native Americans when they stood in the way of American expansion.
Nancy Ward’s place in this narrative is a rather special one. Born in 1738 in the prominent Cherokee town of Chota, by the time the Cherokee-American War began she was a war veteran, mother, widow, and, having married a white man in her second marriage, a go-between for Cherokee and American concerns. Given the Cherokee title of Beloved Woman, or Ghigua in Cherokee, a position of power in both times of peace and war, Ward sat at the head of the Council of Women, could vote in the Council of Chiefs, and decided the fate of Cherokee prisoners.
It’s not surprising, then, that Ward came to play a prominent role in the conflict. Though her role in the war was largely diplomatic, she was not afraid to risk her own safety in an attempt to avoid casualties. In July 1776, as her cousin Dragging Canoe attempted an assault on the Watauga settlements with 600 of his troops, Ward raced ahead to warn the settlers of the impending attack. While some Wataugans escaped Dragging Canoe’s forces, some were taken captive. Here again, Nancy Ward showed her commitment to peace between the two peoples. A woman by the name of Lydia Russell Bean had been captured in Dragging Canoe’s attack and sentenced to death. Aided by Nancy Ward, she escaped before she could be put to the torch.
Treaties and the Chickamauga Secession
By the fall of 1776, American forces had committed themselves to an all-out defeat of the Cherokee, if not a campaign of genocide. One commander of Patriot forces showed the true intent of the war when he stated that “every Indian taken shall be the slave and property of the taker; that the nation be extirpated, and the lands become the property of the [American] public.”
As their forces in the field faltered, many Cherokee no doubt felt that their nation, freedom, and lives were in jeopardy. By the spring, many Cherokee leaders had decided to make peace. Hostilities between the two sides ended by May, when the respective leaders began agreeing to a series of treaties; but while we call these treaties, it’s important to keep in mind that terms were essentially dictated to the Cherokee, rather than agreed upon by two sides that respected one another. By July, the Cherokee nation had lost five million acres.
Hoping to make an example of the Cherokee, American leaders told other Native Nations that, if they too fought, that they would be driven “out of their Country, like a Gang of Cattle & their Corn all destroyed” and “that the people over the great Water [the British] cannot help them.”
Unwilling to give in to the force and cruelty displayed by American forces, Dragging Canoe and his supporters broke off from the Cherokee nation and formed the Chickamauga. “My thoughts and my heart are for war,” Dragging Canoe told his fellow Cherokee leaders, “as long as King George has one enemy in this country. Our hearts are straight to him and all his people, and whoever is at war with us.” Settling in what is now northwest Georgia, the Chickamauga continued to fight American expansion for another two decades.
While it is difficult to tell the story of the Cherokee-American War from the eyes of the Cherokee in great detail, given the lack of written documents produced by Cherokees at the time, the above gives the general framework with which the Cherokee and their leaders approached the war and the threat of white encroachment. By examining the American Revolution from the viewpoint of the Native Nations that fought with the British and/or against the Patriot forces, we can gain a new perspective on how the Revolution affected the world outside the thirteen rebelling colonies and contributed to the centuries-long erosion of Native American sovereignty.
Nadia Dean, “A Demand of Blood: The Cherokee War of 1776,” American Indian Magazine, vol. 14, no. 4 (Winter 2013),www.americanindianmagazine.org/story/demand-blood-cherokee-war-1776.
John Stuart in a letter to Gov. Martin, Feb. 22, 1774, quoted in E. Raymond Evans, “Dragging Canoe,” Journal of Cherokee Studies (Winter 1977), 177,sites.rootsweb.com/~tnpolk2/DraggingCanoeBio.htm.
Dragging Canoe, quoted in “Cherokee Leaders Speak,” www.ncpedia.org/anchor/cherokee-leaders-speak.
William L. Anderson and Ruth Y. Wetmore, “Cherokee,” www.ncpedia.org/cherokee/revolutionarywar.
Wayne Lynch, “William Cocke at the Battle of Long Island Flats, 1776”, Journal of the American Revolution, allthingsliberty.com/2013/05/william-cocke-at-the-battle-of-long-island-flats-1776/.
Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804(New York, W.W. Norton, 2016), www.google.com/books/edition/American_Revolutions_A_Continental_Histo/E92aCwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1.
Christina Berry, “Nancy Ward: Beloved Woman of The Cherokee,” www.allthingscherokee.com/nancy-ward/.