Gaston: Chickamaugas finally bury hatchet in Tennessee Valley

The Tennessee Valley's early white settlers created a saltpeter cave near Chattanooga.

(Second of a two-part series)

(In part one, the fierce Chickamauga Indians - a branch of the Cherokee - proved to be a thorn in the side of the early East Tennessee settlers.)

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When their British allies pulled out, the Chickamauga Indians allied themselves with the Spanish in Florida. Gov. Don Estevan Miro hosted representatives of the Chickamaugas at Pensacola and urged them to keep fighting. With the Creeks, the Chickamaugas continued to ambush the Cumberland settlers and steal their horses. Despite boundaries fixed in the Treaty of Hopewell in November 1785, new settlers poured in, often by boat down the Tennessee River. One passenger, a young Scottish orphan named Daniel Ross, was captured and invited by trader John McDonald to stay and open a trading post. Ross married McDonald's daughter and their son, John Ross, later became a chief.

Widespread attacks continued throughout the 1780s under the leadership of Dragging Canoe. Brig. Gen. Joseph Martin of North Carolina led a force of 500 men from White's Fort (now Knoxville) to mount a surprise attack on the pass leading to the Chickamauga towns, but it turned into a rout and a great victory for Dragging Canoe. In June 1791, both groups met at White's Fort to negotiate the Treaty of Holston, which agreed on boundaries, compensation to the Indians for land that had been taken and free navigation of the Tennessee River. Dragging Canoe would not agree to these provisions and visited the Creek chief, Alexander McGillivray, to promote an Indian federation to drive out the Americans. But nothing came of this plan after the death of Dragging Canoe on March 1, 1792. He was buried at Running Water Town, which he had founded, at a site that has since been flooded by Nickajack Lake.

The war continued under John Watts, the new chief, who lived in Willstown near Fort Payne, Alabama. Tennessee Gov. William Blount made overtures, and representatives of the nation had been invited to meet with President George Washington when hostilities flared up again after Doublehead asserted himself as leader of the warlike faction. Meanwhile, because of conflicts with France, the Spaniards notified the Cherokees they would no longer be able to supply them and advised them to make peace. In June 1794, Doublehead arrived in Washington, D.C., with a group of minor chieftains. Washington sent them a conciliatory letter that stated " we mean now to bury deep and forever the red hatchet of war."

The settlers were not impressed. James Robertson, leader of the Cumberland settlements, and Maj. James Ore, who had just arrived with 40 militiamen from East Tennessee, assembled a force to march on the Lower Towns. Ore was put in charge of 550 men. Joseph Brown, who as a boy had been held captive by the Chickamaugas, was selected to lead the expedition to the Lower Towns. They left before Blount's expected disapproval could be delivered. At dark on Sept. 12, 1794, they reached the Tennessee River, three miles below the mouth of the Sequatchie River. During the night, 268 men swam across the river, towing two oxhide boats and a raft on which they piled clothes, arms and ammunition. One non-swimmer held on to a bunch of cane and kicked himself across.

The next morning, some pushed on to Nickajack, five miles upstream, while others took a stand on the north bank across from the village. The attackers sneaked through the corn surrounding the village and mounted a surprise attack. After destroying the town and sending the captured women and children downstream, Ore and his men set out for Running Water Town. The town, after some resistance, was deserted when the party arrived to destroy it.

The time had come for the remaining Chickamaugas and the Overhill Cherokees to bury the hatchet, which they did at the Tellico blockhouse in November 1794. Some Indians continued to resist in Lookout Mountain, Long Island and Crowtown and realigned themselves with the Upper Creeks, who continued raids into southeast Middle Tennessee. The Chickamauga movement finally ended with Andrew Jackson's victories over the Red Stick Creeks in the 1813-1814 Alabama campaign. In the Treaty of 1819, the Cherokees ceded land from the Little Tennessee River south to the Hiwassee River and in so doing transferred the sites of the Overhill settlements to the United States.

Their chiefs tried to bring the Cherokee Nation into full cooperation with the United States government. They worked with Col. Return Jonathan Meigs, appointed agent to the Cherokees in 1801, naming this highly respected Revolutionary War veteran "The White Path." By the Treaty of 1805, the Cherokee agreed to have roads opened between the states of Tennessee and Georgia.

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit