Gaston: Chickamaugas in Chattanooga

Gaston: Chickamaugas in Chattanooga

June 10th, 2018 by Kay Baker Gaston in Opinion Columns

Chattanooga could just as well have been named "Chickamauga" for all the ways the name appears locally. The Chickamauga Military Park was named for the Civil War battle fought near West Chickamauga Creek. The Chickamauga Dam and Chickamauga Lake were both created by impounding the Tennessee River nearby. But memories of the fierce Chickamauga Indians, a branch of the Cherokee, were undoubtedly too fresh for the founders to consider naming the town after their traditional enemy.

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Around 1770, John McDonald, a native of Inverness, Scotland, erected a trading post near the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek where the Great War and Trading Path crossed the stream. McDonald had been accepted into the Cherokee tribe when he married Ann Shorey, the daughter of trader William Shorey and an Indian woman. McDonald was also a British agent.

Meanwhile, settlers were pouring into the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. In 1775, land speculator Richard Henderson negotiated a treaty at Sycamore Shoals, whereby the Cherokee ceded their claims to all of the land between the Ohio River and the southern watershed of the Cumberland River, together with the Watauga area to the northeast. A brave named Tsu-gun-sini, or Dragging Canoe, protested the sale. He led his followers out of the meeting, warning, "You have bought a fair land, but will find its settlement dark and bloody."

In the spring of 1777, Dragging Canoe and his supporters moved south from the Valley of the Little Tennessee to the headquarters of British agent and trader John McDonald near Lookout Mountain. Dragging Canoe established his own headquarters at Chickamauga Creek near McDonald's home. Another group chose an old town site they renamed Settico, and others chose spots further upstream on Chickamauga Creek. By 1778 about 1,000 warriors had gathered there. Those Chickamaugas maintained contact with the more peaceful Cherokees, however, and were never a separate tribe. Their towns became the headquarters for the British south of the Ohio River, and McDonald's store was their supply depot. Supplies were brought in on packhorses from Pensacola, Florida.

In the spring of 1779, Col. Evan Shelby brought a raiding party down the Holston River to the Tennessee. Leaving their boats at Chickamauga Creek, they led a surprise attack on Dragging Canoe's village. They burned 11 towns and confiscated livestock and supplies as well as British war material and John McDonald's furs. The Chickamaugas soon rebuilt the towns and rallied for an attack, but Col. John Sevier, known as "Nolichucky Jack," from Watauga struck a counter blow.

Meanwhile, Col. Richard Henderson decided to attempt settlement at French Lick (now Nashville) and along the Cumberland River, part of the area he had initially attempted to purchase that was now part of the land claimed by North Carolina.

One party would travel overland under the guidance of frontiersman James Robertson, while others led by John Donelson would travel by flatboat from Fort Patrick Henry on the Holston. The voyage began three days before Christmas, 1799. Women and children, including young Rachel Donelson who later married Andrew Jackson, and domestic animals and household goods were on the boats. Near Lookout Mountain, Indian parties who appeared to be friendly hailed the passengers. But the Indians singled out one boat following behind with smallpox aboard and killed all 28 passengers.

Where Suck Creek joins the Tennessee at the foot of Signal Mountain, the Jennings boat got stuck on the shoals. The women aboard pushed the boat off the rocks, but four people were lost, including a baby born the night before to one of the women. Their boat joined the others two days later. After poling and warping the boats upstream on the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers, they reached Fort Nashboro on April 24, 1780.

The conflict between the Cumberland settlers and the Chickamaugas continued unabated. In 1782, Dragging Canoe and his supporters sought safer locations for their villages along the slopes of Lookout Mountain, where they established the Five Lower Towns — Running Water Town, Nickajack Town, Long Island Town, Crow Town and Lookout Mountain Town.

Meanwhile, the governor of North Carolina sent John Sevier with 250 men to the Chickamauga territory. They burned some of the old villages while Indian scouts across the river yelled defiantly from Lookout Mountain. On Sept. 20, 1782, they skirmished briefly with the Chickamaugas on the mountainside in what has been called "the last battle of the Revolution," since it was fought after Yorktown. But the "Indian trouble" continued after Sevier and his men departed.

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

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