Enriched by a robust fur trade with indigenous tribes in the early 1700s, European companies fomented instability by supplying weapons and supplies to the warring factions, including the Overhill Cherokees in East Tennessee, the Middle and Valley Cherokees in western North Carolina, and the Lower Cherokees in North Georgia and South Carolina.
Individual town chiefs in the Cherokee system reigned over separate territories, impeding British attempts to negotiate broad land treaties and trade agreements. Colonists were desperate for Cherokee land. In 1730, Sir Alexander Cuming, a Scottish aristocrat and confidence man, sailed to South Carolina to seek his fortune and curry favor with King George II by securing relations with indigenous tribes. Cuming issued fraudulent promissory notes and then visited the Lower, Middle and Overhill regions to convince the tribal leaders to pledge allegiance to the king. He successfully persuaded a group of chiefs to travel to London to meet the monarch.
Ouka, Catorgusta, Tethtow, Chief Attakullakulla, Calannah, Unnowconnowe and Owean Nakan made the trip. On Sept. 9, 1730, the chiefs signed the Articles of Friendship and Commerce, which recognized members of the Cherokee nation as subjects and agreed to make their land available for British settlement. Later in 1737, Cuming's crimes caught up with him, and he was sent to Fleet Prison for fraud.
European powers fought for control of the new world, and the Cherokee Nation was caught in the middle. Relations between the British and the Cherokees worsened, and in 1759 the governor of South Carolina held a Cherokee delegation hostage, reneging on an assurance of safe passage. The Cherokees attacked and overtook the British outpost at Fort Loudon. A brutal British retaliation forced the Cherokees to sue for peace.
Three Cherokee leaders, Ostenaco, Cunne Shote and Woyi, crossed the ocean again in June 1762, this time with Lt. Henry Timberlake and Sgt. Thomas Sumter, to meet with the king of England. Both men had strong ties to the Cherokee. Timberlake wed Chief Ostenaco's daughter and created maps still used to reflect early territorial lines, and Sumter became the namesake for a South Carolina fort. The interpreter died on the voyage, and Timberlake and Sumter struggled to translate for the delegation on arrival in England.
The Cherokee chiefs were celebrated, bedecked in new clothes, and sat for regal portraits. Their itinerary was advertised, and 10,000 people turned out to see them at London's Vauxhall. Newspaper reports detailed huge crowds as they toured St. James, Hyde Park and Chelsea. Despite language barriers, Ostenaco spoke with King George III. Though conversation was limited, the king of England sent a written response to the Cherokees for translation.
The resulting Proclamation of 1763 prohibited settlement past the Blue Ridge Mountains, but settlers ignored the decree. Colonial officials sought land grants, and large areas of the Cherokee Nation were ceded to the whites. Timberlake accompanied Cherokee leaders on another trip to London in 1764-1765, but it ended disastrously. He was writing his memoirs in debtor's prison when he died.
Chief Corn Tassel came to power in the 1770s and tried to maintain peace between the Cherokees and the settlers moving into their territory, but in 1775 Richard Henderson and the Transylvania Company purchased land including what is now Kentucky and parts of Tennessee in the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals. This marked the beginning of the rise of the Chickamauga and their warrior leader, Chief Dragging Canoe.
Three chiefs represented the Cherokee in the Grand Council — Oconistoto, Attakullakulla and Savanooko-Coronoh. Chief Dragging Canoe, Attakullakulla's son and the Chickamauga warrior chief, decried the Sycamore Shoals treaty, proclaiming that they would find its settlement "dark and bloody." This treaty transferred 20 million acres of land from the Cherokee Nation to white settlers.
The long, futile, 18-year Cherokee war began in July 1776. Chickamauga forces led by Dragging Canoe launched a campaign from their new base near Chattanooga to prevent white settlers from encroaching on Cherokee lands. Dragging Canoe and his warriors tried to blockade the Tennessee River from westward downstream travel by settlers, but in March 1779 young Rachel Donelson, later the wife of Andrew Jackson, was on the Adventure flatboat as it navigated whirlpools and fire from the Chickamauga braves hidden in the canebrakes. Her father, Capt. John Donelson, led the fleet on its tortuous four-month voyage and later helped found what became Nashville.
All of this reminds us of the important role of this area in 18th-century history.
Jennifer Ley Crutchfield is an author and educator with a passion for local history. Vicki Rozema contributed to this article. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.