A brief note about the war against the Cherokee

A Brief note about the Cherokee war of 1776-1777

At the beginning of the Revolution the Cherokee received a delegation from the Indians north of the Ohio (Shawnee, Iroquois, Ottawa) inviting them to join in a war against the white settlements over the Blue Ridge. The British offered guns, ammunition and cash payments for scalps and sent officers among the Cherokee. Most of the Cherokee declined this invitation and declared neutrality. However, the Chickamauga faction, led by Tsi’-yu-gunsi-ni (“http://victorian.fortunecity.com/rothko/420/aniyuntikwalaski/people/canoe.html” Dragging Canoe) did join in this war. Nancy Ward, the “beloved woman” of the Cherokee sent runners to the settlements in northeast Tennessee and Virginia’s Clinch River valley warning of this attack. Forewarned, the settlers at Watauga and Eaton’s Station forted up and beat off the attacks of 250-700 warriors in July of 1776 (estimates widely vary on the number of Chickamauga). Many of the women and children in the Carter’s Valley and Watauga settlement left and temporarily found refuge in the New River settlements.

In retaliation, militia companies from southwest Virginia, western North Carolina and the settlements in Tennessee gathered together and attacked the Cherokee. The 1500 Virginians were led by Colonel William Christian, they left for Cherokee lands in October of 1776, returning in December, and then attacking again in April of 1777. They destroyed homes, livestock and crops of over 30 villages, both hostile and neutral. Most of the Cherokee fled the villages before the militia arrived and put up little resistance. According to Cherokee legend the inhabitants that remained were slaughtered regardless of age and sex. On the other hand, according to the reports of the militia officers and later pension applications there were few killed on either side and there is no mention that I have found of killing women and children. Those women and children they found [and did not kill] were according to official Virginia documents made prisoner and Nancy Ward was brought back to Virginia (but was not considered a prisoner according to official documents). However, there were also attacks made on the Cherokee by the state militias of North and South Carolina and Georgia and there are indications that these men behaved in a less restrained fashion (e.g. 20 years later in western Georgia Cherokee children still fled at the sight of a white man [Henderson, 1920]). The Cherokee “made peace” (most had never been at war). A peace treaty was signed with the Carolinas and Georgia at DeWitt’s Corner on 20 May 1777 and with Virginia on 20 July 1777 at the Long Island of the Holston. With the peace was a cession by the Cherokee of over 5,000,000 acres of land.

The Chickamauga faction remained hostile and moved away from the Cherokee villages to the area near present day Chattanooga, TN where the British had a trading post that supplied them with guns and ammunition. This split in the Cherokee nation occurred in March of 1777. Another expedition was mounted against the Chickamagua in 1779 from Virginia and Enoch Osborne’s company from New River participated in this expedition. Ephraim Osborne Jr.’s pension application indicates that they did not molest peaceful villages on that occasion, and burnt Dragging Canoe’s town after finding it empty. The Chickamagua eventually went north and joined the Shawnee in the 1780s in their attacks on settlements and travelers in Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania. They did not make peace until the 1790s.

The “http://www.rootsweb.com/%7Evawise2/sketches/HSpubl35.html” Long Hunters had long hunted and traded with the Cherokee. In many cases they had fathered Cherokee children and been in semi-married relationships with Cherokee women. In these cases, by Cherokee custom, a man who supports his wife and children honorably is inducted into the woman’s clan. European-American hunters on Cherokee land not attached to the clans in this way were in a perilous occupation. That the New River men, many of whom had been Long Hunters and Indian traders, would hold back in the attack on the Cherokee in 1776-1777 is to be expected, considering the way in which the war was conducted and their past ties to the Cherokee. As an example, Capt. Enoch Osborne’s brother Ephraim married Mary Brock who is the daughter of Aaron Brock, sometimes called by his Cherokee name Cutsawah or Red Bird (after which a tributary of the Kentucky River is named), and one of the Blevins married a granddaughter of Doublehead, a Cherokee head man. Long Hunters not allied with the Cherokee would have been regarded by the Cherokee as thieves and would have lost their harvest of furs if caught (one such dispossessed “thief” was the famous Benjamin Cleveland, scourge of the New River Tories). The Revolutionary War was an economic disaster for the long hunts as many of the furs and skins destined for England now had no market.

It appeared that the long-hunting Blevins brothers may have warned the Cherokees of the impending attack by Col. Christian’s forces as this charge appears in Montgomery County court records. These Blevins brothers later are found participating in Tory regiments in the Carolinas. The Blevins brothers (James, William, John and father James) lived near Capt. John Cox to the west of Swift’s company and are cousins of the James Blevins on the Swift militia roles (who moves into the Chestnut Creek neighborhood probably sometime near the end of the Revolutionary War).

By 1800, the Cherokee had become largely mixed race and by the Revolution this process was well under way. Their houses, agricultural practices, and industry were a mixture of European and traditional Cherokee methods as well. Soon they would be converted to Christianity, would be educated in missionary schools and form a government based on that of the neighboring states. The Cherokee national anthem, sung on the Trail of Tears was a version of Amazing Grace. They had supported the European-American community in several wars before the Revolution, notably the war with the Tuscaroras in North Carolina and the French and Indian war where they served as scouts in Pennsylvania (under Christopher Gist and William Trent). The one war they had fought with the settlers and British in 1760-1, had been a disaster for them with villages, crops and livestock destroyed. Also, many of their headmen were killed when the Cherokee attacked an English fort where they were held hostage.

The leaders of the militia in southwest Virginia were primarily of lowland Scotch Presbyterian ancestry and were generally wealthy slave holders. A lot of their wealth had been acquired in large land purchases (such as the 120,000 acre James Patton purchase, the Lewis family’s Greenbrier company, and the 800,000 acre purchase of the “http://wolves.dsc.k12.ar.us/cyberace/sbgone/gen/fam1/history/va/loyalco.htm” Loyal company – the latter included the upper New River area as well as land in Cherokee country, and was in partnership with men of English ancestry from Albemarle Co., VA like Peter Jefferson and Thomas Walker). These wealthy Presbyterian families intermarried with one another (Col. “http://members.fortunecity.com/fpreston/sfwilliam.htm” Preston’s son Francis m. Gen. William Campbell’s daughter Sarah, and William Preston was the grandson of James Patton above. Col. William Campbell was married to Patrick Henry’s sister and Col. William Christian was married to another of Patrick Henry’s sisters — Patrick Henry himself was a speculator in frontier land). The lowland Scotch-Americans had suffered greatly in the French and Indian War and in Pontiac’s rebellion, and had been targets of Logan in Lord Dunmore’s war. These attacks were often unprovoked [at least by the victims] massacres, scalpings and torture of whole families. The Scotch-Irish were not disposed to be friendly to Indians because of these previous encounters (although these encounters were not generally with the Cherokee). However, it should be noted that General (then Major) Andrew Lewis and Col. William Preston served with Cherokee Indians in the unsuccessful ““http://www.access.wvu.edu/class/wvhistory/documents/Introduction.pdf” Big Sandy Campaign” against the Shawnee in 1756 during the French and Indian War, so were not always on unfriendly terms with the Cherokee. The Scotch-Irish also may have had issues with Quakers, who while in power in Pennsylvania, had been unable to deal with the Indians during the French and Indian War. In the war of the Regulation in North Carolina, the Presbyterians of Mecklenburg Co., NC switched sides just before the Battle of Alamance, dooming the movement. A good number of the Scotch-Irish who came to America in the first wave of their settlement (about 1720) were people with a military background from the war between William of Orange and James II. This background was evident in the way they conducted themselves on the frontier. The Irish wars had their share of massacres too. The Holston River valley was largely first settled by people of Scots Presbyterian ancestry while the Clinch River valley was settled by people similar to those on New River (long hunters of diverse ancestry, including mixed race people).

The settlers in the New River area had numerous kin on the Clinch River frontier and in Kentucky. Many of the names in Boonesborough are also present in the upper New River Long Hunter community including Boone and Calloway. These two communities were being attacked from the north by the Shawnee and their allies, so there would have been concern in the upper New River about Indian attacks. One idea is that the Cherokee had ceded the land in Kentucky to first John Donelson in 1771 and later to Henderson’s Transylvania company in 1775, in order to place a buffer between themselves and the Shawnee. According to Donelson, he did not seek the cession of Kentucky, but included it at the request of Attakallakalla, the Cherokee headman. The Shawnee were raiding Cherokee villages and may have wished to return to their Kentucky homeland. The Cherokee had played the same game (putting a buffering people between them and an enemy) a century earlier when they placed the Shawnee between themselves and the Choctaw (south-central TN) and the Catawba (western NC) after the Shawnee had been driven from Kentucky by the Iroquois about 1660. In the early 1700s the Cherokee had joined in an alliance that drove the Shawnee north into Pennsylvania (one result of this war was that the Shawnee were denied the return to Kentucky). In 1776, the Shawnee may have been looking to go full circle back to their original homelands (they lived in southern Ohio by permission of the Miami). The Shawnee were a much smaller tribe than the Cherokee (population of about 5,000 versus about 25,000). All tribes were greatly outnumbered by the settlers. There were over a half million European-Americans on the Appalachian frontier and west of the Blue Ridge at the time of the Revolution.

Although the upper New River was spared attacks by the Chickamauga, some faction of the Cherokee did attack Tory settlements in South Carolina later in the war and the Chickamaugua continued as a threat along the Clinch and Holston rivers. Other part-Indian, sometime Cherokees collected American Revolutionary war pensions after the war, having served in the militias on the frontier. Still others served as scouts under Nathaniel Gist, the father of Sequoia in Washington’s continental army after the peace treaties of 1777 were signed. The alliances and roles played by people on the frontier are often poorly documented and hard to follow and more complicated then reported. Be suspicious of any comments that infer all Cherokees did something or believed something as, in the Revolution, they were as divided in what to do as their white neighbors. The Cherokees were not ruled by one chief, but each village and clan had its own separate leaders and were free to choose their own path.

The feud between some of the Scotch-Presbyterians, in particular those led by “http://www.patriotresource.com/people/sevier.html” John Sevier, and the Cherokee continued for many years after the Revolution. This feud was kept alive by the murder of the Cherokee leader Old Tassel (in retaliation for the murder of a settler’s family) by militia led by Sevier in 1788. It continued through the “http://www.users.mis.net/%7Echesnut/pages/bobbenge.htm” Robert Benge attacks in the 1790s (Benge was a relative of Old Tassel’s), through the murder of Sevier’s nephews by Doublehead (brother of Old Tassel) to the massacre of Cherokee women and children on the way to a mission school at Ywahoo Falls in Kentucky in 1810. At Ywahoo Falls, on the Cherokee side were several white men with upper New River names like Blevins and Osborne. Throughout most of these troubles the majority of Cherokee maintained neutrality (I think). By Cherokee custom it was up to Old Tassel’s family to avenge his death. It appears that as many of half the people of Cherokee ancestry did not go on the Trail of Tears, most blending into the white population by 1810-1830 (only about 12,000 Cherokee were removed to Oklahoma, plus some had removed earlier [the “Old Settlers”], leaving about 10,000-20,000 not removed of which 1,000 settled at Quallah in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina and the rest melted into the general population).


  1. Henderson, Archibald 1920. “The Conquest of the Old Southwest: The Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers into Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky 1740-1790. published by The Century Co.
  2. The book, Cherokee Proud, 2nd edition, by Tony Mack McClure was consulted in preparing this document. Also consulted wasThe Cherokees, by Grace Steele Woodward, 1963, The University of Oklahoma Press.
  3. Letters to and from William Preston and William Campbell to the Governors of Virginia were consulted in preparing this document as were numerous Revolutionary War pension applications.
  4. There’s much information from a descendant’s point of view for Doublehead, Robert Benge, Ywahoo Falls etc. at “http://www.geocities.com/jillserenamatthews/doubleheadlinks.html”
  5. Related topic: “http://www.rootsweb.com/%7Evawise2/sketches/HSpubl27.html” Frontier Forts by Emory L. Hamilton, Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia Publication 4 – 1968; describes the forts in the Clinch and Powell valleys to which the Swift militia company (and other New River companies) may have been posted to guard against incursion by the Chickamaugua and Shawnee.
  6. Part of L. P. Summer’s account of the Cherokee expedition in 1776 can be read on the Col. Charles Cocke web site: http://home.southwind.net/~crowther/Cocke/CherokeeEx.htm (from Annals of Southwest Virginia, Vol. 2, p. 1419)
  7. Some of the information about the Blevins family is from e-mails received from Ron Blevins who is writing a Blevins family history.

James Quinn, January, 2003