The Chickamauga Cherokee
A Brief History
In 1730 Sir Alexander Cuming escorted a group of Cherokee to England to meet King George II. They signed articles of friendship and commerce with representatives of the Crown. Although the seven redmen who made the trip were introduced to the king as "chiefs", only one could be considered a real leader -- the others being young braves who went for the adventure. The actual chiefs had responsibilities to their people and would not leave. Among these braves was Attakullakulla, or "Little Carpenter" who eventually became a powerful and influential chief.
In 1750 Atakullakulla led war parties against the French & their native allies, including Shawnee, in the Ohio Valley. As the boats were leaving the village, the warriors watched Atakullakulla's 12 year old son attempt to drag a fully-loaded war canoe, hewn from a log, from the shore into the water. The boy had been told that he couldn't go with the war party unless he could do this. His enthusiasm and efforts earned him the name "Dragging Canoe".
On March 17th 1775 over a thousand Cherokee gathered for the signing of the Sycamore Shoals Treaty. The Transylvania Company, a real estate venture headed by North Carolina Judge Richard Henderson and friend Daniel Boone, was attempting to purchase most of western and central Kentucky, and north central Tennessee from the Cherokees, transferring all holdings between the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers to the Transylvania Land Company. The Cherokee are offered $10,000 worth of trade goods and $2,000 for this very large parcel, and they accept it; a deal is made. Of course, the Cherokee were only selling their own claim to the land; other tribes who hunted here had not been approached. The Chiefs who came to Sycamore Shoals were well aware of this, but it was essetially the white man's problem. Still, not everyone was happy and in spite of the great feast which went on for days, people were grumbling. One outraged brave complained that his share was a mere shirt which could have easily been earned from a day's hunt in the land ceded. Among others, the Cherokee were represented by Chiefs Attakullakulla and Oconostota, both of whom had been across the great waters 45 years previous. It is believed that Chief Doublehead and his daughter Corn Blossom were also present at this occassion. The paper signed at Sycamore Shoals in what is now eastern Tennessee, was the biggest private land deal in the nation's history, although the treaty was soon to be revoked by the governments of Virginia and North Carolina. In reference to this deal, Colonel Washington wrote that there was "...something in that affair which I neither understand nor like..." Private companies had no right to treat with the natives. Henderson lost his investment. However, the treaty will be used by these same governments as a claim on Cherokee lands. Dragging Canoe, then a minor chief, was strongly opposed to the selling of the Cherokee ancestral hunting grounds, warning the whites that there was a 'cloud over that country', that they were purchasing a "dark and bloody ground". Daniel Boone for one, was well aware that there would be trouble if the Americans tried to settle there. Shawnee had already killed his oldest son James during a hunting expedition two years previous. More recently the British governor of the Northwest Territories, Lord Henry Hamilton, began to supply substantial amounts of arms and ammunition to natives and went so far as to offer bounties for the scalps of colonists in 1775. Things were getting ugly quick.
"We had hoped 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 the 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 laceration of our country? Such treaties may be all right 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. "
In the summer of 1776, Dragging Canoe led attacks against white settlers, but didn't get much help, especially not from a Cherokee Warrior named Nancy Ward, Ghi-ga-u, or Beloved Woman. Having learned of a large scale plan to attack the Americans with the help of British troops, she informed traders William Falling and Isaac Thomas and provided them with the means of setting out on a hundred and twenty mile trip to warn the settlers on the Holston and Watauga. The attack was repulsed. Things were not going well for the resistance. Dragging Canoe was actually shot through both legs in one raid. The old chiefs desired peace but Dragging Canoe thought it would be far better to abandon the old towns, move south, and continue fighting. There was no way to beat the settlers with their rifles in open warfare, so during the winter of â76-77, Dragging Canoe and his followers built new settlements in the Chickamauga Creek area of north Georgia. The discontented from many tribes and even some renegade whites took refuge with him there where they became known as Chickamaugans. Rather than capitulate with the older chiefs, the Chickamaugans waged war against the settlers for the next 17 years. Dragging Canoe's band of disillusioned-warriors, under the leadership of lieutenants, Benge, John Watts, Glass, Turtle at Home, Richard Justice, Doublehead, Black Fox, the half-breed Ooskiah of Abraham, and Raven, held out against the invaders. Their guerrilla raids, from camps near present-day Chattanooga Tennessee and Mussel Shoals, Alabama, left a trail of scalps, murdered victims, smoldering cabins and ruined crops.
Doublehead, was the last Cherokee Chief to exercise control over the upper Cumberland Plateau. He was born near the present town of Somerset, Kentucky, and had two known children by his wife of French-Indian mixed-blood. These children would eventually be known as Princess Cornblossom and Tuckaho. Chief Doublehead was named for his dual personality. Although he rose to prominence as an ambassador representing the Cherokee nation to President George Washington, the Chief also honored the ancient code. He killed and terrorized settlers, wreaking vengeance upon those unlucky enough to be within his reach. He did to whites what they had done to his people. According to some accounts, he was as visciously indiscriminate as Sevier, Hamilton, and other Indian Fighters. For almost twenty years, Chickamaugans such as Doublehead, and Shawnee like Blackfish, did everything they could to convince white people that Kentucky and Tennessee were neither for sale nor settlement.
In 1786, a couple of Chickasaws on their way to visit friends in the settlements south of the Duck River passed through a Chickamaugan town in northern Alabama which they realized was a secret camp from which raids on the Tennessee settlers were being staged. They continued north toward the Duck River in Tennessetold and told their white friends about it. In response, a military venture known as the The Toka Expedition was initiated. Assisted by the Chickasaws who had offered the report, Colonel James Robertson and 130 volunteers followed Shoal Creek south to the Tennessee, crossed the river there at Colberts Ferry and surprised a group of Chickamauga at Coldwater (present day Tuscumbia). Robertson torched the town and discovered nine Frenchmen among Doublehead's gang. For the moment, this put an end to most of the Indian raids and depredations south of the Duck River, although this land was not to be given over in treaty by the Chickasaws for another twenty years (1816). Of course, many white settlers were already living there illegally. Tennessee would not become a state for another ten years (1796)
In the spring of 1788, the brutal murder of eleven members of the Kirk family brought Indian fighters like Sevier and Hubbard to retaliate. In response to queries, Four Cherokee chiefs had gathered under a flag of truce raised by the vigilantes, purportedly to talk about the attack and gather information. They were summarily locked in a guarded room and tomahawked in cold blood by the eldest son, John Kirk Jr., in vengeance for the recent murder of his family. None of the Indians present had anything to do with the attack on the Kirk clan. Among them were two well respected peace chiefs, Old Tassel and Abram. The Chiefs simply bowed their head and received the blows.
Through all of this, the Chickamauga fought on but were forced to retreat slowly northward, until by 1790, they had joined forces with the Shawnee in Ohio. After the initial Indian victories of Little Turtle's War (1790-94), most of the Ohio Chickamauga returned south and settled near the Tennessee River in northern Alabama. From here, they had the unofficial encouragement and a supply of weaponry provided by Spanish government agents in Florida and Louisiana. Feeling like their efforts were bearing fruit, they continued to attack nearby American settlements. Some of their victims were fortunate enough to be given a chance to make a decision. In January of 1791, Chickamauga Chief Glass captured 16 men building a blockhouse at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and released them with a warning not to return.
In the spring of 1792, Dragging Canoe died but mutual hostilities continued and a new round of violence exploded in central Tennessee and northern Alabama. Doublehead and his warriors were still very active. On Tuesday, August 7th, 1792, Governor Blount met near Nashville with Chickasaw, Cherokee and Choctaw leaders. "Friends and Brothers," he began, "We have reason to believe that a chief called Double-head, of the Cherokees, a signer to the treaty at Holston, with some other Cherokees, and some Northwards and Creeks, in all about forty, have settled on the south side of the Tennessee, near the mouth, on your lands, as we suppose; this Doublehead, otherwise Tuscalateague, and his party, have killed a number of the citizens of the United States; and as your nations and the United States are friends, and we hope ever will be, it will be well for you to drive these people off your lands, or give us leave to destroy them as we please..."
President Washington embarked on a course of native assimilation and funded spinning wheels along with cotton and seed for the Cherokee just before hunting season. Native hunters are surprised by the cloth their wives weave. Next year, after harvesting their own cotton, the women weave cloth in six months that is worth more than the pelts their men gather in the same amount of time. Warriors like John Ridge, who told his girlfriend, "I will hunt deer not men," can envision positive changes through the use of some of this new technology. Two other men who live near Ridge, heavily influence the tribe's future. A neighbor named Charles Hicks, crippled by a painful hip, impresses Ridge because Hicks spends money on books. Ridge also develops respect for a man named James Vann, because he stands up to Chief Doublehead. These three would become good friends and bring great changes to the Cherokee Nation. By introducing farming and animal husbandry through missionaries, Washington believed the Cherokee "proper subjects for the experiment". He hoped these measures would help bridge the gap between red and white; unfortunately, by design or default, this offering of cultural assimilation included the practice of slaveholding. The institution was encouraged and spread among the upper class of mixed-bloods as a utility to be embraced along with farming as a road to wealth. An elite group of shopkeepers and entrepreneurs became dominant in national affairs. Christianity was widely accepted. Amazing Grace is the Cherokee National Anthem. But John Ridge was not quite done with his warrior days yet. There was still a terrifying guerrilla conflict going on.
One day in January of 1793 at a place called Dripping Springs, on the Nashville/Kentucky Road, Chickamauga warriors Ridge, Robert Benge and his uncles, Chief Doublehead, Pumpkin Boy, and others, were hidden near a watering-hole in the 'barrens' region of southwestern Kentucky. They were waiting in ambush to retaliate for the recent Cherokee defeat at Buchanan's Station. Captain Overall and a Mr. Burnett were proceeding south on the road with nine packhorses loaded with provisions (whiskey, salt, etc.) for the settlements along the Cumberland River. Both were killed in the ambush and their scalps taken. After celebrating with the whiskey, Doublehead drew his knife and began cutting strips of flesh from the bodies of the two white men, proposing that his accomplices join him in the ancient ritual of 'eating the enemy.' This grisly tradition was the means by which the northern Iroquois enhanced their reputations as fierce warriors. I imagine even Benge and Ridge must have looked at one another in disbelief. But after several more rounds of the bottle, they were all boasting of their war exploits and how bad they were till they were revved enough to follow Doublehead's example by partaking of the hearts and brains of their victims.
In September of that same year, War Chief John Watts ordered his warriors to surround Cavetts Station, a small blockhouse a few miles west of Knoxville. Three men, thirteen women and children were holed up inside. Watts' army outnumbered the whites many times over, but the settlers defended themselves vigorously, killing five of the braves, before Watts offered the family a chance to surrender on promise that they would be held for exchange. Believing them, the settlers came out of their little fort, but Doublehead's braves as well as Creek warriors fell upon them and put them all to death. Bench and Watts rushed about trying to save the women and children, but in turn were attacked by Doublehead and the Creeks. Finally, Chief Vann rode his horse into the mob and pulled a white child up behind his horse. Doublehead saw this and with a leap broke the child's head open with his ax. "Baby killer!" shouted Vann. Doublehead swung the ax at Vann. To the Cherokee the title "Mankiller" is a term of great respect. From that day forward, whenever angered, Vann called Doublehead "Baby-killer." Vann would never forgive nor forget the treachery. Watts took personal possession of another white boy and entrusted him to three Creeks ordering them to take him to a safe place. They did so, but this was not quite safe enough, because they killed him there.
The son of a Scottish trader and his Cherokee wife, Vann's early recognition came because he was one of the few Cherokee who could read English. As a teenager he was called to read letters to the tribe from Tennessee Governor John Sevier and others. Vann was instrumental in selecting Ridge, a warrior, to represent their village of Pine Log, Georgia in the council of 1795. Ridge, son of a mixed-blood Cherokee mother, proposes a modest change in the ancient vengeance code. The suggestion passes. Ridge is about 25 at the time. By 1800 the tribal council acknowledges the authority of Ridge, Vann and Hicks. They often disagree with the elders and frequently win. Over the next fifteen years this trio would steer the Cherokee on a path towards acculturation.
Following the American victory at Fallen Timbers in 1794, the last groups of the Ohio Chickamauga returned to Tennessee. Meanwhile, Spain decided to settle its differences with the US by diplomatic means and abandoned all covert aid to the Cherokee. After a final battle near MuscleShoals, the Chickamauga realized it was impossible to stop the Americans by themselves. Large groups start to cross the Mississippi and settle with the Western Cherokee in Spanish Arkansas. The migration was complete by 1799, and open warfare between the Cherokee and Americans ended.
Gradually, the tribal council had begun to factionalize. Ridge, Hicks and Vann would stand opposed to Doublehead on almost every issue, and Doublehead became jealous as the wealth of the trio grew. Through skillful handling of the Federal Highway negotiations in 1803, Vann ended up with a tavern, store, ferry and an additional estate on the Chattahoochee. The highway would run directly past both his new home. Hicks and Ridge also owned multiple businesses and were gaining in wealth, yet Doublehead was clearly ahead of all three. White traders and government agents were willing to do business with Doublehead and his friends because he would accept bribes. From US Indian Agent Colonel Return J. Meigs, for whom Hicks translated papers, Vann learned that on at least three occasions Doublehead had illegally sold Cherokee land to whites, a crime punishable by death. After warring with the white man for years, he had now become incredibly wealthy accepting bribes for tribal land. At first, few people would listen to Vann as he exposed Doublehead's activities, but slowly he convinced a majority of the Nation that Doublehead was indeed committing crimes. According to one version of the story, sometime in 1806, Vann, Ridge, and a third mixed-blood by the name of Alexander Saunders, were selected to kill Doublehead for his betrayal, possibly with the approval of the tribal council.
Beyond the illegal land sales, another version relates that Doublehead had recently killed his wife's baby in her womb, and had gone on beating her until she died. Ridge, Hicks, Vann and Saunders decided the only way to stop Doublehead would be to assassinate him. The hit was set up for March. Vann had been drinking heavily all morning, preparing for the encounter. He was to strike the blow; Vann had asked for this right, because his wife was a sister of Doublehead's murdered wife. But Vann drank so much that he passed out on the way there. Ridge, Hicks and Saunders left him and went on. At Hiwassee the two waited at McIntosh Tavern all day for Doublehead. He arrived after dark, drunk, and sat down alone. Ridge approached. A candle was burning on the table. Ridge approached, blew out the flame and then shot Doublehead in the face. Ridge, Hicks, and Saunders fled the tavern.
Later that night they learned that the old chief was still alive! The bullet had entered under the ear and escaped through his jaw. At once the trio went to find him, and by dawn had trailed him to a loft in the house of a teacher at one of the Presbyterian schools. As the trio entered, Doublehead, enraged with pain, drew a knife and charged. He tripped over a sheet. Ridge & Saunders fired, both missed. Doublehead grabbed hold on Ridge, and the two strong men strained to kill each other. Saunders fired again, hit Doublehead in the hip. Saunders then struck Doublehead with his hatchet. The blade entered the Chief's forehead, breaking open his skull. James Vann would be dead within three years, one of the wealthiest among his people, the target of a bullet fired in a bar by a relative of a man Vann had recently killed. John Ridge lived on to become a great leader until 1835 when he signed the Treaty of New Echota, sealing the fate of the Cherokee Nation. While traveling to Arkansas, Ridge was shot in the head, and his son John was stabbed 43 times in front of his wife and children. Like the history of the Cherokee people, the life of John Ridge is a tragedy. Ridge was a great statesman and politician, but he is widely remembered as one who betrayed his people.
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Turtle Hill Sangha © 2010