“They concluded that we came out of the clouds”

In 1834, a debate raged in Congress over whether or not to extend pension benefits to veterans of the Indian Wars. Newspapers published impassioned speeches by elected representatives holding strong opinions on both sides of the issue. False claims for Revolutionary War benefits led to calls for reform and a hesitancy to extend benefits to those who fought in the Indian Wars of the far reaches of America's first frontier.

For those in favor of granting pensions to veterans of the Indian Wars, the rhetoric in these debates often cast these men as heroes. Members of Congress from southern states, in particular, argued that these soldiers valiantly defended their homes and families against brutal Indian attacks, and had earned the right to claim pension benefits in their later years in their defense of the Old Southwest. In response to criticism by a fellow Congressman who labeled the early settlers as "plunderers and savage murderers," Tennessee Rep. Balie Peyton declared:

   I, sir, am proud to trace my origin to that race of men... I value the reputation of that band of patriots as dearer than gold... They were no "plunderers." No, sir, they were soldiers, true and pure; and a soldier never stains his hand with "plunder." The brave are always tender and humane. They "plunderers!" What temptation was there in the frowning forest of the West to invite to "plunder." None, sir, none.

Nashville's Western Methodist newspaper published many of these debates, and after reading one of the articles a Methodist minister named James Gwin responded by writing to the editor of the newspaper to recall his own participation in the Indian Wars of Tennessee.

A native North Carolinian, Reverend Gwin and his brothers served in the Revolutionary War, and in 1790 he removed his family to Tennessee, settling in the border region between Kentucky and Tennessee, later participating in battles with Indians at Caney Fork and Nickajack. On September 12, 1794, an army of about 500 men from Middle Tennessee, East Tennessee and Kentucky attacked Nickajack in retaliation for the Chickamaugas continued assaults on the white settlements. Gwin was among the early settlers of this region to participate in this battle. This is Reverend Gwin's story as recorded in the April 11, 1834 edition of the Western Methodist newspaper:

   In reading over in your paper two or three weeks since the remarks made in Congress by the Hon. Mr. Peyton, of Tennessee, on the Nickajack expedition, it brought afresh to my mind events long since past by. I called to mind the forms of my old companions in arms, with whom I suffered in those times of tribulation which tried men’s souls; but alas! There are few now living who bore a part in our earlier Indian wars. I concluded I would write a brief sketch of the events of that expedition for insertion in your very interesting paper.

   The Indian town called Nickajack was settled by an amalgamation of different tribes of Indians, called by the general name of Chickamaugas. It was situated in what is now Indian territory, on the south bank of the Tennessee river, at the base of the Look-Out mountain, between two creeks that disgorged their sluggish waters into the Tennessee. This town or Indian fort was called by the Indians the “Yellow Jackets, nest.” It was the rendezvous of all the southern as well as northern hostile warriors; here they formed their plans of attack on the white settlements. They considered their situation impregnable, and boasted of being able to raise three thousand warriors in one day from the adjacent towns and forests (as we were informed by Fenelstone, a half-breed, who deserted from them, gave us information of their intended attack on Nashville, and was our guide when we assaulted Nickajack.) Proud and haughty in their independent security, they paid no attention to treaties. At length they became so troublesome that no alternative was to be chosen between breaking them up or leaving the country.

   Tennessee, at that time, could not boast of men enough to ensure success to the expedition, and at the same time leave enough at home to guard and protect the women and children. Gen. Robertson, therefore, sent to Kentucky for help; it was granted. The brave Col. Whitley (who fell in the last Indian war at the battle of the Thames) soon appeared at Nashville with 180 brave Kentuckians, well armed and appointed; our men were all ready; we were joined by Major Ore of East Tennessee, the commander of the rangers, who had been on an expedition searching for the Indians on the Cumberland mountain; having heard of our expedition, he hastened and joined us with 80 men just as we were ready to start. We now numbered in all 600 men; we took the wilderness with Fenelstone for our guide. Passing on in good order, we reached the Tennessee river on the fourth day of our march about midnight. It was in the month of August, about the year 1798—warm and sultry. We commenced making a few boats with frames of sticks, on which were stretched raw hides that we had packed up and brought along for that purpose. While the boats were getting ready two men swam across the river and kindled up a fire on the opposite shore so as to direct us across, and the men soon commenced crossing. The boats carried the guns and those soldiers who could not swim; others swam across, so that before eight o’clock in the morning, 272 men had crossed over safely.

   We were then four miles below Nickajack and three miles above Crow town; and the morning was so far advanced we could not safely wait for any more to get over for fear of being discovered. We resolved to make the attack even with this small number. Col. Montgomery had got over and took command of the Tennessee troops, and Col. Whitley of the Kentuckians. As the lower creek cut off our direct approach to the town, we had to take a circuit of seven miles and cross over a spur of the mountain so as to descend upon the town in the rear. We would run with all our speed a few moments and then lie down flat on the ground until we took breath and then would run again. We thus soon reached the mountain undiscovered, and sat down and rested on the cliffs quite overlooking the town. We sat there in gloomy silence nearly half an hour—then slid down the rocks unperceived and formed in the underwood in the rear of the town. Whitley commanded the right wing, Montgomery the centre, and Ore the left. We advanced and found the Indians at breakfast. They knew nothing of us until they saw the flash and heard the rifles speak; and then so much were they deceived that the warriors near the bank of the river when they heard our guns came running with drums and shouting for joy, supposing that some of their own people had returned from a successful excursion against the whites, and were firing off their guns in triumph.

   Many of the Indians were shot down on the spot, and the remainder made for the river; and as many as could getting into their canoes, and others swimming with their heads the most of the time under water; yet when they rose to take a breath, the unerring rifle would send them down again, while a red gush of blood boiling up to the surface of the river showed too plainly that they would never rise again. Those in the canoes could not lift a hand to use their paddles; they lay stupefied in the bottoms of their frail barks, while the rifle ball would search them out like an inevitable death warrant.

   During the space of forty-five minutes, we killed 143 Indians, took all the women and children whom we could find as prisoners, and brought them off with us. In this affair we had only two men slightly wounded.

   Long Town lay on the river 2 or 3 miles above.—The troops hastened on to attack it. The path lay along the river bank and close under the ridge of the mountain. When about half way between the two towns, the Indians made a furious attack upon us from the mountain above. The firing was quite sharp for a few minutes—but as their chief lifted his head over a rock to fire, he was shot through the skull and came rolling down the mountain like a huge lump of shapeless flesh. The Indians immediately fled. The brave Thomas, of Nashville, here got his death wound.—The savages firing from above shot him in the bosom, and the ball came out behind quite low down his back. We brought him off alive on a horse litter, but he died soon after our return.

   Our men advanced, burnt Long Town and some other smaller towns unopposed, as the Indians had all fled; we then returned and crossed over to our camp without any other loss than the three wounded (one mortally) mentioned before. We took about 20 canoes, on which we put the wounded, the prisoners, and the goods found in Nickajack—for the Spanish had a store in this fort, and no doubt many villainous Spaniards were killed in the battle, who had often stirred up the Indians against the early American settlers.

   After the canoes had started down the river a band of Indians on the other side of the river from Nickajack commenced an attack, but desisted when told by Fenelstone in the Indian language that if they fired another gun their women and children and prisoners should be instantly put to death. At this moment a squaw who had her infant lashed to her back sprung from one of the canoes and swam to the shore in sight of all our troops, and made her escape.

   Thus closed one of the days of severest fatigue ever experienced in the West. This day’s work closed the Indian wars which had raged for many years with great barbarity. Gen. Robertson left a written notice at his camp, informing the Indians, that if any more murders were committed on the whites, he would raise an army, destroy all their towns and burn their corn. They took the alarm; their strong hold was broken up: many of their chiefs killed, and they sued for peace. A treaty followed—and from that time until the last war they lived in peace.

   All their prisoners were returned to them. The squaws informed us that they had often advised their young men and warrior chiefs to quit killing the white people and stealing their horses or that we would come and kill them all—but their men would not mind them. When they saw us come suddenly upon them on the morning of the battle they concluded that we came out of the clouds.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.


"Early Settlers of the West." Western Methodist (Nashville, Tenn.), March 14, 1834.

"The Battle of Nickajack by the Rev. James Gwin." Western Methodist (Nashville, Tenn.), April 11, 1834.

Image: The Tennessee River Gorge. Author photo.

Illustration: "Expedition against the Cherokee" courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum.