"We were waylaid by the Cherokees"

On March 19, 1839, David Haley of Roane County, Tennessee, wrote a letter to his son living in Madisonville, Mississippi, recounting his experiences in the Revolutionary War and in various military expeditions against the Cherokee and Creek Indians. Following his military service, Haley settled in Tennessee. In his unvarnished account, Haley recalled with matter-of-fact candor the brutal nature of warfare on America’s first frontier:

Dear Sir:

    It affords me great pleasure to give you a history of the part I took in the Revolution and Indian War.

    In the fall of 1776, I went from Virginia to South Carolina where there was volunteers making up to go under Gen’l. Williamson against the Over Hill and Valley Town Cherokee Indians. I volunteered, and I was in front of a battle against 2,000 Indians between the Middle Settlement and Valley Town’s at the head of the Tennessee and Savannah Rivers. There was 2,500 of us. We were waylaid by the Cherokees. We lost about 35 killed and about as many wounded. We drove them from their ambush and kept the field and mountains. We then marched over the Valley Towns and had no more fighting of consequence. Some little scrimmages, burnt several towns, etc. I then returned to Va. And in the Spring of 1777, I volunteered under Genl. Saml. Scott in a Light Horse Company and went against the Creek Indians. In Georgia we held a treaty with them at Golfen’s Cow-Pen on Ogeechee. After the treaty we were stationed on Long Creek in what was called the New Purchase of Georgia on that day. During our stay there the Creek Indians came in one night and stole 7 horses. The next day myself and 21 others went in pursuit of the Indians on foot. 2nd day found the horses, took possession of them and on our way back was waylaid by the Indians about 50 in number. Killed 6 of our men and wounded two badly, but got them back and they lived. In that fight Capt. Thomas Dooley was killed, and had his heel string shot off the first fire and could not run. This was in July 1777.

Engraving entitled "Indians attacking a station." The battle depicted is unidentified.
Library Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

   I then returned to Virginia and joined the Va. Militia to reinforce Genl. Gates in South Carolina. We met Gen’l Gates at Hillsboro, August 20, 1780, running from Camden where he had been defeated by Cornwallis (the same battle in August 16, 1780 in which DeKalb was killed). In 1781, I joined Genl. Lawson’s Brigade and went against Lord Cornwallis at Little Yorkstown, Va., where we succeeded in capturing Cornwallis.

    In the fall of 1782, I came out in the country of French Broad and Holston, Tenn., now exploring the country and located some land and entered it at Hillsboro, N.C. in 1783 in Armstrong’s office. In the same year I married and moved straight to the country and settled 12 miles out of the settlement at the mouth of Richland Creek. In 1785, I moved to Richland Creek where I lived two years. The two years before I lived up the settlement. Pretty soon after I moved to Richland Creek the people began to settle in. In 1786 or 1787 I was elected Captain by the people and was commissioned by the Government of N. Carolina. After I had been there about two and one half years the Cherokee Indians broke out war against us and we had to fort nearly three years until the Territorial Government took place. I petitioned the Government of N. Carolina and got my men all under pay, those that had horses, under horseman’s pay and those that had none under foot pay. About this time Genl. Joseph Martin of Va. Came out and raised a company of 450 horsemen. I went with my company with him and we had a hard fight with the Indians. In the battle, Capt. Ballard and Capt. Hardin were killed. After this myself and 43 men went into nation at Hanging Moss Village and killed 12 fellows one morning before breakfast. I must conclude.

Your father,

David Haley

Written accounts from the opposite side of these battles, from the Native American perspective, are quite rare since the Indians of the American Southeast did not establish a written language until the 1820s. Consequently, most primary sources from this era were written from the perspective of the early white settlers. Still, posterity owes a debt of gratitude to Major David Haley for the foresight he had to pen this letter to his son 175 years ago today. Without this account, we would have never known of Haley's experiences during this important time in Tennessee's history. A few months after sending his letter, David Haley died on September 20, 1839, nearly one month shy of his 79th birthday.

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.


Letter by David Haley, Roane Co., Tenn., March 19, 1839. Revolutionary War Collection, Manuscript Section, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Tennessee Society Sons of the American Revolution Applications, 1899-1980, Tennessee Historical Society Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.