"The stillness of death prevailed."

While the 1785 Treaty of New Hopewell officially ended fighting with the Cherokees, a rogue band of warriors led by the Chickamauga chiefs Doublehead and Dragging Canoe continued their resistance against the white settlement of land they considered native soil.

In the terms of that treaty, the Cherokees gave up land south of the Cumberland River in return for protection of other tribal lands, but the Chickamauga Cherokees would have none of it. For these warriors, the battle continued.

Many historians consider the Battle of Rock Island an important turning point in the Indian Wars of Tennessee. This small but brutal engagement on the banks of the Caney Fork River was the final armed conflict of the Indian Wars before the Cherokees signed the Treaty of Tellico, effectively ending hostilities between the two factions.

Years later, surviving veterans of this engagement recalled their participation in the battle in accounts recorded by Lyman Draper, the nineteenth-century antiquarian who made it his mission to "rescue from oblivion the memory of its early pioneers and to obtain and preserve narratives of their exploits."‎

Other writers published recollections of the battle, including the Reverend James Gwin, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who also fought against the Cherokees at Caney Fork and Nickajack. On March 21, 1834, the Western Methodist newspaper published Reverend Gwin's account of his participation in the Battle of Rock Island. This is his story...

"Lieutenant Snoddie's Battle With The Indians," written by the Rev. James Gwin for the [Nashville] Western Methodist, March 21, 1834

   This battle was fought in the Horse Shoe Bend of the Caney Fork river, in November, 1792. At that time the people of this country were generally shut up in stations and block houses; and we did not at any time or place feel that we were safe from Indian violence. The plough-man had to be guarded in his field while tending his crop. The sentinel was generally placed outside of the field at those points where the foes would most likely make their approach, or seek to be in ambush. The time of the greatest danger was in going out in the morning to our work, for at such times we did not know at what moment we would hear the yells of savages and the report of the Indian’s gun. They would lie in close concealment, and the first discovery we would make of them, would be by the blaze of their rifles and so frequently was the laborer arrested and killed on his way to his work that we adopted the following method: early in the morning, before any person would venture out to his farm or field, we would take our rifles and mount some of our swiftest horses and set out our hunting or bear dogs and pass round the field or place of labor, and scour the woods; then guard the laborer as above noticed.

The Battle of Rock Island occurred on the Horseshoe Bend of the Caney Fork River.
Image credit: Rock Island State Park.

   We had to keep guard at night in our block houses, for we were often attacked in the night. The enemy would come sometimes with torches of hickory bark and attempt to set our station on fire. About this time a large body of Indians attacked Greenfield station. It was early in the morning before any person had left the station. The enemy advanced within a short distance of the station before they were discovered, and with an awful yell the savages shouted to the attack. The station was feeble in point of numbers, for there were but few men in it—but by the efforts of a few brave fellows, led on by the gallant William Hall, now General Hall of Sumner county, the station was saved. This brave youth, not then more than 18 years old, under a shower of arrows and rifle balls threw open the gate, and followed by the few men that he had, rushed upon the foe, drove them from their coverts, and by a well directed fire which was sent among them, brought several of their leaders to the ground; at which they gathered up their dead and fled to the wilderness.

   At length the Indians became so troublesome that we had to form scouting parties and surprise them at their camps, and so scout the country. Lieutenant Snoddie was ordered out on a tour of this kind. He started with thirty four mounted men, with rifles or muskets—crossed Cumberland river and ranged up Caney Fork river. We had travelled about thirty miles through the wilderness, when we discovered a large Indian camp, which we fired upon, and found in it but one Indian—and he made his escape; all the rest being out hunting as we supposed. From packages and other things, we were convinced that there could not be belonging to the camp less than fifty or sixty warriors. We took all their plunder, ammunition and implements of war which they had left at the camp. It was now near sun set and we determined to encamp within a short distance of them, and to pursue them in the morning. We made choice of a high bluff on the river, where there was an ancient stone wall, but now fallen down and lying in ruins. We laid off our encampment in a semicircle, with each wing reaching to the Bluff, and our horses and packages brought into the centre. The ground was broken and the timber small, we prepared ourselves in the best way we could for an attack, if the Indians should have courage enough to make one, all but the sentinels lay down to rest, but not to sleep. It was not long however, before the Indians began to collect their forces, and this they accomplished in perfect character with their wild and savage nature. They would imitate the wolf in his howl, screams like the panther—and then they would bark like a fox, while others hooted like an owl; and indeed the notes of almost all kinds of wild animals were heard during the night. At length a most horrid yell, supposed to be made by the chief, designated the place where all were to meet. The night was dark and rainy, and in the darkness of the night they examined the ground we occupied and held intercourse with each other by wild and savage notes. These movements produced sensations of mind more awful and terrific than even the rush of battle. 

"The Passage" - Cherokee Indian statue in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Author photo.

   A little before day, all was hushed; the stillness of death prevailed, except the pattering of the falling rain. During this silence, the Indians crept up within forty steps of us, and the first discovery we had of them was the snapping of their guns. In consequence of the rain that fell during the night, there priming had become damp, and but few of their guns went off; this was much in our favor—for our arms were well secured, and this gave us a decided advantage over them. As soon as the attempt was made to fire, the yell for blood was heard almost all round our line; for they had well nigh surrounded us. Our men also shouted to the battle and poured in a shower of rifle balls among them. It was now day-light, and the Indians brought all their force to bear upon the centre of our ranks, and the contest became close and desperate. At the first fire, four of our men broke, left us and made the best of their way home. This left but thirty to contend with sixty warriors, led on by a Shawnee chief. The enemy drew up within twenty five steps and fought bravely; but they had to contend with a Spartan band who seldom threw away a shot. 

   James Madell, a cool and skillful marksman, had taken his stand in the centre of the line; the courageous Lattimore and Seaberry stood behind him.—They kept up a constant fire until Lattimore and Seaberry had both fallen to rise no more. Madell still stood at his post, shooting from the right side of his tree, but which his body was protected. After having shot down 2 or 3 Indians, he discovered the chief lying all along on the ground loading his gun. Madell had but two balls in his gun; he reserved his fire and waited on the chief till he would rise to shoot, at length he raised his head above the grass to fire, and received the two balls of Madell’s gun down his throat, which dropped him dead upon his arms. As soon as the chief had fallen, the war-whoop ceased, and the Indians determined to carry their dead chief with them off the field, which was contrary to the wishes of our men,--so for a few moments the battle raged anew around the body of the fallen chief, until H. Shoddar, a Dutchman, who had a large British musket, put seven rifle balls in it and fired in the midst of them—at which they broke and left their chief behind, though they carried off the rest of their dead and wounded into a thick canebrake just below on the river.

   Thus ended our little battle. We learned afterwards that 13 Indians were killed and several wounded, who died soon after. We had 2 killed and 3 wounded; one of the wounded we had to bring in on a horse litter. We lost also several of our horses in the engagement; but, truly the victory was on our side.

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.


"Lieutenant Snoddie's Battle With The Indians," Western Methodist, March 21, 1834.

"Reminiscences of Snoddy's Fight, November 1793" (From Capt. Wm. Reid, of Sumner Co., Tenn. about 79 in 1844.) Draper Manuscripts, 32S 490-493.

John Carr. Early Times in Middle Tennessee. Nashville, Tenn.: Parthenon Press, 1958, c1857.

John Haywood. Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee from Its Earliest Settlement Up To the Year 1796. New York: Arno Press, 1971, c1823.

John P. Brown. Old Frontiers; the story of the Cherokee Indians from earliest times to the date of their removal to the West, 1838. Kingsport, Tenn.: Southern Publishers, Inc., 1938, pp. 362-363.

Rickey Butch Walker. Doublehead: Last Chickamauga Cherokee Chief. Heart of Dixie Publishing, 2012.

Albert V. Goodpasture. "Indian Wars and Warriors in Old Southwest." Tennessee Historical Magazine, Vol. 4, Nashville, 1915. [cited in Brown, 363n29]