Recollections of Watauga...

   The month of July marks an important anniversary in the history of my home state of Tennessee. In July of 1776, settlers of the Holston, Watauga, and Nolichucky river valleys came under attack by Native American warriors led by the Cherokee Chief Old Abraham (or "Abram") of Chilhowee. Repulsed in the initial attack, the Cherokees besieged Fort Caswell on the Watauga (known also as Fort Watauga) for two weeks. John Sevier's defense of the fort, and the legends that followed, helped forge his reputation as a military leader and political force in the region. Following up on my earlier blog entry about William Tatham as an eyewitness to the Siege of Fort Watauga, I'd like to share a few more recollections of this important event in early Tennessee history...

   Few contemporary accounts of the Siege of Fort Watauga survive. They do exist, however, for those who wish to find them. They remain buried deep within the manuscripts collected by the nineteenth-century antiquarian Lyman Draper, documented in Revolutionary War pension applications, and printed in the pages of early newspaper accounts. Tennessee's collective memory of the siege, however, rests firmly in the nostalgic prose of Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey's 1853 book, Annals of Tennessee. In his seminal work chronicling Tennessee's early history, Ramsey wistfully recalled his research visit to view the remnants of Fort Watauga. He wrote...

   "The spot is easily identified by a few graves and the large locust tree standing conspicuously on the right of the road leading to Elizabethton. Let it ever be a sacrilege to cut down that old locust tree – growing, as it does, near the ruins of the Watauga fort which sheltered the pioneer and protected his family."

   Ramsey considered his research visits to Elizabethton a pilgrimage. Watauga had captured Ramsey's imagination "with intense curiosity and almost with veneration." In his Annals of Tennessee, Ramsey declared Watauga "the abode and resting place of enterprise, virtue, hardihood, patriotism—the ancestral monument of real worth and genuine greatness." [Ramsey, 140-141]

Watauga Fort Marker
Image credit: The Historical Marker Database

   Few recollections from the actual defenders of Fort Watauga eclipsed Ramsey's romantic narrative, yet two reports that surfaced less than one month after the attack echoed his patriotic sentiment.

   An "Account of the Attack of Watauga Fort by the Cherokees," published in August of 1776, and widely circulated among newspapers of the period, revealed the following:

Williamsburgh, Virginia, August 10, 1776.

   A correspondent has favoured us with extracts of letters from officers of rank in Fincastle, from which we learn, that on Sunday, the 21st of July, a large party of Indians attacked the Watauga Fort, in which were one hundred and fifty men. They fired on a great number of women, who went out at daybreak to milk their cows, and chased them into the fort, but providentially did not kill one of them.

   They fired briskly on the fort till eight o' clock, but without effect, and then retired, with considerable loss, as was supposed from the quantity of blood found; but they returned to the attack, and were besieging the fort six days after, as a messenger, who was slipped out, informed our men on Holstein. A detachment was sent to relieve the fort, and it was expected they would do so on Monday, the 29th. A party of one hundred men of the Militia fell in with a party of forty Cherokees, who were fifty miles on this side the Island, at one of the deserted plantations, and killed five, took one prisoner, and twenty guns.

   It is worthy of our observation, that in these several skirmishes with the Indians, in all of which we did more execution than in some of the principal actions of the last war, we lost not a man. No one can reflect on this, and many other circumstances which have attended the present war with the British tyrant, without acknowledging that he sees evident proofs of the Divine interposition in our favour. [LINK]

The Fort Watauga reconstruction at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. The original fort was built in the mid-1770s to protect the Watauga settlers from Cherokee attacks. The fort was reconstructed in the 1970s based on archaeological evidence and the design of contemporary Appalachian frontier forts.
Image and caption credit: Wikimedia Commons.

   Further, "Intelligence from Williamsburgh, Virginia," published on August 16, 1776, detailed the depredations endured by the settlers prior to the Siege of Fort Watauga, and placed the Indian Wars in regional context, less than one month after the siege...

Williamsburgh, August 16, 1776.

   On Tuesday, the 13th instant, the First Virginia Regiment in the Continental service marched from this city for New York. From undoubted authority we can assure the publick that fifteen thousand weight of pure lead have been got from our mines in the back country, which, after being cast into bullets, we hope will be unerringly directed against our enemies.

   The last advices from the back country are, that the Cherokee and Creek Indians, to the number of between six and seven hundred, are encamped in Carter's valley, from whence they send out parties against the settlements, some of which had penetrated near one hundred miles on this side of the Big Island, carrying destruction wherever they come, by burning houses, fences, fields of wheat and other grain, and turning droves of horses into the corn-fields. Upwards of one thousand head of horses have been driven off, and a great number of cattle; the sheep and hogs they shoot down. They have killed and scalped eighteen men, one or two women, and several children; some of the people were most barbarously murdered, too shocking to relate.

   The ruined settlers had collected themselves together at different places, and forted themselves, four hundred and upwards at Major Shelby' s, about the same number at Captain Campbell's, and a considerable number at Amos Eaton' s. The fort at Watauga, which was besieged by four hundred savages, are now relieved, the Indians having abandoned their enterprise upon the approach of Colonel Russell, with about three hundred men. In all the skirmishes with the Indians our people have continually worsted them, and, in the whole, have killed and scalped twenty-seven, and badly wounded many others, as was discovered by the tracks of blood. A man from the frontiers of Georgia had arrived in Fincastle, who declared upon oath, that he saw upwards of one hundred people buried in one day, who were killed by the Creek Indians.

   By an express from Colonel Russell, of Fincastle, we learn, that on his approaching the Watauga Fort with the men under his command, the Indians retired precipitately; however, not without losing one man, and having two wounded, by a party that pursued them. The fort was thus fortunately relieved after a fortnight's close siege, during the greater part of which time our people lived on parched corn. There were supposed to be five hundred women and children in this little fort, who fled there for shelter on hearing that the Indians were marching into that part of the country. We lost not a man in this long affair, except four or five who ventured out to drive in some cows; these were found scalped.

   The number of Indians concerned in the different ravages lately committed in Fincastle amount to six or seven hundred, some say eight hundred; and yet, sudden as their attack was, they murdered in all their butchering parties but eighteen persons, and wounded six, whilst our men killed in the skirmishes with them twenty-six on the spot, (as many were carried off dead,) took one prisoner, and wounded at least as many as they killed. As the Cherokees have been so completely checked in their career, and we understand from Fort Pitt that the Northern Indians are not disposed to attack us in that quarter, and have only engaged not to suffer us to march through their country against Detroit, we may hope that there is not much to be dreaded from the terrible combination of Indians we have been threatened with by our enemies. [LINK]

   It is curious to note that not one of these reports specifically mention John Sevier's heroic defense of Fort Watauga, or Bonny Kate's dramatic rescue from her Cherokee pursuers in the moments preceding the siege. Yet, those stories endure in oral narratives and secondary accounts published years after the fact as key episodes in the drama of the Siege of Fort Watauga. In this season of independence, I offer these contemporary accounts as an act of remembrance of the Siege of Fort Watauga.


  • American Archives, ed., Peter Force. Available online, courtesy of Northern Illinois University Library,


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.