A fond look back, and the road ahead...

It's been more than a decade since I published the first blog post on The Posterity Project way back in 2008. What began as an experiment in social media, sharing links and stories about archives and public history in Tennessee, has grown into an author platform, gaining attention of interested readers from across the state and beyond its borders. Ultimately, the attention we received through our blog led us to our publisher, The History Press, and the publication of our first book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. Three years later, we published John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, a subject that has been a centerpiece of attention here on The Posterity Project for much of this blog's lifespan.

Your interest in our work and our books has provided us with so many opportunities to visit readers, bookstores, heritage and lineage societies, colleges and universities, and historic sites to speak about our books beyond the limited confines of online conversation. We've met a lot of wonderful people who share our passion for history and we're grateful for each opportunity we have to engage with the public. After all, public history is by its very definition a "public" endeavor. I've long believed that social media should be a tool to facilitate public engagement in the real world. As much of our online public discourse has devolved into fits of name-calling, snark, and sarcasm, we need more "social" and less "media," in my opinion.

As we begin work on our third book, we plan to spend more time focused on writing and research. This means stepping away from social media for a while as we read the letters, diaries, journals, legends, and folktales of Tennessee's earliest pioneers and learn more about their interactions with native peoples who arrived at "America's First Frontier" long before them. Posts to The Posterity Project will be far and few between as we explore this topic in greater detail.

Before I sign off, I want to express how grateful we are for the support we've received for our writings on this blog and in our books. It has been a labor of love to share this history with you. We're extraordinarily grateful for your shared interest in the past.

Thank you!

Gordon Belt and Traci Nichols-Belt are a husband and wife team of authors and public historians. Together, they have collaborated on two books. Traci Nichols-Belt is the author of Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. Her book explores the significant impact of religion on the Army of Tennessee, C.S.A., on every rank, from generals to chaplains to common soldiers. Gordon Belt is the author of John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero, which focuses on the life and legend of Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier. Both books are published by The History Press, an award-winning publisher of local and regional history titles from coast to coast. Gordon and Traci’s writings focus specifically on stories from their home state of Tennessee.

The Tennessee State Museum has a new home...

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to explore the new Tennessee State Museum during its ribbon cutting ceremony and grand opening on the grounds of the Tennessee Bicentennial Capitol Mall. It's as amazing as advertised, with lots of interactive exhibits exploring Tennessee's history, from prehistory to present day.

While I would highly recommend a deep dive into all the exhibits on display, I focused most of my time during this first visit on two of the museum's permanent exhibits, "First Peoples (13,000 BCE to 1760 CE)" and "Forging a Nation (1760 to 1860)." My pictures simply cannot do this amazing place justice, but I'll share them with you anyway. You'd do better by visiting the place in person. There's so much to see.

Governor Bill Haslam speaks during the ribbon cutting ceremony at the new Tennessee State Museum. Seated are Tom Smith, Chairman of the Museum Commission, Ashley Howell, Executive Director of the Museum, and U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander.

Charles Willson Peale's portrait of John Sevier, on display alongside uniforms worn by soldiers and militiamen of the period prior to and during the American Revolution.

“Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals“ by Lloyd Branson. It’s been over thirty years since this painting has been exhibited in its original frame and even longer since it was in its original condition.

Some Civil War exhibits on display in the Civil War and Reconstruction wing of the new museum.

A portion of the First Peoples exhibit, including the Overhill Cherokee.

A massive Mastodon jaw bone on display. It's amazing to think that these beasts once roamed here.

Artifacts interpreting the slave economy, early whiskey and textile industries, and music, arts, and crafts. So much to see here.

A beautiful view of the Nashville skyline from inside the new Tennessee State Museum.

"Three Stars. Thousands of Stories." A poster commemorating the date of this historic occasion.

This was truly a historic occasion for the citizens of our state and for those who care for our history. I'm excited to see the vision for a new state museum finally come into focus and I'm looking forward to many more visits in the days and weeks and years to come.

I'm also thrilled for my friends and professional colleagues in public history working there. This grand opening was a long time in coming and a lot of work went into the preparations for this historic moment. You've made our state proud. Welcome home!


Gordon Belt is a 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.

Before Boone: Elisha Wallen, Long Hunter

In his 1886 book, The Wilderness Road, Thomas Speed remarked on the surge of settlers who descended upon the trans-Appalachian frontier and the trails they took to get there. He observed:

"Much interest attaches to the ways of travel over which these immigrants came. Through the great wilderness a vast concourse made its way. But the direction, character, and features of the roads is but little understood. There is no description in existence showing them as they appeared when alive with western movers. It is only by reference to numerous authorities, many of them rare and difficult to procure, that any account can be obtained. Many interesting facts are found in the almost illegible manuscript of old letters, journals, and diaries, and many exist only in traditional form.”

Of the men who blazed these early trails, even less is known of the long hunters. Echoing Speed's account, few long hunters chronicled their journeys for posterity, but the letters, diaries, and journals that did survive provided writers and storytellers with a brief glimpse into their world. Tales of their adventures, passed on by descendants and admirers, also left a lasting impression on the literary landscape. Antiquarians of the nineteenth century drew inspiration from these “facts” and created legends in their narratives. One such legend is found in tales surrounding the arrival of a long hunter named Elisha Wallen (spelled variously as "Walden," "Wallin," and "Walling") who led the first major recorded long hunt into territory now known as part of the state of Tennessee.

Typical attire of the long hunter included a shirt of coarse cloth or deerskin, sometimes with an ornamental collar, drawers and leggings of like material, and deerskin moccasins. The long hunter usually carried with him his powder horn, a bullet pouch, a scalping knife, a tomahawk, and, of course, his long rifle, the weapon of choice of the long hunter, known throughout the region as the Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifle.

"Western Hunter." Illustration credit: Lewis Collins, History of Kentucky, 1850.

In her meticulously researched book, Elisha Wallen: The Longhunter, Professor Carolyn D. Wallin notes that Elisha Wallen was born around 1732 in Prince George County, Maryland. He set out on his first long hunt in 1761, together with a small group of fellow adventurers. The long hunters never ventured forth alone for fear of attack, either by the indigenous tribes of the region or by wild game. Along the way, they named landmarks and territory for themselves as markers, knowing that they would soon return. Wallen and his companions explored "Carter's Valley," established a base camp on "Wallen's Creek," and named "Powell's Mountain," "Powell's Valley" and "Powell's River" in southwest Virginia. Legend asserts that they then crossed "Clinch River" after a member of their party fell off his raft, unable to swim, pleaded to his comrades, "CLINCH ME! CLINCH ME!," saving him from certain death.

Wallen set off on his second hunt in 1762 in what would later become the upper northeast region of  Tennessee, traveled across the Clinch River, down the south fort of the Holston River, and trekked into the Clinch and Powell valleys of present-day Hawkins County, Tennessee. He departed for a third hunt into the region in 1763, taking his fellow hunters up on the Cumberland River to a place called "Stinking Creek," located in upper east Tennessee.

The wilderness upon which Wallen hunted abounded in many species of game. Content living off what the wilderness provided, Wallen supported himself and his family through his hunts. In his "Reminiscences of Western Virginia," Major John Redd noted, "He never cultivated the soil." Wallen had a talent for the hunt. "The animals and birds had been intruded on so seldom by man that they did not fear his presence, but rather regarded him as a benefactor," Redd wrote, "but they soon learned to flee from his presence." According to Redd, "Wallen always returned home with his horse heavily laden with skins and furs."

Descriptions written of Elisha Wallen drew a conflicted portrait. Redd described Wallen as "a man of dark skin, about five feet ten or eleven inches, a big, square, built and weighed about 180 pounds, very coarse features, ordinary intellect and was regarded as a very honest and correct man in all his transactions." In a January 2, 1936 letter to Judge Samuel Cole Williams, however, Ida G. Walling, a descendant, contested Redd's description. She claimed that "the Wallings are fair with blue eyes and tradition says they were originally from Sweden, although they lived in England and the border land of Scotland many years." Contradicting Ida Walling's account of her family's lineage, Professor Wallin's exhaustive history asserted that the family actually originated in northern Italy, having been driven out of that region into France and Germany by Roman Catholic persecution. Successive generations converted to the Protestant faith, and were then driven from their homes to England. Ultimately, some members of the family, including Elisha Wallen's ancestors, emigrated to North America.

Though flawed, it's worth noting that Ida Walling's account was based largely upon tales passed on to her by her ancestors. These were not her stories alone. It's these stories that confirmed a consistent narrative found throughout the history of Elisha Wallen's life. In her letter, Ida Walling recalled a few of the adventurous tales her father told her of Elisha's encounters with the indigenous population of the region. "Many indeed are the Indian stories my father told me," she remembered, "but I was young and not very interested." But in an effort to make amends for her inattentive youth she continued, noting with familial pride, "One thing he always stressed was the fact that Elisha Walling crossed the mountains into Tennessee and Kentucky before Daniel Boone." This assertion--Elisha Wallen's arrival before Boone--endured despite Boone having received popular credit with first exploring the region.

Although posterity largely credits Daniel Boone for making the first inroads into Kentucky and upper east Tennessee, Elisha's footprints were among the first that white men placed upon this soil. Author Carolyn Wallin even credits Elisha Wallen with creating the famous Wilderness Trail some seven years before Boone. It's worth noting, however, that some sections of the Wilderness Trail were carved by buffalo and developed by Native Americans who also hunted the area long before the white man's arrival. Still, among the long hunters Elisha Wallen was known as "the founder of the fraternity," according to James McCague, another chronicler of Wallen's travels.

Having depleted the Appalachian wilderness of its game, Wallen and other long hunters who eschewed the farming life eventually made their way west. According to Redd's account, Wallen died in 1814, an old man of 82 years of age living in Washington County, Missouri, far away from the mountains of east Tennessee. Yet, even that memory is in dispute. As Ida Walling noted in her letter to Judge Williams, "the Elisha who was surveyor in 1748 could not have been the man Redd knew for he was only 14 years old at this time." Proudly defiant, she continued, "All this is to show you that the Elisha Walling... called Senior, was the real long hunter and the father of the man Redd knew in 1774."

The long hunters occupy a unique place in the early history of the trans-Appalachian frontier. Their history is complicated and clouded by the fading memories of descendants who chronicled their ancestors' adventurous past. Still, we can learn much from these narratives. We can not only discover more about the past, we can learn something new about ourselves. Recognizing how we choose to remember those who traveled the paths laid before us often leads us to challenge traditions, and seek the truth, however murky that path may be.


Meredith Mason Brown. Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

James McCague. The Cumberland. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.

Carolyn D. Wallin. Elisha Wallen: The Longhunter. Johnson City, Tenn.: Overmountain Press, 1990.

John Redd. "Reminiscences of Western Virginia, 1770-1790." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 6, No. 4, April 1899.

Ida G. Walling letter to Samuel Cole Williams, Samuel Cole Williams Papers, January 2, 1936.

Thomas Speed. "The Wilderness Road: A description of the routes of travel by which the pioneers and early settlers first came to Kentucky." Filson Club Publications, No. 2. Louisville, Ky.: J.P. Morton & Co., 1886, pages 9-10.


Gordon Belt is a 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.

"My thoughts and my heart are for war..."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an edited excerpt from John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero supplemented by additional research compiled after the book's original publication.

During the late eighteenth century, the Watauga settlement located in present-day east Tennessee grew rapidly as white settlers arrived from Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina and Virginia. As early as the 1760s, settlers began moving into the southwest frontier, and by 1772, these first pioneers had built about seventy homesteads in the Watauga Valley.

Throughout these formative years of white settlement, the Cherokees offered little resistance to the flood of migrants pouring into the region. Great Britain's Royal Proclamation of 1763 and subsequent treaties and land cessions provided temporary periods of negotiated peace between the Wataugans and the Cherokees. Yet, settlers continued their encroachments. A war with their Chickasaw rivals to the west also distracted the Cherokees for a time, having the added effect of weakening their influence in the region.

"Map of the Watauga Settlements, Showing The Supposed Virginia Line."
Image credit: "A History of Tennessee: The Land and Native People." Tennessee Blue Book.

In short order, the Wataugans sought more land. The frontier settlers formed their own government outside the authority of British rule and negotiated land leases with their Cherokee neighbors. The rapid influx of white settlers in the region, however, made leasing the land impractical. The loss of Cherokee sovereignty over the region created periods of tension between the settlers and their Cherokee counterparts, often resulting in violent conflict. The Wataugans sought to create a buffer between themselves and the Cherokees, and that motivation compelled them to purchase the land outright.

In 1775, land speculator Richard Henderson offered to purchase 20 million acres of land from the Cherokees in return for much-needed supplies. Bounded by the "Kaintucke and Tennessee rivers," the proposed land deal included nearly all of present-day Kentucky and a portion of northeastern Tennessee. Henderson initiated negotiations with the Cherokee despite a ban on the sale or lease of Cherokee lands outlined in the Proclamation of 1763, ignoring Royal claims to portions of this territory.

By late January, more than two thousand Cherokees assembled at Sycamore Shoals to begin the negotiations. The tribe elders--Attakullakulla, Oconostota and Old Tassel--attended the talks. A defiant young Cherokee warrior named Tsiyugunsini, known to the white settlers and his fellow Cherokees as Dragging Canoe, also attended.

Born in 1740, the son of the Cherokee diplomat Attakullakulla, Dragging Canoe traveled a different path. Even as a child, he wanted to become a warrior. According to legend, "Dragging Canoe once asked his father to include him in a war party against the Shawnees, but Attakullakulla refused. Determined to go, the boy hid in a canoe, where the warriors found him. His father gave the boy permission to go--if he could carry the canoe. The vessel was too heavy, but undaunted, the boy dragged the canoe, and from that time thereafter, he was known as Dragging Canoe."

Having waged a number of battles against the white settlers, by the 1770s, Dragging Canoe had earned a reputation as a fierce warrior. Thus, when Henderson extended his offer of guns, ammunition, clothing, blankets, beads, mirrors, bells, tomahawk and hunting knives to the battle-weary Cherokee, Dragging Canoe resisted this bargained truce. While the elder statesmen of the tribe saw their treaty with the white settlers as a way to replenish their supplies, Dragging Canoe believed that any agreement with the white man placed the Cherokee on a path toward extinction. In an emotional speech before the Cherokee council, Dragging Canoe rose up in opposition to the treaty and offered these prophetic words, later chronicled by traditional accounts:

"Whole nations have melted away in our presence like balls of snow before the sun, and have scarcely left their names behind, except as imperfectly recorded by their enemies and destroyers. It was once hoped that your people would not be willing to travel beyond the mountains, so far from the ocean, on which your commerce was carried, and your connections maintained with the nations of Europe. But now that fallacious hope has vanished; you have passed the mountains and settled upon the Cherokee lands, and wish to have your usurpations sanctioned by the confirmation of a treaty."
"When that should be obtained, the same encroaching spirit will lead you upon other lands of the Cherokees. New cessions will be applied for, and finally the country which the Cherokees and our forefathers have so long occupied will be called for; and a small remnant of this nation once so great and formidable, will be compelled to seek a retreat in some far distant wilderness, there we will dwell but a short space of time before we will again behold the advancing banners of the same greedy host; who, not being able to point out any farther retreat for the miserable Cherokees, would then proclaim the extinction of the whole race. Should we not therefore run all risks and incur all consequences, rather than to submit to further laceration of our country?"

Despite Dragging Canoe's protests, Henderson secured his agreement to buy this "little spot of ground" with the signing of the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals on March 17, 1775. Dragging Canoe left the meeting in disgust, lamenting the settlers' increasing presence in the region. "The white men have almost surrounded us," Dragging Canoe remarked, "and it seems to be their intention to destroy us as a Nation."

Dragging Canoe vowed to turn the land "dark and bloody" in his fight against further settlement. "I had nothing to do with making that bargain," he later wrote, "it was made by some of the old men, who are too old to hunt or to fight. As for me, I have a great many of my young warriors around me, and they mean to have their lands." In the years that followed, Dragging Canoe led his separatist Chickamauga Cherokees in several attacks on white settlements throughout the region in a series of conflicts lasting for a decade after the Revolutionary War.

Drawing of Dragging Canoe. He is shown standing and holding a spear. This drawing was created by illustrator Bernie Andrews and originally published in The Overmountain Men by Pat Alderman in 1986.
Image and caption credit: Tennessee State Museum.

History recorded Dragging Canoe's fight to preserve his people's land and culture on the white man's terms. John Haywood described Dragging Canoe as "an obscure warrior of the Overhills" and his speech as "very animated and pathetic." J.G.M. Ramsey called the Chickamaugas "an association of lawless Cherokees and Creeks, implacable, revengeful, bloodthirsty... allies in war and malcontents in peace." These authors of early Tennessee history labeled Dragging Canoe and his tribe of Chickamauga warriors as "savages," a description often repeated in subsequent narratives.

More recent scholarship, however, has cast new light on Dragging Canoe's motives and actions, placing greater emphasis on his skills at building alliances, developing battlefield strategies, and safeguarding his people's culture. Historians later asserted that Dragging Canoe was the greatest Cherokee military leader in the Nation, known to some as "The Red Napoleon."

Dragging Canoe's forces successfully harassed white settlers throughout their conflict and boldly turned back an assault on their Chickamauga towns with a decisive defeat of American army troops at Lookout Mountain in 1788. Yet, despite this, Dragging Canoe's people suffered mightily for their resistance. Militiamen burned Cherokee towns and villages, captured or killed men, women and children indiscriminately and frequently left the Chickamaugas to starve without food, shelter, or supplies.

Dragging Canoe's resolve remained firm. Even after Cherokee elders agreed to peace terms with the new United States government following the end of the Revolutionary War, Dragging Canoe vowed to continue his fight. "My thoughts and my heart are for war," he wrote. He continued, "as long as King George has one enemy in this country. Our hearts are straight to him and all his people, and whoever is at war with us."

Dragging Canoe's fight against the Americans endured even as the Cherokee Nation continued negotiations for peace. Cherokee elders concluded their first treaty with the new nation at Hopewell in South Carolina on Nov. 28, 1785. Almost one hundred Cherokees attended with representatives from all parts of the Nation, except the Chickamauga towns. At Coyatee, Old Tassel and other Overhill Cherokee leaders were forced at gun point to sign another treaty which surrendered all remaining land north of the Little Tennessee River. Old Tassel and several other Cherokee leaders were subsequently murdered under a flag of truce, an atrocity later blamed, by some, on John Sevier, who led many of the expeditions and depredations against Dragging Canoe's resistance.

One might expect a warrior like Dragging Canoe to die on the field of battle. Yet, this man with a heart for war survived and thrived. He ultimately fulfilled his father's legacy as a diplomat in his own right. Dragging Canoe negotiated alliances with Spain in exchange for weaponry and supplies, and he focused his energies late in life on negotiating closer contacts with other Native American tribes, including the Creeks and the Shawnees. Their strong alliances with Dragging Canoe's Chickamaugas fostered an era of peace among The Nations in their shared struggle for sovereignty. Dragging Canoe's diplomatic efforts also created an environment where Cherokee culture flourished. Cherokee customs and practices endured well into the nineteenth century as a result, even as their land diminished.

Although too old to lead his men into battle, Dragging Canoe's organizational talents, strong leadership qualities, and inspired oratory skills led to several victories on the battlefield carried out by his younger warriors. While celebrating his success, Dragging Canoe died at Lookout Town on March 1, 1792. Legend asserts that upon learning of "certain successful Chickamauga depredations near Nashville," Dragging Canoe perished as a result of a "too vigorous celebration."

Dragging Canoe died as he lived--as a fiercely vocal and passionate advocate for his people. His legacy endured for years following his death with the Chickamauga tribe continuing to resist the onslaught of settlement on Cherokee land. Their efforts ultimately led to a negotiated period of peace made possible in part by the respect white settlers had gained for Dragging Canoe's unyielding show of strength.

To this day, Dragging Canoe is remembered. As one Cherokee scholar has noted, his descendants still recall with great pride Dragging Canoe's bold statement to a Native American delegation in 1779. "But we are not yet conquered."


Albert Bender. "Dragging Canoe: A true American Indian hero." The Tennessean, March 13, 2016.​

Richard Blackmon. Dark and Bloody Ground: The American Revolution Along the Southern Frontier. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2012.

John P. Brown. Old Frontiers. Kingsport, Tenn.: Southern Publishers, Inc., 1938.

R. S. Cotterill. The Southern Indians: The Story of The Civilized Tribes Before Removal. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

Nadia Dean. A Demand of Blood: The Cherokee War of 1776. Cherokee, NC: Valley River Press, 2012.

Max Dixon. The Wataugans. Johnson City, Tenn.: The Overmountain Press, 1999.

E. Raymond Evans. "Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Dragging Canoe," Journal of Cherokee Studies, Winter 1977.

Patricia Bernard Ezzell. "Dragging Canoe." Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society, 2017.


Gordon Belt is a 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.

"The great chain of friendship..."

On the second of June 1769, a company of about twenty men from North Carolina and Virginia gathered at Powell’s Valley—a majestic oasis nestled within the mountains of southwest Virginia—to hunt and explore the vast wilderness of the trans-Appalachian frontier. But these men were not nature seekers. They sought to make a living from their hunts, trading pelts for profit.

As they embarked on their journey, this eclectic assemblage of hunters, surveyors, and explorers—known collectively as “long hunters” for the long months they spent apart from civilization—gazed in awestruck silence at the beauty of this country.

One writer described the region as “an amphitheater, inclosing as it were, an ocean of woods swelled and depressed with a waving surface, like that of the great ocean itself,” and that upon entering these metaphorical waters, the long hunters found that “their enraptured imaginations could not find words sufficient to depict.” In his History of Tennessee, John Haywood remarked, “All the country through which these hunters passed was covered with high grass, which seemed inexhaustible; no traces of human settlement could be seen, and the primeval state of things reigned in unrivaled glory.”

"Cumberland Gap." Engraving by S. V. Hunt from a painting by Harry Fenn. Illus. in: Picturesque America by William Cullen Bryant. N.Y.: D. Appleton & Co., 1872.
Image credit: Library of Congress

These awe-inspired descriptions, repeated in reminisces by these explorers and their descendants and published in early historical narratives, ignored an important actor on the stage of this amphitheater of isolation and beauty. An indigenous population stood watch on the other side of that valley and their view starkly contrasted with those of the white explorers and settlers.

While this territory, rich in wild game and fertile soil, was new to the white man, the Native Americans who hunted the region knew it all too well. The Delaware Indians called this land Kentucke, meaning “Place of the Meadows” in their native tongue. The Mohawk word, Kentucke, carried similar meaning, “Among the Meadows.” The Wyandots and Shawnee who frequently came south of the Ohio River to hunt or to travel the Warriors Path shared similar descriptions of this “Land of Tomorrow” and named this country Kah-ten-tah-the, or Kain-tuck-ee.

The land south of this meadow oasis held its own fascination to both the white man and to the Indian. Spanish explorers were among the first to record the name of a Cherokee village called Tanasqui. Subsequent maps, letters, and journals referred to “the land of the Tannassy” with various spellings. The Cherokee town of Tanasi inspired other white settlers to claim the name “Tennessee” as their own. Other indigenous tribes laid claim to this hunting ground, including the Chickasaw, Creek, Shawnee, and Yuchi.

Native Americans did not watch this drama as mere spectators. In fact, many tribes began trade with the white explorers, acquiring guns and supplies in exchange for access to the land. And while they tolerated the white man’s intrusions into their native hunting grounds, over time they grew increasingly concerned by the unrestrained killing and wholesale slaughter of buffalo and deer. They looked on with anger and despair as the long hunters killed wild game indiscriminately.

During one particular hunt in the fall of 1771, Anthony and Isaac Bledsoe, along with another twenty-two long hunters, killed so many deer that many of the skins ruined before the hunters could return them back to Virginia. Isaac Bledsoe carved a record of the loss on a fallen poplar tree which had lost its bark, “2,300 Deer Skins lost; Ruination by God.”

The Cherokees and other tribes issued a warning to the long hunters: kill it and go home.” This warning, however, fell on deaf ears. While the indigenous tribes considered this land shared hunting ground, the long hunters declared the land as theirs alone. “Name it and take it” served as their guiding maxim. Creeks, mountains, valleys, salt licks, even the trails carved out by the footsteps of natives, were soon known by the names of their white explorers. In his Annals of Tennessee, the historian, J.G.M. Ramsey declared, “Each hunter made a discovery, and time has signalized it with the discoverer’s name, thus, Drake’s Pond, Drake’s Lick, Bledsoe’s Lick, Mansco’s Lick, etc…”

As game grew scarce in the winter months, the long hunters traveled further west and southwest. They continued their unrestrained killing and wholesale slaughter of buffalo and deer. According to one writer, “A steady stream of long hunters crossed the mountains. Land hungry backwoodsmen saw visions of new homes, free from the restrictions of older settlements. Speculators, in imagination, counted fabulous profits.” These land speculators followed the long hunters into the territory, employing many of these skilled frontiersmen as guides and surveyors, carving imaginary boundary lines across vast swaths of territory.

"Colonial Surveyor"
Image credit: Digital Library of Georgia

As settlers, surveyors and speculators poured into the watersheds of the Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee rivers, Native American warriors offered some resistance, burning cabins and killing settlers. The settlers retaliated by burning cornfields, destroying villages, and killing Native Americans. One action followed another in “continuous rounds of retaliation.”

Meanwhile, Kaiyah-tahee, the regional chief of the Overhill Cherokee—known to the white settlers as Old Tassel—struggled to find a peaceful coexistence with the settlers and sought a different path toward resistance. Old Tassel witnessed with dismay the loss of land and lives suffered at the hands of the white man. He recalled how the long hunters had laid waste to the land and its wild game. He had befriended them, shared his people’s resources in good faith, and yet he felt the white man had betrayed a promise of peaceful coexistence.

In treaty negotiations with the settlers and land speculators, Old Tassel's words resonated with one translator present during the talks who remarked that his speech “was bereaved of much of its native beauty by the defects of interpretation, for the manly and dignified expression of the Indian orator loses nearly all its energy and force in translation.” Old Tassel, a “stout, mild, and decided man, never known to stoop to a falsehood,” proclaimed:

"We wish, however, to be at peace with you, and to do as we would be done by. We do not quarrel with you for the killing of an occasional buffalo or deer on our lands, but your people go much farther. They hunt to gain a livelihood. They kill all our game; but it is very criminal in our young men if they chance to kill a cow or hog for their sustenance when they happen to be in your lands."
"The Great Spirit has placed us in different situations. He has given you many advantages, but he has not created us to be your slaves. We are a separate people! He has stocked your lands with cows, ours with buffalo; yours with hogs, ours with bears; yours with sheep, ours with deer. He has given you the advantage that your animals are tame, while ours are wild and demand not only a larger space for range, but art to hunt and kill them. They are, nevertheless, as much our property as other animals are yours, and ought not to be taken from us without our consent, or for something of equal value."

Old Tassel used the tools of the surveyor as a metaphor for peace and cooperation. “When I opened the doors of peace and brightened the chain of friendship between us and our elder brothers,” he remarked, “the dead men were buried so deep that large trees had grown out of their graves.” Old Tassel and his Virginia counterpart, Evan Shelby, “stretched the chain of friendship from Virginia to Chota.” He continued stating, “that if any rust should get thereon, they and the beloved men from Chota might brighten it so that as their children came to any knowledge of things it might be a guide to them and had in remembrance for ages yet to come.”

The Virginians echoed Old Tassel’s conciliatory tone, drawing upon “the great chain of friendship” expressed by the Cherokee leader. Still, the Cherokee chief’s plea failed to move these surveyors and speculators. They ignored Old Tassel’s plea for supplies, and urged him to adopt the ways of the settlers:

"Now brothers we beg of you to listen well to what we are going to say. You told us the other day that our living was at our doors, but you had far to go and slave hard to support your people. We would recommend it to you to live as we do and only hunt for meat and skins to make you moccasins, raise corn and cattle horses and hogs and sell them to clothe your wives and children which you will find much surer and easier than your present manner of life."

The Virginians blamed the Chickamauga separatists—a group of Cherokee warriors who had refused to negotiate with the white settlers for their land—for the lack of supplies. “We are sorry to see and hear your people are so naked,” they said, promising Old Tassel that the long awaited supplies were on their way to them. We are sorry the goods are not here to give you some clothes to return to your towns,” they insisted, “but the fault is in your enemies.” The Chickamauga and Chickasaws had refused to allow them passage.

They also claimed that they never had any intention of taking the Cherokee’s land, and promised that they would “hold fast the chain of friendship and never let it slip out of their hands.” Once peace was secured, they promised, “then we shall be able to give you a plentiful trade.” As a token of their benevolence and good will, the surveyors offered Old Tassel a string of wampum in hopes that he would accept it without further conflict.

Wampum belts were used for a variety of purposes. They represented family or clan history or an authority to enter into war, and were used as promissory notes, forms of correspondence, and as a peace offering in diplomatic negotiations.
Image credit: Smithsonian Digital Library

Following a series of treaty negotiations, the inevitable inrush of white settlers commenced. Old Tassel acknowledged the hopeless plight of his people. “We have held several treaties with the Americans when bounds were fixed, he wrote, and fair promises made that the white people would not come over, but we always find that after a treaty they settle much faster than before. Truth is, if we had no land we should have fewer enemies.”

In the years that followed, Old Tassel continued to hold out hope for a peaceful coexistence with the white population. He struggled to hold his people together amid the rapid settlement of his people's native hunting ground. Old Tassel ultimately died in that struggle. He was murdered under a flag of truce while seeking peace. An account recorded by John Brown in his book, Old Frontiers, chronicled the Cherokee chief's demise:

"At Chota, [Major] Hubbard requested Chief Old Tassel to accompany him to Chilhowie for a talk; the unsuspecting chief readily complied. Chilhowie was situated on the north side of Little Tennessee River, and when he had arrived opposite the town, Hubbard raised a flag of truce. After they had been ferried across, they gathered at Abram’s house for a ‘talk.’ As soon as all the prominent Indians present were inside, Hubbard closed the door and posted guards at the windows. Giving John Kirk, Junior, a tomahawk, he said, ‘Take vengeance to which you are entitled.’ Kirk needed no second command."
"Realizing the fate that was in store for himself and his companions, Old Tassel met it with fortitude. He bowed his head and received the death blow. The others, taking their cue from him, offered no resistance and were slaughtered, one at a time, unarmed, peaceful, and under a flag of truce. No more shameful deed is recorded in American history."

There, at Chota, "the great chain of friendship" broke, its links scattered upon the amphitheater.


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.

Walter T. Durham, The Great Leap Westward: A History of Sumner County, Tennessee from Its Beginnings to 1805. Sumner County Public Library Board; First Edition edition, 1969.

John Haywood. The Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee from its earliest settlement up to the year 1796, including the boundaries of the state. Nashville, Printed by G. Wilson, 1823.

J. G. M. Ramsey. The Annals of Tennessee: To the end of the eighteenth century. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1860.

Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Raleigh, N.C.: P. M. Hale, Printer to the State, 1886. Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007.


Gordon Belt is a 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.

John Sevier and the Road to Statehood...

On June 1, 1796, Tennessee was admitted to the Union as the 16th state, the first state created from territory that had been under federal jurisdiction. The road to statehood was marked with many obstacles, and our state's first governor, John Sevier, played a significant role in navigating each one of them. You cannot travel this road, historically speaking, without encountering John Sevier.

On June 2nd on this 222nd anniversary of Tennessee's statehood, I had the high honor of presenting a lecture at my workplace for our annual Statehood Day celebration, this year focusing on Tennessee’s first governor John Sevier. I discussed how Tennessee became a state and the prominent role Sevier played in Tennessee's early history.

I am grateful for the opportunity to share this story. I received a warm reception, a kind and generous introduction by the president of our "Friends of the Library" group, and lots of interesting questions and positive feedback from the audience following my presentation.

Here are a few images from the day, some courtesy of the Friends of the Library organization, including a peek at all three of Tennessee's State Constitutions, which were on display to the public together for only the third time in our state's history. It was truly a historic occasion, and I was honored to have a part in it.

If you're interested in scheduling a lecture or book signing with us, we'd love to hear from you. Please visit the "Events & Appearances" section of this blog for more information.


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.