William Tatham, Wataugan

   As Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park prepares to celebrate its annual observance of the Siege of Fort Watauga (or more accurately, Fort Caswell), I thought the occasion offered an appropriate moment to reflect upon the recollections of one of the fort's original defenders, William Tatham.

   William Tatham (1752-1819), the eldest of five children born in England, emigrated to Virginia in 1769. Upon his arrival, he found employment as a clerk with the mercantile firm of Carter & Trent, merchants operating on the James River. Tatham spent many hours during his years of service with Carter & Trent listening to the wild and fascinating tales of the longhunters who frequented the Virginia wilderness. He sought the same sense of adventure for his own life, and by 1774, the lure of the frontier brought Tatham to Watauga. There he later witnessed the Cherokee siege of Fort Caswell in the summer of 1776.

   The Cherokees besieged the fort for two solid weeks leaving its inhabitants short on food and supplies. John Sevier, James Robertson, and their fellow defenders held off the Cherokee assault and awaited reinforcements, but by the time that they arrived, the Cherokees had already abandoned their attack.

   The siege at Fort Caswell on the Watauga is an episode of Tennessee history wrapped in myth and memory. In the years that followed, oral traditions, repeated by succeeding generations and validated by the published accounts of late-nineteenth century antiquarians and storytellers, embellished the details of this engagement with each telling. These authors recalled the tale of John Sevier's rescue of Catherine "Bonny Kate" Sherrill at Fort Caswell, in particular, with literary flair.

   In his Annals of Tennessee, Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey chronicled Sevier's "determined bravery" in helping to defend the fort, and in his book, Rear-Guard of the Revolution, James Gilmore described how Sevier courageously faced down "two or three hundred savages" as a young "Bonny Kate" ran from her Cherokee pursuers and into the arms of her rescuer.

"Siege of Fort Watauga." An artist's sketch of Catherine "Bonny Kate" Sherrill's escape from Cherokee pursuers.
Image credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives

   Decades later, as the jurist and antiquarian Samuel Cole Williams began compiling research notes for a book about the Lost State of Franklin, he learned that Tatham had been a witness to the Siege of Fort Caswell. Inspired by this story, Williams published a thin biography in 1922 entitled, William Tatham, Wataugan. He later published a revised, though still brief, edition of his Tatham biography in 1947.

   According to Williams, Tatham was "the only defender of Fort Caswell who wrote reminiscences of occurrences during that early invasion." Despite his close proximity to the event itself, Tatham's account of the Siege at Fort Caswell revealed his own embellishments, and Tatham likely overstated his role in defending the fort. Nevertheless, Williams "made liberal use of Tatham's writings" in his own works, including History of the Lost State of Franklin, Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History, and Tennessee During the Revolutionary War, among numerous other titles.

   Tatham's full account of the Siege of Fort Caswell originally appeared in the April 6, 1793 edition of the Knoxville Gazette. Williams later published Tatham's account in his book, William Tatham, Wataugan. This is William Tatham's story:

   In January 1776 emigration had advanced over the Indian boundary as far as Big Creek on the north side of Holston and to Big Limestone Creek on the south side, but these settlers were under no legal or regular government.

   Added to this there were a number of people called Regulators, who had fled from North Carolina to the extreme frontier for safety after their battle against Governor Tryon at the Alamance and were actually about joining the Cherokees against the Americans. To make the matter still worse, while the Indians were on their invasion, the chief stock of powder was but six pounds in the hands of the settlers [on the Watauga].

   In this dilemma, the Virginia government gave orders for all men to retire within the line or they would be treated as outlaws. The people on the north side of the Holston obeyed the mandate; but through the influence, in a great degree, of William Cocke, Esq., they forted themselves at Amos Heaton’s [Eaton’s] now [1793] Sullivan Old Court House; and those on the Watauga and Nolichucky posted [at the latter] about thirty volunteers under Captain James Robertson, just above the mouth of Big Limestone, where Mr. Gillespie now lives.

   Shortly after this party took post and before they had finished their fort, called Fort Lee, four of the traders made their escape from the Cherokee nation and apprised them of the immediate march of about six hundred Cherokees and a few Creeks, who were destined against the settlements. The inhabitants immediately took the alarm, and instead of flocking to the frontier barrier on strong and open ground, thereby covering their country, those on the Nolachucky hastily fled, carrying off their livestock and provisions leaving about fifteen of the volunteers at the frontier to make the best shift in their power.

   The result of this precipitate retreat was this: The few who were determined to oppose the enemy in the defense of that quarter were joined by as many in the rear of the scamper as had not time to get safely off: and were thus compelled to fortify near the Sycamore Shoals of Watauga, on much weaker ground than that which they had evacuated: cut off from assistance and resources [from North Carolina] by the mountains and defiles which were at that day almost impenetrable; and from every possibility of information, save for their own vigilance.

   The party at Heaton’s fort were nearly in a similar situation; and these two posts, weak as new settlements could be, had to stand the brunt of the enemy whose numbers, prowess, resources and European patronage was at least equal to any danger that we now dread at this day. On the southern and western side of Donelson’s line we were obliged to rely upon the following numbers for defense against both southern and northern Indians, as near as I can recollect.

   At Watauga, men, boys and negroes fit to bear arms, but not well armed, under Captain James Robertson. Yet the country was well defended! And strange as it may appear this territory [Southwest] owes its present consequence to this handful of men; for in less than two years after, the Tennessee and Kentucky countries contained no less than fifty-seven forts. It is very probable that if this small party had given way, the people would have generally (if not all) fled to the eastern side of the Allegheny mountains.

A recreation of Fort Caswell (a.k.a. Fort Watauga). Image credit: Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.

William Tatham, Wataugan by Samuel Cole Williams is available in most public or university libraries, and may be purchased through any number of used book stores or antiquarian book dealers.


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.