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.