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Middle Tennessee's Native American History:

Dragging Canoe and The Chickamauga Cherokees


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Trail of Tears Interpretive Sign

On April 2, 1781, Nashville's early settlers barely managed to fend off an attack by a force of Chickamauga Cherokees led by Dragging Canoe. The "Battle of the Bluffs" is one of the most famous incidents of Nashville's early history. The details of the battle are related in every account of the "founding" of Nashville. Less well known are the events leading up to the battle.

Dragging Canoe opposed the settlement of the Middle Cumberland area from the very beginning. In 1775 a land speculator named Richard Henderson met with a group of influential Cherokee leaders at Sycamore Shoals in East Tennessee. He wanted to buy the Cherokee claim to most of Kentucky and part of Middle Tennessee - about two million acres of land. This area was an important hunting ground for the Cherokee and many other tribes.

Under the Cherokee system of government, such an agreement needed unanimous consent to be considered binding - anyone who disagreed could not be expected to abide by its terms. Although his father favored the deal, Dragging Canoe, who at the time was chief of Great Island Town, objected vehemently. In an address to the council, Dragging Canoe predicted that selling the land would result in the extinction of the Cherokee. He refused to consent to the agreement, and warned that he and his warriors would fight for the land. But the other chiefs signed the agreement, which became known as Henderson's Purchase.

The American Revolution broke out one month after Henderson's Purchase was signed. Many Cherokee towns tried to stay neutral in the conflict but a war faction emerged, with Dragging Canoe as a principal leader. Because the American settlements were steadily encroaching on Cherokee territory, the war faction seized the opportunity to launch military strikes against them. But many Cherokee towns were also destroyed during the war - even the neutral ones. As a result Dragging Canoe moved his people to Chickamauga Creek, near present day Chattanooga. These settlements became known as the Chickamauga towns.

No attempt was made to settle the Middle Cumberland area until the winter of 1779-80. From the Wautauga settlements in East Tennessee, James Robertson led a group of men to the French Lick by an overland route. John Donelson led another group, made up of the families of the men in the Robertson group. They planned to travel by boat down the Tennessee River to the Cumberland River. From there they would make their way up the Cumberland to the French Lick, the future site of Nashville.

Near Chattanooga they came under heavy fire as they passed the Chickamauga towns on the Tennessee. The Indians captured one boat with 28 people on board, but most of the settlers reached their destination. They built Fort Nashborough and other fortified stations as protection against expected hostilities. In the fall of 1780 the Chickamaugans began regular raids on the Cumberland stations. The "Battle of the Bluffs" was only one in a long series of assaults aimed at driving the settlers away.

During the next few years, conditions deteriorated in the rest of the Cherokee Nation, just as Dragging Canoe had predicted. The Chickamauga towns grew stronger as more warriors joined the effort to hold on to their ancestral lands. They sent war parties to East and Middle Tennessee, and to Georgia to fight for Cherokee land, and also to help other Indian nations threatened by white settlements in the Ohio country, Kentucky, and Virginia.

But the white settlements also grew stronger with booming populations migrating from back East, and they managed to withstand the Indian assault. Then, in 1792, shortly after launching efforts to form a confederacy of southern tribes, Dragging Canoe died. His followers fought on for two more years. Finally, facing overwhelming odds, they signed the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse and ended the long "Cherokee Wars".

The Chickamaugans had fought for the survival of the Cherokee people for almost 20 years. The peace that followed the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse was a result of their determined struggle - the American government didn't want another war with the Cherokee. During this period the Cherokee revived their national culture, grew strong again, and through treaty negotiations and legal challenges resisted the United States government's Indian ‘Removal’ policy until 1838.

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