A war chief’s ingenious defense of the Cherokee homeland.
Late on the sultry afternoon of Aug. 22, 1788, several hundred Cherokee warriors under the command of war chief Dragging Canoe took up positions in a mountain pass near what today is Chattanooga, Tenn. The Indians anxiously awaited a 500-man invading militia of white frontiersmen led by Brig. Gen. Joseph Martin.
The frontier army had assembled on August 19 at White’s Fort (modern-day Knoxville, Tenn.), with the sole purpose of destroying the towns of hostile Cherokees, whom they called Chickamaugas. By the time the army reached Hiwassee on the third day out, it was obvious Martin had lost the element of surprise, as the Cherokees had already abandoned the town. The advancing army reached the town of Chatanuga the next day. It, too, was deserted, though cooking fires still burned in several houses. The white troops engaged four warriors, killing one.
Martin made camp and then sent out a mounted scouting detachment to secure the nearby mountain pass, unaware of the presence of Dragging Canoe and his men. On the approach to the pass the trail narrowed, hemmed in by large boulders that forced the riders to proceed single file. This made them excellent targets for the concealed Indians, who opened up a withering fire. As the panicked militiamen wheeled their horses around and fled back to camp, Dragging Canoe, a savvy field commander, restrained his younger warriors from racing off in pursuit.
The following morning Martin sent another strong scouting party into the pass, and when it encountered the same hot reception from the waiting Cherokees, the general ordered his entire army forward. The soldiers charged upslope—directly into a well-planned killing ground. Firing from cover, Dragging Canoe’s warriors inflicted heavy casualties on the militiamen. Martin’s army fled down the mountain and all the way back to White’s Fort, harassed the entire way by the Cherokees. So ended what became known as the Battle of Lookout Mountain. Never again in Dragging Canoe’s lifetime would the whites attempt a military invasion of the Cherokee stronghold.
Known to his enemies as “the Dragon” and to latter-day his- torians as “the Savage Napoléon,” Tsiyu Gansini (“He Is Dragging His Canoe”) was born around 1740 in East Tennessee, the scion of a prominent Cherokee family. Though stricken and scarred by smallpox as a child, he grew into a muscular, 6-foot-tall warrior. By 1775 he had become war chief of Amoyeli Egwa (“Great Island”), a village on the Little Tennessee River a few miles downstream from the Cherokee capital of Chota.
Dragging Canoe was known for his outspoken opposition to white settlers’ encroachment on Indian land and was vehemently and eloquently opposed to the proposed terms of the March 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals. Agreed to by Cherokee leaders Attakullakulla (Dragging Canoe’s father) and Oconostota—who apparently believed they were merely accepting trade goods in compensation for settler attacks on their communities—the treaty would have ceded to Judge Richard Henderson’s Transylvania land company those Cherokee tracts that now comprise Kentucky, central Tennessee north of the Cumberland River and parts of upper East Tennessee.
Though the region was still officially subject to British law—which forbade private land deals between British subjects and the various Indians tribes —Henderson, a private land speculator, pursued the treaty to give him “legal” authority to resell the newly acquired Indian land to whites. The deal prompted a flood of settlers to the disputed lands, making a clash inevitable. The Cherokees demanded British authorities remove the colonists, but the outbreak of the American Revolution gave the settlers—now calling themselves Americans—an excuse to retain possession of the Indian lands.
The Cherokees made common cause with Great Britain, centered on their convergent interests in holding back colonial expansion. British Indian agent Henry Stuart told Dragging Canoe he would negotiate the peaceful removal of settlers from Cherokee territory. But the colonists refused to bargain with Stuart and instead petitioned their respective governments to raise armies to destroy the Cherokee nation.
In the spring of 1776 a delegation of northern Indians— Shawnees, Iroquois, Ottawas and others—led by the great Shawnee leader Cornstalk, arrived at Chota seeking a military alliance to hold back the Americans. At the same time a messenger brought alarming news that a large colonial army was massing in Virginia to make a first strike. War was now a certainty, and the Cherokees resolved to strike the first blow.
In early July, Dragging Canoe and his assistant war chiefs—Abram of Chilhowie and the Raven of Chota —set out in a simultaneous, three-division deployment. The divisions totaled more than 700 warriors, with Dragging Canoe leading the main column against forts on the Holston River, near modern-day Kingsport, Tenn. Abram and the Raven led the other two divisions against settlements on the Watauga River and Carter’s Valley, respectively.
The Cherokee plan was to sweep through East Tennessee’s Great Valley, clearing the Clinch, Nolichucky, Holston and Watauga river valleys of settlers to the Indian boundary line in upper East Tennessee. But Nancy Ward, a prominent tribal dignitary with pro-settler sentiments, had forewarned the settlements. As Dragging Canoe approached the first fort, Eaton’s Station, on July 20, frontiersmen ambushed his column. Though the Cherokees fought furiously, the settlers—using virtually the same tactics as those Dragging Canoe would later employ at Lookout Mountain— eventually carried the day, killing 13 Cherokees. Despite being shot through both thighs, Dragging Canoe regrouped his army and dispatched warriors to the Clinch and Powell Valleys, where they killed 18 colonial troops. The war was on.
By the late summer of 1776 Cherokee war parties had overrun and torched forts and blockhouses and killed, captured or driven off the settlers’ horses, cattle and hogs. Such actions had driven entire settler populations east of the mountains. More important, the Cherokees had shown the whites they could fight in any type of military venue, from small-scale raids and skirmishes to pitched battles.
Ultimately, the very success of Dragging Canoe’s initial military campaign prompted colonial governments to call for the complete extirpation of the Cherokee nation. Militias from the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia swiftly mounted simultaneous expeditions, fielding more than 7,000 soldiers. The armies converged on Cherokee territory in the late summer and fall of 1776.
In August, 1,100 South Carolinians under Colonel Andrew Williamson joined the assault, attacking the ancient Cherokee town of Seneca, which spanned both sides of the Keowee River in modern-day Oconee County, S.C. Dragging Canoe and a large body of warriors were waiting. Williamson’s men attempted to ford the river, only to come under heavy fire that killed five soldiers and wounded 13. Dragging Canoe then pulled his force back to Neowee Pass, a narrow, steep defile between two mountains, and laid an ambush. As Williamson’s men struggled up the narrow trail, the Cherokees delivered a close and galling fire, killing 17 and wounding 29 before withdrawing.
Dragging Canoe and his warriors fought several more battles throughout the fall, despite being hampered by critical shortages of ammunition. But by October the militia forces had destroyed most of the Cherokees’ Lower, Valley and Middle towns; only a few of the Overhill Cherokee towns remained intact. The militia armies far outnumbered Cherokee forces, and the colonists had better guns and ample ammunition. Regardless, in March 1777 Dragging Canoe and his people elected to move farther south and continue the war rather than rebuild their ravaged homes and submit to the Americans.
Cherokee peace chief Attakullakulla and aging senior war chief Oconostota, however, decided to make peace with the colonists. In a quick series of treaties with Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, they ceded more than 5 million acres of land to the Americans. The majority of Cherokees rejected the terms, and most withdrew from the ceded areas in protest of the one-sided treaties.
During the winter of 1776–77 thousands of Cherokees—entire communities of men, women and children —relocated rather than accept American domination. Led by Dragging Canoe they migrated to the region near modern-day Chattanooga, Tenn., settling in the vicinity of Chickamauga Creek. Determined to continue the war at any cost, they rebuilt their communities and functioned on a permanent military footing. Though now referred to as Chickamaugas by the whites, they considered themselves the “true Cherokees” and resolved to continue their resistance to settler encroachment.
By the spring of 1777 Dragging Canoe was leading military campaigns from the newly established Cherokee towns against white settlements in East Tennessee and Kentucky. The settlers again had to seek the security of frontier forts as Cherokee war parties laid siege to the borderlands.
In the summer of 1778 Dragging Canoe led almost his entire warrior force—with the exception of small detachments left behind to protect the new towns—to the Georgia and South Carolina frontiers to help British forces suppress the rebelling Americans.
The Cherokee war parties were so effective on this new front that the governors of Virginia and North Carolina decided to send a combined expedition against the new Cherokee towns. Dragging Canoe learned of the plan but did not think the colonists could execute it, as he believed they didn’t know the exact locations of the towns. The colonists soon proved him wrong, however, for in April 1779 Virginia Governor Patrick Henry dispatched an army of 900 soldiers under Colonel Evan Shelby. The force destroyed 11 Cherokee towns with little opposition, as most of the warriors were away fighting in other areas. To avert another such attack, Dragging Canoe relocated the war towns to a nearly impregnable position farther down the Little Tennessee.
Shortly after the Shelby expedition Dragging Canoe devised a complete blockade of the Little Tennessee, with warriors ready at a moment’s notice to intercept any settler vessel. If Cherokee spotters saw a craft at Tuskegee, the uppermost town on the river, they sent a runner overland to alert the other towns. Canoes full of warriors massed at various points along the river, and voyagers lucky enough to survive the first assault faced additional attacks the farther they went downriver. As a result, there was no large-scale colonial migration down the Little Tennessee as there was on the Ohio River and its tributaries.
For the remainder of 1779 Dragging Canoe focused his attention on resisting white encroachment in East Tennessee. But a new threat arose that winter when the Americans sought to establish new settlements in Middle Tennessee’s Cumberland Valley, around modern-day Nashville. These new settlers came from East Tennessee under the pioneer leaders James Robertson and John Donelson.
In 1780 Dragging Canoe launched a war of attrition against the Middle Tennessee settlements, and in a series of continual attacks his war parties progressively weakened and isolated the settlements. Indeed, at any given time between 1780 and 1792 Cherokee forces controlled virtually all the lines of communication between the white settlements. In the face of such tactics the Cumberland pioneers abandoned many of their settlements.
By the spring of 1781 only two white settlements remained in all of Middle Tennessee, and Dragging Canoe led a 1,000-strong force to annihilate them. On April 2, 1781, in what became known as the Battle of the Bluffs, he launched a well-coordinated assault that nearly destroyed one of the posts, Fort Nashborough. Word spread throughout the frontier of the massive Cherokee attack, discouraging significant settler migration to the Cumberland Valley for years.
Even as the Battle of the Bluffs raged, other Cherokee war par- ties were employing Dragging Canoe’s strategy in the Holston and Watauga regions of East Tennessee, further isolating those Middle Tennessee stockades marked for destruction. Cherokee forces maintained control of water and land routes and prevented reinforcement of the Cumberland outposts.
In the spring of 1782 Dragging Canoe resumed his war of attrition against the Middle and East Tennessee settlements. From the French Broad River to the Cumberland Gap, war parties repeatedly attacked the settlements. As a major communication route between Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, the Powell’s Valley region of East Tennessee received particular attention. Dragging Canoe’s strategy was to keep the settlers in such a continual state of siege that they would eventually withdraw completely from the disputed lands. Complete annihilation of the Cumberland settlements was prevented only by the fact that Dragging Canoe’s warriors had to fend off the more directly aggressive East Tennessee colonists.
With the 1783 end of the Revolutionary War white settlers renewed their push into Cherokee territory. In December 1785 a land company opened at the mouth of the Elk River, across from Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River, with the announced intention of selling 3.5 million acres of land—all well within Cherokee territory. To back the scheme, in early 1786 a strong party of colonists under Valentine Sevier II invaded the region. Dragging Canoe promptly put the party under siege, burned their fortifications and pursued the colonists all the way back to the settlements from which they had come.
In the spring of 1786 Dragging Canoe joined forces with the Alabama Creeks in a two-year campaign against the Middle Tennessee settlements. By cutting off the settlers’ food supplies and reinforcements and preventing them from raising even subsistence crops, he hoped to break their will to fight and eventually drive them to outright starvation. Warriors killed or captured settlers as the latter hunted in the forests, walked the trails or planted crops. The warriors subjected small stations and large forts to frequent surprise attacks. Dragging Canoe’s relentless 1786–88 campaign drained the region of horses, cattle, people and loot. For the first time Middle Tennesseans began offering bounties for Indian scalps.
While small war parties continued to pummel Middle Tennessee, Dragging Canoe led larger units up the Clinch and Holston rivers into Powell’s Valley. Settlers there either retreated to blockhouses and stockades or fled to Virginia, Kentucky or the Carolinas. Responding to the attacks, a settler army commanded by Colonel John Sevier took the field in the summer of 1788 against the hostile Cherokees. The brunt of the American assault fell on the Cherokee towns. The head of the peaceful Cherokee towns was Chief Old Tassel. Under a flag of truce Sevier’s men lured him and several members of his council to a meeting, at which vengeful settlers brutally killed the peaceful Cherokees with hatchets.
Cherokees of every stripe had respected Old Tassel, and his slaying prompted even formerly peaceful Indians to join Dragging Canoe and his warriors in attacks of the settlements in upper East Tennessee. The war chief became, in effect, the senior policy maker for the entire Cherokee nation.
Such was the state of affairs when Joseph Martin led his frontier army into the 1788 Battle of Lookout Mountain. After routing the whites there, Dragging Canoe continued in a steamroller advance into upper East Tennessee, destroying most white settlements south of White’s Fort and threatening the Holston settlements. Those forts not destroyed were crowded with settlers seeking refuge.
While Dragging Canoe continued to direct the activities of his field commanders, he also increased his efforts to build a great federation of tribes to oppose American expansion. To that end he mounted diplomatic missions to Indian nations throughout the Southeast. On March 1, 1792, shortly after one of these undertakings to the Chickasaws, he died—the result, it is said, of celebrating too vigorously recent Cherokee military successes.
Thanks to Dragging Canoe’s efforts, the Cherokees thwarted nascent American plans to destroy their nation and significantly delayed settler expansion. The war chief’s relentless holding action allowed for the flowering of Cherokee culture under the umbrella of relative peace through the first three decades of the 19th century.
Dragging Canoe, military genius and the greatest of all Cherokee patriots, deserves his place in the pantheon of American Indian military leaders.
For further reading Albert Bender recommends The Cherokee Nation: A History, by Robert J. Conley; Heart of the Eagle: Dragging Canoe and the Emergence of the Chickamauga Confederacy, by Brent Alan “Yanusdi” Cox; and The American Revolution in Indian Country, by Colin G. Calloway.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.