Warhorse Simulations home page WARHORSE

ACTS | Empire | Epic of the Peloponnesian War | Free Stuff | Friends

Other historical book reviews and research papers are also available on our site.

Kurt Kuhlmann

Dissertation prospectus

November 17, 1994




Proposed title:  "Cherokee Militancy in the Old South, 1775-1794."


My proposed dissertation topic is the military history of the Cherokee nation from 1775-1794.  I intend this to be a "full" military history in the broadest sense.  While the "event history" cannot be neglected, it has been reasonably well-studied in the past, in such works as James Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee, John Brown's Old Frontiers (1938), and John Swanton's The Indians of the Southeastern United States (1946).  What has been missing from this literature, however, is any serious attempt to understand these events from the Cherokee perspective.  The most important contribution of my study will be in uncovering the political, economic, and social parameters which drove and constrained Cherokee warmaking, thus throwing new light on a story which has been only partially told until now.  While this study will be focused primarily on the Cherokee, I necessarily will have to deal with the many other players involved in conflict with them: other Indian tribes, settlers, land speculators, state and federal governments, traders, British agents, Spanish governors.

In the literature of the late eighteenth century, the military history of the Old Northwest looms large.  George Rogers Clark, the northwest Indian confederacy, the defeats of American armies under Generals Harmar and St. Clair, Joseph Brant, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the Treaty of Greenville--these are all familiar names, places, and events, with an extensive and up-to-date literature.  By contrast, the Old Southwest has been relatively neglected.  Attakullaculla, Dragging Canoe, John Sevier, the Chickamauga, the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse--these names and events of Cherokee militancy occupied the attention of the southern states and the federal government during this same period, but have not received similar attention from historians.  My study will help to fill in the picture of the "Old West" in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

My study will begin in 1775 when Richard Henderson, a North Carolina land speculator, "purchased" a vast tract of land (essentially all of Kentucky and a large part of Tennessee) from the Cherokee.  Henderson's purchase set in motion the last chapter of Cherokee military resistance to European expansion.  Land pressure on the Cherokees had increased steadily following the Seven Years War.  The Cherokee leadership was reluctant to go to war again after their severe defeat in the early 1760s, but by 1775 European settlers were encroaching on Cherokee lands on three sides.  The early 1770s saw the intruders cross the mountains and settle on Cherokee land in the Watauga and Holston valleys to the north.  John Stuart, the British Indian agent for the Southern district, had for the most part aided the Cherokee in resisting legal encroachment, but the colonial governments of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia would not or could not prevent settlers from trespassing on land guaranteed to the Cherokee by treaty.  Henderson's "purchase" was tainted in several ways.  Not only was it illegal under British law (the Proclamation of 1763 prohibited private land deals with the Indians), other tribes had claims on the land in question (it was used as hunting grounds by several tribes, including the Shawnee), and it was even questionable whether the Cherokees actually sold Henderson the land as he claimed.  Worse, the cession was denounced during the negotiations by Dragging Canoe, leader of the militant Cherokee faction and the son of Attakullaculla, one of the chiefs who signed the treaty with Henderson.

Henderson's purchase did not immediately lead to war, but it discredited the leaders who had negotiated the treaty (Attakullaculla, Oconostota, and the Raven), thus strengthening the position of the militant Cherokees.  As the turmoil of the Revolution reached the frontiers of European settlement, the militants prevailed and the request for war delivered by a delegation of northern Indians in 1776 was accepted.  The result was disastrous for the Cherokee.  Three separate militia armies invaded the Cherokee lands during 1776, burning towns and crops and leaving devastation in their wake.  At the price of additional land cessions, the Cherokees managed to secure peace with the state governments in 1777.  Dragging Canoe refused to accept this policy and his militant faction seceded from the Cherokee, moving west and establishing new towns on the Tennessee River.  The Chickamauga, as they became known, remained at war with the foreign settlements west of the mountains almost continually for the next 17 years.

The situation was thus established as it would remain until 1794.  The leadership on both sides (the Cherokee chiefs, and the state and federal governments) generally wanted peace, but neither could control their own militants.  On the Cherokee side, the Chickamauga provided a rallying point for the disaffected young men of the Cherokee nation proper.  The fact that the Chickamauga acted independently of the rest of the Cherokee nation did not stop the frontier settlers from retaliating against the peaceful towns for Chickamauga attacks.  On the American side, the settlers constantly violated lands guaranteed to the Cherokee by treaty, and conducted independent warfare against them.  During the 1780s the situation was further complicated when several western counties (what became eastern Tennessee) formed themselves into the State of Franklin in open rebellion against North Carolina.  When the states' western land claims were ceded to Congress and reorganized into the Southwest Territory in 1790, the federal government became directly involved without having much more control over the situation.

After 1776, the Cherokee were only drawn into general war once more, in 1788-89, when the murder of a negotiating party, including Old Tassel, one of the most distinguished chiefs, inflamed the whole nation.  In general, however, the Cherokee as a whole both paid the price and reaped the benefits of the continued Chickamauga warfare.  The Chickamauga certainly slowed down the expansion of some foreign settlements, especially the isolated Cumberland towns established in 1779.  On the other hand, the Cherokee nation repeatedly suffered for Chickamauga actions, being both easier to attack and in possession of the lands nearest to the expanding settlements of north Georgia, western North Carolina and Virginia, and East Tennessee.  Cherokee military resistance finally ended in 1794 when the Chickamauga made peace with the United States at Tellico Blockhouse.  Most rejoined the Cherokee; the rest emigrated west across the Mississippi.

I plan to divide my study into three main chronological periods:  (1)  The American Revolution (1775-1783), a confused situation with loyalists, Whigs, Cherokees, British, and state governments all pursuing their own aims.  Kentucky and Tennessee see massive foreign settlement in this period, with continuous encroachment and invasion of Cherokee territory.  (2)  The middle period (roughly 1784-1790), with the aggressively expansionist State of Franklin conducting constant war against the Cherokee and also in conflict with North Carolina.  (3)  The period after the establishment of the Southwest Territory (1790-1794), which saw the success of the northern Indian alliance and then its crushing defeat in 1794, the same year that the Chickamauga towns were finally invaded and brought to the peace table.  I recognize that this is not a Cherokee-centered periodization, but at this point in my research it seems the most logical way to proceed.  The Cherokee freedom of action was severely constrained by outside pressures during this entire period, which makes the larger political/diplomatic environment crucial to understanding Cherokee actions.

In order to properly understand the military history of the Cherokees during the late 18th century, I will have to answer the following questions:

(1)  What were the economic constraints and pressures on warfare?  This is one of the most vital questions for my study.  I will need to investigate the Cherokee economy in detail, how it changed over the two decades.  I have only the most general knowledge of this area, since this is what is most often glossed over in narrative histories, but it bears heavily on all aspects of the conflict between the Cherokees and the settlers.  By the mid-eighteenth century, the Cherokee were heavily involved in the deerskin trade through Charleston.  They were dependent on trade for guns, ammunition, and metal goods certainly.  The extent of this dependence remains to be seen; they seem to have retained bow-making technology into the 1780s, but they also apparently did not consider hunting or war possible without firearms.  How was this vital trade affected by the American Revolution?  How was it affected by the foreign settlement on Cherokee hunting grounds?  What was the economic relationship between the Cherokee and the frontier settlements?  There are hints that the Cherokee may have been trading food to the settlers; this is only surprising because the normal picture of Cherokee-settler relations is one of unremitting hostility, and the existence of a substantial trade would seriously undermine the validity of such a simplistic relationship.

The subsistence of the Chickamauga is especially mysterious.  British traders continued to operate in the Chickamauga towns after the Revolution, based in Spanish Pensacola, but it is not clear whether they were trading with the Chickamauga or simply delivering supplies furnished by the British government.  If they were trading, what were the Chickamauga giving the traders in exchange?  During the Revolution, at least, the Chickamauga certainly attempted to continue trading: a party intercepted trying to reach Savannah in 1781 was carrying 15,000 pounds of deerskins and 1,500 beaver pelts.[1]  How did this need to continue hunting and processing deerskins affect Chickamauga military operations?  How much was the defeat of the Chickamauga economic rather than military, as the settlement of Tennessee deprived them of the hunting grounds they needed to carry on this trade, and thus the war?   The answer to these questions might put Chickamauga warfare in a whole new light. 

(2)  What was the Cherokee and Chickamauga strategy in war?  What were their goals when they went to war, how were these goals decided, and how successful were the Cherokees in achieving them?  I suspect that economic considerations played a larger role than is usually recognized, as I suggested above.  The Chickamauga may have employed a strategy of economic strangulation against the isolated Cumberland settlements by preventing travel over land or water routes, while preventing the settlers from planting crops or hunting by constant raids.  It may be that Chickamauga raiding also had an economic motivation, if they were using plunder to trade for needed war supplies, or were joint hunting and raiding parties.  Even the location of the Chickamauga towns may have had an economic motivation (aside from being closer to British posts): this area of Tennessee was "a great park of buffalo and deer."[2]  Richard White's interpretation of the Plains wars of the mid-nineteenth century is suggestive:  "Between the established hunting territory of each people lay an indeterminate zone . . . In this area only war parties dared to venture; it was too dangerous for any band to travel into these regions to hunt.  Because little pressure was put on the animal populations of these contested areas by hunters, they provided a refuge for the hard-pressed herds of adjacent tribal hunting grounds."[3]  The establishment of the Chickamauga towns, located as they were between the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, may have constituted an "invasion in force" of just such an area.

Investigation into Cherokee strategy may help to better explain the difference between a Cherokee offensive and a settler offensive.  In general, the Cherokees did not defend their towns.  Their main defensive successes came when invading armies were ambushed in difficult terrain, but the Cherokees would usually withdraw if the settlers continued to attack.  By contrast, when the Cherokees would attack, the settlers would "fort up" in their blockhouses, which usually were successful in holding out against even large Cherokee armies.  No difference in military technology seems sufficient to explain this difference; both the settlers and the Cherokee seem to have been similarly equipped (except that attacking militia armies were usually mounted, while the Indians were not).  The Cherokee aversion to suffering losses may partially explain the difference, but further investigation is necessary to explain why the settler invasions were usually "successful" in destroying Cherokee towns, while the Cherokee invasions usually "failed" to destroy the target settlements.  I suspect that at least part of the apparent difference lies in a difference in strategy.

(3)  Related to this is the question of Cherokee tactics: what were they, and how did they adapt to changing circumstances?  I have already suggested an apparent difference in defensive tactics.  As they are normally portrayed, the tactics of the Cherokee seem to fall into a standard native American pattern.  For example, they sought to attack by surprise and to avoid casualties.  Whether or not there is any history to add to this picture seems worth investigating.  At the very least, the Chickamauga seem to have begun using cavalry in the 1790s.  An example will illustrate how this might shed new light on Cherokee warfare.  In a typical Cherokee ploy to draw the enemy into an ambush, a lone Cherokee appeared before a blockhouse one morning, fired wildly, and fled.  When the settlers mounted their horses and pursued him, the Cherokee closed in behind and trapped them.  Most of the settlers escaped, because "in their desire to capture [the horses], some of the savages left a breach in the line . . ."[4]  The normal assumption is that this was simply due to a lack of discipline on the part of the Cherokees--if they had not pursued the horses, they could have destroyed the entire party.  But perhaps the whole purpose of the ambush was to capture horses, not to kill settlers?  Either economic or tactical considerations might be at work here (or both): seeking to get horses for trade, or for military use.

(4)  How were the Cherokees organized for war and peace?  This can be divided into two parts: the decision making which led up to war, and the organization of the actual military operations.  The Cherokee are sometimes treated as if they were a relatively unified "nation," with a supreme Chief and National Council which conducted diplomacy and deliberated decisions for war.  On the other hand, it is clear that the geographical division of the Cherokee towns into Lower, Middle, Valley, and Overhill was also a de facto political division.  Towns also sometimes seem to have acted independently, sending out their own war parties to retaliate for some specific injury.  These are not mutually contradictory, of course, but I will need to understand the basis for the various levels of Cherokee leadership, and its history during my period of study.  My initial impression is that in the short-term, the Cherokee became more fragmented during this period of conflict, but that the long-term result was a centralization of authority which led to the 19th century formalization of Cherokee political organization.  The second half of this question concerns the direction of military operations, but is directly connected with the same issues of where authority lay and how decisions were made.

(5)  What social pressures were working for and against war?  War and changing economic conditions would have disrupted the traditional gender roles of the Cherokee economy.  The devastation of war fell hardest on the fields and crops tended by women, while the occupation of hunting grounds would make men less important as economic providers (possibly elevating the importance of war).  Since women played an important role in Cherokee decision-making and diplomacy, both of these would have direct (as well as indirect) effects on the Cherokee view of war.

(6)  How did inter-tribal relations affect the Cherokee during this period?  Did the Cherokee view relations and/or war with other Indians as fundamentally different from relations with Europeans?  These questions are easy to ignore and will be difficult to get at, due to the nature of the sources, but potentially could drastically alter the view of Cherokee military history.  For example, Cherokee war with the Chickasaw during the early 1770s seems to have facilitated the Watauga settlement by keeping the Cherokee militarily occupied.  Relations between the Cherokee and the Chickasaw never seem to have been very good during this period; the Chickasaw helped the Cherokee only once, briefly, when George Rogers Clark built a fort in Chickasaw territory and they retaliated against the Cumberland settlements.  Diplomacy and war with the Iroquois and other northern tribes was a normal part of Cherokee life that was threatened by the foreign settlement of Kentucky and Tennessee.  It also seems appropriate to explore whether the Cherokees viewed relations (including war) with Europeans differently from relations with "other Indians":  if and when that view developed, and how it affected Cherokee actions.

It should be obvious already that most of these questions are not really separate from the others.  The question of decision-making at all levels will say a lot about the strategies and tactics available, and how they were carried out.  Economic considerations must be integral to an understanding of social pressures as well as strategy.  For this reason, any military history that fails to consider all the facets of what war meant to the Cherokee is incomplete.

It remains to be seen whether answers to these questions can be found in the available primary sources.  Part of the reason that these questions have not been dealt with in the existing secondary literature may be that the sources are silent on many of these areas.  I am confident, however, that much more of the problem was failure to ask the right questions.  While reading the secondary literature, I have repeatedly come across instances where the author casually mentions some piece of information directly relevant to my study (a sampling of these suggestive hints is included in my discussion above).  These essentially accidental references leads me to believe that much more is contained in the primary sources than has reached the secondary literature.  Also, recent ethnohistorical studies, such as Thomas Hatley's The Dividing Paths or Richard White's The Middle Ground, successfully dealt with similar issues, which may not be directly addressed by the primary sources but nevertheless can be uncovered.  These studies will provide a useful model for my own work.

I am still working through the secondary literature, which is voluminous due to the synthetic nature of my proposed topic.  I hope that for some aspects of my study the existing literature will prove adequate without requiring further primary research on my part, but it will depend on whether that literature proves adequate for my needs.  If not, I may have to scale back my topic somewhat.  The main areas for which I hope to rely on secondary literature are the military, economic, and social organization of the settlers; and the social organization of the Cherokee.  I do not doubt that my primary research will uncover material relevant to these areas, but I do not want to make it my main focus.

No existing work covers my proposed topic.  In fact, no Cherokee military history of any kind exists, outdated or not.  John Brown's Old frontiers: the story of the Cherokee Indians from earliest times to the date of their removal to the west, 1838 (1938) is an old-fashioned narrative history of the southern frontier and the Cherokee.  It includes a lot of good anecdotes on the conflict between the Cherokees and the settlers, but it is outdated and contains little analysis.  James Pate's The Chickamauga: A forgotten segment of Indian resistance on the southern frontier (1969) is the closest thing to what I propose to do.  It covers the same period, but it is focused on the Chickamauga alone, and it is mainly concerned with showing that the Chickamauga put up a good fight without going any deeper into the story.  While it is suggestive, it is unsatisfactory even as a military history of the Chickamauga.

From there, the literature fragments or becomes more general.  In the literature on the Cherokee, this period is dealt with briefly or partially.  The most recent book that covers this period, Thomas Hatley's The Dividing Paths (1993) ends in 1785, and it focuses on different questions.  It will, however, be useful for getting at the social and economic issues connected to my study.  Other works are focused on specific areas which are relevant but only tell part of the story in which I am interested, such as Jack Sosin's The Revolutionary Frontier, 1763-1783 (1967) and Fred Gearing's Priests and Warriors: Social Structures for Cherokee Politics in the 18th Century (1962), or are too general to cover the topic in detail, for instance John Alden's South in the American Revolution (1957) and James O'Donnell's Southern Indians and the American Revolution (1973).

The secondary literature I will need to consult in my research is too extensive to list.  The primary literature is also quite extensive.  Much of the most important material is available within North Carolina.  Perkins Library has microfilm of some British Colonial Office papers, as well as a complete microfilm of the Draper Manuscripts.  The library at Western Carolina University Library in Cullowhee also has an extensive collection of Cherokee documents on microfilm, especially Colonial Office documents.  Many important documents relating to the Cherokee have been published in various sources, as the following partial list shows.



Anthony Wayne Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Cherokee Collection, Archives Division, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.

British Public Record Office, Colonial Office Papers -- C.O. 5/ seems to have most relevant material.

Lyman Copeland Draper Manuscripts, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, microfilm at Perkins Library.

Governor's Letter Books, 1777-1787, NC Dept. of Archives (Raleigh).

Governor's Letter Books, 1786-1794, Georgia Dept. of Archives (Atlanta).

Haldimand Papers, British Museum Additional Manuscripts -- photostats in the Library of Congress.

Nathanael Greene Papers, Duke University.

"Pennsylvania Packet", Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives.

Papers of General Thomas Gage, William Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


Printed Sources

Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

Carter, Clarence, ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States, IV, The Territory South of the River Ohio, 1790-1796.

Chandler, Allen D., ed., The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia.

Clark, Walter, ed., The State Records of North Carolina.

Cruikshank, E. A., ed., The Correspondence of John Graves Simcoe.

Davies, K. G., ed., Documents of the American Revolution.

McDowell, William L., ed., Documents Relating to Indian Affairs, Colonial Records of South Carolina.

E. Tennessee Historical Society Publications -- published many useful documents.

Fliegel, Carl John, Vernon H. Nelson, et. al., eds., Records of the Moravian Mission among the Indians of North America -- 40 microfilm reels available at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Journal of Cherokee Studies -- many primary documents published.

Connelly, William E., ed., John Heckewelder's Narrative (Cherokee diplomacy with the Delawares, 1780s).

Henry, William W., ed., Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches

Historical Collections of the Joseph Habersham Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Historical Collections of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, v. 10, 20, and 24 have information on Cherokee militants after 1783.

Keith, Alice B. and William H. Masterson, eds., The John Gray Blount Papers

Kinnaird, Lawrence, ed., Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765-1794: Translations of Materials from the Spanish Archives in the Bancroft Library.

Lowrie, Walter and Matthew St. Clair, eds., American State Papers, Documents . . . (1789-1815), Class II, Indian Affairs -- vol. I especially.

McIlwaine, H. R., ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia, 3 vols.

Palmer, William, ed., The Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 1652-1781.

Payne, John Howard, "Papers concerning the Cherokee Indians," 14 vols. (1789-1839).

Sevier, Cora B. and Nancy Madden, Sevier Family History: With the Collected Letters of Gen. John Sevier . . .

St. Clair, Arthur, A Narrative of the Campaign Against the Indians, and the Command of Maj. Gen'l. St. Clair.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold and Louise P. Kellogg, eds., The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777.

Williams, Samuel C., ed., Early Travels in the Tennessee Country, 1540-1800.


[1]  James O'Donnell III, The Cherokees of North Carolina in the American Revolution (1976), 32

[2]  James Pate, "The Chickamauga" (1969), 130.

[3]  Richard White, "The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries," Journal of American History, Sept. 1978, reprinted in Major Problems in American Indian History, Hurtado and Iverson, eds., 252.

[4]  John Brown, Old Frontiers (1938), 218.

Copyright © 1998 Warhorse Simulations