The Chickamauga

The Chickamauga Cherokee, also known as the Lower Cherokee, were a band of Cherokee who supported Great Britain at the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. Followers of the Cherokee Chief Dragging Canoe, in the winter of 1776/1777, they moved with him down the Tennessee River away from the historic Overhill Cherokee towns. In this more isolated area, they established almost a dozen new towns to gain distance from colonists’ encroachment. The frontier people often referred to the people as “Chickamaugas,” after the name of the new town on the Chickamauga River where Dragging Canoe resided.

After the Cherokee moved further west and southwest five years later, they were more commonly known as the “Lower Cherokee,” after the “Five Lower Towns,” whose people originally formed the new settlement. Neither they nor other Cherokee considered them separate from the other Cherokee people.


Migration to the Chickamauga and Lower Towns areas

“Chickamauga” towns
Establishing these communities further down river allowed (at least initially) the band to insulate themselves from the constant encroachment of settlers migrating west from Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. Migration increased in the years following the Revolutionary War. Dragging Canoe and his Cherokee followers settled at the place where the Great Indian Warpath crossed the Chickamauga River, near present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee, naming their town Chickamauga after the river. The entire adjacent region was referred to in general as the Chickamauga area, and for the reason American settlers in the early years of the wars called the militant Cherokee “Chickamaugas”. In 1782, the eleven Cherokee towns were destroyed by militia forces under John Sevier and William Campbell. Dragging Canoe led his people further down the Tennessee River.

“Five Lower Towns”
Dragging Canoe relocated his people west and southwest, into new settlements centered on Running Water (now Whiteside) on Running Water Creek. The other towns founded at this time were: Nickajack (near the cave of the same name), Long Island (on the Tennessee River), Crow Town (at the mouth of Crow Creek), and Lookout Mountain Town (at the site of the current Trenton, Georgia). In time more towns spread south and west and all these were referred to as the Lower Towns. From this the “Chickamaugas” or “Chickamauga Cherokee” began to be referred to as “Lower Cherokee”.

Constant war
The Chickamauga Cherokee became known for their uncompromising enmity against United States settlers, who had pushed them out of their traditional territory. From Running Water, Dragging Canoe led attacks on white settlements all over the American southeast. Later, his Chickamauga warriors raided as far as Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia (along with the Western Confederacy —which they helped establish). Due to a growing belief in the Chickamauga cause, as well as the destruction of the homes of the other Native Americans, a majority of the Cherokee came to be allied against the US.

After the death of Dragging Canoe in 1792, his hand-picked successor John Watts assumed control of the Lower Cherokee. Under Watts’ lead, the Lower Cherokee continued their policy of Indian unity and hostility toward European Americans. Watts moved his base of operations to Willstown to be closer to his Muscogee allies. Prior to this, he had concluded a treaty in Pensacola with the Spanish governor of West Florida, Arturo O’Neill de Tyrone, for arms and supplies with which to carry on the war. The Chickamauga/Lower Cherokee and the frontiersman were continuously at war until 1794, in what were called the Chickamauga Wars.

On the “Chickamauga” or “Lower Cherokee” as a separate tribe

When a representative of the Moravian Brethren, Brother Steiner, met with Richard Fields at Tellico Blockhouse in 1799, the former Lower Cherokee warrior whom he had hired to serve as his guide and interpreter. Br. Steiner had been sent south by the Brethren to scout for a location for a mission and school they planned to build in the Nation, ultimately located at Spring Place on land donated by James Vann. On one occasion, Br. Steiner asked his guide, “What kind of people are the Chickamauga?”. Fields laughed, then replied, “They are Cherokee, and we know no difference.”

In truth, the Chickamauga Towns and the later Lower Towns were no different vis-a-vis the rest of the Cherokee than were the Middle Towns, Out Towns, (original) Lower Towns, Valley Towns, or Overhill Towns into which the Cherokee were grouped when the Europeans first encountered them. The groupings did not constitute separate political entities as much as groupings for geographic convenience. The only real government among the Cherokee was by town and clan, and though there were regional councils, these had no binding powers. The Chickamauga/Lower Cherokee were no more a separate tribe from the rest of the Cherokee than were the Overhill Cherokee, the Valley Cherokee, etc.

The only “national” position which existed before 1788 was First Beloved Man, which was in reality nothing more than a chief negotiator from the boondocks towns of the Cherokee farthest from the reach of the intruders. Yes, after 1788 there was a national council of sorts, but it met irregularly and at the time had no prescriptive or proscriptive powers. Even after the peace of 1794, the Cherokee were broken up into five groups: the Upper Towns (formerly the Lower Towns of western Carolina and northeastern Georgia), the Overhill Towns, the Hill Towns, the Valley Towns, and the (new) Lower Towns, each with their own regional councils more important than the “national” council at Ustanali.

It should be apparent from the number of times which Dragging Canoe spoke to the National Council at Ustanali and the fact that he publicly acknowledged Little Turkey as the senior leader of all the Cherokee, along with the fact that he was memorialized at the council following his death in 1792, that the “Chickamauga” were exactly as Richard Fields said, Cherokee. If that is not enough, there is the constant communication between leaders of the “Chickamauga” with the Cherokee of other regions, the number of times warriors from the Overhill Towns and other groups participating in the warfare, and the number of “Chickamauga” who signed treaties with the federal government along with other leaders of the Cherokee as Cherokee.

Aftermath of the Wars

Following the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse in late 1794, leaders from the Lower Cherokee were dominant in national affairs. When the national government of all the Cherokee was organized, the first three persons to hold the office of Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation – Little Turkey (1788–1801), Black Fox (1801–1811), and Pathkiller (Nunnehidihi; 1811–1827) – had previously served as warriors under Dragging Canoe, as had the first two Speakers of the Cherokee National Council, established in 1794, Doublehead and Turtle-at-Home.

The domination of the Cherokee Nation by the former warriors from the Lower Towns continued well into the 19th century. Even after the revolt of the young chiefs of the Upper Towns, the Lower Towns were a major voice, and the “young chiefs” of the Upper Towns who dominated that region had themselves previously been warriors with Dragging Canoe and Watts.

Post-war settlements of the Lower Cherokee

Many of the former warriors returned to several of the original settlements in the Chickamauga area, some of which had already been reoccupied, establishing new towns in the area as well, plus several in North Georgia aside from moving into those previously established by those forcibly removed from the Lower Towns in western South Carolina (such as Itawa or Etowah), and joining with the remnant of the Overhill towns on the Little Tennessee River were referred to as the Upper Towns, with their center at Ustanali in Georgia and with the former warriors James Vann and his proteges The Ridge (Ganundalegi; formerly known as Pathkiller, or Nunnehidihi) and Charles R. Hicks (also named Nunnehidihi in Cherokee) as their top leaders, along with John Lowery, George Lowery, Bob McLemore, John Walker, Jr., George Fields, and others. The leaders of these towns were the most progressive, favoring extensive acculturation, formal education, and modern methods of farming.

For a decade of more after the end of the wars, the northern section of the Upper Towns had their own council and acknowledged the top headman of the Overhill Towns as their leader, but they were gradually driven south by land cessions.

John McDonald returned to his old home on the Chickamauga River, across from Old Chickamauga Town, and lived there until selling it in 1816 to the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions upon which to establish Brainerd Mission, which served as both a church (named the Baptist Church of Christ at Chickamauga) and a school offering both academic and vocational training. His daughter Mollie and son-in-law Daniel Ross made a farm and trading post near the old village of Chattanooga (Chatanuga, Tsatanugi) from the early days of the wars; along with them came sons Lewis and Andrew, a number of daughters, and another son born at Turkey Town, later to become the most famous, named John.

The majority of the Lower Cherokee remained in the towns they inhabited in 1794, with their seat at Willstown, known as the Lower Towns. Their leaders were John Watts, Bloody Fellow, Doublehead, Black Fox, Pathkiller, Dick Justice, The Glass, Tahlonteeskee (brother of Doublehead), John Jolly (Ahuludiski; his nephew and adopted father of Sam Houston), John Brown (owner of Brown’s Tavern, Brown’s Landing, and Brown’s Ferry, as well as judge of the Chickamauga District of the Cherokee Nation), Young Dragging Canoe, Richard Fields, and red-headed Will Weber, for whom Titsohili was called Willstown, among others. The former warriors of the Lower Towns dominated the political affairs of the Nation for the next twenty years and were in many ways more conservative, adopting many facets of acculturation but keeping as many of the old ways as possible.

Roughly speaking, the Lower Towns were south and southwest of the Hiwassee River along the Tennessee down to the north border of the Muscogee nation and west of the Conasauga and the Ustanali in Georgia while the Upper Towns were north and east of the Hiwassee and between the Chattahoochee and the Conasauga. This was approximately the same area as the later Amohee, Chickamauga, and Chattooga Districts of the Cherokee Nation East.

The settlements of the Cherokee remaining in the highlands of western North Carolina which had become known as the Hill Towns, with their seat at Quallatown, and the lowland Valley Towns, with their seat now at Tuskquitee, were more traditional, as was the Upper Town of Etowah, notable for being inhabited mostly by full-bloods and for being the largest town in the Nation. In addition, the Overhill towns remaining along the Little Tennessee remained more or less autonomous, with their seat, naturally, at Chota.

All five regions had their own councils, which predominated in importance over the nominal nation council until the reorganization in 1810 after the council that year at Willstown.

reference: Native American Encyclopedia

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