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Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Indian Wars in North Carolina

E. Lawrence Lee

The Carolina Charter
Tercentenary Commission
Raleigh, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p57  Chapter IX

The Cherokee Indians of the Western Mountains

The Cherokee Nation was located far to the west of the Catawba, in and near the Great Smokies. They were Iroquoian people who had moved down from the north long before the coming of the Europeans. The largest tribe in what is now the southeastern United States, the Cherokee population in 1729 has been estimated as 20,000 persons, including 6,000 warriors. Thereafter they decreased. In 1738, they suffered heavy losses from smallpox as did the Catawba. In 1755, the tribe was reported to contain about 2,600 warriors and a total population of about 8,500 persons.

The Cherokee Nation was divided into three sections, or Settlements. The Lower Cherokee lived in the eastern foothills of the mountains on the headwaters of the Savannah River. The Upper, or Overhills people lived to the west of the mountains on the headwaters of the Tennessee River. In between, in the valleys and the hills, lived the Middle Cherokee. Except for a few in Georgia, the Lower Cherokee were in South Carolina and the Middle and Overhills people were in North Carolina, including those in territory that has since become Tennessee.

The towns of the Cherokee were located on the banks of rivers and creeks, and amid flat, fertile land that was suitable for farming. Because of the rugged nature of the country such land was scattered and seldom occurred in large tracts. For this reason, the towns were limited in size, were numerous and were sometimes widely separated. In mid‑Eighteenth Century, there were about forty towns with an average population of 200 or so persons stretching out over an area  p58 of about 150 miles. To the south of the Cherokee were the Creek Indians and far to the west, along the Mississippi, were the Chickasaw Indians. The Choctaw were located below the Chickasaw and to the west of the Creeks. In South Carolina, Long Canes Creek, about fifty miles to the southwest of the Lower towns, was regarded by the Cherokee as the boundary between them and the English settlements. In 1747, the natives had sold all their land claims to the east of that stream to the South Carolina government for the use of the whites. The unoccupied area between the Lower towns and Long Canes was part of the tribal hunting grounds and was considered not open to settlement. Because the whites were still far removed in North Carolina, no similar boundary existed in that colony.

The government of the Cherokee was somewhat complicated but was perhaps the loosest of all the Carolina tribes. Each town had its own headman, but there were also numerous other lesser war and peace leaders. All were elected on the basis of ability and past achievements. The highest war rank was Great Warrior; followed in order by Mankiller, Raven and Slave Catcher. The principal peace titles were Head Beloved Man, Beloved Man and Conjurer. War women sometimes achieved rank as Beloved Woman. Rank, however, carried little real power and the authority of the leaders was no greater than their popularity and influence. This was true even of the principal chief of the Nation, usually identified by the English as Emperor. Under this system it was possible for persons of lesser rank to exercise more real power than did their superiors. The wisdom and respect of the elder chiefs were usually sufficient to result in orderly government, but this was not always so. Hotheaded and impulsive young warriors sometimes ignored the advice of their elders and took actions that endangered the whole  p59 group. The same lack of control also extended to the various towns and settlements.

Each Settlement was independent of the others and so was each town. Councils were held to discuss problems but the decisions were not binding and did not control the conduct of individual towns and Settlements. This lack of coordination deprived the tribe of the strength that it might have had otherwise. At times, some unity was achieved through leaders whose influence reached beyond their own towns. The degree of this unity depended on the individual. A more forceful encouragement to co‑operation came from common danger that occasionally threatened the people.

As with the Catawba Nation, and for the same reasons, North Carolina made no effort to exercise authority over the Cherokee even though most of them lived within her bounds. As a result, the Cherokee also became "South Carolina Indians," tied to that colony by trade. The trade was conducted by private individuals who transported English goods to the Cherokee and returned with furs and deer skins received in exchange. This was a profitable business, but, unfortunately, many of the traders were rough, uncouth persons who abused and cheated the natives in spite of South Carolina laws intended to prevent such treatment. The Cherokee had been on peaceful terms with the English since Maurice Moore's visit of 1716, but because of the conduct of the traders the friendship was not as strong as it might have been. To the South Carolina government, good relations with the Cherokee were more than a source of profits. An unfriendly Cherokee Nation could be a difficult, if not impossible, barrier to settlement in the land beyond the mountains which the English some day hoped to occupy.

This hope of expansion was opposed by the French and  p60 the Cherokee were caught between the conflicting ambitions of the two European rivals.

Between the English settlements and the Mississippi, and extending from French Canada in the north to French Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico, was a vast area that was desired by both the English and the French but settled by neither. To the English this area offered the possibility of future expansion westward. To the French it offered the possibility of connecting Canada and Louisiana. To both it promised rich profits in the fur trade. Except for the Choctaw land along the Mississippi, that part of the area which lay to the west of present‑day South Carolina and Georgia was occupied by the Creek Indians who refused to ally with either the English or the French so that they might benefit from trade with both. As a result, competition between the two European rivals was most active in the upper part of the area that lay to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. Through this region the Ohio and the Tennessee Rivers flowed like two great water highways and were the natural routes over which settlers would some day pass. The Ohio originates at modern Pittsburgh and flows southwestward to the Mississippi. At the time, the area was claimed by Virginia and was dominated by the Shawnee Indians. The Tennessee originates in the mountains of present‑day western North Carolina, in land then occupied by the Cherokee. It flows west and north to join the Ohio near the Mississippi. The nation that controlled their headwaters also controlled the streams and the land through which they flowed. Both nations sought this control through support of the natives. The English already held this support because they were nearer and could furnish more and cheaper trade goods. The French, however, worked hard to turn the loyalty of the natives to themselves.

 p61  In their efforts to win the Cherokee the French sometimes used gifts and promises of better trade. At other times, they were more forceful with threats and even attacks by their native allies. Their best chance in overcoming the English advantage of proximity, however, was in building a fort among the Cherokee. The use of such structures in extending influence among distant Indians was not new, and forts built for this purpose served a dual purpose. To the Indians they provided protection from their enemies, especially to the women and children when the men were away at war. To the Europeans they were important as trading posts through which the Indians would become dependents and, consequently, allies. For obvious reasons, such posts could serve their purpose only among friendly natives.

In the past, the French and English both had used such forts with varying degrees of success. The French had built Fort Toulouse at the head of the Alabama River, among the Creek Indians in the hope of winning their loyalty. The Creeks remained neutral but doubtless the presence of the fort influenced that neutrality. Too, the French had won a minority following within the tribe. More important, it provided them with a base nearer than Mobile or New Orleans from which to work among the Cherokee.

Of the numerous French forts in the north, two, Frontenac and Niagara on Lake Ontario, made possible control of all the Great Lakes to the west and also provided access to the Ohio Valley and the South. The success of these two forts alone was reason enough for the French to hope that similar posts at the heads of the Ohio and Tennessee would assure them possession of the land to the west.

Among the English forts in the north, Oswego, also on Lake Ontario, was an important trading post that controlled much of the Indian trade of western New York. It also stood  p62 MAP  p63 as a threat to the French forts, Frontenac and Niagara, and jeopardized French access to the west and south.

In 1753, South Carolina had built Fort Prince George among the Lower Cherokee to improve trade with them and to protect them against attacks by the Creeks. A similar fort had been promised to the Overhills people but had never been built. Neither had one been built by the French in spite of occasional rumors that they would do so. At the head of the Ohio, though, Virginia had been more aggressive. They had begun the construction of a fort there to assure their continued control of the river. In early 1754, it was seized by the French and completed as Fort Duquesne. This act was the beginning of the French and Indian War.

Page updated: 4 Jan 15