Dragging Canoe, Cherokee War Chief
"Dragging Canoe" (Tsi'yu-gunsini), the son of Attakullakulla (The Little Carpenter, so named for his skill at crafting treaty language acceptable to all) and cousin of Nancy Ward occupy much of my current research time. He was a fierce warrior, pockmarked by smallpox when a young child, tall and stately in appearance, and the primary leading force in the Cherokee's resistance to white settlement on Cherokee lands. He strongly resisted the sale of Cherokee lands to whites and spoke at treaty negotiations vehemently objecting to the continued sale of Cherokee land.
At the conclusion of the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals of 1775, Dragging Canoe spoke against the sale of Cherokee land. He rose and said "Whole Indian nations have melted away like snowballs in the sun before the white man's advance. They leave scarcely a name of our people except those wrongly recorded by their destroyers. Where are the Delaware’s? They have been reduced to a mere shadow of their former greatness. We had hoped that the white men would not be willing to travel beyond the mountains. Now that hope is gone. They have passed the mountains, and have settled upon Cherokee land. They wish to have that action sanctioned by treaty. When that is gained, the same encroaching spirit will lead them upon other land of the Cherokees. New cessions will be asked. Finally the whole country, which the Cherokees and their fathers have so long occupied, will be demanded, and the remnant of Ani-Yunwiya, THE REAL PEOPLE, once so great and formidable, will be compelled to seek refuge in some distant wilderness. There they will be permitted to stay only a short while, until they again behold the advancing banners of the same greedy host. Not being able to point out any further retreat for the miserable Cherokees, the extinction of the whole race will be proclaimed. Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences, rather than submit to further loss of our country? Such treaties may be all right for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me. We will have our lands. A-WANINSKI, I have spoken."
Dragging Canoe's mighty speech had such a strong influence on the chiefs that they closed the Treaty Council without more talk. Yet, the white men prepared another huge feast with rum and were able to persuade the Cherokee Chiefs to sit in another Treaty Council for further discussion of land sale. The land being sought was the primary hunting lands of the Cherokee. Attakullakulla, Dragging Canoe's father, spoke in favor of selling the land, as did Raven, who was jealous of Dragging Canoe's growing power among the young warriors. The deed was signed. Richard Henderson, being very bold, now that his plan was succeeding and they had bought such a huge portion of land, sought to secure a safe path to the new lands. Saying, "he did not want to walk over the land of my brothers", he asked to "buy a road" through Cherokee lands. This last insult was more than Dragging Canoe could tolerate. He became very angry and rising from his seat and stomping the ground he spoke saying "We have given you this, why do you ask for more? You have bought a fair land. When you have this you have all. There is no more game left between the Watauga and the Cumberland. There is a cloud hanging over it. You will find its settlement DARK and BLOODY."
For the next 17 years Dragging Canoe did his best to make the white settlement of these lands "Dark and Bloody". He attacked the settlers at every opportunity. He became known as "The Dragon" because of his fierce fighting and relentless pursuit of destroying all white settlements on what he considered THE REAL PEOPLE'S land. Not much is written about his history, yet he was by far the most ferocious opponent the settlers faced.
Although most references to Dragging Canoe speak of his "savage warrior" attributes in battle and even go so far as to label him such as did frontier historian John P. Brown by stating "The Savage Napoleon had found his life's work, he devoted his future to making the treaty (Treaty of Sycamore Shoals in 1775) null and void." And as mentioned above he was known as "The Dragon" - both a play on his name and a symbol of the fear he caused in the white settlers.
Dragging Canoe had no thought of conquest or capture of the white settlers. He was driven by the vital need the Cherokee had for the hunting lands and could see the future would bring more and more white settlers unless the ones already on Cherokee hunting grounds were driven off. The women and young men of the Cherokee supported this position.
The older chiefs attempted to obtain supplies by allowing white settlers to "lease" land, but my research tends to support a misunderstanding and maybe even outright forgery of papers at the Treaty at Sycamore Shoals in 1775. Old Tassel claimed that Oconostota did not sign the treaty documents. In 1785, he stated: "...The people of North Carolina have taken our lands without consideration, and are now making their fortunes out of them. I know Richard Henderson says he purchased the lands at Kentucky, and as far as Cumberland, but he is a liar, and if he were here, I would tell him so. If Attakullakulla signed this deed, we were not informed, but we know that Oconostota did not, yet we hear his name is to it. Henderson put it there, and he is a rogue." (Quote from Old Tassel's Speech 1785, in Old Frontiers, pg. 248-249.)
Jesse Benton, the narrator of the Transylvania Purchase is reported to possibly have forged Alexander Cameron's signature on a letter and "it was so like his handwriting that it would be impossible to know that it was a forgery." The four principal chiefs (Old Tassel, Oconostota, Attakullakulla and Savanooka) all denied having sold any lands at this treaty. Attakullakulla, who understood and spoke English, would have been in a better position to understand what was actually being said and done.
Others, even the principal chiefs and Dragging Canoe, were at a distinct disadvantage, not knowing the language being used to describe the proceedings and having to rely on interpreters, who might even have had something to gain by the Transylvania Purchase themselves! Attakullakulla later admitted to Henry Stuart "that he was the principal land jobber, and he was sorry for his behavior (quote from Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783).
Savanooka told Henry Stuart in 1777: "You have been told that we disposed of our land contrary to the advice and desire of our father and our repeated promises to him. It’s true, we suffered the people first settled themselves on our land on Watauga to remain there some years, they paying us annually in guns, blankets and rum, etc. But we were informed lately that they gave out publicly that we sold the land to them forever and gave them a paper for it. If they have any paper of this kind, it is of their own making, for we have never given them any, as it was contrary to our thoughts...." (This is a quote from State Records of North Carolina, Vol. 22).
Henry Stuart wrote to John Stuart: "Some of the traders who were present at these transactions affirm this to be a true state of the case, and that they believe that under a pretence of taking leases and receipts for rent they got deeds signed" (quote from Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783).
The above information regarding the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals and the Transylvania Purchase comes primarily from "Heart of the Eagle" By Brent Yanusdi Cox, 1999, PG 35-41. There is a significant amount of information available that seems to point to substantial misunderstandings regarding the "leasing" versus "purchasing" of land. It seems that of the four principal chiefs, only Attakullakulla may have understood what was actually going on.
Don't you see why Dragging Canoe would become enraged at the travesty of these proceedings? He could see that the attempt was being made to take control of vast portions of the Cherokee traditional hunting grounds and he knew that meant the eventual end to Cherokee life, as he knew it. He was right! This Transylvania Purchase truly became the spearhead of massive settlement of the western lands. It must have seemed a never-ending stream of more and more white settlers pouring over the mountains, down the rivers, and across the Cherokee lands settling on the river bottoms, valleys and even hillsides of the ancestral lands of the Cherokee.
To understand Dragging Canoe, we must look at more than just his rebellion against the settlement of Cherokee land during the period 1775 - 1792. First, we should look at just how he was given his name as a young boy. His courage and determination was evident at an extremely early age and he earned the respect of his elders while still a young boy.
Secondly we need to also understand the impact of his childhood where he survived the ravage of Smallpox which was a disease brought by white settlers and for which Cherokee had no resistance. The onslaught of the disease in 1738 - 1739 resulted in the death of over half of the Cherokee people. Imagine the impact on a nation of people who "went to water" each morning in the cold rivers as a ritual cleansing when with a fever on them they took cold baths to rid them of illness when in fact the cold water only made their sickness worse. It is said that the Cherokee men who saw the death of so many threw away many of their special emblems of protection by the spirits and some even killed themselves after surviving the dread disease only to find themselves permanently scarred and pock marked. Dragging Canoe lived but he bore the marks of the dread disease Small Pox all his life and to his death in 1792.
And last, we need to understand the people who influenced his character development and temperament. He was not a savage, but was a powerful and highly respected leader among his people from his youth. When the Transylvania Purchase decimated the ancestral hunting grounds his natural and recognized leadership caused him to have great influence over and dedication to the Ani-Un-wiya or "Real People." Ani-Un-wiya (Real People) was an ancient term the group used to describe themselves who determined to defend their traditions of hunting and who rose against the settlements of the Transylvania Purchase.
First his name "Canoe (tsi'yu), He is Dragging It (gunsini)" or Dragging Canoe, was given him as a young boy because of his persistence. This is an insight into his character that would later serve to keep his loyal followers fighting the white settlers in most adverse conditions. On one occasion when his father was leading a war party against the Shawnee, the young boy attempted to drag a large canoe into the water to follow the war party. He would demonstrate this same steadfast determination consistently as he grew to manhood gaining the respect of those who watched his actions. Dragging Canoe was said to be a few years older than his cousin Nancy Ward (born 1738), daughter of Tame Doe who was the sister of Attakullakulla, Dragging Canoe's father. During his very early years is when the Smallpox devastated the Cherokee by causing the death of over half of the nation. Brent Yanusdi Cox in his book Heart of the Eagle suggests that although no conclusive records exist to prove it he believes that Nionee was Dragging Canoe's mother. He bases this on the fact that Nionee helped raise Nancy Ward and was associated with Tame Doe. Attakullakulla resided in the village of Tenase through 1755 so this is likely the place of Dragging Canoe's birth.
Dragging Canoe grew up in the presence of the Cherokee leaders but he also was near Fort Loudon where he became acquainted with John Stuart. John Stuart was a soldier at Fort Loudon who was adopted by Attakullakulla and who later became Superintendent of Indian Affairs.
Among those great leaders Dragging Canoe would have known was Moytoy, who was Attakullakulla's uncle. He was appointed Emperor of the Cherokee Nation by British imperialist. He would have known Old Hop, brother of Moytoy. He would have known Oconostota. And he grew up with Nancy Ward. So all these individuals of great character and integrity with tremendous influence in the Cherokee nation would have had significant impact on his early development and character building.
Dragging Canoe fought white settlement of the Cumberland and East Tennessee areas at every opportunity. On numerous occasions he attacked settlements from Watauga to Knoxville and Nashville. In response to these attacks, John Sevier and others led substantial raids into the Cherokee villages doing much damage and killing many Cherokee. Often the numbers of white settlers going on these raids were over 400 individuals. Rarely could the Cherokee or Chickamauga gather such a large number to attack the white settlers. Small bands of warriors still did much damage and often caught white settlers outside the forts or cabins and took their scalps. The practice of taking a life in revenge for a life regardless of the guilt of the person caused the Cherokee to kill the first white settlers they happened upon when they had been the victims of raids by the white settlers. This in turn caused even more havoc from the ever-increasing white settlers who only thought of their need for land and did not consider the treaties with the Cherokee anything but a means to an end to get more land.
The Chickamauga towns were created when Dragging Canoe moved the resistance south to Chickamauga Creek to get away from the Cherokee who were not as disposed to resist the white settlers and also to avoid the continuing attacks by the white settlers on the Cherokee towns. These towns were termed the "five lower towns" and were named Running Water, Nickajack, Long Island, Crow town and Lookout Mountain Town. These towns were comprised the western frontier of the Cherokee with the first three towns being located along the Tennessee River in present day Tennessee, the latter two were located in corners of present day Georgia (Lookout Mountain Town) and Alabama (Crow town).
The five lower towns or Chickamauga population consisted of Cherokee, Creeks, Shawano and white Tories and their total force was estimated at 1000 warriors. These towns served as the center of the Chickamauga confederacy of resistance to the ever-increasing number of white settlers coming into the East Tennessee and Cumberland settlements. Finally in 1794, the Chickamauga towns were destroyed and the resistance alliance broken for good. The white settlers with their overwhelming strength and superior firepower had beaten the resistance movement.
More can be said about the "white Tories" who aligned themselves with Dragging Canoe. Much of what was happening on the frontier led up to the ultimate revolution that created independence from England a few years later. The Cherokee aligned themselves with the English and Tories hoping to ultimately cause the white settlers to leave their land. Dragging Canoe took advantage of this opportunity to build the Chickamauga confederacy, which was the last great effort to unite the several Indian tribes and others against the ever-encroaching settlers who demanded more and more land.
Dragging Canoe's focus in the early 1780's was to build alliances with anyone who would support his desire to drive the white settlers from the Cherokee hunting grounds on the Cumberland River...where he had warned the settlers would find the settlement to be "dark and bloody." The Chickasaws, Creeks, several northern tribes joined the Chickamauga and the Spanish, French, and English encouraged him at every opportunity against the settlers. But for some seemingly fortunate circumstances this alliance would have succeeded.
One such occasion was the attack on Freeland's Station on January 15, 1781. Here the Chickamauga and others had quietly and stealthily slipped up to the garrison and actually succeeded in opening the heavily lashed fort door and gain entrance inside the fort. James Robertson was awakened by some unusual sound and quickly aroused the settlers who had gathered within the walls of the fort. At this time, the only safe place, if there were any safe places, seemed to be the forts. In the ensuing fight to run the attackers out of the fort, only two of the Freeland's Station people were killed.
A second such occasion happened on April 2, 1781 when the Chickamauga sent a small group as a decoy to draw the settlers out of the fort at Fort Nashborough. It seemed the settlers who had left the fort to "finish off" the decoy group were cut off by the ambush of the larger force waiting to ambush them. However, the people remaining in the fort turned loose all their dogs and the dogs rushed into the larger force that had attempted to cut off the settlers' retreat to Fort Nashborough. Soon all the Chickamauga's attention was focused on fighting off the attacking dogs and the settlers easily gained the fort. Although the Chickamauga did not succeed in taking the fort, they did take away five scalps.
Further updates will include more of the specific actions of Dragging Canoe and will attempt to capture his impact on his people through his 17 years of active rebellion and resistance to white settlement of Cherokee hunting lands. As is concluded in "Heart of the Eagle" by Brent Yanusdi Cox at the end of his book Dragging Canoe's resistance lasts well beyond his life and even to this day. The following quote from Cox's book is an excellent tribute to Dragging Canoe: "Dragging Canoe danced all night in a spiritual fervor, and on March 1, 1792, he crossed over.
His nephew, The Black Fox, stated: 'The Dragging Canoe has left the world. He was a friend both to his own and the white people. But his brother is still in his place; and I mention now in public, that I intend presenting him with his deceased brother's medal: for he promises fair to possess sentiments similar to those of his brother, both with regard to the red and white. It is mentioned here publicly, that both whites and reds may know it, and pay attention to him ... Another person I also nominate as a headman, Taloteeskie, who is to be considered in place of Old Tassel.
Though some of the young fellows of the nation, and the white people together, occasioned the Tassel to fall under a flag of truce, his talks shall not be forgot. We have, therefore, appointed this man to support his talks, and we hope that both whites and reds will attend to him.' It is over, yet the legacy and traditions of Dragging Canoe were carried into future generations.
Tecumseh and the Prophet, students of Dragging canoe, continued resistance into the next century. Even through the death of George Armstrong Custer, there was a continued element of native resistance in response to western expansion. The War Eagle of Chickamauga planted the seed of resistance that lasted through this day. As long as the American Indian fights for justice, the spirit of Dragging Canoe will carry their prayers to the sky." I find this a fitting conclusion to thoughts about Dragging Canoe.
Dragging Canoe had a lasting influence on the Cherokee people. His leadership demonstrated that different tribes could work together toward a common enemy. He noted that the Americans failed to meet their treaty obligations with the Cherokee who attempted to live at peace with them. He also noted that the British provided supplies and ammunition. He succeeded in showing a way to actively resist the white settlers encroachment on Cherokee lands. The Tories, as well as other mal-contents, who were looking for profit or revenge against the white settlers, then joined him by many tribes and.
Just keeping the loose knit groups of individuals making up the resistance, which was known, as the Chickamauga focused on anything required a superb leader with unfailing leadership skills and profound respect from his followers. His legacy is one that is unequaled and his leadership skills were far beyond those of most men alive then or even today. The accomplishment of 17 years of resistance is likely to be the greatest achievement made by any of the Cherokee or any other tribe of Native Americans for that matter. He was truly a master of leadership and succeeded beyond others of his day.
Theodore Roosevelt cited his accomplishments when he noted, "Dragging Canoe would not make peace." Roosevelt went on to name the groups that were drawn to Dragging Canoe as being the "most dangerous and least controllable of all the foes who menaced the western settlements." This was truly recognition from a man who readily saw and rightly identified true leadership.
Gary B. Nash, in his 2005 book The Unknown American Revolution asks the question in his introduction, "Why are the history books silent virtually silent on Dragging Canoe, the Cherokee warrior who made the American Revolution into a two-decade life-sapping fight for his people's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? Nash includes detailed accounts of Dragging Canoe's war against the settlers as substantial and problematic for the revolutionaries.
Dragging Canoe is included among the likes of Red Jacket, Corn Planter of the Seneca, Alexander McGillvray of the Creek, Cornstalk of the Shawnee, George White Eyes of the Delaware and Little Turtle of the Miami. To the Indian society, these leaders were just as much dominant figures of the revolutionary era as were the founding fathers of Washington, Clark, Nathaniel Greene, John Paul Jones, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson to the colonial society.
Nash quotes from E. Raymond Evans' "Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Dragging Canoe, Journal of Cherokee Studies 2 (1977), page 176 by stating that Dragging Canoe was "the greatest military leader ever produced by the Cherokee people."