A road trip into Cherokee history

With summer winding down, I thought I’d try to squeeze in one last historical day trip.  This past weekend I headed south of Knoxville to the Little Tennessee River watershed, heartland of the eighteenth-century Overhill Cherokee towns.  It’s one of the state’s richest historical and archaeological regions, and much of it, alas, is underwater.  The construction of Tellico Dam in the 1970s turned this stretch of the Little Tennessee into a reservoir that flooded Native American sites dating back thousands of years.

Fortunately, archaeologists conducted salvage excavations before the waters rose, and you can see the fruit of their labors at places like the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, my first stop of the day.  The inventor of the Cherokee syllabary was born during the American Revolution at the Overhill town of Tuskegee near Ft. Loudoun, a British outpost constructed during the French and Indian War.  (I wrote a review of Ft. Loudoun State Historic Site waaaayyyy back in 2009.)  Lt. Henry Timberlake visited the area in late 1761 on a peace mission following the Anglo-Cherokee war; his 1765 map shows the close proximity between the fort and Sequoyah’s hometown.

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The museum isn’t technically on the actual townsite, since Tuskegee disappeared under the reservoir’s waters when the dam closed.  But it still offers a nice overview of the region’s Native American history going all the way back to the Paleoindian period.

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There’s also a traveling version of the “Emissaries of Peace” exhibition on Cherokee-British relations in the 1750s and 1760s.  (The original exhibit—which is excellent, by the way—is at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.)

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Of course, the museum also covers Sequoyah himself and the process by which he created a new written language from scratch.

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Sequoyah was a silversmith and blacksmith by trade.  The museum grounds have a reconstruction of his shop…

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…and a dogtrot cabin.

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But if you ask me, the most impressive thing to see at the museum is this burial mound.  It holds the remains of 191 Native Americans discovered during the salvage excavations conducted before Tellico Dam inundated the area.

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One of the townsites the dam obliterated was Tanasi, located about five and a half miles southwest of where the museum now stands.  In the 1720s it was among the most important of the Overhill Towns; now the only indication that it existed is a marker by the side of the reservoir.  If you’re interested in seeing it, just follow the signs as you leave the parking lot of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.

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Timberlake’s map popularized the spelling of the town’s name as “Tennessee.”  Nobody knows who had the idea to apply it to the sixteenth state, but an early tradition holds that it was Andrew Jackson, who served as a delegate to the 1796 constitutional convention in Knoxville.

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By the time of Timberlake’s visit, Chota had eclipsed Tanasi as the principal Overhill town, and it remained a sort of de facto Cherokee capital during the tumultuous years of the Revolution.  In December 1780, following the victory of his Washington Co. militia at King’s Mountain, John Sevier marched south to the Little Tennessee and put the towns to the torch as the Cherokees fled before him.  Joined by Arthur Campbell’s Virginians, the troops stopped at Chota on Christmas Day.  After enjoying some much-needed provisions, they burned the town on the 28th.  The Cherokees rebuilt Chota, but Sevier’s campaign marked the beginning of its decline, and by the 1790s it was a shadow of its former self.

If you head north from the Tanasi marker and proceed for about a mile, you’ll come to a sort of circular cul-de-sac and a grass-covered path.  The path leads to the site of Chota’s townhouse, which the TVA raised above the level of the reservoir’s waters.  The pillars stand for the Cherokee’s seven clans, with an additional pillar for the entire nation.

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Beside the monument is the final resting place of Oconostota, one of the most prominent leaders, warriors, and diplomats of the eighteenth-century Southeast.  Goods interred with his body allowed archaeologists to identify his grave during the salvage excavations.  He was re-buried next to the townhouse site in 1989.

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Because the TVA elevated the site of the townhouse, it’s the only part of Chota that’s still high and dry.  If you want to see the rest of the townsite for yourself, you’d better know how to scuba dive.

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With independence won, the new U.S. government inherited the same frontier problems that had plagued the British: keeping Native Americans and settlers from killing each other, regulating the Indian trade, and securing land cessions from the tribe.  This site, north of Chota and within spitting distance of the site of Ft. Loudoun, was intended to help accomplish those objectives.  These are the remains of Tellico Blockhouse, constructed in 1794 at the request of Cherokees exasperated at white encroachment.

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The blockhouse served as a garrison for federal troops, a trading post (or “factory” in the contemporary terminology), and a conduit for communication between the national government and the Cherokees.  A regulated trade brought under federal control would hopefully stem the abuses Indians suffered at the hands of unscrupulous merchants, while the presence of soldiers would rein in the cycles of violence that erupted whenever frontiersmen and warriors took the law into their own hands.

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The fort was also intended to be a vector for civilization.  Federalist policy toward the southern tribes emphasized acculturation, in the hope that Indians who adopted white ways would be more amenable to land cessions.  Silas Dinsmoor, the second Indian agent stationed at Tellico, accordingly supplied the Cherokees with tools and the means to spin their own cloth.

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The U.S. and the Cherokees did indeed negotiate a number of treaties at the blockhouse before the federal government moved its operations south to the Hiwassee River in 1807.  But neither these piecemeal cessions nor the Indians’ adoption of Euroamerican agriculture and cloth making satisfied their white neighbors’ land hunger.  “Frontier whites did not want Indians civilized,” writes historian John Finger.  “They wanted them out.”  And eventually they got what they wanted.

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5 Comments

Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

5 responses to “A road trip into Cherokee history

  1. April Payne

    Does anyone know where Fort Nolichucky used to sit? I read somewhere that it was built near the confluence of Limestone Creek into the Tennessee River and that it was surrounded by a forest? Forest that at that time belonged to the Cherokee. Is this, also, underwater? My sixth great-grandmother was buried in said forest and nobody has ever found her remains, which also makes me wonder if her grave isn’t underwater, too. Makes me very sad.

    I now have another place I must visit when I get to Tennessee. I have read first-hand accounts of the battles after Kings Mountain. Chota, Tellico and Tanasi as well as the Hiawasee River are very familiar names to my family’s history.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    • Michael Lynch

      Ft. Lee was near the confluence of Limestone Creek and the Nolichucky, which I think would put it near Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park in Greene Co. As far as I know, nobody has been able to pinpoint a specific spot. I believe the Limestone Creek that empties into the Tennessee is a different creek by the same name.

      There is an impoundment of the river at Nolichucky Dam a few miles downstream from Crockett’s birthplace, but I don’t know whether it flooded any of the historic sites in the area.

      • April Payne

        Yes, just as you have the Tennessee River and the little Tennessee River, there are two Limestone Creeks. Little Limestone Creek is where John Sevier lived in 1780-1783. This is where his first wife’s tenth child was born, although Sarah Jane, herself, died at Fort Nolichucky. From the location of Fort Lee and the description of where Fort Nolichucky was, I surmised, possibly erroneously, that perhaps the Nolichucky Fort had been built over the remains of Fort Lee, since the Cherokee burnt it down during the siege of 1776. If anyone knows any differently, please give me a heads up. And thank you very kindly for your reply. 🙂

        • Michael Lynch

          That’s a good question–I’m not sure if another fort was built on the remains of Ft. Lee or not.

  2. Pingback: Digging up Knoxville at the McClung Museum | Past in the Present

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