Tag Archives: Sequoyah

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

A frontier outpost of the British Empire

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my historic site reviews, but the other day I tagged along on a trip to Fort Loudoun State Historic Area near Vonore, TN.  This is another of those fascinating frontier-era sites in East Tennessee that I’ve intended to visit for a good, long while.  (It’s funny how you’ll drive hundreds of miles to see a site but go years without hitting the ones in your backyard.)

During the French and Indian War, both sides lobbied America’s tribes for military aid.  The British tried to enlist the Cherokee in their war for empire, but Cherokee warriors balked at leaving their villages undefended.  In 1756 South Carolina began constructing a fort on the Little Tennessee River to offer protection to these Overhill towns and to help improve trade between the tribe and the British.  This fort, named for the Earl of Loudoun, was the first significant European structure in what is now Tennessee.

Colonial alliances between whites and Indians were about as stable as Hollywood marriages, and the relationship between the British and Cherokee was no exception.  Indians passing through Virginia angered settlers by stealing their horses.  Colonists killed British-allied Indians for scalp money.  As reprisals took place on both sides, colonial authorities finally imprisoned a number of Cherokee chiefs in South Carolina.  A party of warriors attacked the fort to free the hostages, but the attack failed and the chiefs were put to death.

By the summer of 1760, the same Ft. Loudoun built to cement the Cherokee-British alliance was deep in enemy territory and under a loose siege by the very Indians it was supposed to protect.  Promised safe passage, the garrison started a long trek back to South Carolina.  They didn’t get far before disgruntled Cherokee warriors attacked them; many were captured and later ransomed, while others (including Paul Demere, the British officer in charge) met extremely unpleasant ends at the hands of the Indians.  Maybe the Cherokee were upset that Demere broke the surrender terms by hiding some of the fort’s arms, or maybe they were still upset over the murder of the chiefs held hostage in South Carolina.

Fort Loudoun State Historic Area tells this complex story of alliances made and broken on the outskirts of Britain’s empire.  The centerpiece is a full-scale reconstruction of the fort.  You can explore the barracks, bastions, guardhouse, commandant’s quarters, blacksmith shop, oven, and some fairly extensive outer works (a parapet, dry moat, and chevaux-de-frise).  It’s an impressive structure, and as an added bonus, the view from the elevated rear area is pretty spectacular.

The bad news is that it’s not even remotely similar to the view you would have had 250 years ago—or even three decades ago, for that matter.  Originally the ground around Ft. Loudoun was bottomland, but now it’s at the bottom of a man-made lake.  In the 1970’s, the TVA—as part of its ongoing effort to improve the lives of Appalachians by putting their homes underwater—dammed the Little Tennessee River, which overflowed its banks and flooded the area surrounding the fort site.  In the process, they completely destroyed important Cherokee archaeological sites, sent the endangered snail darter packing, and turned the site of Ft. Loudoun into an island.  To make things even more confusing, the reservoir around Ft. Loudoun is called “Tellico Lake,” but there’s another TVA project called “Ft. Loudoun Lake” that’s farther from the fort site than Tellico.  Go figure.

One of the Indian town sites destroyed by the Tellico Dam project was Tuskegee, boyhood home of Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee writing system.  The park features a couple of reconstructed Cherokee dwellings, one for the summer months and one for the winter months, that illustrate the types of structures found in the villages that Ft. Loudoun was built to protect.

I used to think that the original site of Ft. Loudoun itself was underwater, too, but the reconstruction is on the original spot, although it’s seventeen feet higher in order to keep the reservoir at bay.  The idea that the original site got flooded is a common error that first appeared in a Tennessee history textbook, according to the excellent guide who showed my group around the fort.  Dressed in full redcoat gear, he was extraordinarily knowledgeable about the site, the life of an eighteenth-century British soldier, the region’s history, and early American history in general.  It was one of the smoothest, most thorough tour presentations I’ve heard in a long, long time.

I’ve always maintained that the ultimate test for any visitor center is whether or not any visitor, especially one who knows nothing about a site, can have a fulfilling and interesting tour of the grounds based solely on what they learn from the film and exhibit.  I think Ft. Loudoun would pass this test with flying colors; in fact, it’s the best visitor center I’ve seen at any of the state-run historic sites in Tennessee that I’ve been able to visit.  A fifteen-minute film covers the fort’s context in the colonial struggle for control of North America, its construction, daily life within its walls, and its eventual fall.  The exhibit is small but extremely well-done, incorporating artifacts from the excavations that have taken place at the site over the years.  It’s a fascinating look at how the inhabitants of an outpost on the edge of Britain’s eighteenth-century empire lived their lives.

I’ll also point out that if you’re into the French and Indian War, you’d better bring some disposable income with you.  The gift shop is stocked with hard-to-find academic titles and really great commemorative prints, as well as the usual souvenir items for kids.

You might want to plan on spending some extra time, too, because Ft. Loudoun isn’t the only historic site in the park.  In the 1790’s the federal government built Tellico Blockhouse just a short distance away from where Ft. Loudoun stood, partly to provide the Cherokees with protection from settlers, and partly to domesticate them by teaching them farming and manufacturing techniques.  The excavated foundations are now part of Ft. Loudoun State Historic Area, just across the lake from the visitor center and reconstructed fort.  The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is on Tellico Lake too, but it isn’t a part of the state historic area, and unfortunately I didn’t have time to see it on this run.

Normally my Tennessee history interests fall a little bit later chronologically—from the Watauga Association to the end of the territorial period—but this is one of those sites that digs its way into your head and stays there.  It compares favorably with any historic site of its size, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the Knoxville area or on vacation in the Smokies.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History