CHEROKEE WAR 1776 – 1794

“…We may unite our strength, and as near as possible pursue the same measures in marching forth at once, and by the assistance of Divine Providence, crush that treacherous, barbarious Nation of Savages, with their white abbetors, who lost to all sense of Humanity, honor, principle, mean to extinguish every spark of freedom in these United States.” General Griffith Rutherford

The next war came fifteen years later in 1776 when the Cherokees allied with Great Britain to fight against their rebellious American Colonies. There were at least two primary reasons the Cherokees took this position. Most of the white settlements closing in or illegally settled on Cherokee land supported the Revolution. Allied with the British, they could eradicate the intruders. Secondly, the British promised that if England squelched the rebellion, they would halt and roll back white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains according to the terms of the 1763 Royal Proclamation. The Cherokees were already at a breaking point with American aggression and expanding white populations.  

Dragging Canoe, son of Attakullakulla, refused to agree to the articles of the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals which was made in the summer of 1775 by the older Chiefs. The Treaty was followed with the Transylvania Purchase which sold of twenty million acres of the buffalo hunting grounds in Kentucky and Tennessee. He vowed its settlement would be dark and bloody.

British-backed Cherokee hostilities broke out on the frontiers of the Watauga, Holston, Nolichucky and Doe Rivers in what is today east Tennessee and the Colonies of North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia. They attacked the frontier settlements and spared no one. The massacres sent shock waves through the newly formed American government. It was one thing to fight the British along the Eastern Seaboard  but quite more complicated to wage a war on two fronts. General Griffith Rutherford of North Carolina called for an immediate response to raise an army and invade the Cherokee country. Procurement was pursued through demand, pleading, accusing, and threatening political authorities until men, lead, powder, beef, salt and horses were assembled and whipped into armies in North Carolina and South Carolina. By late summer, four colonies responded with a vengeance that destroyed about fifty-two or more towns and villages and the intention of leaving the Cherokees to starve in the coming winter. 



The Cherokee heartland was surrounded by walls of mountains that had to be crossed at gaps. Rutherford crossed the Swannannoa Gap to the right of Asheville on the map above. Williamson followed the red arrow at the bottom of the map and crossed the Blue Ridge at Rabun Gap just north of modern Clayton, Georgia. The Cherokee towns were in the green river bottoms where the arrows are pointing.

1776, September

N.C. Gen Griffith Rutherford:   2,437 men including 80 Light Horse Calvary; 1,400 pack horses; 35 pack horse masters& 350 drivers.  40 days provisions including salt, flour, 3,000 head of cattle.

S.C. Gen Andrew Williamson:   1,730 men including unknown number of Light Horse Calvary plus 33 Catawba Indians

The most deadly and effective arm of the invasion was inflicted by the South Carolina Army under Colonel (soon-to-be General) Andrew Williamson. His army consisted of seasoned veterans and Catawba Indian scouts.  While more zealous, Rutherford’s impatience cost him an opportunity to engage the Cherokees in the biggest Indian engagement of the War – the Battle of the Black Hole. His well-known expedition so glorified in historical markers between Asheville and Franklin, NC, was in fact a joint expedition of two armies, the second being Williamson’s. Rutherford and Williamson were to rendezvous at modern Franklin, North Carolina and invade the Valley Towns of simultaneously. Williamson’s army fought their way from Charleston, SC, through Upper South Carolina burning the Lower Towns as Rutherford entered the Little Tennessee River Valley from modern Asheville and burned the abandoned Middle Towns. Williamson was late in arriving at Nikwasi (modern Franklin) and found Rutherford had crossed the Nantahala Mountains without him. But Rutherford got lost on leaving Nikwasi and wandered around looking for the road to the Valley Towns. 

It is unclear if his scout or guide was ignorant of the way or disloyal. One belief is that he had a Cherokee wife across the mountains. He may have intentionally misdirected the army to buy time for his family and Cherokee friends who were evacuating the Valley Towns west of the Nantahala Mountains that separated the Little Tennessee and Valley/Hiwassee Rivers. The eagle eyes of the Cherokee scouts and runners monitored the armies movements from the time they entered Cherokee country and the Indians receded like an ocean wave pulled by the tide back into the sea. Rutherford crossed the Nantahala Mountains along Winding Stair Gap and modern Highway 64 to the Shooting Creek and modern Hayesville on the Hiwassee where he commenced burning. A few days later Williamson crossed the Nantahala’s on the main road or path which followed old Highway 64 along Wayah Creek and over the mountains to modern Andrews known to the Cherokee as Tomatly. Before he ascended the mountain at a place known as the “Horseshoe” or “Black Hole,” he was attacked by a force of 600 or more Cherokees. 


The Cherokees moved across the mountain trails like ghosts. Dragging Canoe depicted above right in an outdoor drama at the Oconoluftee Village in Cherokee, NC; lower left, Militia at Old Fort west of modern Asheville, NC, readying to ascend Swannannoa Gap with Rutherford’s army; lower right, a rugged backwoodsman marching into the Cherokee country.