When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, territory from the Atlantic to the Mississippi was ceded to Britain by France. Native Americans living in the area looked to the Crown to protect them from incursions of land-hungry settlers, but the Proclamation of 1763 (last week’s Looking Back) was largely ignored. Following the Declaration of Independence, with most Cherokee allied with the British, confrontations with American settlers multiplied with attack and then counter-attack. As the 13 colonies began the fight for independence from Britain, tribes began their fight for survival.
The Cherokee, whose boundary with the Catawba Indians was along the crest of the Blue Ridge, likely had no permanent settlement in the Toe River Valley. Instead, they used the area as summer camp and hunting ground. As settlers moved into the area, there were confrontations, such as the tradition that pioneer Aaron Burleson was killed by a hunting party on Cane Creek. Jason Deyton, in The History of the Toe River Valley to 1861, says a Mrs. Mace “was scalped alive by Indians on the headwaters of Grassy Creek. Her husband returned from a hunting trip to find her mutilated body. He sought out these Indians and found them near the present-day Grassy Creek Baptist Church, where he killed them. They were buried in the edge of a nearby field. The woman survived and her descendants still live here today.”
An undated account of the area’s early history by Judge A.C. Avery reveals that “During the year 1776 the Cherokee Indians as allies of England, crossed the Blue Ridge and invaded the upper part of Burke and what is now McDowell County. They scalped the people, burned the houses, and appropriated the livestock along their line of march… With very short notice of their danger, the people living along the foot of the Blue Ridge… rushed to the different forts for protection, and those who without warning, remained at their homes, were killed, after being subjected, in some instances, to cruel torture… The Cherokees came down Roaring Creek to Toe River and crossed, we believe, into the North Cove settlement first”.
Perry Deane Young expands upon Avery’s account, contending that, “There were 30 or 40 armed men protecting the column of men, women, and children, the livestock being herded along with them. … Seven of the Indians emerged from hiding and each captured one of the children.” The children included Lydia and Mary Burchfield and others from the Young, Hyatt, Leginwood, and Dobson families. Five children were found dead the next day, Mary Burchfield was never found, and Lydia Burchfield was scalped and left for dead, but survived to the ripe old age of 83.
Triggered by these and other raids along the Catawba River and on Davidson’s Fort (current-day Old Fort) in the spring and summer of 1776, an expedition to punish the Indians and end their threat to settlers was organized in the fall by Irish-born General Griffith Rutherford (1725-1805). He gathered 2400 militiamen, who carried long rifles, hatchets, and “butcher knives,” along with some small cannon. They carried supplies on 1500 pack horses and drove 800 beef cattle to feed the force. Interestingly, the Patriot militia was accompanied by some Patriot allies – Catawba Indians, traditional enemy of the Cherokee.
Since summer 1776, forces from Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia had been clearing Cherokee villages. In fact, research reveals that Rutherford himself may have marched through the Toe River Valley the July prior to the more well-known September expedition known as the Rutherford Trace. According to Jonathan Bennett of the National Park Service, “In July 1776, Rutherford with a force of 300-500 men crossed the Blue Ridge to attack a body of 200 Cherokee warriors camped on the Nolichucky River about 25-30 miles from their lines” somewhere near Buck Creek (now McDowell County.)
While the evidence that Rutherford’s force marched through what is now Mitchell County is circumstantial, the impact of his expedition(s) is indisputable. Historian William S. Powell suggests that “had the Cherokee been able to mount a serious attack on the frontier country in 1780 and 1781, the outcome of the British southern campaign and the American Revolution itself might have been different.” It might also have changed our region. Though there is evidence of earlier white residents, settlement in the Toe River Valley wasn’t legal until North Carolina and the other colonies won their independence. In the 1777 Treaty of Long Island (in the Holston River), the Cherokee ceded territory east of the Blue Ridge and along the Watauga, Nolichucky, Upper Holston, and New Rivers; by 1783, the NC legislature had opened Cherokee land “as far west as the Pigeon River.”
Historian William S. Powell suggests that “had the Cherokee been able to mount a serious attack on the frontier country in 1780 and 1781, the outcome of the British southern campaign and the American Revolution itself might have been different.” The damage to the Cherokee nation was considerable. “Not only was the usual devastation of war carried out in the killings, the burning of towns, the leveling of fruitful fields, but every Indian warrior was scalped, if time allowed, women were put to death as ruthlessly as warriors, and such prisoners as were taken were sold at immediate auction into slavery. Every house of every town Rutherford’s army passed through was burned, its fields of corn were trampled, and its survivors were left to roam the woods and live as best they could. This was a scorched earth policy such as even General Sherman of Civil War fame could not equal almost a hundred years later” (Wilma Dykeman 35).