Episode 5 Transcript
In September, 1780, a ragtag group of backwoodsmen from what is today North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia assembled to begin a journey to defend their homes and belief in liberty. They met their destiny at Kings Mountain and this is their story. The Mitchell County Historical Society presents Footsteps for Freedom: The Road to Kings Mountain. Episode Five: The Cherokee Wars.
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 King George the Third to protect them from land-hungry settlers who were moving into the region. The Proclamation of 1763 which was designed to control these settlers was largely ignored.
Following the Declaration of Independence in 1776, most of the Cherokee nation allied themselves with the British. Confrontations between them and the settlers multiplied with attacks and counter-attacks. As the 13 colonies began the fight for independence from Britain, the Native Americans began their own fight for survival.
The Cherokee’s land boundary with the Catawba tribe ran along the crest of the Blue Ridge, the same as the Proclamation line from King George. They likely had no permanent settlement in the Toe River Valley. Instead, they had used this area as a summer camp and hunting ground for many years.
Confrontations began as settlers arrived. One tradition in Mitchell County has it that pioneer Aaron Burleson was killed by a hunting party on Cane Creek near Bakersville. Sally Mace, mentioned in our program on scalping, was another early victim in the area.
An undated account of the area’s early history by Judge A.C. Avery mentions that the Cherokee “crossed the Blue Ridge and invaded the upper part of Burke and what is now McDowell County. They scalped people, burned their houses, and took their livestock all along the line of their march.” The people living along the foot of the Blue Ridge rushed to local forts for protection. Those who remained at their homes, were killed, after being subjected to cruel torture in some instances. Avery noted that the Cherokee came down Roaring Creek to the North Toe River and crossed into the North Cove settlement first, a path the Overmountain Men would take 4 years later.
Historian Perry Deane Young expanded on Avery’s account, noting that, “there were 30 or 40 armed men protecting the column of men, women, and children, with their livestock being herded along with them.. Seven of the Indians emerged from hiding and each captured one of the children. Those children included Lydia and Mary Burchfield and others from the Young, Hyatt, Legerwood, and Dobson families. Five were found dead the next day. Mary Burchfield was never found, and her sister Lydia was scalped and left for dead. However, she lived to the ripe old age of 83.”
The Cherokee raids laid waste to settlements in what are today Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and Upstate South Carolina. The newly-independent states organized a counter offensive to take the war to the Cherokee. The guerilla warfare tactics of the Cherokee made it virtually impossible to bring them to a decisive battle in the field, so the Patriots adopted a strategy of attacking their villages, capitalizing on the idea that the warriors would abandon the fight if their families were homeless and starving as the winter was approaching. Each state in the offensive was assigned a different set of towns to target. South Carolina troops would attack the Lower Cherokee towns in Upstate South Carolina. Virginia Troops would attack the Overhill Cherokee towns located in Southeast Tennessee. North Carolina troops were placed under the command of Irish-born General Griffith Rutherford and he targeted the Cherokee Middle Towns located in valleys southwest of what is today Asheville.
Rutherford gathered 2400 militiamen, who carried long rifles, hatchets, and butcher knives, along with small cannon. The group took 1500 pack horses with supplies and drove 800 beef cattle to feed the army. Interestingly, this militia was accompanied by some Patriot allies, the Catawba Indians who were a traditional enemy of the Cherokee. Rutherford’s expedition against the Middle Towns of the Cherokee left Davidson’s Fort (today’s Old Fort in McDowell County) on September 1, 1776.
Recent research has revealed that Rutherford himself may have marched through our area in July, 1776 prior to his more well-known September expedition. In July he, along with a force of 300 to 500 men crossed the Blue Ridge to attack a body of 200 Cherokee warriors encamped on the Nolichucky River about 25-30 miles from Rutherford’s camp which was near Buck Creek in present-day McDowell County. The route to the Cherokee camp most likely went through the Toe River Valley.
While the evidence that Rutherford’s force marched through what is now Mitchell County is circumstantial, the impact of his expeditions against the Cherokee is indisputable. Noted historian William S. Powell states that had the Cherokee been able to mount a serious attack on the frontier country in 1780 and 1781, the outcome of Cornwallis’ Southern Campaign and the American Revolution itself might have been very different. It might also have changed our region. Although 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, which was signed in Tennessee along 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 North Carolina legislature had opened Cherokee land as far west as the Pigeon River for settlement.
The damage to the Cherokee nation by the raids of Rutherford and others was considerable. Not only was the usual devastation of war carried out in the battles, such as the burning of towns, and the leveling of fields of crops, but every Indian warrior was scalped, if time allowed, women were put to death as ruthlessly as warriors, and prisoners were taken were sold into slavery. Survivors were left to roam the woods and live as best they could. The troops Rutherford led himself burned 11 Cherokee towns while North Carolina troops not under his command burned an additional one. Georgia troops burned two, Virginia troops burned 6 but the greatest devastation was leveled against the Cherokee by South Carolina troops who burned 31 towns. Altogether, 52 Cherokee towns were put to the torch that summer and fall. It was a scorched earth policy such as even General Sherman of Civil War fame could not equal almost a hundred years later according to author Wilma Dykeman.
The Cherokee wars removed a major impediment forsettlers and for the Overmountain Men’s visit to our area four years later.
Special thanks to Jonathan Bennett and Rhonda Gunter for their assistance with today’s program
Footsteps for Freedom: The Road to Kings Mountain is a production of the Mitchell County Historical Society, a non-profit organization committed to the preservation of the history, heritage, and culture of Mitchell County, North Carolina. Today’s program was written, narrated, and produced by David Biddix. Special thanks to WTOE radio in Spruce Pine, North Carolina (1470 on the AM dial) and WKYK Radio in Burnsville, North Carolina (940 on the AM dial) for airing our program. You can also download episodes through Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. Learn more at mitchellnchistory.org/ovm.
The Mitchell County Historical Society offices are located in the Historic Mitchell County Courthouse in Bakersville. We’d love for you to become a member of our Society! You can learn more about us on the web at mitchellnchistory.org. There, you can also see show notes about today’s episode, links to online resources about the Battle of Kings Mountain and those involved in it, and much more about Mitchell County’s history and heritage. You can also visit us on Facebook. Join us next time as we continue the journey to Patrick Ferguson and the famous battle atop Kings Mountain.