Episode 7 – The Over-Mountain Men


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Episode 6- The Over-Mountain Men

Part 1: Origins Before the Mountain

Now that we have a basic understanding of the nuances of Native American culture to work with, and a understanding of their historical perspective, I feel compelled to begin comparing their experience to that of the people who would come to dominate the Tennessee and Ohio Valleys, the Overmountain Men. As we discussed in the last episode, the devastation of the Anglo-Cherokee War cleared the path for white settlers to move into and occupy what had been Native lands. This, obviously, was dangerous. As a settler you were moving out of the comfort and protection of your colony and into what was perceived by the settlers to be vast, untamed wilderness. Of course we know that these lands were far from untamed. Many of the places these settlers claimed were the very spots where old Cherokee towns had been located. Fields had already been plowed and trees removed. Even great roads, what we would consider trails today, had been cleared by hundreds or years of feet moving over them. What the settlers meant, and what many of the founding father’s meant, when they talked about the untamed wilderness of the western lands was that they were not being put to profitable use.

Western movement of settlers in the colonies had always happened, since the beginning, but began accelerating in the 1750s, as the population of the colony began to grow, and more people immigrated from Europe. This westward movement was created by the need of land for new settlers. The economy was largely agrarian, which meant you needed a plot to farm. This came in two forms: either through outright ownership or a tenancy. The instability inherent to cash crop agriculture, like the tobacco trade, encouraged land speculation, and this further accelerated movement west.

Land Speculation plays a huge part in the story of the United States, so now is as good of a time as any to break it down for you. Land Speculating was very similar to how we buy stocks on the stock market now — you purchase it in the hopes that you can sell it at a higher price later down the road. Land speculation was basically driven by one idea; you buy land cheap now so that you can either sell it or rent it to someone later down the road. Speculators knew that people were eventually going to settle in the west, the hard question was when and where. That’s where land speculation companies, like the Transylvania Company, come in. Their goal was to not only purchase a huge block of land, but also to induce prospective settlers to purchase or rent land that they owned, and were directly responsible for settling them. You see a lot of very wealth people in this period either investing in land speculation companies, or speculated outright. Washington was an avid Land Speculator in the Shenandoah Valley, but more notably in the Ohio Valley. Men like Washington were more partial to tenant farmers, where the farmers paid rents on the lands they occupied, than selling the land outright.

In the case of the Tennessee Valley, many of the earliest settlers weren’t land speculators, they were poor farmers looking to get to fertile land before some land baron gobbled it up. Most of the early inhabitants were poor societal castaways, and you can see this in the ethnic makeup of the region. The earliest of the early settlers were long hunters, like William Bean — the first recorded settler of the Tennessee Valley, who sought to facilitate trade between other longhunters and the Cherokee who lived within reach. In Bean’s case, he created a store that traded with new settlers, travelers, hunters, and Cherokee alike. These men who created commercial interests in the region were a different kind of land speculator. Unlike distant landlords like Washington, some, like Evan Shelby, not only move their family and established shops of their thousands of acres of land, they also constructed a fort to protect his investment. All of this was largely above board, as the treaties of Hard Labour (1768) and Lochaber (1770) seemingly cleared the way for settlement. However, the settlements which sprang up South of the line created by the treaty of Lochaber resulted in the settlers signing a lease with the Cherokee.

Many of the people in this area, both according to oral tradition and that of modern historians, shows that they were largely societal castoff and were ethnically diverse. Although they were almost entirely white, they came from various European heritages. A little over 80 percent were considered English, 11 percent were Ulster Scots, about 3 percent were Irish, and upon further investigation of the leading families of the Overmountain Men you see those of Germans, Welsh, Dutch, Swiss, Alsatians, Africans, and French Huguenots sprinkled throughout. The fact that this area was more ethnically diverse than the rest of the country shows that many of those that settled this area were immigrants in general, and not just to this area. Many of those who were born in America, like John Sevier, were first generation Americans. Many were also fleeing some form of persecution. You’ll notice I used the term Ulster-Scots instead of the much more common, Scots-Irish. I did this intentionally, as many newer historians are now, because it’s a much more accurate term. The Ulster-Scots get their name from the province in Ireland they inhabited. We know that province today as Northern Ireland, and those familiar with modern history will understand what the relevance of that is. Many of the origins of the conflict in North Ireland of the recent past has it’s roots in the past of the Ulster-Scots. These people had either migrated, or had been settled into northern Ireland for up to 200 years. They were Irish in all but name … and religion. Ireland was, and still is, largely a Catholic country, and Scotland — where many of these immigrants originated from, hence the Scots part of Ulster-Scots — were protestant. However, at the time of the mass migrations of Ulster-Scots to the colonies, starting in the early 18th century, wasn’t triggered by religious persecution from the Irish Catholics, but actually the Church of England, which prioritized Anglicans over all other Protestants. Scots were largely Presbyterian. In addition, for many of the German, French, Welsh, and a various other immigrants you find some strain of religious persecution in their history. This is before you even get into the recent persecutions of the Americans, specifically a group called the Regulators. The Regulator War was fueled by wild corruption in some of North Carolina’s counties, where country officials, combined with a growing merchant and professional class, appeared to tax and sue poor rural farmers into destitution. In some cases county Sheriffs, who collected the taxes, would alter or destroy records to make it appear that someone hadn’t paid their taxes, when they had in fact paid for them two or three times. Inevitably, the people of these counties rose up in revolt. The revolt was put down by the royal governor and the leaders executed. This resulted in a large number of regulators fleeing into the Holston River Valley and eventually signing a lease with the Cherokee for the Nolichucky River settlements. One of these people was James Robertson, the founder of Nashville, TN.

All this is to say that a majority, or sizable minority, of these settlements were populated by people who had been persecuted, and upon arriving in the new world, made their way west to lands that were affordable. For many of them, moving into uncharted territory was the only option for them, and they had probably spent everything they had getting there. There was no going back for them. The ballooning population created a windfall for those with money to buy even more land, so as to make even more money. Both the exploding population and the ravenous acquisition of land made conflict with the Cherokee inventible, even though a majority of the earliest settlers preferred peace. It also sets up the totality of the conflict. The Cherokee, nor these new settlers, had anywhere else to go. The Cherokee had continuously been rolled further and further back by wars and treaties, and these settlers had been funneled into the interior by persecution and poverty in the search of some kind of success. It was the classic case of a immovable object and an unstoppable force. It’s also very ironic, that those who had been persecuted for so long would now become the persecutors. That being said, it’s very obvious when reading Haywood’s history of Tennessee, that the settlers didn’t see it that way. As 1777, shortly after the peace with the Cherokee was signed, begins like this:

“Through the year 1777 scouting parties of Indians upon the frontiers occasionally killed and plundered the inhabitants … but in this year, a part of the militia being disbanded and their vigilance relaxed, Indian depredations and massacres soon recommenced.”

Part 2: Total Destruction and Devastation

Dragging Canoe, while recovering from his wound in the 1776 campaign, largely sat out of the next years combat. He was more focused on moving his people, the Chickamauga, to their new homes. That doesn’t mean, however, that his people sat out of combat. Chickamauga raided up and down the frontier from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and assisted the British Army in their efforts to capture Savannah. The most renowned of their assaults was the Siege of Boonesborough, where they worked as allies to the Shawnee. The people of the mountains, however, were focused more inward than outward.

The Revolution had visited, and cut through the community, much as it had everywhere in the US, splitting people between Patriots and Tories and people who really didn’t care. It’s hard to say how much Tories actually posed as threat in these communities, but in similar demographic areas, like frontier New York, you see Tories teaming up with Native American allies to lead operations against the Americans. Apparently horse theft was rampant, and this polarization of the community lead to some pretty brutal steps. The people of Watauga formed a committee and a unit of dragoons who’s job it was to hunt down people being suspected of royalist sympathies and bring the accused to the committee. Haywood says:

““The committee met in November, and appointed two companies of thirty men each to patrol the whole country, and to put to death every suspicious character who attempted to oppose them.”

An example of the behavior of this committee can be seen here:

“The tories upon the waters of the Holston were now as dangerous and as hurtful as the Indians. To watch their motions, as well as those of the Indians, it became necessary to keep up constantly scouting companies of armed men. One of these killed Bradley, a tory. He was a notorious offender, who had often been imprisoned for his misdeeds in the jail of the District of Halifax, in North Carolina; and had given himself the name of “Honest” Jim Bradley, by which also others, by way of derision, called him. In the same year one Dykes, a tory, was taken by the Light Horse Company, there being one in each county of the State of North Carolina to apprehend tories, and to take and bring to the army drafted militia-men who deserted. The company, acquainted with his desperate character, hanged him. He and others had agreed to come from the frontier to the house of Col. Sevier, and to put him to death. Of this agreement the wife of Dykes gave information to Sevier, who, in the time of her distress, had treated her with great humanity and friendship. Halley and others were confederates with Dykes[…]”

According to historian Kevin Barksdale, a huge resource for the period, Washington County, which was the nexus of power for the area, only tried 14 cases of high treason from 1778 to 1783. This was either because tories were not quite a serious problem, or because these dragoons dispensed swift justice. Barksdale also describes another situation, variously quoting from a primary source, says quote:

“In 1850, the son of Franklin judge David Campbell recounted the backcountry execution of a Tory named Hopkins. After a two-mile chase up the Holston River, David Campbell and a small party of frontier militiamen cornered the desperate Hopkins. Upon being confronted by his pursuers, Hopkins plunged his horse off a twenty-foot bluff into the Holston River. David Campbell managed to throw Hopkins from his horse and wrestle him to the ground. During the violent struggle, Hopkins, “the strongest man,” nearly drowned Campbell before “Edmiston and several others” rushed to his aid. With their assistance, Hopkins “was subdued and taken to the bank” of the Holston River. David Campbell’s son described what happened next: “Some of the company knew him, and knew some of his acts of felony-all knew his desperate character…. The company held a consultation & decided that they would hang him and did so forthwith by sticking his neck into the fork of a leaning sycamore which bent over the river.”

I’ve had that image in my head for a few months since reading it. Can you imagine that, hanging someone by jamming their neck into the crook of a tree? Like, do you hold his head there while he kicks and screams? Does he give up the fight and just succumbs? Do you have enough rope to lash his neck against the tree and watch as he slowly strangles against the tree? That’s got to be a horrible way to go. To be blunt, the people of the Holston River Valley thought that the rough terrain and remoteness of the region made proper justice impossible, and instead resorted to roving death squads to keep the tories in line. Because the early histories are written by the people doing these things, we simply don’t know how many people could have been caught up in this whose only crime was not being sufficiently patriotic enough.

We do know, however, that this upheaval caused a mass of emigres to leave the Watauga settlements and make for West Florida (which is today modern day lower Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle). Many of these people, already poor and stuck on the frontier in an endless cycle of violence, actually gave up colonial society and sought refuge among the neutral Cherokee and even the Chickamauga. It was Dragging Canoe’s acceptance of the Watauga diaspora which was sure to end the fragile peace between all the Cherokee and the settlers. To them, these emigres were tories, and by them being absorbed into the Chickamauga only validated these concerns. It confirmed the alliance between the tories and the Chickamauga. In truth, the people driven out from their communities may not have initially been tories, but after suffering such depredation, they in turn became the thing their community feared. Many of these people took up arms against their former community and became a part of the Chickamauga, which at this point became a polyglot community, fused with Cherokee dissidents, tories, and other native American tribes shattered by wars with the Americans, all fighting under Dragging Canoe’s banner. In time, Dragging Canoe’s handpicked successor would be a man named John Watts, a mixed blood Cherokee.

It was this acceptance of the tories which provoked the next move from the settlers, who saw the alliance of Chickamauga and tories as an existential threat, and responded in kind. Evan Shelby, a welshman and early settler and land speculator, raised a thousand men to wipe out the Chickamauga.

According to Haywood, “The troops descended so rapidly as completely to surprise the enemy, who fled in all directions to the hills and mountains without giving battle. The whites pursued, and hunted them in the woods and killed upward of forty of them, burned their towns, and destroyed their corn and every article of provision, and drove away their great stocks of cattle” It’s possible that many of Dragging Canoe’s warriors were away at the time, but I find it more likely, because it becomes a pattern of behavior for a long time afterward, that this was the first instance of a new Dragging Canoe strategy. So even though the Cherokee and Chickamauga outnumbered their closest neighbors, the Americans had shown they could raise massive numbers of militia to assault Native American settlements. Dragging Canoe, theoretically, had enough men to defeat this militia, but at what cost? Every warrior he lost was irreplaceable, every American he killed would be replaced by ten men in the next campaign. He could stop them now, but what happens if they double, or triple, their numbers on the next campaign? Homes could be rebuilt, corn could be replanted, livestock could be bought — or stolen — again. People couldn’t. Not to mention, we can see the fate of any remaining in these towns. They were butchered. They were captured and sold into slavery. We can see a more explicit form of this strategy from the words of George Washington himself, who gave these orders the following year to one of his generals tasked with ending the Iroquois threat in New York:

The expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the six nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more. … But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected—It is likely enough their fears if they are unable to oppose us, will compel them to offers of peace, or policy may lead them, to endeavour to amuse us in this way to gain time and succour for more effectual opposition. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us the distance to which they are driven and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them. Peace without this would be fallacious and temporary.”

People tend to think about the Revolutionary War in idealistic terms. It was a gentlemen’s war, fought with clearly delineated rules of war. That usually ignores basic facts, like how during the battle of Yorktown, General Cornwallis deliberately infected escaped slaves — who were under his protection — with smallpox and sent them into the no mans land between Yorktown and the American lines in an effort to infect American troops. It ignores the messy guerrilla warfare between settlers and native Americans throughout the colonies, and the extremely violent responses by the Americans. We tend to collectively ignore these facts, and fail to realize that the war, particularly on the frontier and in the South, more closely resembled Vietnam than the Revolutionary War of out collective consciousness. Thomas Jefferson wrote to Washington saying, “I also enclose you a letter from Colo. Shelby stating the effect of his success against the seceding cherokees and chuccamogga. (That’s how Jefferson spelled Chickamauga) The damage done them was killing a dozen, burning 11 Towns, 20,000 bushels of Corn.” He also, ironically wrote, “I hope these two blows coming together and the depriving them of their head will in some measure effect the quiet of our frontieres this summer.” He didn’t realize that as he was writing this letter, the whole of the Cherokee were rising to war.

That wraps up episode 7. For the book of the week, this time, I will be recommending “Before the Volunteer State: New Thoughts on Early Tennessee, 1540–1800.” The book is a compilation of essays from various experts in the field, two of which were my professors at Austin Peay State University. It’s a very good book and runs the gamut of historical interest. It was absolutely a resource for this period. It is an academic book, more so than almost every other I’ve recommended so far, but it is good. You can go to americanlegendspodcast.com and click the “book of the week” link at the top to purchase your own copy.

If you liked this episode and want to know more, check me out on twitter @jk_nelson and on Facebook @americanlegends. Also, please send me emails about any questions you have about the period. I’ll research them and get you an answer and read it live on the show. So please, send me some mail!

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