The Chickamauga Cherokee refers to a group that separated from the greater body of the Cherokee during the American Revolutionary War. The majority of the Cherokee people wished to make peace with the Americans near the end of 1776, following several military setbacks and American reprisals.
The followers of the skiagusta (or red chief), Dragging Canoe, moved with him in the winter of 1776–77 down the Tennessee River away from their historic Overhill Cherokee towns. Relocated in a more isolated area, they established 11 new towns in order to gain distance from colonists’ encroachments. The frontier Americans associated Dragging Canoe and his band with their new town on Chickamauga Creek and began to refer to them as the Chickamaugas. Five years later, the Chickamauga moved further west and southwest into present-day Alabama, establishing five larger settlements. They were then more commonly known as the Lower Cherokee. This term was closely associated with the people of these “Five Lower Towns”.
During the winter of 1776–77, Cherokee followers of Dragging Canoe, who had supported the British at the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, moved down the Tennessee River and away from their historic Overhill Cherokee towns. They established nearly a dozen new towns in this frontier area in an attempt to gain distance from encroaching European-American settlers.
Dragging Canoe and his followers settled at the place where the Great Indian Warpath crossed the Chickamauga Creek, near present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee. They named their town Chickamauga after the stream. The entire adjacent region was referred to in general as the Chickamauga area. American settlers adopted that term to refer to the militant Cherokee in this area as “Chickamaugas.”
In 1782, militia forces under John Sevier and William Campbell destroyed the eleven Cherokee towns. Dragging Canoe led his people further down the Tennessee River, establishing five new, Lower Cherokee towns.
After the Revolutionary War, westward migration increased by pioneers from the new states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
“Five Lower Towns”
Dragging Canoe relocated his people west and southwest, into new settlements in Georgia centered on Running Water (now Whiteside) on Running Water Creek. The other towns founded at this time were: Nickajack (near the cave of the same name), Long Island (on the Tennessee River), Crow Town (at the mouth of Crow Creek), and Lookout Mountain Town (at the site of the current Trenton, Georgia). In time more towns developed to the south and west, and all these were referred to as the Lower Towns.
The Chickamauga Cherokee became known for their uncompromising enmity against United States (US) settlers, who had pushed them out of their traditional territory. From Running Water town, Dragging Canoe led attacks on white settlements all over the American Southeast.
The Chickamauga/Lower Cherokee and the frontiersmen were continuously at war until 1794. Chickamauga warriors raided as far as Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia (along with members of the Western Confederacy—which they helped establish). Because of a growing belief in the Chickamauga cause, as well as the US destruction of homes of other Native Americans, a majority of the Cherokee eventually came to be allied against the United States.
Following the death of Dragging Canoe in 1792, his hand-picked successor, John Watts, assumed control of the Lower Cherokee. Under Watts’s lead, the Cherokee continued their policy of Indian unity and hostility toward European Americans. Watts moved his base of operations to Willstown to be closer to his Muscogee allies. Before this, he had concluded a treaty in Pensacola with the Spanish governor of West Florida, Arturo O’Neill de Tyrone, for arms and supplies with which to carry on the war.
The Chickamauga Towns and the later Lower Towns were no different from the rest of the Cherokee than were other groups of historic settlements, known as the Middle Towns, Out Towns, (original) Lower Towns, Valley Towns, or Overhill Towns, which well established on the east and western sides of the Appalachian Mountains by the time the Europeans first encountered these people. The groupings did not constitute separate political entities, as much as indicate geographic groupings. People of the Overhill and Valley towns did speak a similar dialect. The highly decentralized people based their governments in the clan and larger town, where townhouses were built for communal gatherings. Some of the towns were associated with nearby, smaller villages. Although there were regional councils, these had no binding powers.
Over time, the different groups of towns developed differing ideas about relations with European-Americans. In part this was based on the degree of interaction and intermarriage they had with them through trading and other partnerships.
The only “national” role which existed among Cherokee people before 1788 was that of First Beloved Man, a chief negotiator from the Towns of the Cherokee most isolated from the reach of European settlers. After 1788, the people established a national council of sorts, but it met irregularly and at the time had little authority. Even after the peace of 1794, the Cherokee had five groups: the Upper Towns (formerly the Lower Towns of western Carolina and northeastern Georgia), the Overhill Towns, the Hill Towns, the Valley Towns, and the (new) Lower Towns, each with their own regional ruling councils (considered more important than the “national” council at Ustanali in Georgia).
Dragging Canoe had addressed the National Council at Ustanali, and publicly acknowledged Little Turkey as the senior leader of all the Cherokee. He was memorialized by the council following his death in 1792. Leaders of the “Chickamauga” frequently communicated with the Cherokee of other regions. They were supported in warfare against the colonists and later pioneers by warriors from the Overhill Towns. Numerous Chickamauga headmen signed treaties with the federal government, along with other leaders of Cherokee Nation.
In November 1811, Shawnee chief Tecumseh returned to the South hoping to gain the support of the southern tribes for his crusade to drive back the Americans and revive the old ways. He was accompanied by representatives from the Shawnee, Muscogee, Kickapoo, and Sioux peoples. Tecumseh’s exhortations in the towns of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Lower Muscogee found no traction. He did attract some support from younger warriors of the Upper Muscogee.
The Cherokee delegation under The Ridge who visited Tecumseh’s council at Tuckabatchee strongly opposed his plans; Tecumseh cancelled his visit to the Cherokee Nation, as The Ridge threatened him with death if he went there. But, during his recruiting tour, Tecumseh was accompanied by an enthusiastic escort of 47 Cherokee and 19 Choctaw, who presumably went north with him when he returned to the “Northwest Territory.”
War with the CreekEdit
Main article: Creek War
Tecumseh’s mission sparked a religious revival, referred to by anthropologist James Mooney as the “Cherokee Ghost Dance” movement. It was led by the prophet Tsali of Coosawatee, a former Chickamauga warrior. He later moved to the western North Carolina mountains, where he was executed by U.S. forces in 1838 for violently resisting Removal.
Tsali met with the national council at Ustanali, arguing for war against the Americans. He moved some leaders, until The Ridge spoke even more eloquently in rebuttal, calling instead for support of the Americans in the coming war with the British and Tecumseh’s alliance. During the War of 1812, William McIntosh of the Lower Muscogee sought Cherokee help in the Creek War, to suppress the “Red Sticks” (Upper Muscogee). More than 500 Cherokee warriors served under Andrew Jackson in this effort, going against their former allies.
A few years later, Major Ridge led a troop of Cherokee cavalry who were attached to the 1,400-strong contingent of Lower Muscogee warriors under McIntosh in the First Seminole War in Florida. They were allied with and accompanied a force of U.S. regular Army, Georgia militia, and Tennessee volunteers into Florida for action against the Seminoles, refugee Red Sticks, and escaped slaves fighting against the United States.
Warriors from the Cherokee Nation East traveled to the lands of the Old Settlers (or Cherokee Nation West) in Arkansas Territory to assist them during the Cherokee-Osage War of 1817–1823, in which they fought against the Osage. Following the Seminole War, Cherokee warriors, with only one exception, did not take to the warpath in the Southeast again until the time of the American Civil War, when William Holland Thomas raised the Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders in North Carolina to fight for the Confederacy.
In 1830 the State of Georgia seized land in its south that had belonged to the Cherokee since the end of the Creek War, land separated from the rest of the Cherokee Nation by a large section of Georgia territory, and began to parcel it out to settlers. Major Ridge led a party of 30 south, where they drove the settlers out of their homes on what the Cherokee considered their land, and burned all buildings to the ground, but harmed no one.
1. Allen, Penelope; “The Fields Settlement”; Penelope Allen Manuscript; Archive Section; Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library;
2. Founders; government archives online; accessed December 2016 Wilkins, Thurman.
3. Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People, pp. 33–47. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1970). Wilkins (1970).
4. Cherokee Tragedy, pg. 58. Eckert, Allan W. A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh, pp. 655–665. (New York: Bantam, 1992)
5. McLoughlin, William G. Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic, pp. 168–185. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992)
6. Mooney, James. The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, pp. 670–677. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896)
7. McLoughlin (1992), Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic, [sic]; pp. 186–205.
8. Wilkins (1970), Cherokee Tragedy, pp. 52-80.
9. Wilkins (1970), Cherokee Tragedy, pp. 114–115
10. McLoughlin, William G., Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic, pp. 209–215.(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).