Chief Doublehead (1744 – 1807), the Cherokee Cannibal For longer than anyone could remember, the Tennessee Valley had been the ancestral hunting grounds of the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Creek nations. This was a land where Indians could live peacefully without fear of encroachment from the whites.
By the late 1700s, however, times began to change as white settlers from Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia began moving onto the Indian lands. The great Indian nations, decimated by war and fragmented by internal strife, could no longer offer resistance. Only one man stood in the way of this movement. Part cannibal, part savage and part statesman, Chief Doublehead would leave his bloody mark on the pages of the Tennessee Valley’s history.
Doublehead was born into the Cherokee aristocracy in the Cumberland foothills of Tennessee. His father had been a ferocious warrior, well-known for his bravery and his brother, Tassel, was a principal chief and statesman. His oldest sister, Wurteh, married a white man, Nathan Gist, and produced a son who was destined to become the greatest of all Cherokees, Sequoyah. Another sister married a white soldier and their son, John Watts, became the Chief of Chiefs among the Cherokee Nation. The Indian nations were a scene of much turmoil during Doublehead’s youth. Part of the tribes wanted to fight the white men who were taking their lands, while others, guided by their heads rather than their hearts, charted a course of peaceful cooperation. To say that Doublehead was a rebellious youth would be an understatement. Even as a child, barely out of puberty, Doublehead began leading raiding parties against white settlers. Although too young to fight, the youths would lie in wait until the settlers were away from home, then sneak in, burn their cabins and run off the livestock. Soon tiring of this, Doublehead began to look for other ways to harass the settlers. The isolated settlements depended on traveling peddlers for necessities such as salt, gunpowder and cloth. Realizing this, Doublehead fanned his group of teenage warriors out across the wilderness trails where they laid in ambush. Within a short while no peddler dared to enter the territory unless provided with a large armed escort. The few brave souls who did go alone met with a premature, and often gruesome death.Doublehead purposely cultivated his image as a bloodthirsty savage.
Though the taking of scalps was not common among the Cherokees, he quickly made it his trademark. Even more grisly was his habit of cannibalizing his enemies’ bodies. After a successful raid he would cut a piece of flesh from one of his victims, and often with blood running down his chin, eat it as a sign of the conquered’s impotence. Afterwards, he would demand that his warriors, as a symbolic blood oath, do the same.Years later, when in Philadelphia meeting with President George Washington, an inquisitive reporter asked Doublehead’s opinion of the white race. Without even giving the matter a moment’s thought, the chief replied: “Too salty.”
In order to keep his warriors loyal to him, Doublehead knew he had to do more than merely lead them on raiding parties. He made the acquaintance of several white traders who quickly met an untimely death. Soon he was selling their goods to stores in the white settlements. Doublehead made enough money to supply his band with guns, powder and other items not normally available to the Indians.
Despite Doublehead’s growing popularity among the tribes, his days of running wild throughout the Cumberlands were numbered. The whites were putting increasing pressure on the Indians as a result of the raids and even many of his own tribesmen were beginning to turn against him. Realizing this, Doublehead gathered his band, a motley mix of Cherokees, Chickasaws and Creeks and moved to the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley. They settled on a site several miles south of the present day Athens, Alabama, which in a few years became a thriving village.
The land was supposed to be shared as a hunting ground by the Cherokees and Chickasaws, with none of them actually living on it. Doublehead quickly solved this problem by giving two of his sisters to George Colbert, the chief of the Chickasaw Nation. Though Doublehead continued to be a nuisance, leading occasional raiding parties against the Tennessee settlements, it was the murder of his brother, Tassel, that ignited the fires of open hostility. Tassel, head chief of the Cherokees, had been invited to meet with Major John Hubbert under a flag of truce.
After a series of talks, the unarmed chief was escorted to a smoke house where he was to spend the night. That night, with Hubbert guarding the door, a youth armed with a tomahawk, entered the building and killed the chief as he lay sleeping. To the whites this was only justice, as the youth had recently lost his parents to a Cherokee war party. A murderous rage descended upon the Tennessee Valley when Doublehead learned of his brother’s death. His name soon became synonymous with terror as his band fanned out for hundreds of miles in every direction dealing death and destruction to any settlements in their paths. Knowing the importance of symbolism among his Indian warriors, he used the death of Captain William Overall to enhance his already gruesome reputation. Overall had distinguished himself as a particularly brave fighter before finally falling under Doublehead’s tomahawk. Doublehead carried the captain’s body back to his village, where in full view of everyone he dismembered the body and began eating the choicest parts, inviting his tribesmen to join him. “The white man is no more than a dog, or a pig of the woods,” he reputedly said, “and should be treated the same way.”
Perhaps the most unforgivable atrocity, and the one that turned many of the Cherokees against him, happened in 1793. Doublehead’s brother, Pumpkin Boy, had been killed in a recent raid against the whites and he was still bitter about it when he entered a village and saw a small white child mounted on a horse behind his nephew, John Watts. Watts had captured the child while assaulting a white settlement, and as was Cherokee custom, had taken the child to raise as his own. With a wild scream of uncontrollable rage, Doublehead charged, burying his tomahawk deeply in the body of the small child. Afterwards for the rest of his life he was known as “Kill Baby” to many of the Indians who were shocked by the ghastly incident. Suddenly and with no apparent reason, in 1794 Doublehead abruptly quit the warpath. Almost immediately he began displaying a new found wealth. Indian couriers were sent to Nashville on a regular basis to purchase furniture and other items for his house. He became a collector of fine race horses, once sending all the way to Charleston, South Carolina to purchase one that had captured his fancy. He even began to dress the part of a wealthy man.The source of his wealth became an item of speculation for people who knew him. Especially intriguing was the fact that much of his wealth seemed to be in the form of bars of silver bullion. At first it was supposed that this was treasure he had stolen during his days on the warpath, but as time went on people realized there had to be another answer. Before long everyone in his tribe was wondering about the source of the bullion. According to legend, Doublehead once asked two of his warriors to accompany him on a trip. After walking for days he finally led them to a cave where a great quantity of silver was stored. The men loaded as much as they could carry in backpacks before returning to the village, where Doublehead warned the Indians against ever revealing his secret, under pain of death. Quite naturally, as Doublehead had expected, later that night one of the Indians revealed to his wife what he had seen. Doublehead, who was lurking outside the cabin listening, immediately burst into the cabin and killed the hapless Indian. No one in Doublehead’s tribe ever again spoke of the mysterious silver bullion.
Though secure in his new found wealth, Doublehead still took his life in his hands when he traveled outside of the Indian lands. For the people whose relatives had been murdered by Doublehead, there could be no forgiveness. In 1794, a leading group of Cherokees had been invited to Philadelphia to meet with the president, and Doublehead, aware of the political ramifications of such a visit, appointed himself as the spokesman. With his tall, foreboding looks and dressed in an elaborate costume, he was the center of attention. People nudged and poked one another to catch a glimpse of the man reputed to be the most bloodthirsty savage in America. Doublehead undoubtedly capitalized on his reputation, for when he left, Secretary of War Henry Knox awarded him an annual annuity of $5,000. Knox probably realized this was cheaper than having Doublehead return to the warpath. This also placed Doublehead under the protection of the United States Government, much to the ire of the whites who had lost their homes and relatives to his murderous band. Doublehead quickly settled into his new life-style. He made frequent trips to New Orleans, Pensacola, Charleston and even visited New York once, where he was described as “the classic example of the noble savage.”
Strangely enough, Doublehead, who once feasted on his enemies’ bodies, even visited some of the finer restaurants and attended a play while in New York. Unfortunately, although Doublehead had become wealthy and was prospering, the Cherokee nation was not. Every year with every treaty the Indian lands became smaller. John Hunt had already settled near the Big Spring in northern Alabama and more settlers were pouring in every day. In January of 1806, Doublehead and the other chiefs of the Cherokee nation signed a treaty giving up all the land lying between the Tennessee and Duck rivers. Unbeknownst to the other chiefs, Doublehead had negotiated a secret agreement with the Indian agent where he received a large tract of land, numbering in the tens of thousands of acres, in exchange for signing the treaty. If Doublehead was hoping his duplicity in the treaty would go undiscovered he was sadly mistaken. Several months later, while attending an Indian ball game at Hiwassee, in the Indian Nation, he was accosted by a fellow chief named Bone Polisher, who loudly denounced him and called him a traitor to his people. As matters reached the boiling point, Bone Polisher drew his tomahawk and rushed Doublehead, swinging wildly at his head. Doublehead, despite having received numerous wounds managed to shoot his assailant through the heart. Onlookers carried the wounded chief to McIntosh’s Tavern where they sought assistance. Instead of help, however, they were confronted by another group of angry accusers who also called Doublehead a traitor. Someone in the tavern (it’s never been established who) extinguished the light. Instantly, as soon as the tavern went dark, a shot rang out. When finally the light was relit. Doublehead was lying on the floor mortally wounded. Friends hastily carried the chief across the field to the home of the schoolmaster where they attempted to hide him. Unfortunately, his blood trail was easy to follow and within minutes another group of avengers appeared to finish the task. Doublehead, the scourge of the Tennessee Valley, was dead. Doublehead’s death signaled the end of the Cherokees in North Alabama. Though they would remain here for another thirty years, they would never again be a powerful force. Almost immediately after Doublehead’s death, people began searching for the source of his wealth. In 1840 two prominent men of the Shoals area, Levi Cassity and James Thompson found a cave that they believed to be the source of Doublehead’s treasure trove. In the cave they found tools and crucibles used for melting silver. Many of the tools still had traces of silver on them. But there was no mine or any ore. The closest thing resembling a treasure were a few old Spanish coins retrieved from the cave floor. Were the coins part of Doublehead’s treasure? Many people think so. When Hernando de Soto visited North Alabama during his explorations he was alleged to have hidden a large amount of silver coins somewhere in present day Jackson County. Could Doublehead have stumbled across the treasure and transported part of it to a cave closer to where he lived? If so, it would explain the tools and crucibles, as many people who would readily accept bullion would not take two hundred year old Spanish coins. We will never know, for as Doublehead once said, “When I die, my secrets are forever buried.
By: Bobby Campbell