I’m not sure when I first heard that John Sevier, the Indian fighter who went on to become Tennessee’s first governor, had led a fighting force into the Cullowhee Valley and destroyed the Cherokee village of Tuckasegee, located where the forks of the river come together at the present-day community of the same name. This surprisingly obscure chapter of local history occurred, we’re told, in 1781.
But did the incident occur or not?
The best-known account is found in James Mooney’s 1900 book, Myths of the Cherokee, where he had been discussing Sevier’s attacks on the Cherokee living in Tennessee:
Although the Upper or Overhill Cherokees were thus humbled, those of the middle towns, on the headwaters of Little Tennessee, still continued to send parties against the back settlements. Sevier determined to make a sudden stroke upon them, and early in March of the same year, 1781, with 150 picked horsemen, he started to cross the Great Smoky mountains over trails never before attempted by white men, and so rough in places that it was hardly possible to lead horses. Falling unexpectedly upon Tuckasegee, near the present Webster, North Carolina, he took the town completely by surprise, killing several warriors and capturing a number of women and children. Two other principal towns and three smaller settlements were taken in the same way, with a quantity of provision and about 200 horses, the Indians being entirely off their guard and unprepared to make any effective resistance. Having spread destruction through the middle towns, with the loss to himself of only one man killed and another wounded, he was off again as suddenly as he had come, moving so rapidly that he was well on his homeward way before the Cherokee could gather for pursuit.
I’d read this several years ago, and recognized that most subsequent accounts of the destruction of Tuckasegee were a rehash of this Mooney story, and failed to shed any new light on the subject. Take, for instance, Archibald Henderson’s The Conquest of the Old Southwest. Published in 1920, it was nothing more than a hyped-up version of Mooney’s account:
But no sooner did Sevier and his over-mountain men return from the battle-field of King's Mountain than they were called upon to join in an expedition against the Cherokees, who had again gone on the war-path at the instigation of the British. After Sevier with his command had defeated a small party of Indians at Boyd's Creek in December, the entire force of seven hundred riflemen, under the command of Colonel Arthur Campbell, with Major Joseph Martin as subordinate, penetrated to the heart of the Indian country, burned Echota, Chilhowee, Settiquo, Hiawassee, and seven other principal villages, and destroyed an immense amount of property and supplies. In March, suspecting that the arch-conspirators against the white settlers were the Cherokees at the head waters of the Little Tennessee, Sevier led one hundred and fifty horsemen through the devious mountain defiles and struck the Indians a swift and unexpected blow at Tuckasegee, near the present Webster, North Carolina. In this extraordinarily daring raid, one of his most brilliant feats of arms, Sevier lost only one man killed and one wounded; while upon the enemy he inflicted the loss of thirty killed, took many more prisoners, burned six Indian towns, and captured many horses and supplies. Once his deadly work was done, Sevier with his bold cavaliers silently plunged again into the forest whence he had so suddenly emerged, and returned in triumph to the settlements.
Fortunately, Mooney did provide footnotes that pointed back to contemporary accounts of the attack. One of those, a letter from a Virginia military officer to Governor Thomas Jefferson refers to the expedition without much detail:
March 28th . Col: Arthur Campbell to Gov: Jefferson : Sir, Since my last, about 150 Voluntiers from the Wattago, have penetrated the Cherokee middle Settlements, destroyed three principals Towns with some scattering Villages ; killed upwards of twenty Indians, and brought off fifteen perfons, mostly children. Another Body of Men are now about seting out from this and Sullivan County to endeavor to drive the enemy from their haunts in the Cumberland Mountains south of the Gap.
If this party is as fortunate in their attempts as the former, I trust our South Western Frontier and the Kentuckey path will be lefs infested the remaining part of the year, than they have been for some time past.
General Greene has appointed Commifsioners to open a Treaty with the Cherokees and Chickacas, and conclude a peace under certain limitations ; a defirable event I confefs ; but which in my opinion will be best obtained, by terrifying the perfidious Tribe well in the first place, which it is to be hoped will be soon affected by General Pickens and Col° E. Clarkes movements in the South, together with what we are doing on this side. In the mean time a Flag is dispatched to Okana-Stote, to his new residence in the mountains, propofing a conference on the subject of exchanging Prisoners, and by the same opportunity private mefsengers are sent to some well affected perfons, and a Belt to the Chickacas. I am your Excellencies very humble Servant.
Three days after the Campbell letter, Colonel Joseph Martin reported to the Governor in similarly broad terms:
[March 31, 1781] Jos: Martin to Gov: Jefferson:
Since Writing last to your Excellency, Col° Savier Return'd from an Expedition against the Middle Settlements of the Cherokee Indians, he kill'd about thirty, Brought in nine prisoners, which he has given into my charge. Burnt six Towns & Took about Two hundred horses. I have sent Exprefs to the Nation, to know whether they intend to Treat agreeable to Genl. Greene’s instructions or not. Shall have an answer by the 15"* next month, the particulars shall acquaint you with afsoon as in my power.
I start to-morrow against some small Towns below Cumberland Gap with Two hundred men. If I have success, I make no Doubt of their Treating, as they will find we are so far from being conquered, as they are led to believe we are, that we are able to attack them on every quarter. I expect to be back by ye 15th April, if anything particular shall Transmit the same to your Excellency as soon as in my power. Could I perade one hundred men more than what is ordered, shall endeavor to Reduce Chuckamogga, with less Durft not attempt.
I am Sr, with great respect, your Excellency's Humble & most ob'.
James G. M. Ramsey in the 1853 book, The Annals of Tennessee, offers more on the 1781 destruction of Tuckasegee:
…stationed troops were a most inadequate defence. The Indians still prowled around the more remote settlements, and in an unguarded moment committed murder and theft. Col. Sevier suspected that the perpetrators of this mischief came from some hostile towns in the mountain gorges, where his troops had never yet penetrated. He collected together, in March of this year, one hundred and thirty men in the Greasy Cove, and with them he marched against the Middle settlements of the Cherokees. He entered and took by surprise the town of Tuckasejah, on the head waters of the Little Tennessee.
Fifty warriors were slain and fifty women and children taken prisoners. In that vicinity the troops under Sevier burnt fifteen or twenty towns and all the granaries of corn they could find. It was a hard and disagreeable necessity that led to the adoption of these apparently cruel measures.
Still, nothing less would keep the savages in their towns, or prevent more cruel massacres of the whites upon the frontier. Sevier had but one man killed at Tuckasejah, and but one wounded, and he recovered. Ten of the prisoners resided with Colonel Sevier three years, and were treated with humanity and kindness. They were afterwards delivered to Col. Martin, and by him restored to their own nation.
David McNabb was one of the captains in this expedition. The command went up Cane Creek, and crossed Ivy and Swannanoa. Isaac Thomas, an old Indian trader, was their pilot. The mountains were so steep that the men had to dismount and lead their horses. Before an exchange of prisoners was effected, some of the Cherokee women and children made their escape. This campaign lasted twenty-nine days, and was carried on over a mountainous section of country never before travelled by any of the settlers, and scarcely ever passed through, even by traders and hunters. The Indians of the Middle towns were surprised at this unexpected invasion of Sevier — were panic stricken and made little resistance.
Ramsey might have extracted some his details from the pension applications filed by veterans of the Revolutionary period. In his 1834 application, George Turnley gave his version of the attack on the Middle settlements:
When we arrived at the River Watauga in Washington County, an expedition was about to march against the Middle Settlements of the Cherokees under General John Sevier. This Declarant immediately volunteered under Captain David McNabb in the month of March 1781 day not recollected. There were three companies on this expedition, about 170 men. Captain Davis commanded one of the companies. The other Captain's name is forgotten. The name of the Lieutenants' name is not recollected. The Ensign's name is not recollected, nor the names of the Sergeants. The place of Rendezvous was at the mouth of Indian Creek opposite the Greasy Cove on Chucky River [sic, Nolichucky River] in Washington County, then North Carolina. General John Sevier had took the command of us. Major John McNabb the Major. The first night we encamped on the other side of the Bald Mountain, on the other side of the Swannanoa [River]. That night we were marched on after resting a few hours to the head waters of the Hiwassee River, to a town of the Indians, which we attacked, and killed 17 Indians and took 28 prisoners. One of our men only was wounded at this place. We destroyed the town. Thence we were marched successively to several towns which we attacked and destroyed. At one of the Towns Captain Davis and Lieutenant Bond were killed. No other men were killed. We were marched back to Washington County from the first town, that we had entered, and we were discharged in the Greasy Cove our Captains. And this Declarant received a verbal discharge from his Captain David McNabb. http://southerncampaign.org/pen/s21545.pdf
The way I read it, Turnley’s account only adds to the confusion. Though he had been a participant, he was telling the story 53 years after it happened.
That’s about the extent of what I’ve turned up. Other evidence might confirm that Sevier’s forces stormed the Cullowhee Valley and destroyed the village of Tuckasegee in March 1781. Or it might muddy the waters even further.