Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Presence of the Past

It is possible to roam these mountains without feeling the presence of the past. It is not possible for me, though.

Yesterday, I was sitting on a front porch in Webster, the same front porch that was mentioned in the New York Times almost 120 years ago. But that is another story for another time.

In September of 1776, General Griffith Rutherford led a frontier militia of 2,400 men on an expedition against the Cherokees. The army departed from Old Fort on September 1, and followed the Swannanoa River, Hominy Creek and Richland Creek as they made their way west in the following days. They sighted their first Indians on September 6, not long before they crossed Balsam Gap.

Some years later, David Swain wrote about the events that occurred west of the Balsams, on Scott’s Creek:

The latter stream obtains its name from John Scott, a trader among the Cherokees – a negro of whom was shot by Rev. James Hall, the Chaplain [of the expedition], as he ran, mistaking him for an Indian.

One week later, the same Rev. Hall would deliver a sermon from atop the Nuquassee (Nikwasi) mound in present-day Franklin.

September 7, 2009 was a quiet and pleasant day in Webster. Had I been occupying the same spot on September 7, 1776, I would have seen something remarkable. One thousand of Rutherford’s soldiers marched through what is now Webster. They forded the Tuckasegee and continued up Savannah Creek. As they ascended the Cowee Mountains, they encountered a small party of Cherokees waiting in ambush.

In his diary, Lieutenant William Lenoir recorded:

[We] marcht to a little Town on Tuckeyseagey River [and] 8 miles from thence towards watauger [Watauga] saw some indians walking up a mountain & we was attacked by about 20 indians on the top of the mountain at 3 o’clock within about 7 miles of said Town. William Alexander was wounded in the foot and no visible Dammage done to the Indians only a few kettles taken & c. then marcht within 2 miles of the said Town and lay on a small Emanance – 20 [miles marched that day].

The village and mound of Watauga were located along the Little Tennessee River near where you would find Lake Emory today. But when the militia arrived there September 8, the town was already deserted. The systematic destruction of Cherokee villages on the Little Tennessee was about to begin.

On September 10, the violence intensified:

A detachment of 300 men was sent to destroy a town called Sugartown immediately above the junction of the [Little] Tennessee & Sugartown [Cullasaja] rivers. The ground on which the town was situated was flanked on 2 sides by the rivers in the form of a triangle, & the remaining angle on the third side was enclosed by a strong work of brush and timber. When the soldiers had finally entered the town a fire was opened upon them by the indians from the riverbanks and the brush works, & finding themselves surrounded by a invisible foe they took shelter in the cabins and remained there for about 3 hours, at which time they were relieved by a strong detachment from the main army from about 4 miles below, where the firing of the small army had been distantly heard. The detachment lost 18 men killed and 22 wounded. The indians did not sustain any loss that was discovered.

A prisoner, whom they had taken, upon the promise of his life, proposed to lead the army to what was called the hidden town, where their women, children, & a large number of cattle were collected. This was 7 miles distant from Nuquassee in a narrow valley on the Sugartown river and surrounded at all points by mountains and was very difficult to approach from the fact that the mountains jutted in abruptly upon the river, in many places leaving scarcely room for a foot path.

However, on reaching the town there was not an indian to be found save a few very old & decreped men and women, the other indians being discovered some hundreds of feet above them on the crests of the mountains apparently looking down & taking a calm survey of them from their secure situations. They achieved nothing but the destruction of this town & some few beef cattle by that day’s adventures.

[This account of the Sugartown excursion was based on an 1850 letter from Silas McDowell, who lived in the Cullasaja Valley just down river from the gorge. The details he had heard and subsequently shared in his letter contradict other reports. According to some histories of the Rutherford expedition, the militia suffered only a few casualties.]

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