The Last Battle of the Cherokee
Driving over Interstate 24 west of Chattanooga, thousands of vehicles pass over the modern bridge over Nickajack Lake every day. Beneath the bridge, the waters of the lake shimmer with fishing and pleasure boats floating over the scenic TVA reservoir. To the north is the community of Haletown and the Hwy 41 Bridge, to the south the lake lays like a silver quilt over the valley behind Nickajack Dam, two miles in the distance.
But beneath the grey lake waters that lie below the roaring interstate, underneath the surface where the boaters and fishermen play, lies some hidden history. Just downriver of the Interstate bridge was once the Cherokee town of Running Water, and little farther down the valley was the town of Nickajack. It was in these valley towns that the last stronghold of the Cherokee Nation fell, opening the way for the settlement of Tennessee.
In 1776, this section of the Tennessee River valley was a no-man’s land. The only roads in or out were the secret paths of the Cherokee who sometimes came to camp and hunt here. Certainly, there was the river, always restless in the confines of such a narrow valley. Only a few miles upstream, it passed through what was called “the narrows”, where two natural obstacles made any river passage difficult or even impossible: the boiling pot and the suck. When Fort Loudoun fell in 1760, the French Governor in New Orleans sent a boat of French soldiers and traders to occupy the fallen British fort. The boat made it all the way up the Mississippi and then the Tennessee until it foundered at the suck. Had it made it to present day Monroe County, Tennessee history might have been very different.
The natural obstacles of the river and the steep valley are what attracted a disgruntled group of Cherokees who became known as the Chickamaugas, led by their portly war chief Dragging Canoe, to establish new towns here in 1781. They first had built towns near present day Chattanooga, but in 1776 they moved farther downstream into the natural “citadel”, a river valley surrounded by high mountain ridges. From here, Dragging Canoe and his “Chickamauga Cherokees” controlled the river, attacking any boats of settlers that might drift down toward new lands in Middle Tennessee. It was also a safe haven for the Canoe to operate out of, leading raids all over East and Middle Tennessee on white settlements and forts. Other renegade Creeks and Chickasaws, along with expatriated English and French outlaws joined him, and for a time, it became the most dangerous section of the river to pass. Many flatboats and canoes were overtaken in this valley, and many nameless settlers were lost to the fury of the Chickamaugas.
Their reputation grew, and this had a direct affect on hindering the settlement of lower East and Middle Tennessee. Few settlers would venture into the lands that Dragging Canoe claimed. American soldiers made some attacks, but none seemed to penetrate the deep valley where the towns of Running Water and Nickajack lay. Only the Cherokee knew the paths through the surrounding mountains.
But in 1792 two important events occurred: Dragging Canoe died at Running Water and a young man named Joseph Brown arrived in the Cumberland settlements around present day Nashville. He told stories of his life as a child, how in 1788 his family’s flatboat had been overtaken by the Chickamaugas at Running Water Town, and how his father and brothers had been killed. He and his sisters had been spared and were adopted into the tribe, and there he had lived for a few years before being exchanged. He shared with the Cumberland residents his knowledge of the Chickamauga towns, especially the hidden paths. James Robertson, leader of the Cumberland settlements and “father of Tennessee”, realized the usefulness of Joseph Brown’s knowledge, and quickly formed a plan to attack the Chickamaugas and destroy their hidden valley towns once and for all.
Acting as a guide, Brown led a force of 550 men under the command of James Ore southeast along present-day Highway 41 where half of the men crossed the river in the area of South Pittsburg. Brown took them through the secret mountains passes, and on September 13, 1794, they completely surprised the Chickamaugas. After an all-day fight, Nickajack and Running Water were burned to the ground, and numerous Cherokee warriors were killed.
With the last of the hidden towns in ashes, the Chickamaugas joined with the towns on the Little Tennessee to sign a firm peace treaty with the Americans at Tellico Blockhouse near present-day Vonore. The Nation began to adopt the white practices of farming and weaving, effectively ending the Cherokee war machine. With the Chickamaugas removed, the river flowed free, opening the way for the eventual settlement of the Southeast. And so ended the story of the fabled Cherokee warriors and their valley citadel, now hidden somewhere beneath the dark waters of Nickajack Lake.
Joe D. Guy is a nationally published author, newspaper columnist, and historian residing in McMinn County, TN. He may be reached via email at [email protected] or at PO Box 489, Englewood, TN 37329.