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Brochure highlights militia’s march against Cherokee

A military expedition against Cherokee villages at the onset of the Revolutionary War has been documented with the publication of a full-color informational brochure.


The brochure folds out to display a map and timeline of the Rutherford Expedition through Western North Carolina, as well as stories of Cherokee and the white militia. It was funded by the state Office of Archives and History and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“It is our ambition that this trace will get National Historic Designation, too,” said Charles Miller of Waynesville, who has dedicated years to uncovering the forgotten history of the Rutherford Expedition.

The Rutherford Expedition waged by thousands of white militia men obliterated 36 Cherokee villages from Waynesville to Murphy, burning and destroying homes, crops and livestock. The campaign was both retaliation against the Cherokee for attacks on white settlers and a pre-emptive strike to keep the Cherokee from joining forces with the British.

Miller said the goal behind the brochure is to educate.

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“People just don’t know it happened. It is a part of history that has been left out in Western North Carolina,” Miller said.

Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, has been instrumental in the project. Queen said he learned about the Rutherford Trace from Miller and two other Rutherford Trace buffs — Earl Lanning and Garrett Smathers, also from Haywood County.

“They asked for help getting state and national attention for this piece of history,” Queen said. “I have learned a lot in the process. I have learned this is a story of the western frontier of the nation and North Carolina’s role in founding the nation.”

Queen said the Rutherford Expedition is also a story of the Cherokee, their homeland and villages, and their tenacity as a people. It is also the story of a cultural clash between two groups of people.

“We have two great heritages in Western North Carolina, our Appalachian Scotch-Irish pioneer heritage and our Native American Cherokee heritage. This story is the intersection of those two great stories. I found it compelling,” Queen said.

The Rutherford Expedition is known as the Rutherford Trace for the large imprint the thousands of horses and men left on the landscape. The Cherokee have renamed the expedition the “War Against the Cherokee.”

Miller, along with other Rutherford Trace buffs, spent long hours reconstructing the route of the campaign. Their primary tools were the diaries of men on the expedition. Some was educated guess work, like the exact spot where the men would have crossed Wallace Gap in Macon County.

“When you get out and look at the layout of the land, there is only one place where you could get 2,500 men and 1,200 pack horses through the mountain,” Miller said.

By some accounts, the real motivation behind the Rutherford Expedition was claiming Cherokee land for white settlement. Many of those on the military campaign returned to the region after the Revolutionary War and settled it.

“They were all looking for good fertile bottom land to settle,” Queen said. “This Cherokee territory was prime real estate.”

At the time, there were no white towns or settlements west of Old Fort. The seven western counties were 100 percent Cherokee territory, save the few white traders who had integrated with the Cherokee. Many of the prevalent family names in Haywood County — those that date back to the early 1800s — appear on the rosters of the Rutherford Expedition.

“A lot of these people came back and settled here,” said Miller, whose own fifth grandfather served on the expedition.

The rallying of the militia for the Rutherford Expedition is seen as a crucial moment in the Revolutionary War, Miller said. Some Cherokee war bands had ventured down the mountain to strike white settlements on the frontier. White settlement was encroaching on land that was established as Cherokee territory by the British and the Cherokee wanted the white settlements to move back off their land. Miller said men could not go off and fight the Revolutionary War if their homes were vulnerable to attack.

“If they hadn’t have stopped the Cherokee threat they would have had to stay home and protect their homes,” Miller said.

It also removed the threat of the Cherokee Nation joining the British against the Americans. Many of the same militia went on to defeat the British at King’s Mountain, Miller said.

Queen said the British had recruited the Cherokee to fight against the colonists during the War, claiming — rightfully — that the colonists would not honor the land treaties with the Cherokee so they were better off with the British. Stirring up animosity of Native Americans against the colonists was one of several grievances cited against King George in the Declaration of Independence.

Queen said he hopes to get national designation for the Rutherford Trace, much like the Over Mountain Victory trail.

“I am very interested in telling the story of the western frontier,” Queen said.

Queen said it will also help gain recognition for the dozens of Cherokee towns that dominated the landscape of Western North Carolina prior to the military campaign.

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