Archived News

Rutherford Trace: Local historians examine the legacy of a shock-and-awe Revolutionary War campaign against the Cherokee

By Michael Beadle

To some, it was a crucial military campaign early in the Revolutionary War, an unprecedented patriot force that crushed a potential British ally and paved the way for American independence and inevitable white settlements in Western North Carolina.

To others, it was a brutal terror raid that killed and starved innocent Cherokee civilians — a Colonial version of Gen. William Sherman’s Civil War march through the South.

The patriot militia expedition of September 1776, led by Gen. Griffith Rutherford and known afterward as the Rutherford Trace, sought to eliminate Cherokees as a British ally and punish them for attacking white settlements. In one month, Rutherford’s men left dozens of Western North Carolina Cherokee villages in ruins with hundreds of acres of crops destroyed and livestock killed or seized.

There were relatively few combat casualties on either side as Rutherford’s men encountered little resistance from the Cherokee. (One theory suggests that warriors left to defend other Cherokee villages under attack.) A handful of Rutherford’s men died in combat. Others succumbed to disease, wounds and exhaustion during and after trekking the 300-plus miles of mountainous terrain. Some in the militia would later become heroes of the Revolutionary War, honored names of North Carolina counties and towns, and founding family ancestors in dozens of WNC communities.

Meanwhile, the Cherokee legacy of the Rutherford Trace is one of tragedy and loss. Sacred council houses were desecrated. Ancient villages thousands of years old were burned to the ground. Lost homes and food shortages created hundreds of Cherokee refugees by winter.

Related Items

Was confrontation inevitable between white frontiersmen and the Cherokee? If Rutherford Trace had not occurred in 1776, would the British have allied with Cherokees to crush the patriot rebellion in the South? Was this military march an excuse for a land grab or a justified retaliation after white settlers were killed in towns east of the Blue Ridge?

As the 230th anniversary of the Rutherford Trace approaches next month and a Haywood County group seeks to make the Trace a National Heritage Trail on par with the Trail of Tears designation, historians grapple with the repercussions of what this early chapter of American history meant to Western North Carolina.

Rutherford Trace conjures up plenty of controversy among historians who argue over the legitimacy of which documents to trust in garnering the facts. There are all sorts of letters, diaries, records and second-hand analyses that lead to contradictions about dates, troop numbers, locations, and accounts of what happened or didn’t happen.

Joe Sam Queen, a Waynesville architect and a proponent of Rutherford Trace becoming a national heritage trail, puts the events in a national perspective.

“This is the founding of our National Guard,” he says. “It galvanized the forming of the militia on the frontier.”

Queen, along with several others in a Haywood County historical committee, are trying to get Rutherford Trace on the National Heritage Trail system.

Charles Miller, a Waynesville resident and avid historian on the Haywood Rutherford Trace committee, has been collecting documents and researching Rutherford Trace since 1972. Miller is a descendent of several Rutherford Trace militia members including Peter Mull, his fifth-great grandfather and a captain at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Having culled through research to piece together what happened that summer of 1776, Miller has amassed a wealth of information he shares with historical groups in counties throughout Western North Carolina. Eventually, he intends to put his findings in a book.

There are multiple sides to this story, and Miller wants people to hear them all. It’s a story that continues to stir emotions as descendants of the Rutherford Trace appeal to the events with family pride while Cherokees see the Trace as another sad chapter in Euro-American aggression and seizure of Native American lands.


The hot summer of 1776

Before delving into the Rutherford Trace, historians like to explore the complex events leading up to the summer of 1776. Only a year before, Patrick Henry belted out his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech and American minutemen fought British troops at Lexington and Concord. While Colonists in New England railed against taxation without representation, tensions grew in the South between Tory loyalists, who pledged allegiance to the British crown, and Whigs, who favored breaking away from British rule. Meanwhile, North and South Carolina leaders argued over where to draw the line between their territories. According to The Heritage of Rutherford County, North Carolina claimed lands as far south as Laurens, S.C., while South Carolina issued land grants as far north as Morganton, N.C. The two colonies agreed to the present-day state line in 1772, but squatters settled all over the map.

As white frontier settlements pushed further west into Indian territory, Colonists feared that British spies would incite Indian attacks. In fact, 27 paragraphs down from the idealized phrase “all men are created equal,” the Declaration of Independence of 1776 decries how the Britain’s King George III “has excited domestic insurrections among us and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Colonists had reasons to be scared. Indian attacks on white settlements dated back to the massacre of Jamestown in 1622. Border wars continued through the French and Indian War and even pitted alliances of Indians against each other.

In 1775, at the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals — the largest private land sale in U.S. history for 20 million acres including prime Cherokee hunting grounds — Cherokee chiefs agreed to turn over much of what is now Kentucky to white settlers. However, Cherokee War Chief Dragging Canoe spoke out against the treaty and vowed to fight against the growing tide of white settlements.

“Whole Indian nations have melted away like snowballs in the sun before the white man’s advance,” Dragging Canoe said in a now famous speech. “We had hoped that the white men would not be willing to travel beyond the mountains. Now that hope is gone. They have passed the mountains, and have settled upon Cherokee land ...

“Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences, rather than submit to further loss of our country? Such treaties may be all right for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me. We will have our lands.”

As much as the British might have courted Dragging Canoe as a leader to fight against insurgent Colonists — even to the point of arming warriors with British guns and ammunition — the Crown also wanted to keep the Cherokees out of the white man’s war, so it sent Alexander Cameron as an agent to ensure Cherokee neutrality. Colonists, however, distrusted Cameron and viewed him as a spy who incited Indian raids.

Even though some Cherokee towns may have sided with the British — who, after all, had long-standing trade relations with the Cherokee — the Cherokee system of government was more like a series of self-ruled city-states than a solid nation of united towns.

And Cherokee-British relations were by no means smooth. In 1760 and 1761, British soldiers marched through Cherokee settlements burning villages and cutting down crops — a tactic Rutherford and others would use again. A 1761 peace treaty between the Cherokee and British promised no white settlements west of the Blue Ridge. However, settlers continued moving westward, and it seemed only a matter of time before violence erupted.

Earl Lanning, a Waynesville resident and descendant of Rutherford Trace member John Lanning, points to two particular Indian attacks that shocked frontier settlers in the North Carolina Piedmont. In a span of two days in July 1776, 45 white settlers were massacred at Gilbert Town (in what is now Rutherford County) and another 37 more white settlers were killed in a nearby Catawba Valley settlement. These were men, woman and children, and Lanning has the records to prove it. All along the frontier settlements of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, some 200 people were killed that summer, according to Lanning.

Tyler Howe, a tribal historical preservation specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, agrees that plenty of border disputes occurred, but he questions whether Cherokees were involved in the North Carolina killings, arguing that white men had dressed up as Indians in previous attacks to make it look as if Indians were committing the atrocities.

One letter from Rutherford states that his men spotted what appeared to be Indians, Howe says.

“Who are you going to blame it on?” Howe asks. “Blame it on the Indians.”

Having looked over hundreds of records during the past two and a half years — including an assistantship as a graduate student — Howe recounts the summer of 1776 as a season of fear, confusion and swirling rumors. In the same way today’s Web sites and blogs feed into public discourse with unchecked facts and opinions, so too were the newspapers and news reports of the Colonial era, Howe explains.

“There’s a lot of friction on the border,” he adds.

Could the Catawba Valley killings have been the work of Tories? Or warriors from Dragging Canoe? Or both?

In any case, Colonial militias quickly formed in North Carolina with orders to destroy Cherokee towns and cripple any notion that the British would use Indian allies to attack from the west.


The Trace

In August of 1776, about 2,700 men between the ages of 16 and 60 gathered at Davidson’s Fort (what is now Old Fort in McDowell County). They were put under the command of Griffith Rutherford, an Irish-born, middle-aged, newly appointed brigadier general who had served in the Colonial legislature and the Council of Safety, a newly formed military government that issued orders in lieu of a Department of Defense.

Rutherford left about 300 of his militia to guard Davidson’s Fort and set out for Western North Carolina on Sept. 1, 1776, with 2,400 men, pack horses, a herd of beef cattle, and weaponry that included long rifles, hatchets and small cannons. Lacking official uniforms, militia members took along their own clothing and weapons. Also included in the regiments were Catawba Indians, foes of the Cherokee who allied with the Colonials.

William Lenoir (later a general whose last name would grace the North Carolina county and city) kept a diary along the Rutherford Trace that charts mileage, locations and noteworthy details of the expedition. This diary serves as a key first-hand account of the Rutherford Trace.

In the first few days, the militia crossed the Blue Ridge east of Black Mountain, came down along the Swannanoa River through what is now Biltmore Village and crossed the French Broad River behind what is now the Biltmore Square Mall. Trekking west past Enka, down Hominy Creek and into Canton, they turned up where the present Locust Field Cemetery is and headed toward Bethel along what is now N.C. 110.

From there, they marched up the east side of the Pigeon River, crossed Silver Bluff and continued over the mountain into Waynesville, where they camped at Sulphur Springs.

They went west through Balsam Gap, down to Scott’s Creek into Sylva, and approached a trader who was believed to be a British sympathizer. One diary account, recorded in James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee, states that a Negro slave ran out of this trading post and “was shot by the Reverend James Hall, the chaplain, as he ran, mistaking him for an Indian.” Two Cherokee women and a boy were captured and prepared to be auctioned off as slaves. When one of the officers disagreed, “the greater part swore bloodily that if they were not sold for slaves upon the spot they would kill and scalp them immediately.” The prisoners were sold off for $1,200.

Anticipating an attack, Rutherford sent ahead 1,000 men and light horses on a forced march to the Tuckasegee River towards the Cherokee town of Watauga. On Saturday, Sept. 7, according to Lenoir’s diary, this advance detachment was attacked “by about 20 indians on the top of the mountain at 3 o’clock within about 7 miles of s.d Town.” One man was wounded in the foot, but the men carried on to complete their day’s march — an astounding 20 miles, according to Lenoir’s diary.

It was hardly easy going. Lenoir reports of quarrels between officers and maneuvering through rough terrain. On the second day of the march, one man was accidentally killed by a member of his own company. Later on, there’s a curiously scratched out comment: “men fit to Muternize,” a possible reference to mutiny.

In an 1835 report, Lenoir wrote, “We had no Government to provide for us, it being before our State Constitution was formed. We drove some beeves [cattle], but had no way of carrying any bread stuffs, except on a few pack horses, along a very bad old Indian path through the mountains, in which horses frequently got mired.”


Burning towns

By Sept. 8, Rutherford’s men marched to the north side of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County near Webster and destroyed the Cherokee town of Watauga. It would become a standard tactic — burn every house, cut down or trample the crops, seize or kill livestock, kill any Cherokees that fought back, and move on to the next towns. The Middle Towns along the Tuckasegee and Little Tennessee rivers were destroyed one by one.

In some cases, prisoners would be taken and sold as slaves. In other cases, Cherokees were shot and killed, some scalped and, according to one account from Tyler Howe, a group of women villagers in Burning Town were walled up in a house and burned alive.

Orders from the Council of Safety had asked that Rutherford “restrain the Soldiery from destroying women and Children ... and that all prisoners taken by you be sent to this State.” However, that letter was written Sept. 11 — a full week and a half after the expedition was under way. In the letter, the Council also recommends Rutherford build a stockade to store provisions and ammunition, and clear a road that could be used to get supplies to the garrison.

In this same letter, Rutherford receives word that similar expeditions are being carried out in other states. In July, Col. Samuel Jack led 200 Georgians to burn a few Indian towns on the Chattahoochee and Tugaloo rivers. A Virginian army of about 2,000, led by Col. William Christian, attacked Cherokee Overhill villages in Tennessee while Col. Andrew Williamson marched a few thousand up from South Carolina to rendezvous with Rutherford’s men and burn all known villages in Western North Carolina.

Crossing the Tuckasegee and up Savannah Creek, Rutherford’s men marched up Cowee Gap and toward Nikwasi, what is now Franklin. Once Rutherford caught up to his men, about 900 were chosen to march west to burn the Valley Towns as far as Hiwassee.

By Sept. 10, some 600 men were dispatched to meet Williamson’s forces from South Carolina. Meanwhile, the men continued destroying villages. The towns were deserted for the most part except for women, children and the elderly.


Where were the Cherokee warriors?

Howe suggests they had gone north to defend the Overhill Towns in Tennessee or took off south to fend off Williamson’s attack.

Between Sept. 8 and 16, dozens of Cherokee towns were destroyed. In some accounts, soldiers marveled at the huge stores of food and the size of these towns — one measured some five miles long and two miles wide. According to reports from Williamson’s men, one Cherokee town had 90 houses.

At Nikwasi, Rutherford and his men waited for Williamson, and when he did not show, they ventured southwest while Williamson’s men came to Nikwasi and marched north towards Wayah Gap. Before the gap, according to historian Charles Miller, Cherokee warriors ambushed Williamson’s men on Sept. 19. Twelve of his men were killed and another 20 were wounded but the Colonials claimed victory, according to a Council of Safety report. Fourteen Cherokee warriors were found dead. Others, as according to custom, were taken away so as not to be desecrated or scalped by Colonial victors. (According to Miller’s numbers, as many as 17 of Williamson’s men were killed and 31 were wounded.)

While Williamson’s men went on burning towns through Macon County and west into Andrews, Rutherford’s men scorched a nearly parallel path south through Shooting Creek, Hayesville and Hiwassee.

On Sept. 22, Lenoir reports, one of the militiamen killed an old Indian prisoner and “was put under Guard Tyed for it.” Two days later, the South Army (Williamson’s men) brought in 12 prisoners including Cherokee women, children and Negroes along with about 70 to 80 horses and cattle, animal skins and other supplies captured — the spoils of war sold for a handsome profit.

By Sept. 26, Williamson finally joined Rutherford and the former, notes Lenoir, saluted the North Carolina army with 13 swivel guns (small cannons) in honor of the 13 colonies.

In a meeting to discuss whether to march on further and meet up with Col. Christian in Tennessee, the Carolina commanders decided to forego more rugged passages over the Great Smoky Mountains and head home before winter.

Rutherford took his men east, double-backing over Williamson’s route while Williamson took off southeast where Rutherford’s men had traced. Each party continued to burn villages.

How many Cherokee villages and settlements were destroyed that summer is still up for debate. Charles Miller puts the figure at 55; Tyler Howe thinks it could be as high as 70.

“I’m assuming if they got near it, they destroyed it,” Miller said.

Though having won overwhelming victories and plenty of food and supplies from the Cherokee, the road back for Rutherford’s men would continue to be treacherous. Lenoir would later report, “The great exposure, hardship, fatigue and privation of this campaign caused a great number of men to die after they returned home. ...I had a severe trip myself, but by divine mercy, aided by a strong constitution, I survived. The troops served without any hope of adequate compensation, knowing the low state of our finances, and what they did receive of what the Provincial Congress had previously stated, was so depreciated, it was merely nothing.”


The aftermath

The Rutherford Trace and its Colonial counterparts were utterly devastating to the Cherokees. In addition to the towns, crops and livestock lost, hundreds of Cherokee villagers would become refugees and risked starvation in the winter months. Some fled to the Overhill Towns in Tennessee, but those towns had also been hit hard by Col. Christian’s men from Virginia.

How many Cherokees died of starvation or disease that winter?

“We’ll never know,” Howe says. “It creates a horrible refugee state. You’ve got food problems. You’ve got water problems.”

Though some towns were rebuilt, other were abandoned, their names forgotten when villagers never returned home, according to Howe.

As if the situation wasn’t grim enough, another militia raid in November of 1776, ordered by Rutherford and commanded by Capt. William Moore, would burn even more Cherokee property. Retracing Rutherford’s trail, Moore’s men (numbering about 100) marched down Scott’s Creek to the Tuckasegee and on to Stecoe near present-day Whittier.

Cherokee villagers fled except for two, who were killed, one scalped. After pillaging the town, Moore and his men burned 25 houses and continued back east following Indian camps and capturing horses and supplies from the Cherokee. Impressed with the lay of the land, Moore later returned to claim 450 acres of land in Buncombe County on both sides of Hominy Creek (West Asheville into Enka).

Many of Rutherford’s men and other frontier militia groups would later band together in 1780 to defeat the British at Kings Mountain. Rutherford was captured by the British and later released before the end of the Revolutionary War.

Perhaps not so surprising, many on the Rutherford Trace militiamen later came to settle in Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The names of counties, towns, and natural sites often correspond with those who were Revolutionary War soldiers — Rutherford, Sevier, Shelby, Lenoir, and Buncombe.

Was the Rutherford Trace inevitable?

“It was inevitable,” Howe says. “The brutalness was not inevitable.”

Despite efforts to destroy the Cherokee Nation more than two centuries ago, the Cherokee people still exist today, Howe adds. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is 13,500 members strong.

“The stories are still sung, and the stories are still told,” Howe says.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.