Dragging Canoe was Cherokee’s greatest military leader
Historian E. Raymond Adams has maintained that the warrior with the curious name of Dragging Canoe was “the greatest military leader ever produced by the Cherokee people.” A review of Dragging Canoe’s military career doesn’t reveal many great victories that he led, but it does indicate that he was a clever and resourceful military leader who was able to sustain significant “dark and bloody” opposition to white settlement for many years.
Born about 1740 in one of the Overhill Towns in east Tennessee, Dragging Canoe was the son of the Attakullakulla, perhaps the greatest diplomat ever produced by the Cherokees. Denied permission by his father to participate in a war party against the Shawnees, the youth hid in an overturned canoe where he knew a portage by the party had to take place. Impressed by his tenacity, Attakullakulla gave him permission to go on the war party if he could carry the canoe over the portage. Unable to lift the heavy vessel, he began dragging it along the portage. The cheering warriors began to chant “tsi-yu gansi-ni!” which means, “He is dragging the canoe!” From that time, he was known as Dragging Canoe.
In time, Dragging Canoe became the leader of a small band of warriors known as the Chickamaugas, a diverse group who resisted white settlement in Tennessee for almost 20 years. Shortly before the outbreak of the American Revolution in the spring of 1775, Richard Henderson signed the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals with the Cherokees led by Attakullakulla. This privately negotiated treaty ceded central Kentucky and northern Middle Tennessee to Henderson. The enraged Dragging Canoe correctly advised the whites that, “You have bought a fair land, but there is a black cloud hanging over it. You will find its settlement dark and bloody.”
Dragging Canoe concluded that the opening of the war provided an opportunity to strike the remote white settlements. He planned a three-pronged attack: one contingent struck the Watauga and Nolichucky settlements; another struck Carter’s Valley; and Dragging Canoe himself led the battle at Island Flats, where he was wounded. The settlers suffered heavy losses but the arrival of reinforcements proved too much for the Cherokees.
The most anti-white Cherokees, led by Dragging Canoe, began calling themselves Chickamaugas after the “river of death.” By this time the Chickamaugas, who had started out as dissatisfied Overhill Cherokees, included many Creeks, Shawnee, French “boatmen,” some blacks, and several Scots traders. The Shawnee warrior Cheesekau and his younger brother, Tecumseh, who himself would later lead anti-white uprisings, also lived with them.
In 1779, the British provided the Chickamaugas with supplies as preparation for a major raid on the east Tennessee settlements. However, Evan Shelby and 900 Virginia and North Carolina troops descended the Tennessee River and surprised the Chickamaugas. The whites burned the villages and seized the supplies.
Shortly thereafter, Dragging Canoe moved the group to the more defensible sites at Running Water and Nickajack in Tennessee, Lookout Mountain in Georgia, and Long Island and Crowtown in Alabama.
At that time Dragging Canoe made a speech to a group of visiting Shawnees that was in reality designed to rally the spirits of his own warriors: “Our nation was surrounded by them [the white settlers]. They were numerous and their hatchets were sharp; and after we had lost some of our best warriors, we were forced to leave our towns and corn to be burnt by them, and now we live in the grass as you see us. But we are not yet conquered.”
True to his word, Dragging Canoe led the Chickamaugas in a strike at the Cumberland settlements in middle Tennessee and destroyed Mansker's Station in 1779. In April 1780, they attacked Fort Nashborough (Nashville) but lost the battle of the Bluffs. In December 1780, they lost 80 men to forces under John Sevier at Boyd’s Creek near the Little Tennessee River.
Throughout the 1780s, the Chickamaugas kept the Cumberland settlements in turmoil. Travelers between east and middle Tennessee were forced to travel north via the Wilderness Trail. And even there, some 100 white deaths occurred.
On Feb. 29, 1792, the day after a victory celebration, Dragging Canoe died suddenly. The leadership of the renegade opposition group was passed to Young Tassel. The Chickamaugan movement initiated by Dragging Canoe did not finally end until Andrew Jackson's victories over the Red Stick Creeks in the 1813-14 Alabama campaign.
Editor’s note: This George Ellison column first appeared in a June 2003 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.