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The Settlement of the Appalachian Frontier: Dragging Canoe

The Settlement of the Appalachian Frontier

Sharing information, stories, and ideas for teaching students about the settlement of the Appalachian Frontier. Focusing on the little-known people and history of Southwestern Virginia, Northeast Tennessee, and Eastern Kentucky.

Location: Nickelsville, Virginia, United States

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Dragging Canoe

(Tsi'yu-gunsini), the son of Attakullakulla (The Little Carpenter, named for his skill at crafting treaty language acceptable to all) and cousin of Nancy Ward was one of the most prominent and interesting of the Cherokees who impacted the settlers on the Appalachian Frontier. Dragging Canoe was said to be a few years older than his cousin Nancy Ward (born 1738), daughter of Tame Doe who was the sister of Attakullakulla. Brent Yanusdi Cox in his book “Heart of the Eagle”, suggests that although no conclusive records exist to prove it, he believes that Dragging Canoe's mother was Nionee. He bases this on the fact that Nionee helped raise Nancy Ward and was associated with Tame Doe. Since Attakullakulla lived primarily in the village of Tenase through 1755, it is likely the place of Dragging Canoe's birth. During his very early years he contracted Smallpox which devastated the Cherokee, causing the death of over half of the nation.

On one occasion when his father was leading a war party against the Shawnee, the young boy attempted to drag a large canoe into the water to follow the war party. His name, "Canoe (tsi'yu), He is Dragging It (gunsini)" or Dragging Canoe, was given him because of the persistence and determination he displayed; character traits that would later serve to keep him and his loyal followers fighting the white settlers under most adverse conditions.

He became a fierce warrior, pockmarked by the smallpox of his childhood, tall and stately in appearance, he served as the primary leading force in the Cherokee's resistance to white settlement on their lands. He strongly resisted the sale of Indian lands to whites and spoke at numerous treaty negotiations vehemently objecting to the continued sale of Cherokee land.

At the conclusion of the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals of 1775, Dragging Canoe continued his argument. He rose before the group and gave an emotional and eloquent speech. "Whole Indian nations have melted away like snowballs in the sun before the white man's advance. They leave scarcely a name of our people except those wrongly recorded by their destroyers. Where are the Delawares? They have been reduced to a mere shadow of their former greatness. 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. They wish to have that action sanctioned by treaty. When that is gained, the same encroaching spirit will lead them upon other land of the Cherokees. New cessions will be asked. Finally the whole country, which the Cherokees and their fathers have so long occupied, will be demanded, and the remnant of Ani-Yunwiya, THE REAL PEOPLE, once so great and formidable, will be compelled to seek refuge in some distant wilderness. There they will be permitted to stay only a short while, until they again behold the advancing banners of the same greedy host. Not being able to point out any further retreat for the miserable Cherokees, the extinction of the whole race will be proclaimed. Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences, rather than submit to further loss of our country? Such treaties may be alright 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. A-WANINSKI, I have spoken."

Dragging Canoe's mighty speech had such a strong influence on the chiefs that they closed the Treaty Council without more talk. Yet, soon the white men prepared another huge feast with rum and were able to persuade the Cherokee Chiefs to sit in another Treaty Council for further discussion of land sale. The land being sought was the Cain-Tuc-Kee Territory. Attakullakulla, Dragging Canoe's father, spoke in favor of selling the land, as did Raven, who was jealous of Dragging Canoe's growing power among the young warriors. The deed was signed. Richard Henderson, a retired Judge from North Carolina, had acquired a huge tract of land for the Transylvania Land Company, of which he was a principal partner. Now that his plan was succeeding he boldly continued his requests. Saying "he did not want to walk over the land of my brothers", he asked to "buy a road" through Cherokee lands (through what is now Sullivan County Tennessee, and Scott and Lee Counties in Virginia). This last insult was more than Dragging Canoe could tolerate. He became enraged and rising from his seat he stomped the ground saying, "We have given you this, why do you ask for more? You have bought a fair land. When you have this you have all. There is no more game left between the Watauga and the Cumberland. There is a cloud hanging over it. You will find its settlement DARK and BLOODY."

He and those who followed him angrily left the Council and marched to Chattanooga where they formed the Chickamauguas, a very militant branch of the Cherokee Tribe. For the next 17 years Dragging Canoe did his best to make his prediction come true. He attacked the settlers at every opportunity. He became known as "The Dragon" because of his fierce fighting and relentless determination to destroy all white settlements on what he considered THE REAL PEOPLE'S land.

Although most references to Dragging Canoe speak of his "savage warrior" attributes in battle, he was no mere savage. Dragging Canoe had no thought of conquest or capture of the white settlers. He was driven by the desire to protect the vital need the Cherokee had for their hunting lands. And could see the future would bring more and more white settlers, unless the ones already on Cherokee hunting grounds were driven off. Many of the women and young men of the Cherokee supported his position and were convinced he was right in his prophesy.

The older chiefs attempted to obtain supplies by allowing white settlers to "lease" land, but some researchers support the possibility of a misunderstanding and maybe even outright forgery of papers at the Treaty at Sycamore Shoals. Some have speculated that Jesse Benton, one of the interpreters at the Transylvania Purchase, may have actually forged Alexander Cameron's signature on the deeds. Whether it was even legal for Richard Henderson to deal directly with Indians for such a land sale was also a hotly debated topic for several years. Three of the four principal chiefs (Old Tassel, Oconostota and Savanooka) denied having sold any lands at this treaty. Attakullakulla, who understood and spoke English would have been in a better position to understand what was actually being said and done. Most of the Cherokees there, even the principal chiefs, were at a distinct disadvantage, not knowing the language being used to describe the proceedings and having to rely on interpreters, who might have had something to gain by the Transylvania Purchase themselves!

It is easy to see why Dragging Canoe would become enraged at what took place at these proceedings. He could see that another attempt was being made to take control of vast portions of the Cherokee traditional hunting grounds, and he knew that meant the eventual end to Cherokee life as he knew it. History would prove him right! This Transylvania Purchase truly became the spearhead of a massive migration of settlers into the western lands. It must have looked like a never ending stream as more and more white settlers poured over the mountains, down the rivers, and across Indian lands settling on the river bottoms, valleys and hillsides of the ancestral lands of the Red Men. It is estimated by some that as many as 300,000 settlers traveled the “Wilderness Trail”, on their way West, between 1775 and 1800.

Like so many characters and events in history, Dragging Canoe was a complicated individual driven by strong beliefs and circumstances. Whether he should be viewed as a blood-thirsty savage or an insightful and courageous protector of his people, depends on ones point of view. At the very least, he had a deep love and commitment to his people and their way of life and courageously defended both as long as there was life in his body - - - character traits shared by many of our white ancestors as well. If only a better compromise, that would have allowed co-existence could have been forged . . . . .