By Sherry Teal, CHP Graduate Research Assistant
In addition to assisting visitors to the Heritage Center of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County, I am researching Tsi’yu-gunsini (Dragging Canoe), chief of the Chickamauga Cherokee, as part of my assistantship with the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP). Dragging Canoe (c. 1738-1792) was one of the most influential and politically powerful men in the Southeast from the 1770s into the 1790s. You could not travel in what is now Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, or South Carolina without knowing his name. He and his brothers (The Badger and Little Owl) had a political reach that went from Dragging Canoe’s head city near present-day Chattanooga through Indiana to Michigan, and from Pensacola, Florida, to New Orleans, Louisiana. This enormous area of influence was during an era in which 20 to 40 miles on a horse per day was possible but not necessarily guaranteed due to terrain, weather, and the quality of one’s horse.
Dragging Canoe was politically connected to the British, Chickasaw, Choctaw, French, Muscogee, Shawnee, and Spanish nations. Accounts of his speeches have been quoted by U.S. presidents, and his military strategies have been studied by West Point generals. Dragging Canoe operated from his head town, which is inside the borders of present-day Tennessee. The information I have gathered about him could be used to engage Tennesseans, and visitors to Tennessee, in the story of Dragging Canoe and the Chickamauga Cherokee via waysides, historical markers, interpretive exhibits, and even park space. The research I’ve conducted thus far could also be transformed using GIS into a map overlay or a StoryMap (ArcGIS) to make his story interactive online. Lesson plans based upon my research could also be developed.
As a researcher, I want to find more than just old letters and maps and then arrange facts into a timeline. I hope to relate an interpretive story of Dragging Canoe’s life. To do so, I need to understand the environment that shaped Dragging Canoe and the environment he shaped. Primary sources are critical for establishing that understanding. However, there are few rigorously researched books about Dragging Canoe or the Chickamauga Cherokee that refer to these historic documents themselves. Most secondary sources refer back to another secondary source, John P. Brown’s Old Frontiers, which was published in 1938. Since his book was published so long ago, Brown’s primary sources have been scattered throughout collections in the Southeast, the National Archives, and the British National Archives. So, how would these documents be interpreted now? What letters and words did J.P. Brown include and exclude? This is one of the questions that researchers have to consider when examining a person in historical context, since the use and interpretation of primary sources changes over time.
The world of the southeastern United States in the late 1760s through the late 1790s was volatile. Each sovereign American Indian nation in the Southeast had its own independent methods for interacting with Euro-Americans. These approaches were fluid and changed depending upon multiple factors, including internal power shifts, the effects of disease, relationships between France, Britain, and Spain, and the swiftly changing topography of the region due to the creation of roads, forts, and towns. Dragging Canoe has a legendary presence in historical records and in the recorded memories of people who met him.
During the 1760s, the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Muscogee still retained a great portion of their original homelands throughout what is now Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of trade paths created by the people of these nations throughout the woodlands, open fields, and marshes of the Southeast. Euro-Americans started to use these byways as well for trade and later for settlement, which each American Indian nation tolerated in different ways. In the 1770s, pressures for attaining land from American Indians west of the Appalachians hit a fever pitch as tensions between Britain, France, and the Colonies mounted. Dragging Canoe was fiercely opposed to the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals on March 17, 1775. This was an illegal land sale between Richard Henderson’s Transylvania Land Company and some of the Cherokee chiefs (including Dragging Canoe’s father) in the area of East Tennessee and Southeast Kentucky. The state of Virginia and the state of North Carolina quickly declared the sale illegal since at the time only governments—not vested individuals—could negotiate land sales with American Indians.
Dragging Canoe quickly put his dissension into physical action. He led a group of other Cherokee supporters to settle in the steep gorges of the lower Tennessee River valley and its complex tributaries and creek systems near present-day Chattanooga. From this strategic location, he planned and executed many campaigns against settlements, retaliated against the burning of Cherokee towns by American militias, and communicated with such American, British, French, and Spanish officials as Alexander Cameron, James Robertson, John Sevier, and Henry Stuart. Dragging Canoe remained true to his course of resistance until his death near Running Water in 1792.
A word about Dragging Canoe’s name: The popular story goes that Cherokee warriors were expected to be able to push their fully loaded war canoes into the water unaided in order to go to war with a party. At a young age, Dragging Canoe was determined to go to war with his kin and was seen “dragging” a canoe toward the water. Thus, the name is honorific. American Indians received names under a variety of circumstances and for a variety of reasons. The process of naming is different across many tribes. A name that may seem puzzling to Euro-American ears may have connotations that are not clearly understood but are deserving of respect. Names often hold meanings for American Indian communities and place individuals specifically in the context of those communities.
Some papers that mention Dragging Canoe can be found at the Library of Congress online: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsplink.html
A great resource link that has many letters between James Robertson and Governor Richard Caswell of North Carolina, with numerous references to Dragging Canoe: http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/
November is Native American Heritage Month; see http://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov/ for more information.