May Seige: Scary Prospect

I was  thinking about the May Seige a lot this week. It’s our biggest event , to be sure, and presents all kinds of opportunities to get into the moment. In order to get me in the the frame of mine of those early settlers, I was looking up some things and for your reading pleasure, I copied the Wikpedia article (which is NOT the be-all and end-all of research by far but in this case is a good synopsis) for your reading pleasure. (Source:  )

What I was thinking about was how full of drama this event and what led up to this seige must have been. Seldom is there a perfect storm of events which leads up to such a cataclysmic struggle as this. Think about it. Here is a group of people who have struggled to make a place for themselves in hostile territory, easing their way into unfamiliar land, inhabited by people who, while not claiming to own the land, counted it as a place which provided  the means to feed their tribe. The Cherokee were in a desperate power struggle themselves and were at the crossroads of decision, the young breaking with the old. On top of that, the Wataugans had to schmoose their way around the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and try to keep the Brits off their backs.  What must have been going on in the average farmers’ and hunters’ minds as they tried to clear, build, plant or hunt knowing that at any time they could be burned out, captured, tortured or worse, seeing their wives and children mowed down in front of their eyes.  On the 20th day, when they were supposed to have left but didn’t, when the sun set, the wind blew through the trees and those vague crackling and animal noises echoed through the dense  and darkened  woods, how did they quell the feeling of rising fear that caught in their throats and left them breathless? Hearing that the Cherokee were massing, heading right towards them, how did the women deal with the threat, knowing that there was a real posibility that they may not count another sunrise as being seen?

To be honest, maybe courage meant  something different then  than it does today. Maybe we aren’t desperate enough. We carry a replica of the weapons that were used, rip cartridges, see the fiercesome warrior and “shoot to kill”, knowing that those who fall will return back to eat a hearty meal. When we peer through the black powder smoke, we know there is no lead hailing but how about when it really happened?  Did those two hundred people jammed in this little fort raise their voices to God, wailing to be saved from their own personal Golgothas? Was every feature and line of every face each man, woman and child saw outside the fort walls etched into their souls forever? How did Ann Robertson feel when she tried to put out the fire the Cherokee started , getting so close to the Natives who were trying to cross over the wall, fire in hand, she could probably smell them? Did she actually feel the lead ball as it ripped into her arm? What kind of speed record did Catherine Sherrill set when, locked outside the palisades,  she darned near pole vaulted into Sevier’s arms before she was hauled over the rough wood of the wall? In the two weeks that followed,  as the Cherokee were trying to lay waste to the people in the fort, did anyone lose hope, despair, curse their fate? How did  they cope with the possibility of their food and water running out, hoping that relief would be coming before they would be decimated?

All these things give one pause to think. We know we will be going to sleep at the end of an action packed day, to wake up again on the next. What if it was the kind of nightmarish agony and the permanent sleep like Tom Moore underwent where the next stop would have been being lifted from screaming pain by the merciful hands of God?


In the late 1760s, Euro-American settlers began arriving in the Holston, Watauga, and Nolichucky river valley to  southwest Virginia and what is now northeast Tennessee. Along the Watauga, settlers were drawn to a place known as the Watauga Old Fields, an ancient Native American gathering place that pre-dated the Cherokee. The Old Fields consisted of flat, cleared land located along the Watauga’s Sycamore Shoals, a relatively low stretch of the river where pioneers and travelers could cross with ease.[3] These early settlers inevitably came into conflict with the Cherokee and other Native American tribes in the region who claimed these lands as hunting grounds.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 and several subsequent treaties placed the boundary of British-controlled lands at the South Fork of the Holston River, and in the early 1770s settlers outside this boundary (including the Watauga settlers) were ordered to leave. The Watauga settlers leased their lands from the Cherokee in 1772 and purchased the lands in 1775, but these agreements still violated the 1763 Proclamation. Furthermore, a faction of the Cherokee led by the young chief Dragging Canoe vehemently opposed the sale of tribal lands, and threatened bloodshed against the settlers. In 1774 and 1775, both British Superintendent of Indian Affairs John Stuart and North Carolina governor Josiah Martin issued repeated calls for settlers south of the Holston to leave Cherokee lands.[4]

 July 1776 Cherokee invasion

Major locations during the Cherokee invasion of 1776 (modern state boundaries shown for reference)

The outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 further agitated the tense situation on the Appalachian frontier. The Watauga and Nolichucky settlers generally supported separation from Britain, and formed a Committee of Safety, dubbing themselves the “Washington District.” In January 1776, Dragging Canoe and the British forged an alliance, and in April of that year the British supplied the Cherokee with a large cache of weapons in hopes they would wreak havoc on the colonial frontier. Now well-armed, the Cherokee sent a message to the Watauga settlers, giving them 20 days to leave Cherokee lands or face attack.[5]

The Watauga settlers, meanwhile, had been anticipating a Cherokee invasion. Arms and ammunition were purchased through the Fincastle County, Virginia Committee of Safety, food and medicine were gathered, and various forts were constructed or strengthened, among them Fort Caswell (now called Fort Watauga). In early July, Cherokee Beloved Woman Nancy Ward tipped off the Cherokee invasion plans to trader Isaac Thomas, and Thomas proceeded to deliver the news to John Sevier, who was at the Nolichucky settlement (near modern Limestone) overseeing the construction of Fort Lee. The news alarmed the settlers, and most of them fled to Fort Caswell, forcing Sevier to flee likewise and abandon Fort Lee’s completion.[5]

The Cherokee invasion began in mid-July, 1776. When the invaders reached the Nolichucky, a contingent led by a chief known as “The Raven” split off toward Carter’s Valley (near modern Kingsport), where he chased away the settlers and burned their cabins and farms. Two contingents led by Dragging Canoe and Old Abraham of Chilhowee proceeded up the Nolichucky where they burned the abandoned Fort Lee. This force then split up, with Dragging Canoe marching north to attack the Holston settlements and Old Abraham marching east to attack Fort Watauga. As Dragging Canoe approached Eaton’s Station (in the vicinity of Long Island of the Holston), the fort’s garrison, led by Captain John Thompson, feared the Cherokees would bypass the fort and destroy their farms, and thus marched out to engage them at Island Flats. 13 Cherokee were killed and dozens (including Dragging Canoe) were wounded, and the Cherokee force retreated.[6]

 The siege of Fort Caswell

Fort Watauga’s palisade, parapet, and north corner cabin

With the Cherokee approaching, some 150 to 200 settlers crowded into Fort Caswell. The fort’s garrison consisted of roughly 75 men under the command of John Carter (the Committee of Safety commissioner), with James Robertson and John Sevier as subordinates. Old Abraham of Chilhowee’s contingent of Cherokee warriors arrived at Fort Caswell in the early morning hours of July 21. The sudden appearance of the invaders surprised several women out milking cows, forcing them to rush to get back inside the fort. One of them, Catherine “Bonnie Kate” Sherrill, the future wife of John Sevier, was unable to get back inside before the gate was locked and had to be pulled over the palisades by Sevier.[5] The initial Cherokee attack lasted about three hours, with both sides exchanging gunfire. During the attack, several Cherokees managed to get close enough to the fort to attempt to set it on fire, but were forced back after Ann Robertson (wife of James Robertson) threw scalding hot water at them.[2][7]

Unable to take the fort, the Cherokee halted the assault and settled in for a lengthy siege. In the ensuing days, a teenager named Tom Moore was captured outside the fort and taken to Tuskegee, where he was burned at the stake.[2] Another captive, Lydia Russell Bean, wife of early settler William Bean, was about to meet the same fate when Nancy Ward intervened and used her authority as a Beloved Woman to spare her. After approximately two weeks, the Cherokee lifted the siege and retreated. The arrival of the Virginia militia under William Christian later that year largely ended the threat to the fort.[5]


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Filed under 2011 Militia Activity, commentary

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