Lecture offers facts about the Cherokee and Revolutionary War

An artist's rendering shows what Cherokee life was like along the Little Tennessee River in Macon and surrounding counties before "Rutherford's Rampage" in 1776.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

A historical marker exists on Wayah Road that expresses the “Cherokee Defeat” that occurred in 1776.

Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center offers free lectures pertaining to the area’s culture, literary scene, nature, and more. Last month, Barbara Duncan presented “Cherokees in the Revolutionary War: Rutherford’s Rampage.” Duncan, who received her Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, explained that a main goal of the presentation was to clear up confusion and misconceptions pertaining to the various North Carolina Highway Historical Markers, such as the one on Wayah Road at Wayah Gap that reads: “Cherokee Defeat – During the American Revolution, S.C. forces under Colonel Andrew Williamson defeated the Cherokees, nearby at the ‘Black Hole,’ Sept. 1776.”

Duncan’s talk to the packed auditorium at Cowee School explored the details of what actually happened in Macon County in September 1776 when two armies invaded deep into the Cherokee Nation. Instead of residents just reading that there was a “Cherokee defeat,” slides were shown and information shared to paint a picture of cultural and political idiosyncrasies and details leading up to the devastating event.

“General Griffith Rutherford and Colonel Andrew Williamson led about 4,500 men on a mission ‘to extirpate the Cherokees completely,’ carrying out a scorched earth policy along the Little Tennessee, Hiwassee, and Valley Rivers,” said Duncan. “The Cherokees, allies of the British, resisted strategically.”

The tensions began in 1763 when King George III decreed that no settlements would be allowed beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, Wataugans, white settlers, settled on Cherokee lands and a strain mounted among Natives, settlers, and the British until finally Gen. Rutherford “decided to use the Revolutionary War [distractions in the North] as the time to remove Cherokee altogether from desired white settlement lands. Although the influx of soldiers to the area now known as Macon County was touted in the 1700s through correspondence as an “expedition,” Duncan stated to the Cowee School audience that the burning of Cherokee homes, gardens, and crops was not an “expedition.”  

The culmination of the violence occurred when the outnumbered Cherokee ambushed the militiamen. An essay from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, pertaining to the Wayah Gap historical marker, blames violence toward the Cherokee and the destruction of villages on retaliation measures. It reads: “In response to numerous Cherokee raids in the summer of 1776, the South Carolina government coordinated an offensive with North Carolina leaders. Col. Andrew Williamson led 2,000 South Carolina militiamen north into Cherokee territory in early September 1776 with orders to join Gen. Griffith Rutherford’s North Carolinians. On September 19, Williamson and his men marched into an ambush in a gorge [thought to be somewhere along what is now Wayah Road] known as the ‘Black Hole.’”

Research determined that a female Cherokee warrior was in the fray. 

“She was dressed as a man and held off some of the men,” said Duncan. “But the result of that September in 1776, was that so much food was destroyed that the Cherokees said this was the winter they had to eat their horses to survive.”

She added that after the fighting in 1776, the Cherokees rebuilt their towns and lived along the Little Tennessee until this land was taken in the Treaty of 1819, which ceded all Cherokee land to the crest of the Nantahala Mountains.

“Some Cherokees were able to hold land in their own names and remained in Macon County even when the Trail of Tears removed most Cherokees to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

“But the Cherokee are still here, and that’s what they want people to know,” continued Duncan. “They are 16,000 members strong in the Qualla Boundary, which is 100 square miles of territory the Eastern Band of the Cherokee bought back from the Federal government in 2008. And they are still here in the many descendants living in Macon County and Western North Carolina.”

Duncan coordinated “Folk Arts in the Schools” in Macon County for several years, worked for The Foxfire Fund, and then went on to spend 23 years at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where she wrote grants, researched, wrote books, and coordinated festivals and community-based programs to revitalize Cherokee traditions. Currently, she teaches Cherokee language as assistant adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Thus, her Nov. 15 presentation was based on years of delving into “official dispatches, letters, newspaper articles, and even correspondence with Thomas Jefferson” that occurred during the assault on the Cherokee. 

“Thanks to digitization, everything I learned was confirmed by at least two resources,” she said, pointing out that with the onslaught of Rutherford, Williamson, and the soldiers, the Cherokee men at the time concentrated on preserving the lives of their women and children. Thousands of Cherokee lived in the “middle towns,” which existed from Franklin up to around Bryson City. 

Duncan, noting to the crowd that she realized there are different perspectives and opinions about historical events just as there are varying views on current events, shared what a tribal member said to her: “Take hats off to the past; roll sleeves up to the future.” 

Duncan has written books about Cherokee history and culture, including “Living Stories of the Cherokee,” and “The Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook” (co-authored with Brett H. Riggs). Her most recent book is “Cherokee Clothing in the 1700s,” published by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. 

Duncan’s presentation was part of “Where We Live: History, Nature, and Culture,” a lecture series held monthly at Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center.