Watching Westerns as a kid, I used to wish we had had Indian wars like that here in Tennessee because I thought that would have been cool (at that age, of course). Little did I know until decades later that not only did Tennessee and the surrounding area have Indian wars, or wars with frontier settlers viewed from the other side, we had more and worse.
When Americans hear the term “Old Southwest”, they tend to think of Billy the Kid, the OK Corral, Doc Holliday, Kit Carson, and Old Mexico. When they hear the phrase “Indian Wars of the Old Southwest”, they think of the Apache, the Navajo, the Pueblo, Geronimo, and Cochise. This is about another “Old Southwest”, the first in fact, and the wars fought by the Indian nations and tribes within it against the colonists who became Americans and against each other because of those colonists and over European trade.
To Americans from 1763 until the acquisition of Texas and the territories gained from the conquest of Mexico in the 1840’s, the “Southwest” meant the lands south of the Ohio River to the 31st parallel between the 1763 Proclamation Line and the Mississippi River. From the 1840’s into the early 20th century, it was the “Old Southwest”. Historians focusing on the region still use the term, and it is quite popular among the faculty of Louisiana State University.
In the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War, Great Britain gained Canada and Louisiana east of the Mississippi, Bermuda in the Caribbean, and Florida, the last from Spain in exchange for Louisiana west of the Mississippi and the return of her former colonies of Cuba and the Philippines. Prior to the end of the war, all the lands west of the Appalachians and the Ogeechee River were foreign territory, not because of the Indian nations living there but because the empire of France, along with that of Spain, had prior claim.
Influenced by the visit of John Stuart, British Superintendent of Southern Indian Affairs, and three Cherokee leaders to his court, George III, King of Great Britain, forbade colonial settlement beyond the Proclamation Line. This ran roughly south down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Nova Scotia to the headwaters of the Ogeechee River, which formed the eastern border of the province of Georgia.
The French had divided eastern Louisiana, which included lands from the Gulf of Mexico up to the Great Lakes region, at the Ohio River into Upper and Lower Louisiana. Britain merged Upper Louisiana and Canada into the new province of Quebec. Upper Louisiana roughly approximates what to the Americans became the Old Northwest after the Revolution. Lower Louisiana, the lands south of the Ohio River, between the Mississippi and the Proclamation Line down to the 31st parallel, became the British Indian Reserve.
All of the French forts on the coast and in the interior of Lower Louisiana (except for New Orleans) became British: Ft. Assumption at Chickasaw Bluffs, Ft. Rosalie at Natchez, Ft. St. Pierre at Yazoo, Ft. Tombecbe on the Tombigbee River, Ft. Conde at Mobile, and Ft. Prudhome at Randolph, Alabama. French forts dotted more of the landscape in Upper Louisiana, but that region is outside the scope of this article.
Elsewhere, Bermuda became a crown colony. Florida was divided into two colonies, East Florida and West Florida, at the Apalachicola River, the northern border of both being at the 31st parallel. West Florida extended past the west end of the present Panhandle to the Mississippi.
To the colonists who became the Americans, Upper Louisiana was the Old Northwest and Lower Louisiana was the Old Southwest. In the Treaty of Paris (1783) which ended the Revolutionary War, Great Britain ceded both to the new country. The Northwest became its own U.S. territory 1787. While the intention was to do the same for the whole Southwest, the territory actually created was confined to the current boundaries of the State of Tennessee.
The following are the Indian wars fought in the greater Old Southwest, the natives’ resentment and often very legitimate grievances focusing mostly on the settlements that grew into the state of Tennessee. Only after the above-mentioned land swaps of 1763 does the term Old Southwest make any sense, as before that it was foreign territory.
Creek-Choctaw war, 1765-1776
Lingering resentment over hostilities that took place during the French and Indian War between the Choctaw, who had supported the British, and the Creek, who had supported the French, broke out into open conflict in 1765. The intense warfare ended with the death of Great Mortar, paramount mico of the pro-French Creek in 1774, but formal peace did not arrive until 1776.
Lord Dunmore’s War, 1773-1774
Settlers from Virginia began moving across the Proclamation Line into what are now West Virginia, southwestern Pennsylvania, and eastern Kentucky beginning in 1773. In the spring of 1774, the Shawnee and the Mingo, who lived in the Ohio Valley, began attacking these new settlements all along the frontier. It ended with a treaty the Mingo refused to sign.
American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783
Six major Indian nations remained in the Old Southwest along with several smaller tribes. Five of these fought as allies of Great Britain (in addition to their own campaigns against the colonies and later states) while one nation fought as allies of America. Their participation in these campaigns and defense garrisons is quite separate from the “Indian wars”; most of this came after the shift of British attention to the South.
The Cherokee served with Loyalist rangers and provincial troops and provided warriors for the campaigns in Georgia and South Carolina. After the capture of Augusta, Savannah, and Charlestown, Cherokee also formed part of the garrisons of those cities. They also manned a camp at the mouth of the Tennessee on the Ohio to prevent colonials entering the Mississippi.
The Creek divided into Upper, Middle, and Lower Towns, with the Seminole sometimes included in their number. The Upper Creek, led by Emistisigua, former rival of Great Mortar, fought in many of the same campaigns as the Cherokee. Of the Lower Creek, the only active British allies were the Hitchiti, who provided warriors led by William McIntosh, father of the later Creek leader of the same name. Both groups also fought with the British defending the Gulf coast against incursions by the Spanish.
The Eastern and the Western divisions of the Choctaw supported the British effort, mostly against the Spanish on the Gulf coast. They also sporadically monitored the Mississippi against incursion by the Americans. The Six Towns division, meanwhile, supported the Spanish, but never in action against their own kinsmen.
The Chickasaw performed some of the same monitoring tasks on the Mississippi and on the Lower Tennessee, and also provided a small contingent on the Gulf coast.
The Seminole, newly settled in East Florida, universally supported the British war efforts, eagerly attacking the colony of Georgia and sometimes of South Carolina, most often in conjunction with Thomas Brown’s East Florida (Loyalist) Rangers.
The Catawba, sandwiched between North Carolina and South Carolina, provided troops as part of the colonial/state militia of South Carolina.
Kentucky Indian wars
In addition to taking part in invasions and battles there with the British army, war parties from all the surrounding Indian nations repeatedly raided the settlements in Kentucky, also known as the western Virginia frontier. These included the Cherokee, Creek, Shawnee, Mingo, Lenape (especially the Munsee band), and Wyandot. Nearly all of these all raided the settlements on the Cumberland River beginning in 1780, which to the Indians was within Kentucky.
Cherokee-American wars, 1776-1795
A series of conflicts stretching from the first attacks against the colonies in 1776 through the Treaty of Greeneville in 1795, also called Chickamauga Wars or Dragging Canoe’s War. There were periods of calm and sometimes even of no raids at all, other times full-scale frontier warfare, nasty and brutal and cruel, on both sides.
Within this chain of events are periods that can accurately be described as wars within the wars, rarely involving the entire Cherokee nation, more often just one or two divisions that can be called bands or tribes. To understand who was fighting whom, a short description of these divisions will help.
At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee nation was divided by geographic location into six tribes or bands. Although there was a rudimentary “national” structure for dealing with the European immigrants and creoles, the only government was at town level. Coercive power among the Cherokee lay solely within the seven clans, seven which had once been fourteen.
The Overhill Towns were on the Tellico and lower Little Tennessee Rivers. The Valley Towns occupied the upper Hiwassee and the Valley Rivers in western North Carolina. The original Lower Towns lay along the Chatooga, Keowee, and Tugaloo Rivers, and the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River in northwestern South Carolina and northeastern Georgia. The Middle Towns sat on the upper Little Tennessee and Nantahala Rivers and Little Tellico Creek in western North Carolina. The Out Towns (later known as the Hill Towns) were on the Tuckasegee and Oconaluftee Rivers in the Great Smoky Mountains. The Hiwassee Towns, sometimes grouped with the Overhill Towns, were on the lower Hiwassee and Ocoee Rivers in modern Polk and Bradley Counties.
The trend of westward migration by the Cherokee begun not long after European contact with the first of the Overhill Towns increased rapidly during the Revolution. In this migration, the original Lower Towns disappeared but a new group called by that name sprang up at the farthest western reaches of the nation.
The Chickamauga Towns, occupied after 1776, mostly lay in modern Hamilton County, Tennessee, with a couple in modern Bradley County, Tennessee and one in modern Catoosa County, Georgia. The later Lower Towns, occupied after 1782, were at first limited to modern Marion County, Tennessee, Dade County, Georgia, and Jackson County, Alabama, later expanding to the south and west. These were founded by the evacuees from the Chickamauga Towns in 1782. The Upper Towns were in modern Georgia north of the Chattahoochee River, first settled by the diaspora from the original Lower Towns during the American Revolution.
In their wars against the frontierspeople, the Cherokee often fought in conjunction with the Upper Creek, and there were never less than a hundred Shawnee living among them as allies at any time, often more, and in more than one band.
For simplicity’s sake, I generally refer to the settlements in East Tennessee collectively as the Overmountain settlements.
Cherokee War of 1776
This involved all five tribes of the Cherokee nation attacking the colonies of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, as well as the Overmountain settlements in what is now East Tennessee in the summer of 1776. Retaliation by the colonies was brutal, destroying fifty towns with their foodstores and killing dozens in the Lower, Middle, Out, and Valley Towns, with the hammer falling in the Overhill Towns solely on the ones abandoned in the removal of the warriors following Dragging Canoe to the Chickamauga region.
Creek-Georgia campaigns of 1776
The Upper Creek warriors, mostly from the town of Chiaha, began raiding the colony of Georgia to their east in small bands and faced retaliation on a similar scale.
Revolutionary War, Southern theater, 1778-1783
In late 1778, the focus of the war between Great Britain and its rebellious former colonies shifted to the South. Part of British strategy was to incite the nations of the South—Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole—to join the war both as allies and in their own interests, with greater supplies and military support. In addition to the direct support of the Southern nations for the British war effort, there were several different campaigns against the rebellious colonies of the region.
Creek-Georgia campaigns of 1778
Taking advantage of British attention in the area, the Upper Creek once again began attacking the outskirts of the state of Georgia, this time accompanied by large numbers of Lower Creek as well.
Cherokee campaigns of 1779
Following the abortion of a northern campaign against the Virginia forces of George Rogers Clark in the Illinois Country, the Cherokee began raiding the Overmountain settlements in small parties that summer, preparing for a major assault. The states of Virginia and North Carolina launched a joint expedition against the Chickamauga Towns, burning all eleven and destroying nearly all their supplies. Since nearly all the warriors were raiding the settlements or down in Georgia and South Carolina with Loyalist militias, there was little fighting.
Chickasaw-American war, 1780-1783
The same George Rogers Clark made the mistake of building Fort Jefferson and the settlement of Clarksville at the mouth of the Ohio River, inside the territory of the Chickasaw. They soon burned the settlement and laid siege to the fort, which was abandoned not long after the Chickasaw departed. They also waged a steady campaign against the recent settlements in the Cumberland Valley, sometimes in conjunction with the Cherokee.
Cherokee-Overmountain campaigns of 1780
This involved the Overhill and Hiwassee Towns, who bore the brunt of the inevitable retaliation, and the Overmountain settlements.
Cherokee-Cumberland campaign of 1780-1781
The first settlement on the Cumberland came in 1779, but the population did not gain notice until the following year. Intense raiding, massacring, and scalping left only three settlements by late spring 1781.
First Cherokee-Overmountain campaigns of 1781
This involved the Middle and Out Towns and the Overmountain settlements, first an assault by warriors from those towns, then the usual reprisal.
Second Cherokee-Overmountain campaigns of 1781
Warriors from the Middle and Valley Towns attacked the Overmountain settlements, but this time the Overmountaineers satisfied themselves with an attack upon the war party instead of wholesale destruction.
Cherokee-Georgia campaigns of 1781
A large force from the Valley Towns invaded the outskirts of the state of Georgia, attacking frontier settlements. Andrew Pickens led a joint South Carolina-Georgia force that destroyed most of the towns involved.
Shawnee-Overmountain campaigns, 1781-1785
The Shawnee on the Ohio River, as opposed to those living with the Cherokee, began sending war parties down the Warriors Path through Cumberland Gap to attack the Overmountain settlements and those in Southwest Virginia in 1781. This was, of course, in addition to attacks by the Shawnee living in the South. The raids petered out when the Shawnee began having trouble in the Old Northwest.
Cherokee-Overmountain campaigns of 1782
Cherokee from the Chickamauga Towns raided the Overmountain area through most of the spring and summer of 1782. John Sevier responded with a campaign of destruction against many of the towns founded by those originally from the first “Lower Towns”, the settlements in North Georgia known as the Upper Towns.
Georgia Indian campaigns of 1782
Sometimes hailed as the last battles of the Revolution in Georgia, it was more a frontier war of the Upper Cherokee and the Upper Creek against the states of South Carolina and Georgia with the assistance of a group of Loyalist Rangers. After a joint raid of the two states’ militias under Revolutionary War heroes Andrew Pickens and Elijah Clarke into the southern territory of the Cherokee Upper Towns, the Cherokee sued for peace.
Cherokee-Overmountain campaigns of 1783
Warriors from the Middle Towns began attacking the Overmountain region, especially the new settlements south of the French Broad River. The Overmountaineers retaliated with the destruction of Cowee in the Middle Towns.
Coldwater Indian war, 1785-1787
A French trading company set up at the foot of Muscle Shoals in 1783 changed hands in 1785 and its new owners encouraged the Cherokee and the Creek living there (in the town of Coldwater) to attack the Cumberland settlements. Which they did, repeatedly. It wasn’t until 1787 that the Cumberland people learned of the town’s existence and put an end to it.
Northwest Indian War, 1785-1795
Trouble between the nations and tribes of the Old Northwest, formerly southern Quebec, started as soon as Americans pioneers appeared in the frontier of the region. Small-scale warfare broke out in 1785. The next year the combatant nations, including two Southern nations (Cherokee and Creek), formed the Western Confederacy to better coordinate their actions. They received encouragement and assistance from the British forts in the Great Lakes area.
Although the majority of the action took place in the Old Northwest, a significant number of events took place south of the Ohio River in Kentucky, part of the Southwest. Throughout this time, there were at least three bands of Cherokee living in the Northwest with the Shawnee, the Munsee-Lenape, and the Wyandot. The 1795 Treaty of Greeneville ended the war.
Cherokee-Franklin war of 1786
This conflict involved raids against the State, or Free Republic, of Franklin, formed among the Overmountain settlements, by Cherokee from the new Lower (formerly of the Chickamauga), Overhill, and Valley Towns. The latter two suffered all the retaliation of the Franklinites, mostly because they had land the Franklinites wanted.
Cumberland campaign of summer 1786
Throughout the summer, the Lower Towns Cherokee under Dragging Canoe fought a steady campaign against the settlements of the Cumberland, often ranging north into Kentucky, and fighting alongside Upper Creek warriors, now under Alexander McGillivray. Many of the raids for which they were blamed, however, had been carried out by the Coldwater warriors.
Oconee War, 1786-1794
After repeated encroachments by invaders of their territory from the state of Georgia, the Oconee tribe of the Creek Confederacy, living between the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers, appealed to their cousins for help. This came on the heels of an attempt to establish Houston County, Georgia, with a fort at modern South Pittsburg. The Creek declared war and fought Georgia for eight years, during which the Oconee migrated south to join the Seminole. The final act saw the ephemeral Trans-Oconee Republic under Elijah Clarke.
Creek-Cumberland war of 1787-1789
McGillivray and his warriors took aim at the Cumberland District in revenge for the deaths of the Creek warriors who had been with the Coldwater contingent. The local Shawnee sometimes participated but the Cherokee were focused to the east.
Cherokee-Franklin war of 1788
This conflict involved all divisions of the Cherokee and was the bloodiest and most widespread since 1776. It began with the murder of several pacifist leaders in the Overhill Towns. The outraged Cherokee invaded Franklin from all sides, then broke up into smaller bands. The Franklinites invaded the Middle and Valley Towns. At least one major band stayed in the area into the beginning of the year, and small party raiding continued until April 1789.
Doublehead’s war, 1790-1794
A more or less renegade Cherokee who set up shop at the head of Muscle Shoals, Doublehead carried out his own war against the settlements of both the Cumberland and Overmountain regions and Kentucky. The make-up of his warriors approximated that of Coldwater.
Choctaw-Creek war of 1790
In 1790, the Choctaw confederation and the Creek confederacy agreed to settle a dispute over land along the Noxubey River with a game of stickball. Stickball resembles the lacrosse of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) but is much more violent. A fight broke out during the match and in the end five hundred lay dead.
Southwest Indian War, 1791-1796
Begun with a sustained raiding campaign by the Creek in spring through autumn 1791, this war involving the Creek, Cherokee, and resident Shawnee against the new Southwest Territory established in 1790 lasted until formal peace between the United States and the Creek Confederacy.
Mero District campaigns of 1791-1792
The Creek regularly raided the Mero District (formerly Cumberland District) throughout the spring, summer, and early autumn of this year.
They were joined in spring 1792 by parties of Cherokee, petering out in the summer.
Mero District invasion 1792
This took place in early fall after a formal declaration of war by the Cherokee. Led by the Cherokee, now under John Watts since the death of Dragging Canoe in March, its apex was the invasion of the Cumberland and Kentucky by four armies composed of Cherokee, Creek, and Shawnee warriors. Its most noted battle was the siege of Buchanan’s Station on 30 September, but raiding in the area continued through the rest of the fall.
Mero District raids, 1792-1795
In the aftermath of the failed invasion, raiding by Cherokee and Creek supported by the Shawnee resident in both nations remained nearly for the next three years. Fighting ended in 1795 but a formal peace was not established until 1796.
Lesley’s war, 1793-1794
A Creek war leader, Lesley invaded the Overmountain region with a large band and established a base from which to raid the settlements in the neighborhood. The Southwest Territory militia finally tracked him down with help from Overhill Cherokee warriors sent by Hanging Maw, chief headman for the Overhill Towns in the summer of 1794.
Eastern Districts campaigns of 1793
This began with an invasion by a militia group from the Overmountain area of the Overhill Towns and an attack on a diplomatic party which included not only local leaders but several Lower Cherokee and even whites from the Mero District. It included an invasion of the Overmountain area with the largest Indian army ever fielded. Retaliation by militia from the Washington and Hamilton Districts included the Battle of Etowah, the last pitched battle of the Cherokee-American wars.
Chickasaw-Creek war, 1793-1795
The Chickasaw supplied Anthony Wayne’s Legion of the United States with scouts from its inception at the end of 1791. Viewing this as treason, the Creek declared war. Since the Chickasaw were now allies of the Southwest Territory as well, the declaration was mutual.
Mero District campaigns, 1794
The first nine month of 1794 witnessed more than forty raids on the Mero District by the Cherokee as well as the Creek. A major invasion by a joint Cherokee-Creek army collapsed in the face of dissension between warriors of the two nations. The Nickajack Expedition in September by federal, territorial, and Kentucky militia forces destroyed the towns of Nickajack and Running Water, leading the Cherokee to sue for a final peace.
State of Muskogee, 1799-1803
From 1799 to 1803, William Augustus Bowles ruled the State of Muskogee carved out of East Florida around the head of Apalachee Bay. Its population consisted of Seminole, Spanish deserters, Black Seminole, Lower Creek, runaway slaves, and pirates, the latter of whom made up the State of Muskogee navy whose prime concern was pirating Spanish ships. His reign ended following a conspiracy by Spain, America, and leaders of the Creek Confederacy.
Creek War, 1811-1813
Within the War of 1812 but not of it, the conflict began as a civil war in the Creek Confederacy between a traditionalist faction in the Upper Towns called the Red Sticks and the leadership of the Middle and Lower Towns. The Creek Upper Towns sat along the Coosa River, their Middle Towns on the Tallapoosa and its tributaries, the Lower Towns on the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers. As late as the early 1790’s, the Seminole were counted as another division. The conflict remained fratricidal until the Red Sticks began attacking white settlements then forts. The army sent to crush them under Andrew Jackson included militia forces from five Southern states and warriors from the Cherokee and Lower Creek.
Cherokee-Osage war, 1817-1823
Fought entirely in Arkansas Territory over disputed lands, the primary belligerents were the Osage nation and the Cherokee Nation West. Warriors from the Cherokee Nation East, however, travelled back and forth in support.
First Seminole War, 1817-1819
The Miccousukee Seminole in Florida, formerly the Hitchiti-speaking Upper Chiaha of the Tennessee River in the days of De Soto, refused to recognize a land cession treaty the United States signed with the Lower Creek. After several attacks by both sides, Washington City sent a contingent of eight hundred troops under Andrew Jackson, militia forces of one thousand each from Georgia and Tennessee, and a fourteen hundred-strong force of Lower Creek with a troop of Cherokee cavalry attached. The upshot was the acquisition of both Floridas by the United States.
Cherokee raid into South Georgia, 1830
Major Ridge led a group of thirty in full war regalia to an a detached area of Cherokee territory about thirty miles southwest of present-day Rome along the Georgia-Alabama border. They expelled a number of squatters and burned the buildings but there was otherwise no violence.
First Cherokee Civil War, 1834-1836
Members of the National Party led by John Ross, which advocates remaining in the East, start murdering members of the Treaty Party, led by John Ridge, which advocates making the best terms possible for what they see as inevitable, at the rate of about one per week.
Second Seminole War, 1835-1842
Begun by the Seminole resisting attempts to remove them to Indian Territory. A small number managed to remain in Florida, where after a lengthy and expensive war of attrition that wore out both sides they were allowed to remain on a reservation in southwest Florida.
Creek War of 1836
It began with Creek attacking squatters and land speculators from their remaining territory in Alabama. It ended with Winfield Scott and the U.S. Army removing by force the remaining twenty thousand Creek to the West, save for those on the Poarch Creek reservation.
Cherokee Disturbances, 1836-1839
The federal government sent in the army and state militia to end the civil war between the two major factions and to prepare the Cherokee for removal. The actions also included the rounding up of Cherokee into concentration camps for forcible removal, then the removal itself.
Third Seminole War, 1855-1858
An attack by a band of Seminole on a small army patrol touched off another round of warfare that ended with around seventy-five Seminole being removed to Indian Territory.
American Civil War, 1861-1865
In the Southeast/Old Southwest, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, formed the Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders under Principal Chief William H. Thomas. Active mostly in the Confederate Department of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, the legion was one of the last units east of the Mississippi River to surrender on 9 May 1865.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw raised the 1st Choctaw Battalion, Mississippi Cavalry, for service in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. After a disastrous battle during the Vicksburg Campaign in which many troops and officers were killed or captured, the survivors joined Maj. S. G. Spann’s Battalion of Independent Scouts, which, ironically, also surrendered 9 May 1865, but in Meridian, Mississippi.
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The phrase “Indian Wars of the Old Southwest” derives from an article under that name by turn of the century historian Albert V. Goodpasture published in the Tennessee Historical Review, in the four volumes of its 1918 edition. It can be found online, or in the local history section of the Chattanooga Public Library.