Part Two: The Watauga Association
The people south of the Holston River realized that they needed some sort of governmental unit, so they formed the Watauga Association. This produced the first articles for government of a free and independent people in America, a move which Lord Dunsmore, Virginia’s royal governor called a “dangerous example.”
The Watauga Association selected a court of five members to exercise judicial and legislative powers, with a clerk to serve them. The sheriff enforced the laws and judgments. All records have been lost and many historians have hypothesized about the members…..
Most think John Carter, James Robertson, Charles Robertson and Zachariah Isbell were on it. About the fifth member there is more guesswork, many thinking it to have been Jacob Brown, others John Sevier – with dissenters saying Sevier did not come until the next year. William Tatham or James Smith was probably the first Clerk; John Sevier was elected clerk in 1775 and he was followed by Felix Walker. The first sheriff is not known, but it was thought that Valentine Sevier, Jr. served at one time. This government last until 1775.
Now that the settlers had things fairly well organized, they sought a way to make their land claims more secure. Someone had the bright idea that they should lease their land from the Cherokees. Ten year leases were negotiated for the Watauga and Nolichucky settlements. One early history gives the population of the two settlements as being eighty households.
The stability of the area gave rise to many new settlers getting land and building cabins. In general people began to live normal lives.
The one thing which was an ever present menace was the threat of a Native American uprising. By 1774 several Native American – Settler confrontations had occurred and the Native Americans were showing resentment about the settlers on their land.
The Shawnees, Delawares, Mingoes and others from the north made forays as far south as the Holston Settlement. Lord Dunsmore ordered General Andrew Lewis to kill all “Indians” or drive them out of Kentucky. Captain Evan Shelby raised a company of men and joined General Lewis and Colonel Charles Lewis.
The Battle of Point Pleasant occurred at the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers in October of 1774 with the pioneers the victors.
Several things were going on before and during this time. Previously, Judge Richard Henderson and Nathaniel Hart went to Cherokee country to discuss land purchases with them. They, along with a few other men had formed a company called the Transylvania Company. The Cherokees were agreeable to meet with them and made plans to gather at Sycamore Shoals the next year.
By March of 1775 there were 1200 Native Americans, the Wataugans and many other whites there. The negotiations started on March 14th. At one point, the negotiations broke down and Dragging Canoe, one of the young chiefs made an impassioned plea for the others not to sign, but they ignored him.
Then, on March 17, 1775 an agreement was signed which transferred nearly twenty million acres including most of the present states of Tennessee and Kentucky to the Transylvania Company.
Dragging Canoe, son of Little Carpenter, feeling that the old chiefs were setting the course for the ultimate extinction of the Cherokee Tribe, told the settlers as he walked out, that they were buying a dark and bloody ground.
In the fall of 1775 the Wataugans changed their name to “Washington District” – the first geographical division in this country to be named for George Washington.
The relationship between Great Britain and the Colonies was getting worse all the time and authorities in Britain thought the southern colonies particularly vulnerable in that there were many Tories there, black slaves might be roused to rebellion and the Cherokees could create problems in the West.
The British government instructed their agent, John Stuart, to arm the Native Americans. Alexander Cameron, agent for the Cherokee Nation, called the chiefs and warriors together and encouraged them to fight the settlers.
In early 1776 John Stuart sent sixty horseloads of ammunition by his brother Henry, to the Overhill Cherokees. In May 1776, Stuart met with the chiefs at Chota and told him that the settlers were lying when they claimed to have bought the land and asked him to “write to the white people that settlers this side of the great boundary line move to some other land within the white people’s bounds.”
He did this in a letter dated May 7, 1776 giving them twenty days to leave. John Carter wrote to the state of Virginia immediately asking for help against the Cherokees and he wrote the Cherokees that he could not believe they wanted to “break the chain of friendship and wash their hands of us.” This had no effect.
The settlers, not about to give up their land, began making preparations for their safety. On May 23, 1776, they petitioned the state of Virginia for admission and were ignored. On July 5, 1776 a petition was drawn up to be sent to North Carolina asking to be admitted.
In the meantime people strengthened and built forts for their protection. The farthest southwest was Fort Lee on Limestone Creek of the Nolichucky River. The fort on the Watauga River was larger; originally known as Fort Watauga, it was renamed Fort Caswell. It is now known as Fort Watauga and part of Sycamore Shoals and the Tennessee Park system.
By July 1776, the Native Americans were ready with 700 warriors for a three-pronged attack: Dragging Canoe at Long Island, Old Abram at Fort Lee and Fort Caswell (Fort Watauga) and the Raven at Carter’s Valley.
Nancy Ward, who held the “Beloved Woman” title among the Cherokee, had the right to meet and speak at the Cherokee Council meetings. She loved both the Cherokee and the settlers and feared that the war would be a tragedy for her people. As a member of the council she knew the plans for attack.
There were four white traders held captive – Isaac Thomas, William Fauling, Jarrett Williams and one other. Nancy arranged for their escape on July 8, 1776 and told them to warn the settlers of the Cherokees’ plans.
They reached the Nolichucky settlement first and gave John Sevier the message. He was there building Fort Lee. The settlers there left and went to Fort Caswell. When the Cherokee arrived they found the fort deserted. They burned the fort but weren’t in any hurry to catch the settlers. They did not bother the abandoned crops, animals or cabins.
The main force divided here with Dragging Canoe going on toward North-of-Holston area and Old Abram to the Watauga River and Fort Caswell.
An advance scouting party captured Lydia Bean, wife of William Bean, hurrying to the fort. She was taken to the Cherokee Village and preparation was made for her to be burned……… What will happen next?
Will Nancy Ward step in and ask for Lydia to be spared? Will Lydia survive?
Will the Wataugans, with only forty or so men be able to hold off the attack of more than 350 warriors? What happens to Dragging Canoe and his men?
Check back again for the next installment and the answers to these questions!
If you enjoyed this bit of history you can find the answers and more interesting articles from the publication it was taken from in:
History of Washington County Tennessee 1988, Watauga Association of Genealogists ~ Northeast Tennessee, 1988, Walsworth Publishing Co., Inc. Print
The above information copied and used with permission of WAGS. You can find the book mentioned above at some local libraries and many genealogical societies.