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The term Overhill Cherokee refers to the former Cherokee settlements located in what is now Tennessee in the southeastern United States. The name was given by 18th-century European traders and explorers who had to cross the Appalachian Mountains to reach these settlements when traveling from British colonies along the Atlantic coast.
Situated along the lower Little Tennessee, lower Tellico, and lower Hiwassee rivers, the Overhill towns rose to prominence within the Cherokee Nation in the early 18th century when trade with the British was standardized. In the early part of the century, the Overhill towns' remote location at the far end of the Trading Path made them accessible only to those traders and explorers adventurous and opportunistic enough to make the treacherous journey inland and over the mountains. By the middle of the century, the Overhill towns were consistently courted by both British and French emissaries as the two powers struggled for the control of the continent. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, the westward thrust of Euro-American settlement led to the decline of the Overhill towns, as the Cherokee were induced to sign away the bulk of their lands in the east in a series of unfavorable treaties.
The Overhill town of Chota in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee was recognized as the de facto capital of the Cherokee Nation for most of the 18th century, and the town of Tanasi would become the namesake for the state of Tennessee. Many prominent Cherokee leaders, including Attakullakulla, Oconastota, Nancy Ward, and Sequoyah were born and raised in Overhill towns. Although most of the Overhill sites were submerged by the impoundment of the Little Tennessee River in the 1970s, archaeologists conducted pre-inundation excavations identifying most of the Overhill towns and extracting volumes of invaluable information regarding the region's Cherokee and pre-Cherokee inhabitants.
The Overhill settlements were concentrated around three rivers at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Unicoi Mountains, in what is now Monroe and Polk counties. The northernmost of these three rivers, the Little Tennessee, was the locus for a string of prominent Overhill settlements situated between modern-day Vonore and Calderwood Dam. Other important settlements were situated along the Hiwassee River south of modern Etowah and along the Tellico River in modern Tellico Plains.
Although most of the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains was used primarily as a hunting ground, early Euro-American explorers recalled abandoned villages and temporary hunting camps scattered around the region. These were often found in the game-rich coves of the northern part of the range and near the junctions of major streams.
Great Tellico (Talikwa) – located in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee, in Tellico Plains, where the Tellico River levels out at the base of the Unicoi Mountains. Great Tellico rose to prominence in early 18th century under its chief, Moytoy. Alexander Cuming, who visited the town in 1730, reported that Great Tellico had the fiercest warriors of all the Overhill towns. The site of the town is located in modern Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Great Tellico's sister town, Chatuga, was also located in the valley.
Chota (Itsa'sa) – located in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee, along the Little Tennessee River, about 10 miles (16 km) south of modern-day Vonore. Chota was the de facto Cherokee capital in the mid-18th century, and birthplace of several prominent chiefs. At the time of Timberlake's visit in 1761, Chota consisted of a large councilhouse that could seat 500 and about 60 houses. The town's name is sometimes spelled "Echota."
Tanasi – located in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee, adjacent to Chota along the Little Tennessee River. The town was the capital of the Overhill Cherokee c. 1721–1730. The Little Tennessee was originally simply called the "Tennessee," which was an alternate spelling of "Tanasi." The name was eventually applied to the entire state.
Tallassee (Ta'lasi) – located in present-day Blount and Monroe counties along the Little Tennessee River a mile or so downstream from modern Calderwood Dam. The modern town of Tallassee is situated much further downstream, and its location should not be confused with that of the ancient village. Tallassee is sometimes called "Tallassee Old Town."
Chilhowee (Tsu'lun'we) – located in present-day Blount and Monroe counties at the confluence of Abrams Creek and the Little Tennessee River, near the junction of modern U.S. Route 129 and Foothills Parkway.
Tomotley – located in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee, adjacent to Toqua along the Little Tennessee River. Timberlake reported a councilhouse in Tomotley that would sound a "death hallow" to signify the return of a war party.
Mialoquo (Amaye'le'gwa) – located in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee, on a now-submerged island in the middle of the Little Tennessee River, just north of the modern U.S. Route 411 bridge. Mooney believed Mialoquo might have been the village of Nilaque, visited by John Bartram. The term "Mialoquo" means "Great Island."
Great Hiwassee (Ayouwasi) – located in present-day Polk County, Tennessee, along the Hiwassee River at the base of the Unicoi Mountains, where the river levels into a fertile plain. The site is now farmland. The term "Hiwassee" means "savanna" or "plain." Hiwassee is sometimes called "Hiwassee Old Town."
The Overhill settlements were connected by a series of well-worn trails:
Early Euro-American explorers in Southern Appalachia noted that the Cherokee were concentrated around three general regions. The "Lower towns" were centered around the town of Keowee in the hills of northern South Carolina and northeastern Georgia. The "Middle towns" were centered around Nequassee and Tassetchee amidst the Great Balsam Mountains and eastern Unicoi Mountains in North Carolina. The Overhill Cherokee lived in settlements located between the Appalachian Mountains and the Tennessee Valley in what is now Tennessee. The Overhill capital, or "mother town," shifted between Great Tellico, Tanasi, and Chota.
The Overhill settlements were established sometime between the late 16th century and the late 17th century, although scholars disagree as to a more exact timeframe. The major towns were in place by the time the first Euro-American explorers arrived in the late 17th century, and the Overhill Cherokee spoke in a dialect distinctive from that found in the Middle settlements and Lower towns.
For most of the 17th century, the British colonies on the Atlantic coast dealt with the Cherokee via other tribes acting as middlemen. As the market for fur in Europe grew, however, the need for direct contact with tribes further and further west drew early traders and trappers to the Overhill settlements. In 1673, Virginia merchants sent agents James Needham and Gabriel Arthur on trip west of the Appalachians, hoping to open a direct trade route. While Needham was killed on the return trip, Arthur stayed behind and claimed to have accompanied the natives (possibly the Cherokee) on raids of Spanish settlements in Florida.
In 1725, South Carolina sent Col. George Chicken on a diplomatic mission to the Overhill towns to address the issue of unlicensed traders, who were underselling merchants conducting business legally. Chicken arrived in Great Tellico in July, and described the village as "compact and thick settled," probably in response to the dangers the town faced during the tribe's long-time struggle with the Creek tribe. Chicken then followed the Warriors' Path north to the Little Tennessee, where he met the "Head Warrior" of Tanasi and the chiefs of Citico and Tallassee.
Sir Alexander Cuming (c. 1690–1775) arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in December 1729. Although he lacked any real diplomatic credentials, Cuming managed to convince several Charlestonians that he was an agent of King George II of Great Britain on a mission to gain the loyalty of the Cherokee. Cuming set out for the Overhill town of Tanasi in March 1730, his stated goal being to gain the fabled "Crown of Tannassy."
Cuming moved quickly across the Trading Path, interacting briefly with Lower and Middle chiefs. In just under a month, Cuming had crossed the Unicoi Mountains into the Overhill country, a dangerous place at the time due to the Cherokees' ongoing war with the Creeks.
Cuming's method of securing allegiance was described years later by colonial trader, Ludovick Grant, who lived in Great Tellico and briefly accompanied Cuming during his tour. In each town, Cuming arranged a meeting with local leaders in the townhouse. He arrived at the meeting fully armed, in defiance of custom, and made a prepared speech declaring that he was a private citizen wishing only to see their country, and that if any Indians wished to return to England with him, he would take them. He then asked them to join his party in a toast to the health of King George II, and to kneel in allegiance. His intention, as he told his guides, was to set fire to the townhouse and kill the assembled Indians if they refused.
During his stay in Great Tellico, Cuming was impressed by the display of its chief, Moytoy. He described the encounter in his journal (referring to his party in third person):
They arrived at great Telliquo in the Afternoon, saw the petrifying Cave, a great many Enemies Scalps brought in and put upon Poles at the Warriors Doors, made a Friend of the great Moytoy, and Jacob the Conjurer.
Cuming learned that Moytoy was attempting to usurp control of the entire Cherokee people. Cuming agreed to use his influence to help Moytoy in this regard if Moytoy would help him get the Crown of Tanasi. On March 30, Cuming followed the Warriors' Path from Great Tellico to Tanasi, which he found "pleasantly situated" along the Little Tennessee. Cuming met with the Tanasi Warrior, who was a de facto leader of the Overhill at the time. After gaining the Tanasi Warrior's allegiance, Cuming returned to Great Tellico. He accompanied Moytoy back across the Unicoi Mountains to Nequassee, where Moytoy was crowned "Emperor of the Cherokee."
Cuming returned to England on June 5, 1730 with several Cherokee and a possum-hair headdress he referred to as the "Crown of Tannassy." Although he had planned to present them to King George II, a delegation from Charleston arrived claiming Cuming had defrauded them. While Cuming's schemes led to his own downfall, his visit to the Overhill towns helped to solidify an alliance between the Cherokee and the English.
Around 1736, an utopian idealist named Christian Priber arrived in Great Tellico. Although initially a French agent, Priber quickly abandoned his mission. He adopted Cherokee customs, learned the language, and quickly gained the tribe's trust.
Priber attempted to organize Cherokee society in accordance with early 18th-century European idealism. He put forward the view that all things should be held in common, including wives and children. Claiming the English were fraudulent and greedy, he suggested moving the Cherokee capital to modern-day Alabama, where it would be closer to French lands. The English attempted to arrest Priber in 1739, but were prevented from doing so by the Cherokee. He was finally captured by the Creek and turned over to South Carolina authorities in 1743.
At the outbreak of the Seven Years War (or the French and Indian War as it was known in America) the Cherokee aligned themselves with the British. The Overhill towns agreed to provide military support, but asked that a fort be built to protect area women and children while the men were away. In 1756, the colonies dispatched Captain Raymond Demeré and engineer John DeBrahm to the area with several wagon loads of building material and supplies for the construction of a fort along the Little Tennessee River. The fort, named after John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudoun, stood at the junction of the Little Tennessee River and the Tellico River. The Cherokee village of Tuskegee developed in its vicinity.
Shortly after the fort's construction, relations between the English and the Cherokee soured. Several Cherokee returning home from battle were killed, and an increase in horse thefts created tension in Virginia. After a contingent of Cherokee chiefs were detained at Fort Prince George in late 1759, the Cherokee, under Chief Standing Turkey, laid siege to Fort Loudoun. The fort's garrison held out until August 1760, when a lack of provisions forced them to surrender.
The British colonies responded swiftly to the fall of Fort Loudoun. South Carolina sent Colonel James Grant against the Lower towns, Virginia dispatched Colonel William Byrd to attack the Middle towns in North Carolina, and Colonel Adam Stephen detached from Byrd's regiment and marched to Long Island of the Holston (near modern-day Kingsport, Tennessee) with plans to attack the Overhill towns. The Cherokee immediately sued for peace, which was granted. To help solidify the peace, Stephen dispatched Lieutenant Henry Timberlake and Sergeant Thomas Sumter to accompany a Cherokee delegation on a tour of the Overhill towns.
After a five-day journey down the Holston, French Broad, and Little Tennessee rivers, Timberlake arrived in the Overhill town of Tomotley, where he was greeted by Chief Ostenaco and witnessed a ceremonial return of a Cherokee war party. After smoking a peace pipe with Ostenaco, Timberlake proceeded southward to Chota, where he was met by some 400 Cherokee. Timberlake smoked a peace pipe with several tribal leaders, and recorded the layout and design of the town's large councilhouse. The following day, Timberlake arrived in the town of Citico, where the residents greeted him with a long dance. After smoking a peace pipe with Citico's chief, Cheulah, Timberlake proceeded southward to Chilhowee, where he gained similar assurances of peace. He then returned via trail to Long Island of the Holston. Timberlake's journals, published in the 1760s, contain detailed descriptions of Cherokee councilhouses, residences, canoes, and other facets of everyday Cherokee life that would later prove invaluable to historians.
At the close of the Seven Years' War, Euro-American settlers began trickling into east Tennessee. In 1772, several pioneers negotiated a lease for Cherokee lands in northeast Tennessee and formed the Watauga Settlement. In spite of the agreement, tensions between the pioneers and the Cherokee rose steadily. The outbreak of the American Revolution found the Cherokee once again aligned with the British, this time against the rebellious American colonies.
In 1776, the Cherokee initiated a plan to drive the settlers out of the Washington District, North Carolina and invade Virginia. Virginia merchant, Isaac Thomas— later a co-founder of Sevierville— was warned of the invasion by the Cherokee Beloved Woman, Nancy Ward. Thomas passed on the warning to the settlers, who made adequate preparations. The result was that the first prong of the attack, led by Dragging Canoe, was defeated at Heaton's Station. The second prong, led by Abraham of Chilhowee, was routed at Fort Watauga. In response to these attacks, several thousand militia led by William Christian invaded the Overhill towns and burned Tuskegee and Citico. The Cherokee made peace shortly thereafter with the Treaty of De Witt's Corner, although chiefs Dragging Canoe and Ostenaco refused to sign another treaty and fled south to continue the armed struggle —in what became known as the Chickamauga Wars.
In 1780, while the North Carolina militia from the district, often referred to as the "overhill militia", were away at the Battle of Kings Mountain, the Cherokee launched sporadic raids against the settlers in the Washington District. Upon returning, Colonel John Sevier— who had gained fame as a co-commander at Kings Mountain— was dispatched, along with several thousand militia, to the south on a punitive expedition to the Overhill towns. After defeating the Cherokee in a fierce battle at Boyd's Creek (in modern-day Sevier County), Sevier proceeded southward and destroyed most of the remaining, lightly defended villages, including Chota.
After the Cherokee defeat at Fort Watauga and Heaton's Station in 1776, most Cherokee chiefs, including Attakullakulla and Oconastota, signed the Treaty of De Witt's Corner. However, two Cherokee chiefs— namely Dragging Canoe and Ostenaco— refused to recognize this treaty, claiming the settlers were unlikely to abide by the treaty's terms. Along with several renegade tribesmen from across the Cherokee tribes, they moved south to Chickamauga Creek, in the vicinity of what is now Chattanooga, and set up a series of villages. Although they were still considered Cherokee, they were commonly called the "Chickamauga" to distinguish them from the greater Cherokee tribe. The Chickamauga (or "Lower Cherokee" as they were also sometimes called) proceeded to carry on an unconventional war against the encroaching Euro-American settlers, ambushing small patrols and attacking small settlements. After Oconastota's death in the early 1780s, Chief Old Tassel was recognized as the leader of the Overhill Cherokee, and sought to distance himself from the Chickamauga. After an expedition by Sevier destroyed the Chickamauga towns in 1782, Dragging Canoe moved the Chickamaugas to modern-day Marion County, Tennessee, where he continued his struggle.
In 1788, a renegade band of Cherokees massacred the family of John Kirk on Nine Mile Creek (in modern Blount County, Tennessee), enraging the already uneasy settlers. Sevier rallied the militia at Hunter's Station (near Maryville) and marched across Chilhowee Mountain to the Little Tennessee River. After capturing and burning Tallassee, Sevier entered Chilhowee and placed Abraham of Chilhowee and Old Tassel under arrest while a truce was being negotiated. One of John Kirk's surviving sons managed to gain access to the chiefs, however, and tomahawked both of them to death. The killing of chiefs under a flag of truce was considered a grave insult by the Cherokee, and the dwindling power of the Chickamaugas was suddenly revived.
After the massacre at Chilhowee, John Watt (Old Tassel's son) and Doublehead (Old Tassel's brother) aligned themselves with Dragging Canoe and carried on a protracted series of attacks against the settlers. Sevier again marched south, capturing and burning several villages before being forced to turn back. Although Dragging Canoe died in 1792, John Watt and Doublehead continued to make sporadic attacks against Euro-American settlements, although these had mostly shifted to the Cumberland region.
After the death of Old Tassel in 1788, Chief Hanging Maw was recognized as the leader of the Overhill towns. With violence spiraling out of control, Hanging Maw petitioned the territorial governor, William Blount, for a fort to protect the peaceful Overhill villages from vengeful settlers. In 1794, Hanging Maw donated land at the junction of Nine Mile Creek and the Little Tennessee River to the U.S. government for the construction of the Tellico Blockhouse.
Along with a small garrison of federal soldiers, the Tellico Blockhouse was the headquarters of the Tellico Agent— the official liaison between the U.S. and the Cherokee. On November 8, 1794, William Blount met Hanging Maw (representing the Overhill Cherokee) and John Watt (representing the Lower Cherokee) to sign a treaty ending the Chickamauga Wars. Over the next ten years, several other treaties followed in which Cherokee leaders signed away large portions of land in East and Middle Tennessee, including the Overhill towns along the Little Tennessee. With the cession of Overhill lands, the Cherokee Nation's center of power shifted south to New Echota in Georgia.
In 1967, the Tennessee Valley Authority began construction on Tellico Dam just above the mouth of the Little Tennessee. The impoundment created Tellico Lake and effectively flooded all of the original Overhill sites along the Little Tennessee River. Before the flooding, however, the University of Tennessee conducted extensive archaeological excavations, identifying Chota's townhouse and the grave of Oconastota. The site of Chota's townhouse was covered with fill, raising it above water levels. A monument with eight pillars— one for the Cherokee Nation and each of its seven clans— was placed at the site along with Oconastota's grave. Nearby, a small monument was erected marking the site of Tanasi, and recalling it as the root of the state's name. Both sites are managed by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
Further upstream, the now-submerged site of Chilhowee has lent its name to Chilhowee Dam. Tennessee Reservoir Development Agency (TRDA) boat ramps have been named after both Toqua and Tallassee. Abrams Creek, which traverses Cades Cove and empties into the Little Tennessee, is named after Abraham of Chilhowee.
Fort Loudoun State Park now contains a reconstructed version of the fort and a replica of a 17th-century Tuskegee village dwelling. The state park also manages the Tellico Blockhouse site, the foundations of which have been identified and marked. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, near Fort Loudoun in Vonore, is dedicated to the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet. The Unicoi Trail, a cross-country hiking trail, now connects the Sequoyah Museum with Murphy, North Carolina, roughly following the ancient Trading Path. The Frank H. McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee contains hundreds of Cherokee artifacts obtained from various excavations the university has conducted in the Tennessee Valley over the past century.