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The day Cherokees blooded Great Britain's nose

Rabun Gap, scene of the Battle of Echoee Pass
Rabun Gap, scene of the Battle of Echoee Pass
Richard Thornton

On June 27, 1760 during the French and Indian War, vastly outnumbered Cherokee defenders used the tactics of the Greeks at Thermopylae to stop an army of British Redcoats and Rangers.

Sir Winston Churchill was fond of saying, “History is written by the victors.” That is certainly the case with the way Colonial Era history is taught North American students. American textbooks emphasize and somewhat gloss over the role of George Washington in the early stages of the French and Indian War. His ineptitude triggered a bloody conflict between Great Britain and France for control of the continent. Canadian textbooks dwell on the last stages of the war, seven years later, when British forces conquered Quebec.

In 1992, Hollywood somewhat remedied this ignorance by producing an extremely successful, but fictional movie, “The Last of the Mohicans.” It was filmed around Asheville, NC, but was based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel about the battles between the British, French and Indians in northern New York during 1757. Both the novel and the movie give the impression that all combat during the French and Indian War occurred in Upstate New York and Quebec. Both the novel and the movie fail to mention that Native American allies of Great Britain, including Cherokees, were committing the same atrocities against French Canadian citizens and their Indian allies that the French Indian allies were committing against the British colonists.

Upstate New York and the St. Lawrence River Basin was the main battleground in North America between European armies. However, the civilian deaths on the Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina frontiers, drastically exceeded those in New York. Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was virtually depopulated in the raids made by French-allied Native Americans. Western Virginia’s landscape is dotted with state historical markers that describe horrific massacres between 1754 and 1766. As a result western Virginians came to hate and fear all Native Americans.

Origins of the First Anglo-Cherokee War

During the 1680s and 1690s, French traders and surveyors explored all of the rivers in the interior of the Southeast. They were mapped and claimed for the King of France. The word “Charaqui” suddenly appeared on Guillaume Delisle’s map of southeastern North America in 1717 at locations that his previous maps had shown other tribes living. These tribes had moved elsewhere.

In late 1715, an alliance of Native villages in the northwestern tip of South Carolina invited proto-Creek towns in northern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee to a diplomatic conference at the village of Tugaloo to discuss joint military operations against the Colony of South Carolina. Thirty-one proto-Creek leaders were murdered in their sleep. The allied South Carolina villages then switched sides and came to the aid of the South Carolina colonists. Henceforth, they were called Charakee Indians. This event triggered the 40 year long Creek-Cherokee War, and probably encouraged the creation of the Creek Confederacy.

Whatever the actual early history of the Cherokees is, it is an established fact that they and the Colony of South Carolina were close allies from 1716 until 1757. This was a period when Great Britain was worried by about French influence in the Southern Appalachians. All Native American towns that were allied with France or neutral disappeared from the maps of western North Carolina between 1700 and 1717.

After 1738 the Cherokees were constantly on the defensive as one Southeastern tribe after another attacked them in an attempt to annihilate a people that they considered to be non-indigenous. Several horrific smallpox plagues simultaneously reduced Cherokee population by over 50%. Each time the British government came to the Cherokee's rescue by provided advanced notice of attacks and additional munitions.

After the Colony of Georgia was founded in 1733, the eastern Creeks quickly became viewed by the British Crown as its main line of defense against France and Spain. The territories of Great Britain’s Creek allies directly adjoined Spanish and French colonies. British and French muskets and munitions flowed into Creek provinces, making further expansion of Cherokee territory impossible. The Creek-Cherokee War continued, but the Cherokees were unable to carry out major offensive opeations.

In 1754, British officials sensed that war with France was imminent. Agents were sent to the Creek-speaking provinces that were not allied with France in an effort to end the Creek-Cherokee War. All provinces, except the Coweta, agreed to sign a peace treaty. Kowi-te [Coweta] means “Mountain Lion People.” The capital of the Coweta was then on the Chattahoochee River, southwest of present day Atlanta, but satellite Coweta villages were spread across the mountains and Piedmont of Georgia.

Coweta launched a blitzkrieg against all the Cherokee provinces in Georgia and North Carolina. The Coweta Creeks had originated in the Little Tennessee and Tuckasegee River Basins in the North Carolina Mountains. They had lost the most territory at the onset of the Creek-Cherokee War. Dozens of Cherokee villages were destroyed. The Coweta’s took back all of northeast Georgia and part of North Carolina. Thirty-one Cherokee chiefs were executed. Coweta declared a victory in the 40 year long Creek-Cherokee War, reoccupied its lands before 1716 and then agreed to sign a peace treaty. The famous 1755 John Mitchell Map of North America verifies this historical fact. There would be very few Cherokees living in Georgia until the 1780s.

In 1755, British officials in South Carolina offered the Cherokees a vast territory that now includes parts of seven states. All of this territory was then occupied by Native allies of the French. To get this land, the Cherokees would have to send a substantial number of warriors to fight the Native allies of France in New York and Canada. The Cherokees agreed to the deal.

French-allied Kusa-te (Upper Creek) towns in the Georgia Mountains and southeastern Tennessee soon launched attacks that recaptured the Hiwassee River Valley in North Carolina and Tennessee. Instead of gaining a vast new empire, the Cherokees had seen their territory shrink between 1754 and 1756 to the boundaries of 1712 in North Carolina, and where they were in 1721 in Tennessee. Bands of Shawnee warriors began attacking the weakened Overhill Cherokee towns, many of whose soldiers were in New York.

The Overhill Cherokees feared that they were about to be exterminated. Their leaders persuaded South Carolina to build Fort Loudon on the Little Tennessee River to protect their remaining towns. A company of Redcoats was dispatched to garrison the fort. Ironically, by February of 1760 Fort Loudon would be under siege by the Overhill Cherokees.

The legend of the Battle of Taliwa in which the Tennessee Cherokees won all of northern Georgia in 1755 is an early 19th century myth. There is no record of it in the British Colonial archives. Why would the Tennessee Cherokees need a British fort to protect their home territory from attacks by Upper Creeks living in the Georgia Mountains, if they had just conquered the northern half of Georgia?

There were also problems in western Virginia. The Cherokee leaders had assumed that their British allies in Virginia would feed their men. Most Virginian frontiersmen refused hospitality to their Cherokee allies. Hungry Cherokees then started stealing what livestock and corn they needed to feed themselves.

The frontiersmen responded by treating the Cherokees as hostiles. Some frontiersmen and Cherokees were killed. The incidents were inflamed into an open war by bad judgments on both sides. Not all the provinces in the Cherokee Alliance were hostile or even spoke the same language. However, even the peaceful Cherokee provinces were ultimately to pay a terrible price for the coming war.

In 1759, bands of Cherokee warriors from hostile towns attacked the South Carolina and Virginia frontier, killing hundreds of people. Assuming that the Cherokees were allied with France, Great Britain shipped a force of hardened British Regulars to South Carolina to thwart what it perceived was a pending attack on by the French. The Cherokees never formed a political alliance with France.

First Battle of Itsate (Echoee) Pass

In the spring of 1760 word reached Charleston that Fort Loudon was under siege. Lord Jeffrey Amherst, Commander of British Forces in North America, ordered a Scottish earl, General Archibald Montgomerie, who commanded an army of somewhere between 1,300 to 1,500 soldiers, to invade the Cherokee territory. The army included four companies of the Royal Scots, a 700 man battalion of Montgomerie's Highlanders, 300 mounted South Carolina rangers, 100 South Carolina militia, and approximately 40 to 50 Catawba warriors.

It was assumed that this army would overwhelm the bands of 30 to 100 Cherokees that had been ravaging the frontier. Earl Montgomerie had fought with Braddock and George Washington in the disastrous Battle of Fort Duquesne. He thought that he had learned from the mistakes made by General Braddock. He knew that the Valley Cherokee had been virtually annihilated by Coweta's army and that the Middle Cherokees had been greatly weakened by its onslaught. The 300 Mounted Rangers would attack the remaining Cherokee war parties from the rear and drive them into open meadows, where they would be mowed down by lines of British Redcoats.

Montgomerie was planning to use the same tactics with which he had crushed Scottish Highlander rebels in the mountains of Scotland during the 1745 Jacobean Uprising. His army initially attacked and burned several Lower Cherokee villages on the tributaries of the Savannah River in what is still South Carolina. At this time there were only a few hundred Lower Cherokees and not much more than 100 men of military age in the region. It was assumed that the Middle Cherokees, who had survived the invasion by Coweta would flee in terror as the Jacobean Rebels had ultimately done. That was not to happen.

The British army crossed into what are now Stephens and Rabun Counties, Georgia. That region was deserted after the Coweta victory in 1754. Because of the rough terrain and lack of roads near the Tugaloo and Chattooga Rivers, the British army had to abandon its wagons and rely on pack horses and mules. This is the same region where the movie, “Deliverance” was filmed.

To Earl Montgomerie's surprise, an army of about 500 Cherokee warriors was waiting for the British army at what is now called Rabun Gap, but then was called Itsate or Echoee Gap. The site of the battle was on what is now the Georgia-North Carolina line and US Hwy. 23-441. This was the 1760 southern boundary of the Middle Cherokees. The pass is very narrow and paralleled by the Little Tennessee River. South of the gap, the Little Tennessee River Valley broadens into a fertile flood plain. It was a similar situation to the Battle of Thermopolis between the Spartans and the Persians in 480 BC.

The vanguard of mounted rangers was ambushed at the narrowest section of the gap where horses could not maneuver well. Many of the Cherokees were armed with rifles that had a much longer killing range than British muskets and pistols. After their captain and several men were killed, the rangers panicked and galloped away.

Montgomerie then confronted the Cherokee defenders by sending forward Grenadier assault troops in the middle and Royal Scots (Scottish Lowlanders) along the mountainside. The Grenadiers fired largely ineffectual musket volleys from closely packed lines. Both they and the Royal Scots were picked off by Cherokee riflemen, firing from behind trees and boulders. The Cherokees counter-attacked and drove the Royal Scots back. Cherokee accounts of the battle describe “the British dead being piled in heaps and being shot down like turkeys.”

Montgomerie recognized the seriousness of the situation and so sent in the Highlanders to his left flank. The Highlanders were permitted by British Army regulations to dodge bullets and fire individually at targets. They were much more effective against the Cherokee skirmishers. The earl then ordered a mass bayonet charge against the Cherokee skirmishers in the level part of the gap. The Cherokees responded by racing up the mountainside to positions from which they could not be dislodged. They now could pick off Redcoats and Scotsmen at will with their long-range rifles.

The British charged forward to the nearest Cherokee village, but Montgomerie realized that he was in an impossible situation. The Cherokees were attacking his pack horses and rear guard from the mountainside. With so many dead and seriously wounded, his army could neither march further into the mountains nor retreat with all his supplies. The horses and mules were needed to carry the wounded. The earl elected to leave most of supplies for the Cherokees to seize so his horses could carry the wounded. He deposited his supplies and wounded at Fort Prince George then continued his journey all the way to Charleston.

A year later, the British returned to Itsate Pass with a vast army that stretched for several miles. This time the Cherokees used the same tactics, but the new army included battle hardened regulars, plus over 1000 frontiersmen and several hundred Mohawk, Chickasaw and Catawba warriors, who fought with the same tactics as the Cherokees. This time the Cherokees at Echoee Pass were overwhelmed. The new British commander, General James Grant, gave orders to his troops to kill every Cherokee man, woman and child they encountered. The Middle Cherokee towns were burned. Cherokee culture was never really the same after the devastation of 1761.

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