Bloody Fellow – Cherokee diplomacy in a time of war (part 1 of 2)

Posted by | April 12, 2013

The two diplomatic letters, or talks, as he called them, did not nearly express the Bloody Fellow’s true feelings about the state of affairs between the white settlers of the Cumberland and his own Cherokee people that September of 1792. But as a chief of the Five Lower Towns, it made tactical sense for him to extend the language of peace to Tennessee’s Governor William Blount.

Eastern Cherokee 1790s by Randy Martin /

Eastern Cherokee 1790s by Randy Martin /

He knew full well from the just completed council at Willstown that a three-pronged Cherokee attack on the Kentucky Road, the Walton Road, and on Nashville was imminent. The idea was to offer up this ruse to Blount, in the hope that it would forestall Blount’s suspicions, which might otherwise lead to a counter offensive.

The Bloody Fellow had not volunteered to write this missive, however. The war council assembled at Willstown [near today’s Ft. Payne, AL] had instead selected him to be their mouthpiece, because they assumed whatever he wrote would be believed by the whites.

He had been warmly embraced by none other than George Washington during a diplomatic visit to Philadelphia to air Cherokee grievances in the early months of that same year. Hadn’t Washington conferred upon him the title of ‘General’? The Bloody Fellow was perhaps the only member of his race to receive this honor prior to the Civil War. He had returned with his comrades to his people sporting a scarlet match coat with silver epaulets, broad silver lace and a shining silver star, and vowing eternal gratitude and loyalty to his Great White Father and benefactor.

The Bloody Fellow was not the least bit enthusiastic about this plan to invade. He had spoken forcefully at the Willstown council against the idea of attacking a much larger, better-armed force, but the younger Cherokee, Creek and Chickamauga (Lower Cherokee) braves had cast his views aside.

The Bloody Fellow certainly held no love for the American settlers in his heart; he’d lost his wife’s brother to the white man’s treachery just four years earlier. In 1788, a band of John Sevier’s men had killed Old Tassel, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, along with another unarmed, friendly chief, as they approached the whites under a flag of truce. The act was considered an atrocity by the Cherokee, and briefly brought all the Cherokee to support the hostile actions of the warriors following a Cherokee chief named Dragging Canoe, even though Old Tassel’s heir apparent Little Turkey was elected First Beloved Man by the general council of the Cherokee. 

In August that same year, Tennessean Joseph Martin, Brigadier General of the frontier militia, had led an army of five hundred in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Five Lower Towns. However, Cherokee warriors had ambushed the white army at the pass of Lookout Mountain, forcing them back in disarray, with the Cherokees in hot pursuit.

General Joseph Martin, ca 1780. Portrait by Robert Kearfoot. via Wikipedia

General Joseph Martin, ca 1780. Portrait by Robert Kearfoot. via Wikipedia

That October, an army of 3,000 Cherokee, led by Bloody Fellow, attacked Gillespie’s Fort, below the mouth of the Little Tennessee River on the Holston. They demanded that the occupants surrender; when the demand was rejected, the Cherokees stormed the fort, killing 28 people, most of them women, and capturing others. Bloody Fellow took fifteen scalps in revenge for his brother in law’s death.

Bloody Fellow left a defiant note at the burning ruins for Sevier and Martin, saying that the killing of women and children was unintended:

“The Bloody Fellow’s talk is that he is now upon his own ground. He is not like you are; for you kill women and children, and he does not…you beguiled the head man (Old Tassel) that was your friend and wanted to keep peace; but you began it, and this is what you get for it. When you move off the land, then we will make peace…Five thousand men is our number.”

Bloody Fellow’s war captains John Watts, Kitegisky, and The Glass also signed the note. Watts had such a close attachment to Old Tassel, his uncle, that he was known as ‘Young Tassel.’

While Bloody Fellow was in Philadelphia, Dragging Canoe died, in March, 1792. John Watts was elected his successor as War Chief in May. Watts was a magnetic personality, an eloquent orator, and a man of proven bravery. The Cherokees flocked to his banner with even more enthusiasm than they had to Dragging Canoe. In addition, a large number of Creek warriors placed themselves under his command.

The Cherokees had long before this time discontinued using bow and arrows in active warfare. Although the bow, at short range, was probably more deadly than the defective guns handled by the settlers, the white man’s weapon was used whenever it could be procured.

That fact was unfortunate from the standpoint of the Cherokees, for it made them entirely dependent on outside sources for their ammunition.

Up to and during the American Revolution, the Cherokees secured their ammunition from the English. The close of the American Revolution would have ended the Indian wars by shutting off their supplies of powder and ball, but for one reason.

By the terms of the treaty which ended the Revolution, Spain was awarded Florida. Furthermore, Spain already controlled the Mississippi and the port at New Orleans. She regarded America’s southern and western settlements as a menace to her sovereignty over both regions, and was willing, even anxious, that they be destroyed. To that end, Spain supplied the Indians with unlimited ammunition, “to be had for the asking,” which enabled the Cherokees to carry on. Arming the Indians looked like a shrewd tactical move to Spain. Either it would drive the U.S. settlers out of an area Spain wanted to control, or it would force the settlers to become Spanish. There was no downside Spain could see to supplying the Indians with weapons — as long as the U.S. had no direct proof they were doing so.

In 1789 North Carolina ceded its western lands to Congress, which organized the ‘Territory South of the River Ohio,’ comprising the present Tennessee. William Blount, friend of Washington and member of the convention which had just framed the United States Constitution, was named Governor.

William Blount, by Washington Bogart Cooper / Tennessee Portrait Project

William Blount, by Washington Bogart Cooper / Tennessee Portrait Project

Governor Blount took up his duties in 1790. His first act was an attempt to end the Indian war by diplomacy. He announced that he would rectify the wrongs done the Indians. Hence, practically every chief of prominence, with the lone exception of Dragging Canoe, attended Blount’s Treaty of Holston in 1791.

At this assemblage, the Cherokees, led by Little Turkey, forcefully shifted their stance away from traditional diplomacy. They placed their emphasis on a sense of Cherokee power among those attending, instead of embracing the importance of a peaceful state of mind. The chiefs opened the treaty conference with the eagle tail dance. Blount thought the Cherokees were bestowing an honor not previously given to an American treaty participant. In fact, the Cherokees performed the eagle tail dance to inculcate a warlike spirit in the young and to symbolize victory.

The Indians had understood that Blount would remove white settlers from Indian land. They were bitterly disappointed when, instead of removing the settlers, he proposed to buy the land which had been wrongfully taken. (Blount was a land speculator with extensive holdings in the Tennessee region, and his use of treaty talks to advance his land interests quickly earned him a Cherokee name — the Dirt Captain.)

John Watts and Bloody Fellow, who spoke for the Cherokees, protested. Watts, overcome by the memory of the treacherous death of his uncle, withdrew from the treaty.

Blount offered the Cherokees some presents, and an annuity of $1000.00 for the land. “It would not buy a breech cloth for each member of my Nation!” Bloody Fellow replied, but signed the treaty, feeling himself pressured to do so.

This paltry annuity is what had prompted the Bloody Fellow (without consulting Blount further), to set out at the head of the delegation for Philadelphia, to attempt to secure better terms from President Washington. The effort resulted in an increase of the Cherokee annuity to $1500.00 per year.

—- to be continued

(sources will be listed in part 2)

Leave a Reply

+ 2 = 10

↑ Back to top

This collection is copyright ©2006-2016 by Dave Tabler. All visuals are used in accordance with the Fair Use Law (Per Title 17—United States Code—Section 107) and remain the property of copyright owners. Site Design by Amaru Interactive