Kenneth Barnett Tankersley, Ph.D.,
Native American Studies and Anthropology Programs
Northern Kentucky University
Kentucky Cherokee: People of the Cave
Copyright 2004-2007 by Dr. Tankersley
Book in Progress: Used by Permission of the author
For more than 200 years, American historians have argued that the Cherokee never lived in Kentucky; rather, it was a hunting ground, a middle ground for all Indians, which was at the center of many dark and bloody disputes. Actually, many Nations of American Indians have lived in Kentucky since time immemorial.
John Filson, an opportunistic investor, land speculator, and entrepreneur, created this myth and many others in a book, The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, published five years after his death in 1788. The book included "an account of Indian Nations inhabiting within the limits of the thirteen United States, their manners and customs, and reflections of their origin." It told readers that there were no Indians living in Kentucky, they were located in the other states. Filson emphasized that the Cherokee and other Nations had no valid claim to Kentucky because it was originally settled by an ancient white race that greatly predated the Indians. Ironically, the very people Filson claimed did not live in Kentucky killed him.
Filson's book was widely printed and circulated in England, France, and Germany as a way to entice Europeans to immigrate to the United States and settle in Kentucky. To further allure them to this new land of opportunity, Filson created a story about John Swift and his lost silver mine. This story emphasized that Kentucky was a land filled with riches just waiting to be taken.
Unfortunately, all of Filson's myths about the native people of Kentucky were perpetuated and elaborated upon in subsequent books on the history of the state such as Lewis Collins' 1847 Historical Sketches of Kentucky, Richard Collins' and Lewis Collins' 1874 History of Kentucky, Bennett Young's 1910 The Prehistoric Men of Kentucky, and W. D. Funkhouser's and W. S. Webb's 1928 Ancient Life in Kentucky. To make matters worse, these myths are still being taught in some quarters of the state today.
The Cherokee call themselves Tsa'lagi', the Real People or the Principal People. The word Cherokee comes from the 1557 Portuguese narrative of DeSoto's expedition, which was then written as Chalaque. It is derived from the Choctaw word, choluk, which means cave. Mohawk call the Cherokee Oyata'ge'rono˝, which means people who live in caves or in the cave country. In Catawba, the Cherokee are called Ma˝tera˝, which translates as the people who come out of the ground.
Kentucky is the land of caves, home to the longest cave in the world, and home of the Cherokee. Kentucky caves are full of evidence of Cherokee people, from salt and crystal mines to exploration and habitation. As the Cherokee explored Kentucky for the first time, they came across the entrances of great caves, some of which were filled with mineral resources that extended many miles underground. They ventured into caves in search of protection from the elements, to mine minerals, to dispose of their dead, to conduct ceremonies, and to explore the unknown, as indicated by the footprints, pictographs, petroglyphs, mud glyphs, stone tools, and sculptures they left behind. Wherever the Cherokee found a dry cave in Kentucky with a reasonably accessible opening, they entered and explored it systematically.
Before European colonization, Kentucky was a significant part of the Cherokee country, representing the northern quarter of the Cherokee Nation since time immemorial. Its boundaries extended to the Ohio River in the north, the Cumberland River in the west, and the Great Kanawha River in the east. By the end of the American Revolution, the northern boundary of the Cherokee country was moved southward to encompass the land below the Cumberland River. At the Final Cession, some 38,000 square miles of Cherokee land in Kentucky had been extorted in what some call the Trail of Broken Treaties between the English and United States.
The earliest known contact with Europeans occurred in 1540, when a party of warriors successfully defended the northwestern border of the Cherokee country against the advances of Hernando DeSoto and his Spanish soldiers. They were forced to retreat to the north side of the Ohio River at present-day Fort Massac, Illinois.
After the English arrived on the present site of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, there was continuous contact with Cherokee from Kentucky as English traders strengthened their alliances and worked their way into the Appalachian Mountains. Perhaps the earliest evidence of an English trader with Cherokee in Kentucky is in Wolfe County, where a date of 1717 and five or six traditional symbols of Anitsisqua, the Cherokee Bird Clan, are incised on a sandstone outcrop overlooking Panther Branch.
Cherokee claims to Kentucky were seriously challenged when the Tuscarawas joined the League of the Iroquois (Iroquois Confederacy, Haudenosaunee, People of the Longhouse including the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas) in 1722. They expanded by alliance and conquest deep into the state. The newly formed Six Nations took over control of all of the land north of the Cumberland River.
By 1729, the Shawnee were serving as guides into northern Kentucky for the French military who considered Kentucky part of New France. At this time, the Cherokee were busy fighting the Choctaw, Creek, and Yamasee to the south for their English allies. As a gesture of thanks, Sir Alexander Cuming took seven of the principal Cherokee Chiefs to England with him in 1730, including Oukah (King) Ulah, brother of Moytoy, uncle of Wilenawa (Great Eagle), father of many well-known Kentucky Cherokee leaders including Doublehead, born in McCreary County. Although this visit strengthened allegiance with the British, the Cherokee population in Kentucky and elsewhere was cut in half by smallpox just eight years later, making it difficult to defend their northern borders. To make matters worse, the Creek and Choctaw had allied themselves with the French.
At the onset of the French and Indian War (1750-1754), Cherokee, Delaware, Shawnee, and Wyandot leaders seeking inter-tribal peace traveled back and forth through Kentucky on the Great Warrior Road in route to council meetings with representatives of the Six Nations. While the Cherokee were granted permission from the Six Nations to return to their land north of the Cumberland River, it was a political exchange for their partisan position against the French and all villages sympathetic to French traders. As part of the peace agreement, Shawnee families began to spend winters with the Cherokee, and Cherokee warriors began to spend time with the Shawnee.
During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), blockades cut off salt shipments from the West Indies. Salt springs and licks in Kentucky became an important resource to the colonists. Shawnee made salt at Big Bone Lick (Boone County) and Blue Licks (Nicholas County) in the north, the Cherokee made salt and buried their dead along Goose Creek, near the mouth of Collins Creek, in Clay County. The abundance of salt in Kentucky, north and south did not escape the eyes of the Europeans and later became an issue of national importance.
With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France gave up all claims to Kentucky and its resources. In exchange for their help during the war, the British victors proclaimed that Kentucky was to be recognized as Indian Territory and no person could make a treaty with the Cherokee or buy land from them without their permission. While the treaty of 1763 allowed the Cherokee to retain all of their land in Kentucky, their possession was short-lived.
In 1768, the British superintendent of Indian Affairs convinced the Cherokee to cede their holdings in what is today the state of Virginia to prevent conflicts with encroaching colonists. Most of the contact with the settlers in Kentucky was friendly, as evidenced by the autumn 1769 meeting of Long Hunters with Cherokee Chief Dick (namesake of Dick's River) and his warriors along Skagg's Creek near the Rockcastle River. Nevertheless, British representatives later insisted on a new treaty (October 18, 1770), which moved the northeastern boundary of Cherokee country from the New River of West Virginia to the land within the extreme western corner of Kentucky (Pike County). Two years later, England requested yet another treaty to purchase all of the land between the Ohio and Kentucky rivers. Not all of the Cherokee agreed with the sale, and fighting broke out along the Great Warrior Road along Station Camp Creek in Clay County in defense of their territory. Land speculators considered the 1772 skirmishes as minor incidents because they wanted to sell central Kentucky to European immigrants.
Entrepreneur and colonial judge Richard Henderson, his agent Daniel Boone, and other private citizens met with Cherokee Chiefs along the Watauga River on March 17, 1775. Henderson and Boone illegally negotiated the cession of all of the land in between the Kentucky, Ohio, and Cumberland rivers to the privately owned Transylvania Company. Although it has become known as the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, the entire event was in direct violation of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. On behalf of England, the colony of Virginia, which then included Kentucky, revoked the treaty. However, it did not stop Boone and the Transylvania Company from creating the Wilderness Road, which opened the way for an unstoppable and limitless flow of European immigrants into Kentucky and in direct conflict with the Cherokee.
The Treaty of Sycamore Shoals was negotiated just one month before the beginning of the American Revolution. Most, but not all, of the Cherokee supported the British through the war and beyond to 1794. Following the example of the Delaware Chief Coquetakeghton (White Eyes), who served as a guide and lieutenant colonel in the American army, a number of Cherokee living in Kentucky agreed to serve as scouts. At the decisive Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, there were Cherokee warriors from Kentucky fighting on both sides.
By 1782, individual Cherokee political alliances had become extremely complex. Some traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, to seek protection from the Spanish government, while others moved north and joined the Shawnee on the Scioto River, getting supplies and council from the British military. At the same time, representatives of the Wyandot, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi traveled to the Cumberland River valley to council with the Cherokee about joining them in an all-out war against the United States.
The American Revolution ended on September 3, 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The Cherokee were not consulted and many did not recognize England's cession of Kentucky to the United States. To make matters worse, a group of Tennessee colonists illegally created the State of Franklin with John Sevier as their Governor. On May 31, 1785, Major Hugh Henry, Sevier, and other representatives of the self-declared state met with Cherokee Chiefs to negotiate the "Treaty of Dumplin Creek," which promised to redefine and extend the Cherokee boundary line. Because the United States government did not recognize the State of Franklin (1785-1788), the Treaty of Dumplin Creek was deemed illegal. Sevier and his Franklinites engendered a spirit of distrust between all subsequent treaty-makers and the Cherokee, which led to many bloody conflicts and, ultimately, genocide in Kentucky.
The first official treaty between the United States and Cherokee Nation was negotiated at Hopewell, South Carolina, on November 28, 1785. The Hopewell Treaty included the cession of all land in Kentucky north of the Cumberland River and west of the Little South Fork. Although Cherokee Chief Corn Tassel (brother of Doublehead) signed the treaty, other leaders of the Paint Clan did not, which began a war between the Euroamerican settlers and the Cherokee in the Cumberland valley. They fiercely resented the intrusion of immigrants and were determined upon their expulsion or extermination.
Many Cherokee warriors from Kentucky joined the northern confederacy of the Shawnee-Delaware-Wyandot- Miami who continued to be supplied and encouraged by England to defeat the newly formed country. For the next thirteen years, they waged war upon the settlements in their land. Although most American history books do not include this war, it was the first to be declared by Congress in 1790. It has been referred to as President George Washington's Indian War ~ the struggle for the old northwest. In December of 1790, Kentucky settlers petitioned Congress to fight the Cherokee in whatever way they saw fit. A Board of War was appointed, and on May 23, 1791, it authorized the destruction of Cherokee towns and food resources by burning their homes and crops.
In an attempt to make peace with the Cherokee, and redefine the new boundary lines in Kentucky, the United States negotiated the Treaty of Holston on July 2, 1791. It restated that the Cherokee land in Kentucky was restricted to the area east of the Little South Fork and south of the Cumberland River. The treaty was signed by Kentucky Cherokee Chief Doublehead, his brother, Chief Standing Turkey, their nephew, John Watts, and witnessed by Thomas Kennedy, representative of Kentucky in the Territory of the United States South of the Ohio River. Unfortunately, the boundary line remained unclear and disputed by Cherokee not present at the treating signing, and the fighting continued for the next seven years. One of the last skirmishes in Kentucky occurred at the salt works and Cherokee burial grounds on Goose Creek in Clay County, on March 28, 1795.
The Treaty of Greenville, negotiated in Ohio on August 3, 1795, ended the war. It was made between Major General Anthony Wayne, commander of the army of the United States, and the Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Miami, Eel River, Wea, Kickapoo, Piankeshaw, and Kaskaskia. Although the treaty tried to settle controversies and to restore harmony and friendly intercourse between the United States and all Indian Nations, Cherokee chiefs, shamans, and warriors were not permitted to attend. Cherokees who were living north of the Ohio River returned to their homes in southern Kentucky.
On October 2, 1798, the first Treaty of Tellico was negotiated with the Cherokee Nation. It allowed for safe passage of settlers using the Kentucky road, running through Cherokee land between the Cumberland Mountain and the Cumberland River, in exchange for hunting rights on all relinquished lands, a further refinement of the Holston Treaty of 1791.
In 1803, the demand for salt produced on Cherokee land in Kentucky dramatically increased when England seized American ships involved in the salt trade. In 1805, the remaining Cherokee land in Kentucky was considered crucial to the security of the United States. Between October 25 and 27, 1805, Kentucky Cherokee Chiefs Doublehead and Red Bird singed the final Treaties of Tellico, ceding the land south of the Cumberland River. Doublehead was later executed by his own people, who felt they had been betrayed and sold out.
In 1810, the "War Hawks" were elected to Congress. They expressed their concern about the "Indian presence" in the East, and on January 15, 1810, they extinguished all Cherokee land claims in southern Kentucky. Although Chief Red Bird made every possible concession to maintain peace between his people and the United States, most of the white settlers made no distinction between them and the Chickamauga supporting Tecumseh. Sometime in the late summer or early Fall of 1810, more than 100 innocent Cherokee old men, women, and children were cruelly massacred at a place known today as Yahoo Falls in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area of McCreary County, Kentucky. The bodies of the slaughtered Cherokee were buried in a mass grave in the rockshelter behind the falls. On January 31, 1811, just months after the Yahoo Falls massacre, the surrounding Chickamauga lands were granted for sale at the minimal price of ten cents an acre in order to encourage the development of salt works. As salt was an expensive commodity at $25.00 a barrel, the local white settlers who orchestrated the Yahoo Falls massacre purchased the land containing salt springs and became rich.
The white settlers' hatred of Red Bird and his people grew, in part, out of their indifference between the Chickamauga who fought with the Shawnee in the Northwest Territory against Kentucky troops at Fallen Timbers, Tippecanoe, and the River Raisin, and Cherokee who fought alongside American forces in the Southeast against the Creek at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. It was this ignorance and arrogance that led to the murder of Chief Red Bird and his crippled friend Jack in Clay County. They were brutally attacked in their sleep by a party of white hunters in the river bottom, just above the mouth of Hector's Creek, on the west side of the Red Bird River, directly across from its confluence with Jack's Creek where Chief Red Bird's cabin was located. An angry young man in the party that had lost his father, some say at the Yahoo Falls massacre, mutilated Chief Red Bird and Jack with their own tomahawks. The murderers threw the bodies of Red Bird and Jack into a place called "Willie's Hole," and stole their belongings. Not long after the crime, Red Bird's longtime friend, John Gilbert, discovered the slaughtered bodies. The angry young man, said to have had an odd surname, returned to the scene just as John Gilbert was pulling the bodies ashore. Together, they buried the elder Cherokee in the sandy floor of a nearby rockshelter.
After Red Bird's murder, remnants of his people lived along Little Goose Creek, in Clay County, which was the dividing line between the Cherokee and white settlers until the end of the Trail of Tears in 1839. Some of the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears escaped and secretly joined their extended families in Clay County. Since then, the Cherokee people of Kentucky have suffered genocide and today they are subjected to ethnocide. Ironically, outside of the reserve lands in North Carolina and Oklahoma, there are more people of Cherokee descent in Kentucky than any other state.