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Indian Tribes and Treaties

The first permanent settlers came to the French Lick in the winter of 1779. Let us now locate the principal Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi River at that time.

As before related the region now included in Middle Tennessee and Kentucky had for ages been held by the Indians as a great National Park or Hunting Ground. The reasons for this were as follows: It was well watered and, to a greater extent than any other portion of North America, abounded in fish and game. All of this made it doubly desirable to the savage heart. The section thus embraced lay on either side of a dividing line between the tribes of the North and those of the South. The former were called the Iroquois, and consisted of various clans, principal among them being the Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, Oneidas, Ottawas and Kickapoo. They dwelt in the country now included in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.

Those of the South who were known collectively as the Mobilian race, included the Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Chickamaugas and Natchez. These were scattered over the States of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. For purposes of a common defense, the tribes of each of these groups were bound together in a kind of loose Confederacy. Both the Iroquois and the Mobilian had formerly laid claim to the region in question, but neither could establish a better title than the other. After long and bloody wars over its possession, during the course of which many of the smaller tribes were completely exterminated, it was tacitly agreed that the land should be held in common. We have seen already that the Shawnees at one time invaded the Cumberland Valley, but soon came to grief. Although at certain seasons they were allowed to return and hunt, their rights thereafter were much abridged.

The Cherokees were the mountaineers of their race and inhabited East Tennessee and North Georgia. They numbered about twelve thousand and were the inveterate foes of the pioneers. South of these were the warlike Creeks, twenty thousand strong, who lived in Alabama and South Georgia. They, too, were enemies of the whites. The Seminoles, originally a part of the Creek nation, inhabited the peninsula of Florida. Of these there were about five thousand. The Chickasaws occupied West Tennessee and were only about four thousand in number. They were peaceful and brave, and soon became allies of the early settlers, to whom they often gave warning and aid in times of impending danger.

Mississippi was inhabited by the Choctaws, of whom there were about fifteen thousand. They were far to the south, and, therefore, played but small part in the numerous wars in the western colonies.

The Natchez, a remnant of an ancient but powerful tribe of Sun worshipers, occupied a small reservation on the Mississippi River just south of the Tennessee line. The Chickamaugas were a band of murderers and horse thieves, composed largely of outlaws previously belonging to the surrounding tribes, who were now clustered about the base of Lookout Mountain in the region near Chattanooga.

The westward march of civilization across and beyond the mountains during the last half of the eighteenth century had created a market for the Hunting Ground, and straightway each Indian tribe, both north and south, began afresh to assert its claims thereto. As later events disclosed, they were willing to sell to the whites on the most favorable terms, secretly resolving to take the scalps of the latter when they should try to possess themselves of their purchase. England was anxious to secure for her American subjects such titles from the Indians, little caring as to their real value. Her reason was self-evident. Spain claimed Middle Tennessee and Kentucky by right of the discoveries of Columbus and the more recent expedition of De Soto. England having secured her title from those whom, for the time being, she chose to regard as the real owners, might thus assert her priority of right.

At Fort Stanwix, New York, on November 5, 1768, the chiefs and headmen from seventeen tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy met Sir William Johnson, agent of the English government, for the purpose of arranging a treaty. This council resulted in a sale to England by the Northern Indians of their right, title and interest in and to all that region known as the Hunting Ground, the boundaries of which were the Ohio River on the north and the Tennessee River on the south. The above transaction is known in history as the treaty of Fort Stanwix, and constituted the first conveyance of the land now included in Middle Tennessee. By its terms as they appear in the original document it was a warranty of title "so long as grass grows and water flows," The latter is until this day a favorite expression among the Indians when indicating an indefinite lapse of time.

Because of this transfer by the Iroquois the southern tribes were greatly enraged, but did not at this time take action as a whole. Later, however, the Cherokees made a sale of their interest thereto in a manner as below related.

In the early colonial period, and even during the infancy of the republic, more than one man dreamed of a day when within the heart of North America he might found an empire over which he should sway the scepter and in which his will should be supreme. Colonel Richard Henderson of North Carolina, was one of these, though his plan of government was a modification of that above outlined. He had selected the Hunting Ground beyond the mountains as the scene of his venture. Henderson was a man of ability and enterprise, and entered into his scheme with the best of intentions. To his colonists he would grant the right to make their own laws, retaining only in his hands the power of the governorship. However, a pretext for seizing upon the lands above indicated must first be obtained.

Therefore on March 17, 1775, Henderson, together with several business associates and a number of hunters, among the latter being Daniel Boone, met the Cherokees at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River in East Tennessee. This meeting was for the purpose of arranging terms of purchase of the Cherokee interest in the lands above mentioned. Henderson was an able lawyer and well knew that any conveyance thus obtained would be little more than a quit-claim deed, but such a title would afford the desired excuse for entering thereupon.

At this conference were present about twelve hundred members of the tribe. After several days of consultation the Indians proposed a sale of all the lands lying between the Cumberland, Ohio and Kentucky Rivers, which tract comprised about seventeen millions of acres. In return for this they agreed to accept goods to the value of fifty thousand dollars. Their proposition was promptly accepted, and the treaty signed on the part of the Cherokees by their chiefs, Oconostota, The Raven, and The Carpenter. Oconostota had previously made an eloquent speech in opposition to the sale thus made, but had finally accepted as his own the will of the majority. As the crowd dispersed the old chief took Boone by the hand and said: "Brother, we have sold to your people a fine country, but I believe they will have much trouble in settling it." In the light of after events these words were indeed the language of prophecy.

This transaction is known in history as the treaty of Sycamore Shoals, or Watauga. This tract, which of Middle Tennessee included only that part north of the Cumberland River, was called by Henderson the Transylvania Purchase, the word Transylvania meaning "beyond the mountains." Associating with himself eight other persons, Henderson organized the "Transylvania Company" for the purpose of carrying out his plans. However, the scheme was finally abandoned, as it was clearly in violation of the law of the land for a private citizen to purchase land from the Indians, a fact doubtless well known to Henderson. A number of the hunting and exploring parties mentioned in previous chapters had come to the Cumberland country under the patronage of the Transylvania Company. In 1780 the State of Virginia declared void the treaty of Sycamore Shoals. However, in order that a feud might be avoided with the large and influential following of Henderson the Virginia Legislature granted to him, in compensation for his trouble and expense, a fine body of land in Western Kentucky. This tract, twelve miles square, was located between Green River and the Ohio in the region surrounding Owensboro. At the time of the Transylvania purchase, no survey having actually been made it was generally supposed that the Cumberland Valley was within the territory belonging to Virginia.

By right of title acquired from the Indians in the treaties above mentioned the early settlers came to inhabit Middle Tennessee.

Early History of Middle Tennessee

Early History of Middle Tennessee, BY Edward Albright, Copyright, 1908, Brandon Printing Company, Nashville, Tennessee, 1909


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