The Chickamauga Expedition, Apr 1779

Originally excerpted from "History of Hamilton County [TN]," pages 164-170.

Early in 1779, Chief Dragging Canoe had collected from the hostile tribes, on the waters of the Ohio and the Tennessee, more than a thousand warriors. His chief town was Chickamauga. These warriors committed more depredations on the frontiers than all the other Indians together. They were encouraged and equipped by British agents, who circulated freely among them, distributing rewards. Gov. Henry Hamilton, British Governor at Detroit, planned a grand coalition among all the Northern and Southern Indians. His strategic plan was to be aided by the British regular troops, who were to advance from the coast, when the Indians should make a simultaneous attack upon the entire frontier. The settlements, crushed between the two forces, would have been entirely destroyed.

In the prosecution of his plan, Gov. Hamilton had advanced from Detroit, had recaptured Vincennes, and contemplated an expedition against Kaskaskias, where he expected to be joined by 500 Cherokees and Chickasaws. Meanwhile, immense stores of ammunition, weapons, goods, cattle, horses, and money, were sent secretly from Pensacola, FL, to Chickamauga (which had been selected as headquarters) for the representatives of the tribes to carry to their followers. Ellis Harlan, a Scotish trader, heard rumors of the plan and saw that the warriors were gathering. He hastened to the Holston, where the pioneers of what is now upper East Tennessee were settled, and told his news to Col. Evan Shelby. Capt. James Robertson, agent for North Carolina among the Indians, and Capt. Joseph Martin, agent for Virginia among the Indians, had already learned that the Chickamaugas were in close touch with the British agents and that they were receiving great quantities of supplies from Pensacola. They had notified Gov. Richard Caswell, of North Carolina, and Gov. Patrick Henry, of Virginia, of these facts, and the two Governors were therefore somewhat prepared for the news that Col. Shelby transmitted to them. They realized the danger of the situation and determined to destroy the Chickamauga stronghold.

Col. Shelby, who was then an officer of the Virginia Militia (survey of the line between Virginia and North Carolina subsequently proved that Col. Shelby's home was in North Carolina; his later service in the Revolution, therefore, was as an officer of North Carolina troops), was ordered to organize an expedition for that purpose, but the two states, straitened as they were in their resources by the expenses of the Revolution, were unable to advance any considerable sums for supplies and transportation. Col. Shelby summoned his friends and neighbors to a council. The response was enthusiastic. The Scottish trader had been unable to learn the date of the proposed attack upon the frontier, but the Americans knew that no time was to be lost if the country was to be saved. As the news flashed through the settlements, practically all the men who were not already in service in the armies in the Carolinas volunteered. Col. John Montgomery, who had been with George Rogers Clark, was detached from that service and ordered to join Col. Shelby. He commanded 150 men. Col. Shelby had raised 350 volunteers. The 500 men (Ramsey is in error in stating that 1,000 men participated in the Expedition, and some historians have continued to use his figures) rendezvoused at the mouth of Big Creek, a few miles above the site of Rogersville, 20 Mar 1779. Canoes and pirogues were made from the tall poplars of the neighboring forests, and in three weeks Col. Shelby was ready to embark. The women of the settlements contributed their part to the expedition by bringing supplies of provisions--bread and cooked meats. The troops embarked in the small fleet 10 Apr 1779 for their journey down the Tennessee River. The pilot was John Hudson, the only man in the party who had ever been in the wild country before. J. Woolridge, in the History of Nashville, gives April 13 as the date the expedition reached the Chickamauga and the date of the battle.

When the fleet reached the mouth of Chickamauga Creek, the boats turned up that stream. Near the mouth of a smaller creek an Indian was taken prisoner and compelled to act as guide. The troops waded through an inundated canebrake to the principal Chickamauga town, which was one mile in length. The two chiefs, Dragging Canoe and Big Fool, were there with many of their followers. There were also many Tories and British agents, who had taken up their residence in the Chickamauga towns. The Indians and their allies were astonished by the invasion of their stronghold by water, and being completely surprised, were entirely overcome. They fled to the mountains, leaving the great quantities of British supplies to be captured by the Americans. The American soldiers pursued the Indians to the other towns, destroying in all eleven villages, among them probably Sitico and Tsatanugi. Little Owl's Town was destroyed. John McCroskey led a party of men who crossed the river and (according to Ramsey) burned a village on "Laurel Creek." There is no other mention of a Laurel Creek in Hamilton Co. records, and it was probably Falling Water Creek, where great tangles of laurel have always grown. A large Indian town is known to have existed near Falling Water Creek about that time. Horses, cattle, guns, ammunition, goods, and supplies of every sort, to the value of twenty thousand English pounds, were taken back to the American settlements. This amount, which was equal to $100,000, would be equal to at least ten times that much in today's currency. The soldiers burned or otherwise destroyed everything they could not take away. In addition to the great amount of stores that had been assembled by the British agents to be delivered to the Indians throughout the northern and southern country, the Americans found quantities of furs that belonged to Capt. John McDonald, a British agent and Indian trader, who had a store at Chickamauga.

After the Indians were completely routed, Col. Shelby prepared to return overland to the American settlements. After crossing the Tennessee River near the mouth of Chickamauga Creek, he ordered all canoes and pirogues sunk in the river. On the bank of a stream on the north side of the Tennessee River, he ordered a sale of the captured horses, cattle, and weapons. A receipt, preserved by chance, proves the approximate date of the battle and the time of departure of the troops: Chickamauga Town, April 29, 1779. This is to certify that Col. Evan Shelby Bou't a black horse branded thus, L, about six years old for 120 pounds. (signed) Aaron Lewis, William Parker The creek took the name "Sale Creek," and is still called that today.

Having ordered the destruction of the canoes and pirogues, Col. Shelby marched his troops overland through the wilderness to the settlements on the Holston and Watauga. On the forced march, the men suffered from lack of provisions, but they were the first white men (other than the traders, who allied themselves with the Indians) to see the new country, which included the present day counties of Knox, Rhea, Roane, Hamilton, Meigs, Polk, Bledsoe, Sequatchie, Bradley, Monroe, and others. Their reports to the settlers of the upper Tennessee country caused an instant and unceasing migration of settlers into the new country. The Chickamauga Expedition then, not only turned [the] tide of the American Revolution, but it also set into motion a steady stream of immigration into lower Tennessee. The upper portion of the new country was settled first, and the immigrants went farther south by degrees. Hamilton County was the last segment of this land to receive an influx of settlers. The Chickamaugas and Dragging Canoe managed to delay the settlement for many years.

Col. Shelby was thanked by Continental Congress for his ability and promptness, and for the successful termination of the Chickamauga Expedition. Very few names of the 500 men who took part in the expedition are known; if there was a roster made, it has not survived. Such names as are known have been gleaned from occasional references in other records, pension statements, etc. The troops, both known and unknown, made a great contribution to the success of the American Revolution and to the settlement of lower East Tennessee:
Col. Evan Shelby, Capt. James Montgomery, Col. John Montgomery, Capt. James Newell, Lieut. Col. Charles Robertson, Capt. Thomas Quirk, Capt. William Bean, Capt. Isaac Shelby, Capt. Abraham Bledsoe, Capt. James Shelby, Capt. Gilbert Christian, Capt. Jesse Walton, Capt. Jesse Evans, Capt. Benjamin Gist, Capt. William Edmiston, Capt. Jacob Brown, Capt. Arthur Campbell, Capt. James Patterson, Capt. Aaron Lewis, Capt. James Stinson, Capt. Thomas Martin, Capt. Samuel Williams, Capt. William Wilson, Capt. George Russell, Capt. Thomas Vincent, John Rhea, Ensign James Houston, John Sawyers, Alexander Davidson, Francis Slaughter, John McCroskey, Moses Shelby, James McElwee, William Snodgrass, William Parker, George Thurnley.

The men of Capt. James Shelby's Company included: Thomas Applegate, Joseph Latman, Robert Blackburn, Andrew Linn, John Brown, Catel Litton, E. Bruster, Richard Long, Alexander Carwell, Thomas Maner, Robert Chambers, William McSpadden, Thomas Cheney, Anthony Millon, William Clem, Isaac Morgan, Elias Dawson, John Mouer, John Detgaoret, Buck Nealley, John Fleming, George Parker, Andrew Folson, Garrett Pendergrass, J. C. Friggs, Elisha Perkins, Robert Friggs, George Pierce, John Harrison, Charles Prather, William Harwood, Samuel Price, David Hendricks, Evan Shelby Jr., John Higgins, John Shelby, Hans Ireland, Benjamin Sweet, David Jennings, William Town, Barnett Johnson, Joseph Wells.

It is said that when Virginia and North Carolina were unable to finance the Expedition, Isaac Shelby, captain and commissary officer in the Virginia Militia, loaned the necessary funds from his personal resources, knowing full well that in case they failed, the debt could never be paid. He afterward became the first Governor of Kentucky. The success of the Chickamauga Expedition prevented Gov. Hamilton's proposed coalition of the hostile tribes, saved the settlements along the entire length of the frontier, and led directly to the final American victory at Yorktown. Because it was fought largely by troops not in the regular Army, but by volunteers from the mountain region, in a place and period in which communication was difficult, has contributed to the fact that the Chickamauga Expedition has had less notice in history books than has been given to many less important battles near the Atlantic Coast. But for the success at Chickamauga, there would have been no Battle at King's Mountain, no Battle at Yorktown, and the American Revolution would doubtless have been only the "Rebellion of his majesty's subjects in the American Colonies."

The Chickamauga Expedition deserves to rank among the most important of the Revolutionary campaigns. Undertaken almost without funds and without hope of reward, it remains an outstanding example of pure patriotism. The men who volunteered faced grave dangers and prolonged deprivation, not only to protect their own homes, but also to protect the homes and lives of thousands of men and women whom they would never know or see. The following comment made by Judge Samuel Cole Williams, a well known historian in his Address at Chickamauga in May 1929, is interesting and valuable:

The battle was fought against Indians, but against Indians financed, equipped, and incited by British agents. The foe was not less dangerous but more dangerous because it was savage. The significance of the struggle in the Southwest lies in the fact that had not the Indian allies of great Britain been opposed and defeated time and time again by the western soldiery of the upper East Tennessee Valley, the red men would have invaded Virginia and North Carolina and forced the soldiers of Gen. Washington to face about and confront them, leaving the seaboard an easy prey to the British naval and land forces and [to] the Tories of the Piedmont region.

    "Tennessee Source Book-Snodgrass," Pleasants County, West Virginia, RootsWeb Site, 13 December 2004 <http://www.rootsweb.com/~wvpleasa/tn.txt> 4 June 2005.

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