William Tatham, Wataugan

   As Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park prepares to celebrate its annual observance of the Siege of Fort Watauga (or more accurately, Fort Caswell), I thought the occasion offered an appropriate moment to reflect upon the recollections of one of the fort's original defenders, William Tatham.

   William Tatham (1752-1819), the eldest of five children born in England, emigrated to Virginia in 1769. Upon his arrival, he found employment as a clerk with the mercantile firm of Carter & Trent, merchants operating on the James River. Tatham spent many hours during his years of service with Carter & Trent listening to the wild and fascinating tales of the longhunters who frequented the Virginia wilderness. He sought the same sense of adventure for his own life, and by 1774, the lure of the frontier brought Tatham to Watauga. There he later witnessed the Cherokee siege of Fort Caswell in the summer of 1776.

   The Cherokees besieged the fort for two solid weeks leaving its inhabitants short on food and supplies. John Sevier, James Robertson, and their fellow defenders held off the Cherokee assault and awaited reinforcements, but by the time that they arrived, the Cherokees had already abandoned their attack.

   The siege at Fort Caswell on the Watauga is an episode of Tennessee history wrapped in myth and memory. In the years that followed, oral traditions, repeated by succeeding generations and validated by the published accounts of late-nineteenth century antiquarians and storytellers, embellished the details of this engagement with each telling. These authors recalled the tale of John Sevier's rescue of Catherine "Bonny Kate" Sherrill at Fort Caswell, in particular, with literary flair.

   In his Annals of Tennessee, Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey chronicled Sevier's "determined bravery" in helping to defend the fort, and in his book, Rear-Guard of the Revolution, James Gilmore described how Sevier courageously faced down "two or three hundred savages" as a young "Bonny Kate" ran from her Cherokee pursuers and into the arms of her rescuer.

"Siege of Fort Watauga." An artist's sketch of Catherine "Bonny Kate" Sherrill's escape from Cherokee pursuers.
Image credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives

   Decades later, as the jurist and antiquarian Samuel Cole Williams began compiling research notes for a book about the Lost State of Franklin, he learned that Tatham had been a witness to the Siege of Fort Caswell. Inspired by this story, Williams published a thin biography in 1922 entitled, William Tatham, Wataugan. He later published a revised, though still brief, edition of his Tatham biography in 1947.

   According to Williams, Tatham was "the only defender of Fort Caswell who wrote reminiscences of occurrences during that early invasion." Despite his close proximity to the event itself, Tatham's account of the Siege at Fort Caswell revealed his own embellishments, and Tatham likely overstated his role in defending the fort. Nevertheless, Williams "made liberal use of Tatham's writings" in his own works, including History of the Lost State of Franklin, Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History, and Tennessee During the Revolutionary War, among numerous other titles.

   Tatham's full account of the Siege of Fort Caswell originally appeared in the April 6, 1793 edition of the Knoxville Gazette. Williams later published Tatham's account in his book, William Tatham, Wataugan. This is William Tatham's story:

   In January 1776 emigration had advanced over the Indian boundary as far as Big Creek on the north side of Holston and to Big Limestone Creek on the south side, but these settlers were under no legal or regular government.

   Added to this there were a number of people called Regulators, who had fled from North Carolina to the extreme frontier for safety after their battle against Governor Tryon at the Alamance and were actually about joining the Cherokees against the Americans. To make the matter still worse, while the Indians were on their invasion, the chief stock of powder was but six pounds in the hands of the settlers [on the Watauga].

   In this dilemma, the Virginia government gave orders for all men to retire within the line or they would be treated as outlaws. The people on the north side of the Holston obeyed the mandate; but through the influence, in a great degree, of William Cocke, Esq., they forted themselves at Amos Heaton’s [Eaton’s] now [1793] Sullivan Old Court House; and those on the Watauga and Nolichucky posted [at the latter] about thirty volunteers under Captain James Robertson, just above the mouth of Big Limestone, where Mr. Gillespie now lives.

   Shortly after this party took post and before they had finished their fort, called Fort Lee, four of the traders made their escape from the Cherokee nation and apprised them of the immediate march of about six hundred Cherokees and a few Creeks, who were destined against the settlements. The inhabitants immediately took the alarm, and instead of flocking to the frontier barrier on strong and open ground, thereby covering their country, those on the Nolachucky hastily fled, carrying off their livestock and provisions leaving about fifteen of the volunteers at the frontier to make the best shift in their power.

   The result of this precipitate retreat was this: The few who were determined to oppose the enemy in the defense of that quarter were joined by as many in the rear of the scamper as had not time to get safely off: and were thus compelled to fortify near the Sycamore Shoals of Watauga, on much weaker ground than that which they had evacuated: cut off from assistance and resources [from North Carolina] by the mountains and defiles which were at that day almost impenetrable; and from every possibility of information, save for their own vigilance.

   The party at Heaton’s fort were nearly in a similar situation; and these two posts, weak as new settlements could be, had to stand the brunt of the enemy whose numbers, prowess, resources and European patronage was at least equal to any danger that we now dread at this day. On the southern and western side of Donelson’s line we were obliged to rely upon the following numbers for defense against both southern and northern Indians, as near as I can recollect.

   At Watauga, men, boys and negroes fit to bear arms, but not well armed, under Captain James Robertson. Yet the country was well defended! And strange as it may appear this territory [Southwest] owes its present consequence to this handful of men; for in less than two years after, the Tennessee and Kentucky countries contained no less than fifty-seven forts. It is very probable that if this small party had given way, the people would have generally (if not all) fled to the eastern side of the Allegheny mountains.

A recreation of Fort Caswell (a.k.a. Fort Watauga). Image credit: Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.

William Tatham, Wataugan by Samuel Cole Williams is available in most public or university libraries, and may be purchased through any number of used book stores or antiquarian book dealers.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

Sowing the seeds of war: The Yellow Creek Massacre and the Battle of Point Pleasant

   Today, my ongoing research into the origins of the Battle of Point Pleasant and John Sevier's role in it takes me to the reminiscences of Judge Henry Jolly. In 1849, a man named S. P. Hildreth interviewed Jolly on Lyman Draper's behalf for Draper's ongoing research into the border wars of the Old Southwest. In Hildreth's recorded transcript of the interview, Jolly recalled his memories of the "Yellow Creek Massacre," an event which ultimately led Lord Dunmore to bring the might of the Virginia militia to bear upon the native people of the region. *

   The broad brushstrokes of history have judged that Dunmore's overwhelming victory over Chief Cornstalk's Indian alliance in the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant came as a consequence of depredations perpetrated by a "Savage Empire." A careful examination of Jolly's recollections, however, reveals the root cause of the conflict -- a cause bathed in the blood of vengeance.

   The Mingo Indian chief known to the white people as "John Logan" sought revenge for the brutal murder of his family by white settlers at Yellow Creek on April 30, 1774. Jolly, a respected jurist, was sixteen years old at the time of the massacre, yet at the age of 75, he recalled the savage incident which led to the Battle of Point Pleasant in striking detail:

   In the Spring of the year 1774 a party of Indians encamped on the Northwest of the Ohio, near the mouth of Yellow Creek. A party of whites called Greathouse’s party, lay on the opposite side of the river. The Indians came over to the white party—I think five men, one woman and an infant babe. The whites gave them rum, which three of them drank, and in a short time became very drunk. The other two men and the woman refused. The sober Indians were challenged to shoot at a mark, to which they agreed, and as soon as they emptied their guns, the whites shot them down. The woman attempted to escape by flight, but was also shot down. She lived long enough, however, to beg mercy for her babe, telling them that it was a kin to themselves. They had a man in the cabin, prepared with a tomahawk for the purpose of killing the three drunk Indians, which was immediately done. The party of men, women &c moved off for the interior settlements, and came to Catfish Camp on the evening of the next day, where they tarried until the next day. I very well recollect my mother, feeding and dressing the babe, chirping to the little innocent, and it smiling, however, they took it away, and talked of sending it to its supposed father, Col. Geo. [John] Gibson of Carlisle (Pa.) who was then [and] had been for several years a trader amongst the Indians. 

An illustration depicting the Yellow Creek Massacre.
Image credit: West Virginia Encyclopedia.

   The remainder of the party, at the mouth of Yellow Creek, finding that their friends on the opposite side of the river was massacred, the[y] attempted to escape by descending the Ohio, and in order to avoid being discovered by the whites, passed on the west side of Wheeling Island, and landed at pipe creek, a small stream that empties into the Ohio a few miles below Graves Creek, where they were overtaken by Cresap with a party of men from Wheeling. They I believe carried him in a litter from Wheeling to Redstone. I saw the party on the return from their victorious campaign.

   The Indians had for some time before this event thought themselves intruded upon by the Long Knife, as they called the Virginians at that time, and many of them were for war—however the[y] called a Council, in which Logan acted a conspicuous part. He admitted their ground of complaint, but at the same time reminded them of some aggressions on the part of the Indians, and that by a war, they could but harass and distress the frontier settlements for a short time, that the Long Knife would come like the trees in the woods, and that ultimately, they would be drove from their good land that they now possessed. He therefore strongly recommended peace. To him they all agreed, grounded the hatchet, every thing wore a tranquil appearance, when behold, in came the fugitives from Yellow Creek; Logan’s father, Brother and sister murdered. What is to be done now? Logan has lost three of his nearest and dearest relations, the consequence is that this same Logan, who a few days before was so pacific, raises the hatchet, with a declaration, that he will not ground it, until he has taken ten for one, which I believe he completely fulfilled, by taking thirty scalps and prisoners in the summer of 74. The above has often been told to me by sundry persons who was at the Indian town, at the time of the Council alluded to, and also when the remains of the party came in from Yellow Creek; Thomas Nicholson has told me the above and much more, another person (whose name I cannot recollect) told me that he was at the towns when the Yellow Creek Indians came it, that there was a very Great lamentation by all the Indians of that places, some friendly Indian advised him to leave the Indian Settlement, which he did.

   Could any person of common rationality, believe for a moment, that the Indians came to Yellow Creek with hostile intention, or that they had any suspicion of the whites, having any hostile intentions against them? Would five men have crossed the river, three of them in a short time dead drunk, the other two discharging their guns, putting themselves entirely at the mercy of the whites, or would they have brought over a squaw, with an infant papoose, if they had not reposed the utmost confidence in the friendship of the whites? Every person who is acquainted with Indians knows better, and it was the belief of the inhabitants who were capable of reasoning on the subject, that all the depredations committed on the frontiers was by Logan and his party, as a retaliation, for the murder of Logan’s friends at Yellow Creek—I mean all the depredations committed in the year 1774.

   Jolly's memory of the Yellow Creek Massacre and the events that followed failed to recall the details of the savage attack on Logan's kin. Others would testify to witnessing a horrific scene in which members of the Greathouse party not only kidnapped a young child and brutally murdered all the natives, but they also mutilated their bodies and disemboweled Logan's pregnant sister. They then scalped and impaled her unborn child on a stake. During the slaughter, one of the attackers cruelly bragged, "Many a deer have I served in this way."

   In his grief, Logan called out to the men whom he accused of murdering his family:

   "What did you kill my people on Yellow Creek for. The white People killed my kin at Coneestoga a great while ago, & I though[t nothing of that]. But you killed my kin again on Yellow Creek, and took m[y cousin prisoner] then I thought I must kill too; and I have been three time[s to war since but] the Indians is not Angry only myself."

Captain Joh[n Logan] July 21st. Day.

   The Yellow Creek Massacre ended all hope Chief Cornstalk had for a peaceful coexistence with the settlers as Logan sought revenge for the brutal slayings. Logan later lamented:

   "I appeal to any white man to say if he ever entered Logan's cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat; if he ever came cold and naked and he clothed him not. During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace.... There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This has called on me for revenge. I have sought it; I have killed many; I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice in the beams of peace."

Photographic reproduction of a print depicting John Logan (1725-1780), a chief of the Mingo tribe.
Image credit: Ohio History Central.

   In a letter to Colonel William Preston, Major Arthur Campbell urgently pleaded for military intervention. In his letter, Campbell communicated the frequency of Logan's vengeance-fueled assault on the settlers. "So many attacks in so short a time, give the inhabitants very alarming apprehensions," he wrote.

   Lord Dunmore answered Campbell's call for reinforcements and exacted his own form of revenge for Logan's personal pursuit of justice, ultimately defeating Cornstalk's Indian warriors at the Battle of Point Pleasant. Although Logan did not participate in the battle itself, he did continue to fight against the Americans in the Revolutionary War. He escaped death until 1780, when ironically, a member of his own family, a nephew, murdered Logan near present-day Detroit, Michigan.



  • "Reminiscences of Judge Henry Jolly," Draper Manuscripts, 6NN22-24, cited in Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, Documentary History of Dunmore's War, 1774. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1905, pp. 9-14.
  • Colin G. Calloway. The Shawnees and the War for America. New York: Viking, 2007, pp. 51-52.


* According to Thwaites' Documentary History of Dunmore's War, 9n16: “The following was sent to Dr. Draper in 1849, by S. P. Hildreth, who had an interview with Judge Jolly. The latter was sixteen years of age at the time of these occurrences, and recollected them well. There has been much controversy over these incidents; for the statements of other contemporaries, see Sappington, in Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia (ed. of 1825), pp. 336-339; Tomlinson, in Jacob’s Cresap, pp. 133-137; George Rogers Clark’s letter, ibid., pp. 154-158; Washington-Crawford Letters, pp. 86, 87; and N. Y. Colon. Docs., viii, pp. 463-465.—Ed.”


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

"You may judge that we had a very hard day." -- Isaac Shelby and the Battle of Point Pleasant

   In my previous post on The Posterity Project, I examined how, at the turn of the twentieth century, the archivist and historian Virgil Lewis chronicled the Battle of Point Pleasant, a pivotal engagement that occurred on October 10, 1774. The battle pitted a confederation of Indian tribes against the Virginia militia during Lord Dunmore's War. In a struggle for control over an area of land now comprised of portions of West Virginia and Kentucky, this bloody confrontation gave John Sevier his first taste of battle with the Indians and helped shape his philosophy of offensive guerrilla warfare for years to come.

An artist's illustration of the Battle of Point Pleasant.
Image credit: West Virginia Division of Culture & History

   Lewis and other historians of the battle credited Lieutenant Isaac Shelby with leading the charge toward victory with a flanking maneuver that ultimately turned the tide of the battle in the Virginian's favor. Shelby chronicled his experience as a witness and participant in the Battle of Point Pleasant in a letter to his uncle, John Shelby, written just six days after the battle on October 16, 1774. In his book, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, Lewis remarked that Isaac Shelby's account was regarded by historians as "the best of all that was written on the field."

   The following text is Isaac Shelby’s letter to his uncle describing the Battle of Point Pleasant in all its vivid detail, with only a few minor copy edits made to correct for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar…

Dear Uncle,

   I gladly embrace this opportunity to acquaint you that we are all three [Capt. Evan Shelby, and his two sons, Isaac and James] yet alive through God's mercies, and I sincerely wish that this may find you and your family in the station of health that we left you. I never had anything worth notice to acquaint you with since I left you til now. The Express seems to be hurrying that I can't write you with the same coolness and deliberation as I would.

   We arrived at the mouth [of] Kanawha Thursday 6th October and encamped on a fine piece of ground with an intent to wait for the Governor and his party, but hearing that he was going another way we contented ourselves to stay there a few days to rest the troops, &c when we looked upon ourselves to be in safety til Monday morning the 10th instant when two of our companies went out before day to hunt, To wit Valentine Sevier and James Robertson, and discovered a party of Indians. As I expect you will hear something of our battle before you get this I have here stated this affair nearly to you.

   For the satisfaction of the people in your parts in this they have a true state of the memorable battle fought at the mouth of the great Kanawha on the 10th instant. Monday morning, about half an hour before sunrise, two of Captain Russell's Company discovered a large party of Indians about a mile from camp, one of which men was shot down by the Indians, the other made his escape and brought intelligence.[1]
   In two or three minutes after, two of Captain [Evan] Shelby's came in and confirmed the account. General Andrew Lewis being informed thereof, immediately ordered out Colonel Charles Lewis to take the command of one hundred and fifty of the Augusta Troops, and with him went Captain Dickinson, Captain Harrison, Captain Wilson, Captain John Lewis, of Augusta, and Captain Lockridge, which made the first Division. Colonel Fleming was also ordered to take the command of one hundred and fifty more of the Botetourt, Bedford, and Fincastle Troops, viz: Captain Thomas Buford, from Bedford, Captain Love, of Botetourt, Captain Shelby and Captain Russell, of Fincastle, which made the second Division. Colonel Charles Lewis's Division marched to the right some distance from the Ohio; and Colonel Fleming, with his Division, on the bank of the Ohio, to the left. Colonel Charles Lewis's Division had not marched quite half a mile from camp, when about sunrise, an attack was made on the front of his Division, in a most vigorous manner by the United tribes of Indians—Shawnees; Delawares, Mingoes, Taways, and several other Nations in number not less than eight hundred and by many thought to be a thousand. 
   In this heavy attack Colonel Charles Lewis received a wound which soon after caused his death and several of his men fell on the spot in fact the Augusta Division was forced to give way to the heavy fire of the enemy. In about a second of a minute after the attack on Colonel Lewis’s Division the enemy engaged the front of Colonel Fleming’s Division on the Ohio, and in a short time Colonel Fleming received two balls through his left arm and one through his breast, and after animating the captains and soldiers in a calm manner to the pursuit of victory, returned to camp.[2]

   The loss of the brave Colonels was sensibly felt by the officers in particular, but the Augusta troops being shortly reinforced from camp by Colonel Field with his Company together with Captain McDowell, Captain Mathews and Captain Stuart from Augusta, Captain John Lewis, Captain Paulin, Captain Arbuckle and Captain McClanahan from Botetourt, the enemy no longer able to maintain their ground was forced to give way til they were in a line with the troops left in action on banks of Ohio, by Colonel Fleming. In this precipitate retreat Colonel Field was killed, after which Captain [Evan] Shelby was ordered to take the Command.

   During this time which was til after twelve o'clock, the action continued extremely hot, the close underwood many steep banks and logs greatly favored their retreat, and the bravest of their men made the use of themselves, whilst others were throwing their dead into the Ohio and carrying off their wounded. After twelve the action in a small degree abated but continued sharp enough til after one o’clock. Their long retreat gave them a most advantageous spot of ground, from whence it appeared to the officers so difficult to dislodge them that it was thought most advisable to stand as the line then was formed which was about a mile and a quarter in length, and had til then sustained a constant and equal weight of fire from wing to wing.

   It was til half an hour of sunset they continued firing on us which we returned to their disadvantage at length night coming on they found a safe retreat. They had not the satisfaction of scalping any of our men save one or two stragglers whom they killed before the engagement many of their dead they scalped rather than we should have them, but our troops scalped upwards of twenty of those who were first killed. It is beyond doubt their loss in number far exceeds ours, which is considerable… about 46 killed and about 80 wounded. From this, Sir, you may judge that we had a very hard day.[3]

   It is really impossible for me to express or you to conceive the conditions that we were under, sometimes, the hideous cries of the enemy and the groans of our wounded men lying around was enough to shudder the stoutest heart. It is the general opinion of the officers that we shall soon have another engagement as we have now got over into the enemy’s country. We expect to meet the Governor about forty or fifty miles from here. Nothing will save us from another battle unless they attack the Governor’s Party. Five men that came in daddy's company were killed. I don't know that you were acquainted with any of them except Marck Williams who lived with Roger Top. Acquaint Mr. Carmack that his son was slightly wounded through the shoulder and arm and that he is in a likely way of recovery. We leave him at the mouth of Kanawha and one very careful hand to take care of him. There is a garrison and three hundred men left at that place with a surgeon to heal the wounded. We expect to return to the garrison in about sixteen days from the Shawnee towns.

   I have nothing more particular to acquaint you with concerning the battle. As to the country, I can't now say much in praise of any that I have yet seen. Daddy intended writing to you but did not know of the Express til the time was too short. I have wrote to Mammy though not so fully as to you as I then expected the Express was just going. We seem to be all in a moving posture, just going from this place so that I must conclude wishing you health and prosperity til I see you and your family. In the meantime, I am your truly affectionate friend and humble servant.

-- Isaac Shelby
Portrait of Isaac Shelby (1750–1826), the first and fifth Governor of Kentucky, ca. 1820.
Image credit: Kentucky Historical Society


  • Virgil A. Lewis. History of the Battle of Point Pleasant Fought Between White Men and Indians at the Mouth of the Great Kanawha River. Charleston, WV: The Tribune Printing Company, 1909, pp. 43-45.
  • Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds. Documentary History of Dunmore's War, 1774. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1905, pp. 269-277.


  • [1] These were Joseph Hughey, of Shelby’s company, and James Mooney, of Russell’s. The former was killed by a white renegade, Tavenor Ross, while the latter brought the news to camp. Mooney was a former neighbor of Daniel Boone, upon the Yadkin in North Carolina, and had accompanied him upon the disastrous Kentucky hunting expedition of 1769. He was killed at Point Pleasant.
  • [2] According to Samuel G. Drake’s History and Biography of the Indians of North America, Book V., p. 43, “Fleming was a heroic officer; after two balls had passed through his arm, he continued on the field, and exercised his command with the greatest coolness and presence of mind. His voice was continually heard, ‘Don’t lose an inch of ground; advance; outflank the enemy; keep between them and the river.’ This was his last command; there came a shot which passed through his lungs and he fell, but insisted still to be permitted to remain upon the field. As he was borne from the field a portion of the lung protruded from the wound, and he pressed it back with his own hand.” Although he survived the battle, Fleming never fully recovered from his wounds. His disabilities prevented his military service in the Revolutionary War, yet he went on to serve his country in another role, as a member of the First Senate of the Commonwealth of Virginia and later as the acting Governor of the Commonwealth. Colonel Fleming died on August 5, 1795 at the age of sixty-six, “and carried to his grave, in his body, a bullet received at the Battle of Point Pleasant.” See: Lewis, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, 44n5 and 25n4. See also: William D. Hoyt, Jr., “Colonel William Fleming in Dunmore’s War, 1774,” West Virginia History, 3:2 (Jan. 1942), 99-119.
  • [3] According to Lewis, "The number of Indians killed and wounded could never be known for they were continually carrying off their dead and throwing them into the river... His loss has been stated at two hundred and thirty-three." In a footnote, Lewis also observed, "Pu-kee-she-no a Shawnee, whose name signified 'I light from flying' was killed in the battle. He was the noblest warrior that perished there. His wife was a Cherokee woman whose name was Mee-thee-ta-she, which signified 'a turtle laying her eggs in the sand.' These were the parents of Tecumseh and his brothers Ells-wat-a-wa one who foretells; otherwise the Prophet, and Kum-sha-ka, signifying 'A tiger that flies in the air.' The mother is said to have transplanted the beautiful Cherokee rose from the banks of the Tennessee to those of the Scioto, whence it has spread far and wide. Their home was on the banks of that river, on the site of the present city of Chilicothe, and there the little son, Tecumseh, but six years of age, played while his father was killed at Point Pleasant.” See: Lewis, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, 51n11, and Drake, Biography and History of the Indians of North America, Book V., p.123.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

The Battle of Point Pleasant and Virgil Lewis' fight against "Manufactured History"

Book Review: History of the Battle of Point Pleasant by Virgil A. Lewis. Charleston, WV: The Tribune Printing Company, 1909.

   In the "Prefatory Note" to his 1909 work, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, Virgil Anson Lewis described growing up "within a few miles of the battlefield of Point Pleasant, the chief event of Lord Dunmore's War, and reared largely among the descendants of the men who participated in that struggle." Lewis' great-grandfather, Benjamin Lewis, fought in the Battle of Point Pleasant and received wounds during his active participation in that pivotal engagement. One might imagine the vivid conversations Lewis had with those proud men -- only a generation or two removed from our nation's "Founding Fathers" -- who passed down the stories of their accomplishments on the field of battle to their own sons and daughters.

   It stands to reason, therefore, that Virgil Lewis took enormous pride in his ancestor's role in the Battle of Point Pleasant. As a historian, however, he carefully avoided platitudes. In his book, Lewis took great pains to note that the battle, while important, did not signal the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and he scoffed at earlier writers' efforts to canonize the victors as the first Patriots of the American Revolution.

   "Much error has been incorporated into the later writings regarding Dunmore’s War," Lewis wrote. "This is the result of a carelessness on the part of those, who without making research and investigation necessary to arrive at truth, seized rumors, traditions, and vague recollections, as sufficient authority upon which to base an assertion, and who substituted their own inferences for authenticated facts. These errors of statement have sometimes been repeated by considerate writers whose distrust was not excited; and this has increased the difficulties of pains-taking historians." Calling such errors "the gossip of history," Lewis hoped that his book would dispel the "myths, legends and traditions" associated with the Battle of Point Pleasant. Folklore and fairytale, however, persisted.


   Waged beneath the shadows of the British flag, and under the command of Virginia's Royal Governor, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, the Battle of Point Pleasant -- known as the Battle of Kanawha in some older accounts -- was the only major action of Lord Dunmore's War. In 1774, Lord Dunmore called upon Virginia's House of Burgesses to finance and support an army raised to quell violence on the frontier. Colonial settlers in territory south of the Ohio River sought to defend themselves against attack from Native Americans, who themselves sought to protect their hunting grounds from the white settlers "pressing down from the Alleghenies." Both sides claimed that the other had violated negotiated treaties protecting their right to occupy and hunt on the land. Bloodshed ensued.

Image credit: Library of Virginia

   Following a series of gruesome attacks upon the settlers by Indians, Lord Dunmore issued his plea to the Virginia legislature. He wrote:

   "It gives me great pain, my Lord, to find that the Indians have made fresh encroachments and disturbances on our Frontiers; we have only to request that your Excellency will be pleased to exert those powers with which you are fully vested by the Act of Assembly, for making provision against Invasions and Insurrections, which we have no doubt, will be found sufficient to repel the hostile and perfidious attempts of those savage and barbarous Enemies."

   With the support of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Lord Dunmore created two armies, personally leading seventeen hundred men from the north, while Colonel Andrew Lewis directed another eight hundred troops through the Kanawha Valley. A confederation of Indian tribes, led by the Shawnee Chief Cornstalk, gathered to meet Colonel Lewis and his men at the point of attack. On October 10, 1774, the Battle of Point Pleasant commenced.

   After a long and brutal fight lasting for several hours and ultimately won in bloody hand-to-hand combat, Lord Dunmore, Colonel Lewis, and their men forced Cornstalk's warriors into retreat. The Virginians had held their ground, and in the process captured 40 guns, many tomahawks and supplies, and killed an indeterminate number of Indians. Lord Dunmore later forced Cornstalk to sign a peace treaty ceding to Virginia the Shawnee claims to all lands south of the Ohio River, thus opening the land to further settlement.


   Although no "official" roster of soldiers participating in the battle has ever been compiled, Lewis endeavored to list all those who fought at Point Pleasant in his book, relying upon information reported in Revolutionary War pension applications, as well as the personal stories and anecdotes told by descendants of the soldiers who fought in the battle.

   Many of the battle's participants were blood relatives. According to Lewis, John Sevier fought at the Battle of Point Pleasant alongside his younger brother, Valentine, who was among the first to actively engage the enemy on the morning of the battle. Evan Shelby and his sons, Isaac and James, also drew arms together in this conflict, and Lieutenant Isaac Shelby's flanking maneuver ultimately turned the tide of the battle. This stealthy military tactic did not go unnoticed by the young John Sevier, who frequently used a similar movement against the Cherokees in subsequent engagements.


   In the years following the battle, veterans of the Battle of Point Pleasant and their descendants sought to commemorate their service, and drew tenuous connections to the American Revolution in their efforts. In 1899, Point Pleasant newspaper editor and publisher Livia Nye Simpson Poffenbarger organized an ambitious crusade in the State Gazette newspaper to have Point Pleasant officially designated the "first battle of the American Revolution," despite most historical interpretations which pointed to the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. She boldly asserted that Lord Dunmore colluded with the Shawnee tribe, and never intended to join his northern forces with those of Colonel Lewis to the south. He had, according to Poffenbarger, anticipated the coming Revolutionary War and at Point Pleasant actually sought to weaken the citizen militia in advance of that conflict.

   Lewis saw it as his mission to correct this historical narrative. In the preface of his book, Lewis challenged these efforts of commemoration, describing their reliance on the "vague recollections" of the descendants of the battle as "careless" and without authority. He supported his own scholarship by gathering his research from "original sources, documents and writings which were contemporaneous with the occurrence of the events described." Indeed, Lewis's work is filled with extracts from journals, memoirs, affidavits, letters, speeches, and documentary histories, giving his book a gravitas other more embellished histories sorely lacked.

Portrait of Virgil A. Lewis, author of History of the Battle of Point Pleasant and West Virginia's first State Archivist
Image credit: The West Virginia Encyclopedia

Lewis later wrote a speech scolding this form of "manufactured history." He asserted:

   "Every student of American history who has made research for truth in the sources of information, at this time readily available, is aware of the falsity of this statement, that Point Pleasant is the scene of the first battle of the Revolution. He regrets the perversion of historic truth in connection with it. When that battle was fought there was no revolution in progress; there were no United Colonies, or United States. Dunmore's War was waged between Virginians and Indians, no other Colony participating. The Indians were not allies of England then, nor did they become such until the Spring of 1778-four years after the battle-and no student of either Virginian or American Annals now questions the integrity of Lord Dunmore, or his faithfulness to the interest of the Colony of which he was the Executive head. There was not an English soldier with the Indians at Point Pleasant; nor did England, or a representative of the British Government, furnish a gun, an ounce of powder, nor a pound of lead, to them. The Virginians in that battle, were at that time, loyal to their Colonial Government, and had every confidence in their Governor. Colonel Charles Lewis was killed while wearing the uniform of an English Colonel; and other officers who fell on that field were wearing that of their rank."


   There are certainly more recent works of scholarship about Lord Dunmore's War that one would do well to consult. Early indications are that Glenn Williams' recent release, Dunmore's War: The Last Conflict of America's Colonial Era, promises to be a compelling read. Still, Virgil Lewis's 1909 book, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, has stood the test of time. Although written from the perspective of an early twentieth century historian and writer, Lewis' work provides valuable historical context, copious documentary notations, and details about specific soldiers who fought in the battle that genealogists will find useful in their own research.

   As for John Sevier's role in the Battle of Point Pleasant, one might conclude that a portion of Sevier's gallant reputation as a Patriot hero rests upon the myth that he fought in both the "first" and "last" battles of the Revolutionary War -- Point Pleasant and Lookout Mountain -- despite clear historical evidence contradicting claims that these battles were ever a part of that conflict. While he may have fought in these engagements, his participation certainly did not bookend the American Revolution.

   After reading Virgil Lewis' book, I must say that I feel a certain empathy for his fight for historical accuracy. Correcting long-standing historical narratives and pointing out myths and false legends can be an exhausting, solitary exercise, particularly when entire family legacies rest upon folktales that contradict fact and reason. Future generations and present-day historians owe a debt of gratitude to Virgil Lewis for taking a stand against "manufactured history."

History of the Battle of Point Pleasant by Virgil A. Lewis, The Tribune Company, West Virginia, 1909, is available in most public or university libraries, and may be purchased through any number of used book stores or antiquarian book dealers.


  • Virgil A. Lewis. History of the Battle of Point Pleasant Fought Between White Men and Indians at the Mouth of the Great Kanawha River. Charleston, WV: The Tribune Printing Company, 1909.
  • Charles H. Faulkner, Massacre at Cavett's Station. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press (2013), pp. 15-16.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

Old Tales Retold...

   Women's History Month traditionally draws our attention to the important contributions women have made to our shared history. This month, I would like to take this opportunity to focus on a female writer who contributed to how John Sevier, "Tennessee's First Hero," is often remembered in the narrative of early Tennessee history.

"Mrs. Octavia Zollicoffer Bond,
Gifted as Author and Lecturer"
Image credit: Find A Grave
   Born in 1846 into one of Tennessee's first families, Octavia Zollicoffer Bond carried the weight of history upon her shoulders. As the eighth child of Confederate Brigadier General and United States Congressman Felix Zollicoffer and as the great-grandchild of Revolutionary War Captain George Zollicoffer, young Octavia surely heard stories told of her ancestors' heroism on the field of battle. In addition to his military and political background, her father Felix also served as the editor of the Nashville Republican Banner and later purchased an interest in the newspaper, and so it only seemed natural that Octavia would become destined for a career in writing.

   During her literary career, Octavia Bond published a series of articles entitled, "Letters of Yesteryear," and edited a page in the monthly Southern Woman's Magazine. Bond published her most famous work in 1906 entitled, Old Tales Retold, which consisted of a selection of short stories on Southern history and legend. Inspired by the historical writings of John Haywood, J.G.M. Ramsey and other well-known Tennessee antiquarians and influenced by the literary works of Theodore Roosevelt and James Roberts Gilmore, Bond's publication focused on tales of Tennessee folklore.

   In the preface of her book, Bond wrote, "The aim of this little book is to cause inquiry into the facts which it relates." [5] Bond's haigographic writing and nostalgic prose embellished these "facts" with a poetic license that made historical figures, like John Sevier, leap from the pages of history.

   Bond placed the early explorers of Tennessee's Overmountain region at the vanguard of our nation's republic, and, like Lyman Draper before her, Bond believed that the Battle of King's Mountain held a particular place of importance as the "turning point" of the American Revolution. One example of this writing style can be found within her description of the Overmountain men who fought at the Battle of King’s Mountain. In Old Tales Retold, Bond wrote:

   “Firmly resolved never to be ruled by prince or king or royal governor, they determined to defend their over-mountain land against the British army to the last. Though the revolutionary cause seemed to be lost, General Washington himself having lately said, ‘I have almost ceased to hope,’ they made up their minds to remain unconquered. With the spirit which afterwards gained for their land the title of the ‘Young Switzerland of America,’ the resolute leaders agreed that, though New England and all the other colonies might be forced to yield to the tyranny of England, they would keep one spot in America free, or die in the attempt." [94-95]

   In her narrative, Bond took particular notice of John Sevier’s actions in the conflict. In the moments before the battle, she observed that the Overmountain men felt assured of their success with Captain Sevier in command. Bond contended, “the British feared him as they would a human hornet, and called the borderland through which he ranged the ‘Hornets’ Nest.’” [94] 

   Without citing her sources, Bond imagined several conversations John Sevier might have had among the soldiers under his command. At the gathering of Overmountain men at Sycamore Shoals, she quoted Sevier as having said with wild-eyed determination, “Go tell my men to come and help me thrash Ferguson.” In a scene reminiscent of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Bond noted:

   “Without delay each trusty courier sprang to the saddle and sped away to rally the patriots of the frontier country. There was not a cove or valley which they did not penetrate with the message. Nor was there a mountain height on which a cabin might be perched where they did not tell the news. ‘The Redcoats are coming!’ they shouted aloud; ‘rally for Chucky Jack and freedom!’ And on they went through all the thinly settled region, only pausing long enough at each ‘clearing’ to cry: ‘Ferguson is not far off, making his boasts that he will come and burn out our hornets’ nest and hang our leaders. Rally for Chucky Jack! The Redcoats are coming!’” [95-96]

   Bond also contrived a conversation between Sevier’s wife, “Bonny Kate,” and a woman named Nancy Dyke, whose “worthless husband, a despised Tory, had left her and her small children in their hut in the forest the year before.” The women in John Sevier's life are all too often overlooked in the narrative of his life, yet to her credit, Bond placed "Bonny Kate" in a position of importance within her own narrative.

   According to Bond, Nancy Dyke visited regularly for a “measure of meal and a flitch of bacon,” and “but for Mrs. Sevier’s charity, they would have starved.” In setting the scene of this encounter, Bond created a narrative that placed “Bonny Kate” Sevier in the role of benevolent caretaker and Nancy Dyke in the role of informant. Feeling a certain loyalty to Mrs. Sevier for her kindness, Nancy Dyke reported that she overheard her husband talking with British loyalists in the night plotting to kill John Sevier in his sleep. She wrote:

   “‘Why, ma’am, he’s come back to me, Dyke has. Last night there were some bad ‘king’s men’ talking with him outside the door. I heard them through the chink say: ‘Nolichucky Jack does not bar his doors at night. It will be easy work while he sleeps to rid the country of him and do the king a service.’ They mean to kill Captain Sevier this very night.’ Then, frightened at what she had said, Nancy began to beg for mercy for her husband. ‘Don’t let him be hurt,’ she pleaded. ‘He was not always the ‘Traitor Bill Dyke’ they call him now. He used to treat me well.’” [97-98]

   According to Bond, Sevier’s Overmountain men “were excited to indignation when they heard of this Tory plot to take the life of their commander.” They captured Bill Dyke in the night, and rather than hanging him for treason, stripped him of his clothing and gave him a coat of tar and feathers. According to Bond, “the wretched man went flying across the mountain like an evil bird, as straight as he could go to Ferguson’s camp.” There Dyke told the Tories of the gathering at Sycamore Shoals, and offered to guide the British troops to Sevier’s men. [98] 

   As John Sevier surveyed his troops in the moments leading up to the battle, Bond described the scene with gallant pride. The Overmountain men, “dressed in homespun hunting shirts and leggings, with buck’s tails in their hats for plums… they were remarkable for height and strength of body; and each one of them was a sure marksman with his flintlock gun, as well as skillful in the use of the knife or tomahawk in his belt.” Her portrait of Sevier was equally vivid and heroic:

   “Sevier’s erect figure, wherever it appeared, was the signal for hearty cheers and greetings. Every man in the ranks was his devoted friend. He had something to say to each, with special, personal kindness. To all alike he said in the quiet, magnetic voice which made his lightest word a command: ‘We must whip Ferguson.’ The cry was caught up from man to man, spreading from rank to rank, and gathering force as it went, till the Watauga hills resounded with the shout: ‘We must whip Ferguson!’” [99-100]

   With that, Bond wrote, “The ardor of Sevier’s own spirit was ablaze in every heart.” Though John Sevier was one of several commanders leading the Overmountain men into battle, Bond’s narrative gives much of the credit to Sevier for the patriots’ victory. It was Sevier who “was moved to pity at the thought that their only hope, as well as the hope of all good Americans, lay in the success of the enterprise in hand.” It was Sevier who “felt sure that a decided triumph over the skilled Ferguson would serve to turn the tide of war in favor of the Americans.” And it was Sevier who “led the way, calling aloud, ‘Onward, men, onward!’” [103-105]

   Bond embraced the popular narrative espoused by James Roberts Gilmore placing Sevier in an elevated position above all others living in the region. In her book, Bond expressed dismay that Sevier had been arrested on charges of treason for his role in leading the State of Franklin rebellion against North Carolina. "What was his crime?" she wrote, answering that the "chivalrous" Sevier had only "loved too well the Overmountain land that afterwards came to be called Tennessee." [119] 

   Bond lived a long and productive life as an author and lecturer chronicling her romanticized and nostalgic version of Tennessee's past, but as her health declined, she spent the twilight of her life in a nursing home. She celebrated her 95th birthday in April of 1941 before passing away on the 2nd of October in that same year. Her remains are buried in the Zollicoffer family plot at the Old Nashville City Cemetery alongside her husband, Judge John Bryan Bond, a prominent Maury County attorney.

   Reprinted four times since its first publication in 1906, Old Tales Retold endured for generations long after Octavia Bond's death. Although heavily reliant upon oral traditions and earlier published works and sorely lacking in source citations, Bond's "little book" stands on its own merit as an avenue of discovery and imaginative storytelling. In the opening decade of the twentieth century, Old Tales Retold delivered Sevier's story to a new generation of readers and out from the shadows of obscurity.

Grave marker for Octavia Zollicoffer Bond, 1846 - 1941, and her husband, John Bryan Bond, 1845 - 1920.
Image courtesy of the Nashville City Cemetery Association.

Old Tales Retold by Octavia Zollicoffer Bond is available in most public or university libraries, and may be purchased through any number of used book stores or antiquarian book dealers.


  • Octavia Zollicoffer Bond. Old Tales Retold; or, Perils and Adventures of Tennessee Pioneers. Smith & Lamar Publishers, 1906.
  • "Mrs. J.B. Bond's Funeral Today: Daughter of General Felix Zollicoffer, Author, 95, Dies Here." [obituary] The Nashville Tennessean, October 3, 1941.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

"It is handed down by our forefathers..." John Sevier and the Melungeon mystery

   In previous blog posts on The Posterity Project, I have endeavored to document my ancestral links to the Melungeons, and most recently I have extensively chronicled my research interest in John Sevier. These two divergent points of interest converged during the research phase of my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. While I had no space to include this particular story in my manuscript, I wanted to delve into this topic here on The Posterity Project, since both subjects seem to carry significant reader interest.

   For the uninitiated, the Melungeons occupy a mysterious and often misunderstood place in Tennessee history. Beginning in the early 1800s the term Melungeon (meh-LUN'-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of close-knit and secluded families living along the Tennessee-Virginia border. They have been described within popular literature as a "tri-racial isolate" population thought to be of mixed European, African and Native American ancestry. Recent DNA studies suggest, however, that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin. With each succeeding generation, the Melungeon families of East Tennessee and elsewhere increasingly intermarried with European Americans and integrated into mainstream white society, thus avoiding much of the racial discrimination experienced by blacks and Native Americans throughout our nation's history.

   Sevier's connection to the Melungeons first appeared in the published writings of Will Allen Dromgoole, a Murfreesboro native and prolific author and poet known particularly for her unflattering articles about a community of "Malungeons" [sic] located in East Tennessee. In the 1890s, Dromgoole published, "A Month Among the Mysterious Tribe of Malungeons," which appeared in the Nashville Daily American (1890) as well as several other national newspapers. Dromgoole's descriptions of the Melungeons perpetuated long-held cultural biases about the mountain people of Appalachia, and her assertions about their racial origins rested more on hearsay than documented fact.

This illustration entitled "A typical malungeon" was published by Will Allen Dromgoole in the Nashville Sunday American, August 31, 1890.
Image and caption credit: Wikimedia Commons

   In her article, Dromgoole claimed that, "When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin, there was living in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks and who called themselves Malungeons and claimed to be of Portuguese descent." Dromgoole's article was filled with errors and conjecture, and she failed to provide any source citations to verify her claims. Nevertheless, other writers seized upon this story and repeated the narrative in subsequent works. As with many stories surrounding Sevier's life and frontier exploits, time and again chroniclers repeated oral traditions and narratives recalled many years after alleged incidents took place without backing up claims with hard proof.

   Another connection between Sevier and the mysterious Melungeons rests upon a letter, allegedly written in Sevier's own hand in reply to a Major Amos Stoddard. In 1810 Stoddard, an officer in the Revolutionary War who later served in the War of 1812, began preparing materials for a book entitled, Sketches, Historical and Descriptive, of Louisiana. He wrote to Sevier seeking to confirm a rumor that he had witnessed an ancient book containing information about a long-lost tribe of "Welsh Indians" that had once settled the area. I'll get into the connection between these "Welsh Indians" and the Melungeons in a moment. But first, in his letter to Sevier, Stoddard wrote:

   As I am an utter stranger to you, I should not venture to address you on the present occasion, were I not in some measure encouraged to do so by your old friend, Governor Claiborne, who had just left this place.

   The object of this communication is to request a statement of particulars of a story, which Governor Claiborne thinks you detailed to him some years ago. According to his account, you once saw an ancient book in the hands of a Cherokee woman which you supposed was written in the Welsh characters, said to be given to her by an Indian from the west side of the Mississippi, and which was afterwards burned with her house.

   I have been some time collecting material to prove the existence of a Welsh colony on this continent, which landed here, according to the testimony of history, as early as 1170. If you can call to mind the circumstances to which I have alluded, and will be so good as to communicate them to me, I shall feel myself under many obligations to you.
2nd. Corps, U.S.

   On October 9, 1810, Governor Sevier replied to Major Stoddard. In his letter, Sevier recalled an amazing story told to him by the respected Cherokee Chief Oconostota. He wrote:

   With respect to the information you have requested, I shall with pleasure, give you the information required, so far as my memory will now serve me, and the help of a memorandum I hastily took on the subject, of a nation of people called the Welsh Indians. In the year 1782, I was on a campaign against the Cherokees, and during my route, discovered traces of very ancient fortifications. Some time after the expedition, I had occasion to enter into a negotiation with the Cherokee chiefs, for the purpose of exchanging prisoners. After the exchange had been settled, I took an opportunity of enquiring [sic] of a venerable old chief, named Oconostoto, (then, and for nearly sixty years had been, a ruling chief of the Cherokee nation,) if he could inform me of the people that had left such signs of fortifications in their country and particularly the one on the bank of the Highwassee river? The old warrior briefly answered me as follows:

   "It is handed down by our forefathers, that the works were made by white people, who had formerly inhabited the country, while the Cherokees lived lower down in the country, now called South Carolina, and that a war existed between the two nations for many years. At length, it was discovered, that the whites were making a number of large boats, which induced the Cherokees to suppose, that they intended to descend the Tennessee river. They then collected their whole band of warriors, and took the shortest and most convenient route to the muscle shoals in order to intercept them down the river. In a few days, the boats hove in sight, and a warm combat ensued, with various success for several days. At length the whites proposed to the Indians, that if they would exchange prisoners, and cease hostilities, they would leave the country, and never more return ; which was acceded to, and, after the exchange, parted in friendship. The whites then descended the Tennessee to the Ohio, and then down to the big river, (Missouri) then up that river to a very great distance. They are now of some of it's branches : But they are no longer a white people; they are now all become Indians; and look like the other red people of the country." [EDITOR'S NOTE: This statement has led some Melungeon researchers to assert that the Welsh Indians were the ancient ancestors of the Melungeon people.]
    I then asked him, if he had ever heard any of his ancestors say what nation of people those white people belonged to? He answered:

   "I have heard my grandfather and other old people say, that they were a people called Welsh ; that they had crossed the great water, and landed near the mouth of Alabama river, and were finally driven to the heads of its waters, and even to Highwassee river, by the Mexican Indians, who had been driven out of their own country by the Spaniards."

   Many years past I happened in company with a Frenchman, who lived with the Cherokees, and had been a great explorer of the country west of the Mississippi. He informed me, "that he had been high up the Missouri, and traded several months with the Welsh tribe ; that they spoke much of the Welsh dialect, and although their customs were savage and wild, yet many of them, particularly the females were very fair and white, and frequently told him, they had sprung from a white nation of people ; also stated they had yet some small scraps of books remaining among them, but in such tattered and destructive order, that nothing intelligible remained."
   He observed that their settlement was in a very obscure part of the Missouri, surrounded with innumerable lofty mountains. The Frenchman's name had escaped my memory, but I believe it was something like Duroque. In my conversation with the old chief Oconostoto, he informed me, that an old woman in his nation named Peg, had some part of an old book given her by an Indian living high up the Missouri, and thought he was one of the Welsh tribe. Unfortunately before I had an opportunity of seeing the book, the old woman's house, and its contents, were consumed by fire. I have conversed with several persons, who saw and examined the book, but it was so worn and disfigured, that nothing intelligible remained ; neither did any one of them understand any language but their own, and even that, very imperfectly.

According to folklore, a Welsh prince sailed to America in 1170, over three hundred years before Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492. Subsequent explorers claimed to have encountered the "Welsh Indians" in their travels. Thomas Jefferson had heard of Welsh speaking Indian tribes, and believing the legend, he instructed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find the descendants of the Welsh Indians in their expedition of the Louisiana Purchase.
Image and caption credit: Wikimedia Commons

   While Sevier made no direct mention of Melungeons in his letter, some Melungeon researchers have drawn ancestral links between these alleged "Welsh Indians" and the Melungeons, using Sevier's purported words as proof that Melungeons lived in early Tennessee. Others Melungeon scholars, however, remained unconvinced.

   In her book, Melungeons: Examining An Appalachian Legend, Pat Spurlock challenged the accuracy of Stoddard's transcription of the letter, noting that Sevier's words published in Stoddard's journal were transcribed from a heavily-edited rough draft with many words crossed out and corrected, and with some portions of the letter completely undecipherable due to Sevier's extensive notations. Spurlock further stated that she had been unsuccessful in locating the final draft of Sevier's letter, which may have revealed with more accuracy Sevier's true words. Sadly, the letter Sevier sent to Stoddard has been lost to the ages. Thus, historians have had to rely upon Stoddard's transcription as a source for analysis.

   A well-known Chattanooga writer named Zella Armstrong, however, remained steadfast in her belief of the authenticity of the information contained in the letter. Armstrong referenced the Sevier letter in her 1950 work, Who Discovered America? The Amazing Story of Madoc, claiming to have actually viewed Sevier's original first draft, with notes and corrections made throughout in Sevier's own hand. She offered her own interpretation:

   "The information that they [the Welsh Indians] landed on the Bay of Mobile rests on the word of an Indian who was the greatest man among his people, the Cherokee Nation, most enlightened of the Indian tribes in America, and the written word of Sevier who quoted the great chief... It cannot therefore be part of propaganda which a writer claims was prepared in the Elizabethan period to establish Queen Elizabeth's prior right to America. It is significant that Oconostota's ancestors had told the story from father to son from long before the Elizabethan era."

Oconostota, Cherokee chief (1708-1810), from a painting entitled "The Great Warrior, Chief Oconostota-Cunne Shote" by Francis Parsons, 1762.
Image and caption credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives

   Sevier's letter -- real or imagined -- perpetuated the Welsh Indian legend and stories concerning the origins of the Melungeon people for generations. For some Melungeon scholars, the letter also fueled an already burning hatred for Sevier and his military campaigns against Native Americans. In his book, Children of Perdition: Melungeons and the Struggle of Mixed America, Tim Hashaw wrote:

   "After the American Revolution, John Sevier, early Tennessee governor and ruthless land-grabber, promoted tales of pre-Columbian ‘Welsh’ lost colonists as an excuse for his war on the Cherokees. When President Thomas Jefferson, a Welshman, sent two Welshmen named Lewis and Clark to explore the Northwest, he first had them consult Gov. Sevier about the Welsh myths. Sevier, who once spent the night with a Melungeon family, pointed out strange stone forts in Tennessee and Kentucky as ‘proof’ that the Welsh ‘discovered’ America. Sevier’s popular Welsh tales got him elected governor with a mandate to remove or kill Cherokees to get the land."

   This is a scathing accusation. I do not accept Hashaw's assertion that these "popular Welsh tales" sealed Sevier's election as governor of Tennessee. Several factors led to Sevier's political ascent, and simply stating that Sevier's popularity rested upon a mythic tale seems sensationalist to me. It is not unreasonable, however, to consider Sevier's land interests as motivation for relaying the "Welsh Indian" story to Stoddard in his 1810 letter. If Sevier could prove that white settlers first laid claim to the land west of the Appalachians, all Cherokee claims recognized under the law would become null and void, thus opening up vast swaths of territory to new settlement and speculative land claims.

   Sevier's alleged encounters with the mysterious Melungeons and the Welsh Indians pose all kinds of questions for serious scholars and researchers. Among them, did Sevier use race as a tool for conquest and land speculation, or was his discovery of stone forts and Oconostota's belief that Welsh Indians once roamed the New World mere folktales written to perpetuate long-held beliefs and oral traditions? No historical evidence for the Welsh journey to Mobile Bay has ever been found, and yet Sevier's story has endured.

   For Melungeon researchers, an even larger question looms. Does Sevier's letter prove that Melungeons lived among the earliest settlers of the Tennessee Valley, and if so, what does that tell us about our own origins? Amateur family historians and professional genealogists have labored for generations to solve the Melungeon mystery. All too often, however, this topic emerges from an uncomfortable cloud of racial identity. Were the Melungeons' origins African, European, Native American, Portugese, or some other mixed ancestry? Did subsequent generations of Melungeons collectively lie about their past to protect themselves against government-sanctioned discrimination and societal pressures to fit in? Melungeon scholars struggle with these questions to this very day.

   These are complicated questions with no firm answers. Sometimes a mystery remains unsolved and a legend lives on. Historians, however, should never give up on attempting to discover the truth about our shared past, "warts and all."


  • Zella Armstrong. Who Discovered America? The Amazing Story of Madoc. Chattanooga, TN: Lookout Publishing Co., 1950.
  • Jean Patterson Bible. Melungeons Yesterday and Today. Jefferson City, TN: Bible, 1975, pp. 83-85. 
  • Richard Deacon. Madoc and the Discovery of America. London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1966.
  • Tim Hashaw. Children of Perdition: Melungeons and the Struggle of Mixed America. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006.
  • Pat Spurlock. Melungeons: Examining An Appalachian Legend by Pat Spurlock Elder. Blountville, TN: Continuity Press, 1999, pp. 114-117.
  • Amos Stoddard. Sketches, Historical and Descriptive, of Louisiana. Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1812, pp. 483-485.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.