Last of the Mohicans, James Andriolli Huyot (1883 edition)
Friday, February 08, 2019 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Today I’d like to introduce you to Abraham the Unstoppable, the true adventure story of an enslaved man of African descent who won his freedom during the Anglo-Cherokee War of 1759–61. First we’ll explore the background of that unfamiliar war and learn about the world in which Abraham lived, and then we’ll follow the train of events that launched this enslaved man on an epic journey towards freedom.

If you’ve ever read James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans, or seen the popular 1992 film adaptation starring Daniel Day-Lewis, then you’re familiar with the adventures of Nathaniel Bumppo amidst the French and Indian War of the late 1750s in upstate New York. Bumppo, who also went by the Indian name “Hawkeye,” was a fictional white man living among the indigenous peoples who were caught up in a conflict between European powers warring for supremacy in North America. A dramatic confluence of fate and romance drew Hawkeye into the violent heart of the battle, but, through remarkable bravery, perseverance, and physical prowess, he emerged the hero and won the love of a maiden fair.

The story of Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans represents a mix of historical facts with a large measure of fiction to create a tale that has become a “classic” of American literature and film. Imagine for a moment, however, what that novel and film would be like if the main character was not a resourceful white man living halfway between the Indians and the colonists, but a dynamic-yet-enslaved black man inhabiting a similar lifestyle. Imagine, also, that instead of being set in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, the action ranged from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee to the office of South Carolina’s royal governor in Charleston. The result of that modified narrative would be the true story of Abraham, a forgotten black hero of South Carolina during the Anglo-Cherokee War. If one were to add a dash of fictional romance to sweeten the plot, I’m sure we’d have a Hollywood blockbuster on our hands. So let’s begin by asking, who was this Abraham, and how was he unstoppable?

Abraham was an enslaved man of African descent who used his physical and mental skills to blaze a pathway out of slavery during a time of great crisis and danger. Amidst the tense era of warfare between members of the Cherokee nation and the colonial government of South Carolina in 1760, Abraham carried official dispatches between the royal governor in Charleston and the commanders of two besieged forts on the colony’s western frontier. Making at least ten trips between these posts, both on foot and on horseback, covering approximately 4,000 miles, Abraham survived harsh weather, ambush, enemy fire, flying tomahawks, and even smallpox to deliver valuable intelligence to and from the hostile frontier. In recognition of the “singular services” performed by this remarkably “resolute” man, the South Carolina legislature purchased Abraham’s freedom in 1761 in hopes of inspiring other men in his “condition” to contribute to the defense of Britain’s colonial empire.

The story of Abraham is obscure, but it is not completely unknown to modern readers. In the late 1990s, for example, historian Terry Lipscomb acknowledged that Abram, as he was sometimes named in surviving government records, “deserves greater fame than the state’s past historians have given him.” Author Daniel J. Tortora, in a recent (and highly recommended) book about the Cherokee War, Carolina in Crisis, includes Abraham as a running character (pun intended) throughout his narrative. There’s even a recent historical novel set in eastern Tennessee during the 1750s and 1760s that includes Abraham as a minor character.[1] But I’d like to pull Abraham into the spotlight as the principal protagonist acting on a colorful stage populated with links to a story of global proportions.

Abraham’s story is set amidst a confusing era of history now unfamiliar to most Americans, but one that formed an important chapter of the story of eighteenth-century South Carolina. The Anglo-Cherokee War of 1759–61 was a period of violent conflict that stemmed from the larger war between British and French forces and their respective Native American allies in the northeastern regions of North America, commonly called the French and Indian War (1754–63), which itself was part of an even larger war between the empires of Britain and France spread across multiple continents and oceans, commonly called the Seven Years’ War. In this broad context, Abraham was just one of many small figures moving within a much larger sphere of activity, and his story forms a minute part of the grand narrative of that global struggle for empire. One can easily construct a reasonable summary of the Anglo-Cherokee War and the French and Indian War without mentioning Abraham, but, conversely, it’s impossible to appreciate the story of Abraham without at least a basic understanding of the wartime context that shaped the trajectory of his character. To set the stage for our main feature, therefore, we’ll need a spend some time learning about the era and place in which Abraham lived.

The Cherokee are an indigenous people who once inhabited a large swath of territory that included several distinct regions in what is now northwestern South Carolina (the Lower Towns), southwestern North Carolina (the Middle Towns), and eastern Tennessee (the Overhill Towns). Encompassing a diverse landscape that included rolling foothills, ancient mountain ranges, and broad river valleys, the Cherokee nation was situated more than three hundred miles northwest of Charleston, the first capital and port town of the English colony of South Carolina. Contact between the Cherokee and European settlers was rather limited during the early decades of the Carolina colony, which was initially confined to the coastal region, but the two parties gradually became more acquainted as white settlers slowly pushed westward during the first half of the eighteenth century. Through a series of treaties and agreements, a steady trade began to flow from the Cherokee mountains to the coast, bringing deerskins and other animal hides to Charleston in exchange for goods such as textiles, tools, guns, and rum. This trade transformed the traditional Cherokee culture by introducing an increasing dependence on manufactured goods, but the colonists also became reliant on using the Cherokee to combat Britain’s traditional enemy, the French.

French soldiers and colonists first gained a permanent foothold in the southeastern region of North America in Biloxi in 1699, then Mobile in 1702, and New Orleans in 1718. By the 1740s, French incursions into Cherokee territory threatened to disrupt the lucrative Indian trade with Charleston, and, more importantly, to sway the Cherokee into an alliance with our French neighbors. In a pledge of mutual friendship, Cherokee leaders invited South Carolina to build a fort among their Lower Towns, in what is now the upstate region. In 1753, the provincial government of South Carolina sponsored the construction of a fort near the Lower Cherokee town of Keowee (on a site that is now under Lake Keowee). That fort, a square structure composed a wooden palisade surrounded by a broad ditch, was christened Fort Prince George and occupied by a garrison of red-coated soldiers from one of His Majesty’s Independent Companies. Their purpose was to offer defensive support to both the white settlers moving into the region and to provide a place of refuge to the women and children of the nearby Cherokee towns while their warriors traveled elsewhere to assist their British allies in their ongoing attempts to suppress French expansion in the region.[2]

The conflict now known as the French and Indian War was triggered by a series of events that unfolded in western Pennsylvania in 1754, in which French and British forces competed for control of the forks of the Ohio River (the site of modern Pittsburgh). Following the construction of the French Fort Duquesne at that site, the English governor of Virginia initiated a series of campaigns to dislodge the French from the Ohio River and beyond. To accomplish this goal, British military commanders demanded the assistance of all of their Indian allies in the region, including the Cherokee who lived nearly five hundred miles southwest of Fort Duquesne. Most Cherokee warriors were amenable to this call for assistance, but those who inhabited the Overhill Towns in modern eastern Tennessee were reluctant to leave their women and children behind without assurances that they would not be unprotected. The governor of Virginia sent a party to construct a small fort in the Overhill territory in the summer of 1756, but offered no troops to occupy the site, and the fort was essentially abandoned as soon as it was completed.

Eager to stake a western claim where Virginia had failed to make a lasting impression, the South Carolina legislature ordered the construction of a new fort in the Overhills region of Cherokee country in mid-1756. A party of engineers, officers, and laborers set out from Charleston in the autumn of that year, and the fort was completed by July of 1757 on the south bank of the Little Tennessee River. It was named Fort Loudoun, in honor of John Campbell, the 4th Earl of Loudoun, who served as commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America at that time. Like Fort Prince George located among the Lower Towns, the new Fort Loudoun was a wooden palisade surrounded by a dry ditch, and garrisoned by a detachment of His Majesty’s Independent Companies who reported to the governor in Charleston.[3] 

The South Carolina forces ensconced at Fort Loudoun were not the first white men to establish a long-term presence in that mountainous land. By the late 1750s, there were already a handful of white traders who had lived among the westernmost Cherokee towns for some years and made regular journeys to Charleston to exchange deerskins for European trade goods. Among those long-distance merchants was a man named Samuel Benn (also spelled Behn), who lived in the Cherokee town of Tanasi (in modern Monroe County, Tennessee), with a young son and, presumably, a wife of Native-American ancestry. The Indian trading business in colonial South Carolina was populated with many unscrupulous men who cheated and abused the native peoples, but surviving documents consistently describe Samuel Benn as an upright, honest, and dependable man. Fluent in the Cherokee language, Benn was well known to the tribal headmen beyond the frontier and helped them to communicate with colonial officials in Charleston. Contrary to a South Carolina law that prohibited backcountry traders from taking enslaved people into Cherokee territory, however, Samuel Benn owned a “Negro” man who frequently traveled with him to Charleston and helped tend their train of pack horses along the 450 mile journey from the mountains to the sea.[4]

Benn’s “Negro” is, of course, our man Abraham, whose existence is a mystery before he stepped into the spotlight in the spring of 1760. I know of no evidence relating to the time or place of his birth, but the circumstances of his life can help us can make a few educated guesses. Because Abraham was employed in a business that required him to spend most of his time working far from the plantation region of the South Carolina Lowcountry, I suspect he was born on these shores rather than in Africa or in the West Indies. As a “country born” man (to use the common phrase of the colonial era), Abraham probably grew up speaking English, but he also lived and worked among the Cherokee people for a sufficient period of time to learn their language. It’s possible that Sam Benn encouraged and even helped Abraham to learn Cherokee, since that skill would undoubtedly help the white man’s trading business.

We know nothing about Abraham’s age, but the details related to his movements during the year 1760, when he completed a number of grueling long-distance trips across the breadth of South Carolina, suggest that he was in prime physical condition at that time. If I had to pin a number on his age, I’ll guess that the was about thirty years old at that time, or at least somewhere between twenty and forty. In a later newspaper reference, Abraham was described as “a good woodsman,” and his success in traversing the entirety of the Cherokee territory on multiple occasions during the war suggests that he possessed a remarkable knowledge of a landscape that ranged from the dense mountain forests of the Blue Ridge to the coastal plain. His ability to travel alone for multiple days behind enemy lines in harsh weather also demonstrates the Abraham possessed a good share of the outdoor skills necessary to survive in the natural world with limited resources.

Nearly two years before the Anglo-Cherokee war commenced, Samuel Benn and Abraham were involved in an incident that threatened to destroy their amicable relationship with the people of the Overhill Towns. In early December of 1757, Benn was leading a train of seventeen pack horses up the path from Charleston along with his eleven-year-old son and the enslaved Abraham, all mounted on horseback. Having passed the town of Natalee, Benn sighted four young Indians running after them, brandishing hatchets and knives. The white man quickly ordered his young son to ride up to the head of the train, and Abraham to stay near the middle, while Benn moved to the rear of the line. When the Cherokee quartet caught up to them, Benn asked what they wanted. The Indians demanded rum, but Benn said he didn’t have any. Well then, said the warriors, “we want goods.” Standing his ground, Benn told them “they should have none.” “The goods I have . . are for the Upper Towns.” The men then attempted to cut away some of the goods from the pack horses, but Sam Benn positioned his horse between them to hinder their progress. In an effort to discourage the armed men, Benn “argued a long while with them, saying I have been nineteen years among you”—that is, since about 1738—“and we were always friends.” We “have passed hundred and hundred times through your towns and you never said anything to me in anger. What is the matter with you now?” The Cherokee men answered that “the white people have begun to be rogues, it is high time for us to be so now.”

As the Indians continued to harass the pack horses, Sam and Abraham tried to keep calm and use their mounts to push the men away. Growing impatient with the tussle, the young men decided to beat the traders into submission. They picked up nearby sticks and stones and began pummeling Sam Benn with a hail of projectiles. “He begged and prayed several times to let him alone, but all in vain.” “Finding that he could hold no longer, and ready to fall down from his horse, he took [out] one of his pistols.” “As one of the most desperate [of the Cherokee men] was going to knock him down with a large stone, [Benn] shot at him and killed him. Then the others immediately left the field and ran as fast as they could towards the town.”

“The Negro fellow [Abraham,] seeing his master half dead” in the saddle with a dead Indian before him, told Benn “to go away as fast as he could towards [the nearby town of] Tellico, saying, the Indians hearing that you have killed one of them will be here soon with their arms, and will kill you. Perhaps finding you are gone, they won’t kill us.” Benn, though dazed from his beating, knew that Abraham was right. His presence now endangered his son, Abraham, and their valuable horse train. They couldn’t all gallop away, so the white trader had to entrust their safety to the enslaved man. Benn “pushed on his horse as well as he could towards the mountain.” Looking back from a distance, however, “he saw the Indians coming with their guns black painted.”

When the approaching Cherokee reached “the Negro fellow,” Abraham, at the tail of the pack train, they were furious to discover that the white trader “had gone away.” Abraham remained calm and stood his ground, but the Indians succeeded in cutting away one horse “that was loaded with [fancy textiles, like] strouds and other things.” He knew better than to risk his life for the sake of a bit of property, so he let them take the pack horse, with which they also “carried away the dead corpse” of their fallen brother. As they retreated with their spoils, one of the Cherokee men told Abraham “to go and encamp at a place called Tuotee,” where they would meet again soon, “and if he went further, he should be killed.”

We don’t know what happened to Abraham in the wake of that violent encounter, but Samuel Benn managed to ride onward and reach his house in the town of Tanasi. The next day, December 10th, 1757, Sam was too sore to ride, so he stepped into a canoe and paddled down the Little Tennessee River to nearby Fort Loudon. When the doctor there examined him, the commander, Capt. Paul Demeré, was appalled by the man’s injuries. “I never saw a man so much bruised from his shoulders down to the waste [sic] of his back,” Demeré wrote in a letter to Governor William Henry Lyttelton in Charleston. “He was as black as ink,” and “not able to go away that night.” After his guest had rested a few days, the captain advised Benn to go to Chota, the nearby principal town of the Overhill Cherokee, and there to see the elderly headman, Conocotocko, whom the English usually called “Old Hop.” “Accordingly he did; and the old man saw him, and heard the whole [story].” Old Hop was sorry to hear of Benn’s encounter, and said he “would go immediately and ask satisfaction for using their traders in that manner. . . . He told Samll. Benn to not be afraid of the consequences, for it was the Indians’ fault, and their own seeking, and it was in his own defence [sic], that he did kill him.”[5]

As the winter solstice passed and the year 1758 dawned on the white man’s calendar, The Benn household in Tanasi remained peaceful. Old Hop scolded the rogue warriors for injuring their long-time friend, and the community acknowledged that the white trader had acted in self-defense. When the winter snows melted, Samuel and Abraham resumed their trade route to Charleston, but they kept on guard for the possibility of further aggression. The British campaign against the French at the forks of the Ohio river also resumed in earnest in the spring of 1758, and the distant military leaders once again demanded the assistance of their Indian allies. Although the theater of war was nearly five hundred miles the north, astute observers like Samuel Benn and his enslaved “Negro” man, Abraham, could sense that the delicate threads of Anglo-Cherokee friendship where about to unravel.

Join me next week for the continuation of the story of Abraham the Unstoppable, when a desperate situation forces the enslaved Abraham to embark a dangerous mission that could radically change his future.

 

 

 

 

[1] Terry Lipscomb, ed. The Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, October 6, 1757January 24, 1761 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History [SCDAH], 1996), xvii (available online from SCDAH). See Daniela J. Totora, Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756–1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015). See Joe D. Guy, Indian Summer: The Siege and Fall of Fort Loudon (Johnson City, Tn: Overmountain Press, 2001).

[2] For more information about Fort Prince George, see Marshall W. Williams, A Memoir of the Archaeological Excavation of Fort Prince George, Pickens County, South Carolina, along with Pertinent Historical Documentation (Columbia: South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1998). The full text of this report is available online at https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/archanth_books/202/.

[3] In constructing the preceding paragraphs, which contain a very condensed summary of the background of the Anglo-Cherokee War, I have relied on Daniel J. Tortora’s well-crafted narrative in Carolina in Crisis, 25–42.

[4] A 1756 letter stated that Benn had “his own house” in the larger town of Chota, adjacent to Tanasi, but he might have had a house in one town and a “store” in the other. See William L. McDowell, Jr., ed. Documents Relating to Indian Affairs, 1745–1765 (Columbia: University of South Carolina press for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1970), 130, 138, 251, 346, 361, 427. Section 19 of Act No. 542, “An Act for the Better Regulation of the Indian Trade, and for Appointing a Commissioner for that Purpose,” ratified on 20 August 1731, in The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 3 (Columbia: A. S. Johnston, 1838), 331–32, established a fine of £100 for any trader who does “employ any of our free Indians or negroes, or any negro or other slave, in the Indian country, or in rowing up or down any boat or perriagoe [sic], to or from any of our garrisons, or to or from their respective trading houses.” This measure was continued by later acts passed in 1739 and 1752. See Statutes at Large, 3: 523, 768.

[5] The narrative of this event is included in a letter from Capt. Paul Demeré to Gov. William Henry Lyttelton, dated 30 December 1757, in McDowell, Documents Relating to Indian Affairs, 426–33.

 

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