The front gate of Fort Loudoun (Wikipedia)
Friday, February 15, 2019 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Abraham, an enslaved “Negro” man belonging to an Indian trader named Samuel Benn, was an obscure witness to the escalating tensions between Anglo-American forces in South Carolina and the Cherokee people who lived far to the west of their settlements. When misguided diplomacy triggered the outbreak of frontier warfare in the winter of 1760, the promise of freedom drew Abraham into the spotlight and set him on the course of an adventure from which other men had cowered in fear.

As we discussed last week, Cherokee warriors had traveled long distances and made great sacrifices to assist the British military campaigns against the French in 1756, 1757, and 1758. Although their contributions were invaluable and their allegiance steadfast, British and colonial officials had repeatedly treated their Cherokee allies with disdain and ingratitude. Following the completion of Fort Loudoun, situated among the Overhill Towns in what is now eastern Tennessee in mid-1757, the British forces operating in the northern colonies once again called on Cherokee warriors to assist in the ongoing campaign against the French at Fort Duquesne. By that time, many of the Cherokee had grown frustrated with the glacial pace of the army’s movements from Virginia to the Ohio River. The long stretches of preparation preceding campaigns often overlapped with the Cherokee’s traditional calendar of planting, harvest, and hunting seasons. When Cherokee warriors quit the slow-moving army to return to their tribal duties back home, or when the required number of warriors failed to appear promptly when summoned by distant British commanders, colonists and crown officials grew impatient with the Cherokee. They did not understand or appreciate the cultural differences between themselves and their Native American allies, and some Cherokee began to reconsider their allegiance to the British.

This delicate partnership was irreparably damaged in the late spring of 1758, when Cherokee warriors traveling homeward from the British campaign in Pennsylvania were sporadically attacked, robbed, and murdered by white settlers on the western frontier of Virginia. According to their traditional customs, the surviving family of each fallen Cherokee warrior was required to avenge his death by killing one of the enemy. It did not necessarily matter if they killed the individual responsible for the Indian’s death, as long as the victim was part of the same clan or people as the original perpetrator. During the summer of 1758, several white settlers on the Carolina frontier, unconnected to the Cherokee murders on the Virginia frontier, fell victim to these Indian reprisals. The seemingly-random nature of these killings caused a panic in the backcountry of South Carolina, and in the capital, Charleston.

In the late summer of 1758, the governor of South Carolina, William Henry Lyttelton, sent letters to the commanders of the backcountry forts demanding answers from the nearby Cherokee headmen. A few months later, in early November, a contingent of Cherokee headmen made the long journey to Charleston to conduct a peace conference with the governor. Thirty-three-year-old Gov. Lyttelton warned the Indians not to disturb white settlers in the South Carolina backcountry in quest of blood reprisals. The Cherokee headmen agreed to restrain their warriors, and the conference concluded amicably. During the following spring and summer of 1759, however, rogue Cherokee warriors seeking family justice murdered a number of backcountry settlers, and white colonists throughout South Carolina began to fear the outbreak of a general war.

At the end of the corn harvesting season in August 1759, Cherokee hunters from the Lower Towns (in what is now upstate South Carolina) approached Fort Prince George to request the usual supplies of gunpowder and shot needed to undertake their regular autumnal hunting campaign. Their community depended on these annual hunts to provide food during the winter and to secure deer skins to pay their debts to the traders, but this August the fort’s commander, Lieutenant Richard Coytmore, decided to institute a new policy. He refused to share his supply with the Cherokee until they turned over the Indians responsible for the recent murders of white settlers. Incensed by this embargo, and by the white man’s inability to understand their traditional custom of blood reparations, the Cherokee hunters refused to leave empty-handed. In September, a number of Cherokee warriors surrounded both Fort Prince George and Fort Loudoun, and began harassing the garrison and nearby whites. Settlers, traders, and soldiers traveling near the forts were murdered, and the delivery of supplies was cut off. White traders like Samuel Benn, with his enslaved assistant, Abraham, were forced off the trail and obliged to seek shelter behind the palisaded walls of the provincial forts.

When news of this bloodshed reached Charleston, Gov. Lyttelton summoned the legislature for an emergency session and issued an alarm to embody the colony’s militia. One half of South Carolina’s militia, some 1,500 men, were drafted into full-time service for a campaign to pacify the Cherokee. Meanwhile, a large delegation of Cherokee headmen came to Charleston to explain their grievances and to try to prevent a war. Governor Lyttelton ignored their diplomatic overtures and tales of abuse by both white settlers and soldiers, then demanded that the Indians accompany him westward to Fort Prince George. The governor and his columns of soldiers set out from Charleston on October 26th and were joined by hundreds of militiamen from the interior as they moved westward. When several of the Cherokee diplomats quietly deserted from the military train along the path, Governor Lyttelton made hostages of the remaining Indians and forced them to continue westward. After weeks of marching, camping, and drilling, the slow-moving expedition finally reached Fort Prince George in early December.

At the fort near the Lower Town of Keowee, Governor Lyttelton released all but twenty-eight of his Cherokee hostages and summoned additional headmen to negotiate a peace. A number of leading men representing different towns arrived in the following days, but there was little consensus among them. Many distrusted the English soldiers and threatened to form an alliance with the French in (modern-day) Alabama, but a few advocated for peace. Lyttelton then informed the assembled Cherokee that the twenty-eight Indian hostages would be imprisoned at Fort Prince George until their relatives surrendered all of the warriors responsible for the recent deaths of white settlers. As the murderers were brought in, the commander of the fort, Lieut. Coytmore, would exchange them for the hostages. This overture was met with disgust and confusion by the Cherokee. The hostages had committed no crimes, and had recently traveled to Charleston in search of peace. More importantly, the Cherokee did not consider the recent white deaths to be murder, but rather legitimate reparations for insults committed against their people.

Governor Lyttelton pressed his demands and found a reluctant ally in the headman called Attakullakulla, better known to the English as the Little Carpenter. As the leader of Chota, the capital of the Overhill Towns, the Little Carpenter had more than thirty years’ experience in dealing with the English settlers, and was a steady friend to the government of South Carolina. In the negotiations of mid-December, he managed to secure the release of a few hostage Cherokee, but then gave in to the governors demands. Lyttelton, inexperienced in Indian affairs, mistakenly considered the Little Carpenter to be the supreme voice of the entire Cherokee people. In reality, there was no unified “nation,” but rather an amalgamation of villages spread across a large geographic area. When Attakullakulla acquiesced, the governor clumsily badgered other headmen to agree to his demands.

A peace treaty was concluded at Fort Prince George on the 26th of December, 1759, but the majority of the Cherokee representatives considered it little more than a temporary truce. Governor Lyttelton, however, considered it a diplomatic victory, and immediately broke camp and prepared for the long march back to Charleston. The dreaded smallpox had appeared in the camp, its origins unclear, and the large assemblage of militiamen quickly packed their tents and hit the trail. The governor, his troops, and the deadly pox entered the gates of Charleston late on the evening of January 8th, 1760, and the following day the town erupted into a joyous celebration of victory. The local newspaper, the South-Carolina Gazette, reported on January 12th that the Cherokee nation, consisting of “between 2500 and 3000 gunmen,” had “behaved with the utmost humility, complaisance and hospitality” in their recent negotiations with the governor, “as if they could not shew [sic] respect enough to the white people.” As far as South Carolina’s government in Charleston was concerned, the Cherokee had been pacified, justice was done, and the crisis was over.

Following the departure of Gov. Lyttelton from Fort Prince George in late December 1759, the Cherokee people grew restless and impatient. Their innocent relatives were still being held hostage at Fort Prince George, and they did not understand the requirement that the Cherokee should detain and surrender the “murderers” in exchange for the hostages. They simply wanted their people to be released, and they desperately needed gunpowder in order to hunt and feed their families and to pay their debts. Lieutenant Coytmore, the fort’s commander, steadfastly refused. Tensions increased further when the headmen of the nearby Lower Towns heard reports that Coytmore and his fellow officers had raped and abused Cherokee women who brought food to the fort. Women played a more prominent role in Cherokee society than the white men understood, and such violent acts brought the situation to a head.

As the cold winter days of January 1760 passed, the soldiers inside Fort Prince George and Fort Loudoun could see that Cherokee warriors of the Overhill and Middle towns were preparing for battle. Their headmen, determined to block further diplomacy with the duplicitous English, sent war parties to patrol the traditional pathways through the mountains and to kill any white people carrying letters. White traders and their allies, like Samuel Benn and Abraham, his “Negro” slave, who were used to living peacefully among the Cherokee, had already seen the warning signs and retreated to the safety of the well-armed provincial forts. It appears that the two men had sought shelter some time earlier, perhaps before Governor Lyttelton’s expedition of late 1759, when sporadic frontier violence forced them to abandon their normal trade route, but the timing of their retreat is unclear.

For some unknown reason, Samuel Benn at the beginning of 1760 was living within the walls of a frontier garrison known as Fort Ninety Six, about eighty miles southeast of Fort Prince George.[1] It’s possible that Benn and his pack train had been disrupted on their way to or from Charleston and forced to seek shelter at Ninety Six. From that post, Benn might have served as a backwoods guide for Governor Lyttelton’s column of Lowcountry soldiers, and then returned to Ninety-Six when the governor marched triumphantly back to Charleston. Perhaps he had sent his enslaved assistant, Abraham, back to their home among the Overhill Towns to guard their store of trade goods. Whatever the reasons behind Sam Benn’s movements, we know he was separated from Abraham, who in January of 1760 was safe within the walls of Fort Loudoun, in eastern Tennessee.

Back at Fort Loudoun, more than two hundred miles northwest of Fort Ninety Six, the garrison behind the palisaded walls saw their predicament worsening day by day. They heard reports of white traders living among the Cherokee being tortured, murdered, and dismembered, and listened to conflicting arguments from nearby headmen of the Overhill Towns. Attakullakulla, the Little Carpenter, visited the fort and assured Capt. Paul Demeré that his people were in favor of peace. His rival cousin, Oconostota, disagreed, however, and told the fort’s commander to expect trouble. Unless the white men released the hostages at Fort Prince George and shared their gunpowder, the Cherokee would pursue an alliance with the French and make war on the English.

By the last week of January, 1760, Capt. Demeré realized that he and his men were in a precarious situation. The government back in Charleston believed that all was well among the Cherokee forts, and that their Indian allies had been subdued by the white man’s prowess. In reality, however, both Fort Loudoun and Fort Prince George were now cut off, unable to communicate or to obtain supplies. In addition, the winter had brought unusually fierce storms to the mountains of eastern Tennessee, and the snow was so deep around Fort Loudoun that “no Indian ever remembered to have seen the like.” Food reserves within the fort were adequate for the moment, but supplies would not last long without replenishment from the distant Lowcountry of South Carolina. To make matters worse, smallpox broke out among the soldiers, and deserters were beginning to slip away, preferring to hazard the hostile forest than to await death within the fort.

To summon reinforcements to the aid of the distant Overhill garrison, Capt. Paul Demeré penned a letter describing the fort’s precarious situation and directed one of his soldiers to carry the message nearly five hundred miles to the east, either to Charleston or Williamsburg, Virginia. Setting out from the wooden fort on the banks of the Little Tennessee River, the messenger was ambushed by Cherokee hunters a short distance from the fort, and disappeared into the snow-covered forest. Capt. Demeré then composed a second set of letters describing the garrison’s distress, and selected another courier for the dangerous mission. Shortly after leaving the fort, however, the second runner was likewise ambushed and murdered by the Cherokee. The Indians had demonstrated their resolve to isolate the soldiers inside the fort and to force them to submit to the Cherokee demands.

In light of these failures, Capt. Demeré almost certainly lamented that the soldiers ensconced within Fort Loudoun were generally strangers to that region. During their time of service at the fort, they might have learned the nearby terrain, but few or none were familiar with the surrounding mountains and the paths linking the fort with the white settlements far to the east. More importantly, none of the soldiers knew the Cherokee language or understood their habits and culture. In order to get a message to Charleston, the commander needed a skilled woodsman, someone who could navigate the mountain forests like a native and survive on his own in the face of harsh conditions. In other words, he looked to Abraham, the enslaved “Negro,” who knew the terrain, the trail, and the enemy better than any white soldier in the fort.

On the 26th of January, 1760, Capt. Paul Demeré sat down to compose a third distress letter to Governor William Henry Lyttelton in Charleston. Demeré told his superior that the Cherokee surrounding his fort had cut off all communication to the east, “as all the Indians, are resolved to kill any body, that go [sic] on the path, and are watching it.” Warriors from the Overhill towns had already intercepted two white men attempting to carrying dispatches eastward. Demeré had tried to exhort his men, nearly two hundred soldiers in uniform, and even offered bonus money to coax a volunteer to make another attempt, “but all in vain.” The captain was now desperate, and, as he informed Gov. Lyttelton, he “fixed upon a Negro fellow” called Abraham or Abram, who was the property of the civilian trader named Samuel Benn. Abraham was under no obligation to perform this dangerous service, but, as Capt. Demeré informed the governor, he “promised him his freedom, if he wou’d undertake it.”

Imagine, for a moment, the conversation that took place at Fort Loudoun in late January 1760. Two messengers had set out from the fort, and both had been intercepted by the Cherokee. No man would volunteer to make a third attempt to get a message over the snowy mountains, so the commander approached Abraham. “You know these mountains, Abraham, and you’re the most capable man here,” Demeré must have said. “The lives of these soldiers and their families, and the lives of the white people living across the frontier, depend on this message getting to the hands of the governor in Charleston.” Perhaps Abraham shook his head and waved off the request. It was simply too dangerous, and he didn’t have much of a stake in the white man’s war anyway. On the other hand, perhaps Abraham had a family of his own among the Cherokee, or even within the fort, and he wanted to stay put and protect them. So the captain upped the ante. “If you can get this message to the governor, I’ll see to it that you’ll receive your freedom as a reward.” Samuel Benn, Abraham’s lawful owner, was two hundred miles away, but Capt. Demeré was desperate. “Don’t worry about the details,” Demeré must have said, “If you can deliver the message, I give you my word as an officer of His Majesty’s army that I will secure your release from slavery.”

Whatever the details of their private conversation, the captain succeeded in convincing Abraham to undertake the perilous assignment. The reward was indeed great. Freedom from slavery; freedom to choose one’s path in life. Freedom, however, at the price of great risk. We can imagine that Abraham packed just a few essential tools and supplies, wrapped himself in warm but lightweight clothing, and prepared for a long solo trek, on foot, through the snow-covered wilderness of hostile territory. After taking possession of the official packet of letters and hearing final instructions from Captain Demeré, Abraham probably said goodbye to his friends, and perhaps his family, before slipping through the gates of the fort under the cover of darkness. If his mission failed, it would be their last farewells. If he succeeded, he would become a free man and return to the fort as a hero. From this moment, Abraham’s future would be determined by his courage, his cunning, and his resolve to persevere. Fueling his inner strength, of course, was the simple human desire to be free, which can inspire a man to do incredible things.

In our next installment, we’ll follow Abraham as he treks alone across the Four-and-Twenty Mountains to Fort Prince George and beyond. Will he succeed in delivering vital intelligence to the governor in Charleston? Will the governor honor Captain Demeré’s promise of freedom? Join me two weeks from today for the continuation of Abraham the Unstoppable, after a brief diversion into the Green Book—just in time for Oscar’s weekend.[2]

 

 

[1] Samuel Benn’s presence at Fort Ninety Six in the early months of 1760, separate from Abraham, is mentioned in at least two newspaper reports that will be discussed in a future installment.

[2] This extremely condensed summary of the events of 1758–60 on the Cherokee frontier, including quotations from primary sources, is based on Daniel J. Tortora’s excellent book, Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756–1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 43–96.

 

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