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Wednesday, 23 February 2011 21:11

A first-hand account of the Indian wars

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I spent some time last week reading about the 18th-century Indian wars in Western North Carolina. These were the Cherokee battles with the British along the Little Tennessee and Tuckaseigee rivers in 1760 and 1761, as well as the Rutherford expedition in 1776. In doing so, by chance, I took a look at James Adair’s account of his life among the southeastern Indians. I hadn’t looked at Adair for some time and had forgotten (or perhaps never read) his description of Indian warfare.  

Adair (1709-c.1787) was born in County Antrim, Ireland. He moved to South Carolina in 1735 and immediately began trading with the Overhill Cherokees, whose towns were beyond the Great Smoky Mountains along the lower Little Tennessee River in present east Tennessee. By the early 1840s, he was trading with the Catawbas in the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina. From there, he moved west to present north Mississippi to trade with the Chickasaws. During the 1760s, Adair wrote a history of the Indians among whom he had lived. He voyaged to England in 1775 to get his book published. It appeared that year with the marvelously descriptive title page:

The HISTORY of the AMERICAN INDIANS, Particularly Those Nations Adjoining to the Mississippi, East and West Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina. Containing an Account of Their Origin, Language, Manners, Religious and Civil Customs, Laws, Form of Government, Punishments, Conduct in War and Domestic Life, Their Habits, Diet, Agriculture, Manufactures, Diseases and Method of Cure, and Other Particulars … With a New Map of the Country Referred to in the History. By James Adair, Esquire, a Trader with the Indians, and Resident in Their Country for Forty Years. London: Printed for Edward and Charles Dilly, in the Poultry. MDCCLXXV.

According to recent scholarship, Adair’s book is not always reliable as a history of his own time. But his first-hand descriptions of southeastern Indian cultures are still accepted, despite the author’s obsessive arguments that the lost tribes of Israel were ancestors of American Indians. Here are some of his descriptions regarding Indian warfare that caught my eye.

• They are all equal – the only precedence any gain is by superior virtue, oratory, or prowess; and they esteem themselves bound to live and die in defence of their country. A warrior will accept of no hire for performing virtuous and heroic actions; they have exquisite pleasure in pursuing their own natural dictates.

• As soon as they enter the woods, all are silent; and, every day they observe a profound silence in their march, that their ears may be quick to inform them of danger: their small black eyes are almost as sharp also as those of the eagle, or the lynx; and with their feet they resemble the wild cat, or the cunning panther, crawling up to its prey. Thus they proceed, while things promise them good success; but, if their dreams portend any ill, they always obey the supposed divine intimation and return home, without incurring the least censure.

• If a small company be out at war, they in the day time crawl through thickets and swamps in the manner of wolves – now and then they climb trees, and run to the top of hills, to discover the smoke of fire, or hear the report of guns: and when they cross through the open woods, one of them stands behind a tree, till the rest advance about a hundred yards, looking out sharply on all quarters. In this manner, they will proceed, and on tiptoe, peeping every where around; they love to walk on trees which have been blown down, and take an oblique course, till they inswamp themselves again, in order to conceal their tracks, and avoid a pursuit … Every one at the signal of the shrill-sounding war-cry, instantly covers himself behind a tree, or in some cavity of the ground where it admits of the best safety. The leader, on each side, immediately blows the small whistle he carries for the occasion, in imitation of the ancient trumpet, as the last signal of engagement. Now hot work begins – The guns are firing; the chewed bullets flying; the strong hiccory bows a twanging; the dangerous barbed arrows whizzing as they fly; the sure-shafted javelin striking death wherever it reaches; and the well-aimed tomohawk killing, or disabling its enemy. Nothing scarcely can be heard for the shrill echoing noise of the war and death-whoop, every one furiously pursues his adversary from tree to tree, striving to incircle him for his prey; and the greedy jaws of pale death are open on all sides, to swallow them up. One dying foe is intangled in the hateful and faltering arms of another: and each party desperately attempts both to save their dead and wounded from being scalped, and to gain the scalps of their opponents. On this the battle commences anew — but rash attempts fail, as their wary spirits always forbid them from entering into a general close engagement. Now they retreat: then they draw up into various figures, still having their dead and wounded under their eye. Now they are flat on the ground loading their pieces – then they are up firing behind trees, and immediately spring off in an oblique course to recruit — and thus they act till winged victory declares itself.

• On returning to the place of battle … their first aim however is to take off the scalp, when they perceive the enemy hath a proper situation, and strength to make a dangerous resistance ... This honourable service is thus performed — they seize the head of the disabled, or dead person, and placing one of their feet on the neck; they with one hand twisted in the hair, extend it as far as they can – with the other hand, the barbarous artists speedily draw their long sharp-pointed scalping knife out of a sheath from their breast, give a slash round the top of the skull, and with a few dexterous scoops, soon strip it off. They are so expeditious as to take off a scalp in two minutes. When they have performed this part of their martial virtue, as soon as time permits, they tie with bark or deer’s sinews, their speaking trophies of blood in a small hoop, to preserve it from putrefaction, and paint the interior part of the scalp, and the hoop, all round with red, their flourishing emblematical colour of blood.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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