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Battle of Island Flats :: Kingsport

Battle of Island Flats :: Kingsport

Battle Island Flats Historical Marker
Battle Island Flats First Skirmish Historical Marker

During the earlier part of the Revolution, the inhabitants of the Watauga and Nolichucky settlements were driven back to the older and safer settlements in Virginia by the Cherokee Indians at the urging of British agents among the Indians.

The settlers of the Watauga and Nolichucky settlements were warned of the impending onslaught of the Cherokees by four traders from the Cherokee Nation. It appears that the traders who carried the warning were Isaac Thomas, William Falling, Jarret Williams and probably John Bryan(t). The warning was given to these traders by Nancy Ward, who helped them to escape from the Indian towns on the Little Tennessee and Tellico Rivers in present Monroe County, Tennessee.

This was a three-pronged invasion by the,Indians with the main force led by the implacable foe of the settlers, the war chief of the Cherokees, Dragging Canoe. It was his intention to fall upon the settlers near the Long Island of Holston in what is now Sullivan County, and then carry the battle to the lower Virginia settlements. Thanks to the warning, conveyed to them by the traders and Nancy Ward, militia of the region had gathered.

On 20 July 1776 at Island Flats near Long Island of Holston, the frontier militia under command of Captain James Thompson, who lived on the island, met and defeated the Indians. The militia was apparently composed of five companies commanded by Captains John Campbell, James Shelby, William Buchanan, William Cocke, and Thomas Madison in addition to that of James Thompson who was in overall command. Dragging Canoe's party was composed of about 170-200 warriors.

1776: In what some will call the first battle of the CHEROKEE War of 1776, CHICKAMAUGA CHEROKEE (CHICKAMAUGA) Chief Dragging Canoe will lead an attack on the American settlement near Eaton's Station, Tennessee on the Great Island in the Holston River, today. Each side will have a little over 150 fighters.

The settlers have been warned of the coming attack, and they are prepared. Dragging Canoe will sustain serious wounds; but, he will survive. The settlers will lose 4 men, the Indians 13. As the CHEROKEEs retreat, they will attack outlaying settlements, killing 18 extra people. This fight will go by many names: "The Battle of Eaton's Station, The Battle of Island Flats, and The Battle of Long Island."

It seems that for the Cherokees the arrival in Chota of a delegation of fourteen Shawnees, Delawares, and Mohawks calling for combined action against the Americans decided the issue.The northerners were painted black, for war, and carried with them the war belt, nine feet long and six inches wide, made of purple wampum and covered with vermilion. In council a Shawnee offered the belt to Dragging Canoe, who took it, then passed it on to the Raven, who chanted the war song. One by one young warriors eager for battle against the invader took up the belt.

Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia: on every border Cherokee warriors carried the tomahawk, the scalping knife, the faggot, meting out death and destruction. Our concern, however, is with the small, vulnerable settlements on the cutting edge of the American frontier—on the Nolichucky, the Watauga, and the Holston. They got early warning from traders, who had received it from a famous Cherokee woman, Nancy Ward, a niece of Attakullakulla.

Three columns totaling 600 to 700 warriors moved north up the Great Valley of East Tennessee. Dragging Canoe led the center column against Eaton’s Station near Long Island on the Holston, now in the neighborhood of Kingsport,Tennessee. Old Abram went after Nolichucky and Watauga.To the west the Raven struck into Carter’s Valley, where the settlers were scat- tered and defenseless. Raven’s column devastated the valley as the settlers fled before the warriors. Cabins and crops were burned, livestock slaughtered, those who failed to get away fast enough killed and scalped. The Raven drove into Virginia as far as Seven Mile Ford on the South Fork of the Holston.

Scouts spotted Dragging Canoe’s column making for Eaton’s Station. The fighting men numbered about 170 and were commanded by six militia captains: James Thompson, who was senior and at least in nominal overall command, James Shelby,William Buchanan, John Campbell,William Cocke, and Thomas Madison. On the morning of 20 July 1776, it was decided to meet the warriors in the open. “We marched in two divisions,” the captains reported,“with flankers on each side and scouts before.”The scouts came on 20 warriors. Fire was exchanged.Then “our men rushed on them with such violence that they were obliged to make a precipitate retreat.” Fearing that a large party of Indians might be nearby, they decided to return to the fort, but they had gone only about a mile when Dragging Canoe and his main force, “not inferior to ours, attacked us in the rear. Our men sustained the attack with great bravery and intrepidity, immediately forming a line. The Indians endeavoured to surround us, but were prevented by the uncommon fortitude and vigilance of Captain James Shelby, who took possession of an eminence that prevented their design. Our line of battle extended about a quarter of a mile.We killed about thirteen on the spot, whom we found. . . . There were streams of blood every way, and it was generally thought there was never so much execution done in so short a time on the frontiers.” It is said that Dragging Canoe himself was shot in the leg and suffered a broken thigh.Thus ended the Battle of Island Flats, a skirmish really, but important nonetheless. 46

The following day, 21 July, Old Abram’s warriors fiercely assaulted Fort Caswell on the Watauga, Colonel John Carter commanding.With him were Captain James Robertson and Lieutenant John Sevier.The latter had evacu- ated Fort Lee on the Nolichucky and brought his men and their families to Fort Caswell. Seventy-five fighting men defended the walls.

Old Abram’s initial assault failed and he settled into a siege, firing now and then at the fort.About 25 warriors attempting to fire the stockade scat- tered when James Robertson’s sister Ann carried a bucket of boiling wash water to the parapet and poured it on the attackers. Although wounded, she kept it up until the warriors retreated. After about two weeks the siege was lifted. Despite almost two centuries of experience fighting the white man, Indians had not yet learned how to take forts held by determined, well-led garrisons.Their only weapons were ruse and starvation.The Cherokee offen- sive was a failure. Only Carter’s Valley had been cleared of whites, but they would come back, they always did, time after bloody time. The Americans did not wait long to strike back. In a remarkable exam- ple of cooperation,Virginia and the Carolinas staged an offensive against the Cherokees that devastated their country. From South Carolina, from North Carolina, from Virginia, militia columns struck deep into Cherokee country, burning and pillaging towns, storehouses, and crops. No memorable battles were fought, only hopeless skirmishes, for the forces arrayed against them were too formidable for the Cherokees to resist.The earth was scorched.The Virginia column alone, Colonel William Christian commanding, reported that the Indians had left behind “horses, cattle, dogs, hogs, and fowl,” and “between forty and fifty thousand bushels of corn and ten or fifteen thou- sand bushels of Potatoes.” The Cherokees, largely a mountain people, were left to face winter without lodges or food.The overwhelming defeat of the Cherokees so discouraged their neighbors to the south, the Creeks, that for the most part they offered little military assistance to the British during the Revolutionary War. The Cherokees were knocked out of the war for six years, and when they rose again a similar campaign, quick and ruthless, by the gifted South Carolina partisan chief Andrew Pickens soon put an end to it. 47

Dragging Canoe and his followers, however, remained intransigent. In March 1777, he withdrew from the Cherokee Nation with some 500 war- riors and their families and settled on Chickamauga Creek, just north of modern Chattanooga,Tennessee. He taunted those who had lost their will to resist as Virginians. He called his people Ani-Yun’wiya—the Real People. The whites called them Chickamauga, a name that would soon command fear and respect.

The smashing American victory in the Cherokee War, both the success- ful resistance on the Watauga and the Holston and the crushing offensive by the three states, was prelude for further advances by restless American fron- tier folk. Even as full-scale war was waged by Americans and Britons east of the mountains, frontiersmen pushed out into hostile territory first to recon- noiter, then bringing families to settle. But Indian resistance had not ended. Chickamaugas and Creeks from the south, Chickasaws from the west, Shaw- nees from the north would bitterly contest the white advance for decades to come—valley by bloody valley. Out of the countless, long-forgotten clashes that took place, which in our time would be described as “incidents,” let us look at one that occurred three years before Andrew Jackson’s arrival on the frontier, as an example of a not untypical “incident” that reveals the grit and determination of the People of the Western Waters.
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The Battle of Island Flats

During this brief period of respite from Indian wars and surprise attacks the first systematic white colonization of the Island Flats began. The land was gertile and lay well, and the region abounded in game. Fort Robinson offered protection from the Indians, and the pioneers had confidence in the treaty of 1761.

Prior to this time most of those who had entered the section had been hunters, explorers or Indian fighters, of the type of Daniel Boone, but during this period families came t till the soil and to establish permanent homes, led on by the glowing accounts of fertile valleys which had been carried back across the Blue Ridge Mountains by the the adventurers who had broken the way.

A new era was beginning for this virgin wilderness which was destined later to become the site of Kingsport. Where before there had been only trackless hunting grounds of the Cherokees, there were now the cabins of the indomitable white man, with his fields of corn and patches of potatoes.

... However, this period of peace and colonization was destined to be short lived. The white man's theory of his own inalienable right to possess the rule carried him to unwonted extremes. Treaties with the Indians were systematically broken and all faith of the red man in the encroaching plaeface was shaken. There were thefts, murders, and various outrages. In 1774 these smouldering coals of ill will leaped into flames when a number of the friends and relatives of the Indian chief Logan were cruelly murdered by white settlers on Yellow Creek in Pennsylvania. Along the entire frontier there were Indian reprisals, with burning cabins, crops laid waste, and white men andwomen tortured and scalped.

This culminated in Dunmore's War. General Andrew Lewis was commissioned by Lord Dunmore to rasie a force of 1,500 men west of the Blue Ridge Mountains for service against the Indians. Consequently the pioneersmen of Island Flats were again required to lay down the axe and hoe and pick up the rifle and tomahawk, and their women t mold bullets and parch corn upon which they depended for their daily safety and subsistence. The recruits of the Kingsport section were place under the command of Captains Evan Shelby, William Campbell, and Daniel Smith.

At the junction of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers General Lewis' forces were met, on October 10, by an army of 1,200 Indians, led by Chief Cornstalk, who engaged them in one of the bloodiest and fiercest battles of the Indian wars. This was the battle of the Great Kanawha, more generally known in history as the Battle of Point Pleasant.

The Indians were decisively defeated and were driven across the Ohio, where a number of their villages were destroyed. In a short time they begged for peace, and after a treaty had been arranged the sturdy pioneers of Island Flats, who had acquitted themselves in their usual creditable manner, returned to their homes and their cultivated fields.

But again the peace an security were short lived. Early in 1776 the Indians, nettled by the previous defeats and outrages and incited against the American settlers by the English, again began to put on the war paint and sound the battle cry. In June of that year the Indian princess, Nancy Ward, sent word to the settlements at Long Island that an Indian force of 700 braves was preparing to make a raid.

... The warning of Nancy Ward put the Kingsport settlers on their guard and prevented a general massacre. Hurried steps were taken by the whites for their protection. The forces were gathered together at Heaton's Station, located on the lower slope of Eden's or Chestnut Ridge, probably in the vicinity of where the Holston Sub-Staion of the Kingsport Utilities now stands. This station was not a fort, but as the additional soldiers and refugees came trooping in it was fortified by a stockade of logs and rails, hastily thrown up.

A small garrison of soldiers was already stationed there, having been ordered to that point by Col. William Preston to protect the frontier. now, a call for help having been sent out, other companies of soldiers arrived, the total numbering about 170 fighting men.

This garrison, having had time to make but very hasty and inadequate arrangements for the defense, was notified by its scouts that a band of 700 picked Indian warriors, led by Dragging Canoe, one of the most cruel and warlike of the Indian chiefs, was approaching in the vicinity of Long Island.

A council of war was held. Although the white men were several times outnumbered by the Indians, they might reasonably expect to hold their fortification against the enemy. On the other had it was likely that the Indians, seeing the strength of their position in the stockade, would not attck them, but instead would go by to massacre and torture the unfortunate settlers in the valleys of Reedy Creek and the Holston River who had not sought shelter at Heaton's Station. Consequently it was decided to sally forth from the improvised fortress and meet the invading savages in the open.

In accordance with this decision they marched out of the stockade on August 20, and proceeded down the river to the Island Flats. There they met an advance guard of some 20 Indians and fired into them. These turned and fled, with no evidence that the main body of the enemy was near. As it was now late in the afternoon it was decided there was little chance of engaging the Indians that day and that it was best to return to the stockade.

After traveling the distance of about a mile on the return trip to the fortress they were notified by their rear guard that the entire Indian force was closing in on them from behind, already formed in battle line.

The whites hurriedly got into line and prepared for battle, not without some confusion, however, as the attack was wholly unexpected.

There followed the Battle of Island Flats, the most sanguinary Indian battle ever fought on Kingsport soil. Though shor lived, lasting but about ten minutes, it was fierce and determined, and was marked by many instances of individual heroism. The result was that the Indians, though in superior forces, were completely routed. The scalps of 18 savages were taken (the white men had evidently readily adopted the savage fashion of taking scalps) and it was later learned that a total of about 40 Indians were either slain outright or mortally wounded. On the other hand no white men were killed, and only five were wounded, the name of only one of whom, N.Logan, has been preserved. He was shot through the back of the neck with an arrow.

The battle was fought on just about the spot where the business section of Kingsport now stands. Theodore Roosevelt, in his "The Winning of the West," fixes the battlefield as a narrow strip of bottom, covered by black oak saplings, and lying between two parallel ridges. This could have been none other thatn the site of the business section of the present city, with the gently rising ridge of the Watauga Street section on the east and what is known locally as "Cement Hill" on the west. Incidentally this was one of the most decisive victories for the whites in the history of border warfare. A century and a half later the great-grandsons and great great-grandsons of those sturdy pioneers were to build great industrial plants on the blood soaked flats -- empire builders still, and still imbued with that indomitable courage which spells victory.

There are still many evidences of these old Indian battles. ON the flats about the old dye plant at Kingsport there are to be found many Indian arrow heads and an occasional tomahawk -- the war implements, perhaps, of some brave who died in the Battle of Island Flats.

The indians smarted under the defeat at Kingsport, and planned revenge. They threatened a general war of reprisals throughout the Cherokee nation. The whites learned of this, and learned also that the savages were being urged on by the agents of the English king. Consequently they determined to get the jump on the redskins by invading their territory before they should have time to raid the white settlements.

Long Island was regarded as a strategic point, being in a sense the gateway to the Cherokee country. It was a point that must be held by the whites against any possible Indian invasion on the one hand, and was a logical base for aggressive operations against the savages on the other. Consequently Col. William Christian, who was placed in charge of the proposed campaign against the Over Hill Cherokees, decided to build a new fortification there to replace old Fort Robinson, which had fallen into disrepair.

Lieutenant-Colonel William russell, acting under orders of Col. Christian, marched with a considerable force of soldiers to Long Island where, in September, 1776, he built Fort Patrick Henry, Kingsport's second fort. This fortification stood on the north bank of the Holston River, on land which is now the property of the Tennessee Eastman Corporation, and at just a little distance from the crossing of the Horse Creek road.

As late as 1853 the ruins of Fort Patrick Henry could be seen, on a commanding site just a little way back from the river bank, the land at that time being owned by Col. George W. Netherland. The location was not far from the site of Fort Robinson, with which the later fort has sometimes been confused by historians.

When the fort was completed a force of 2,000 well equipped fighting men was mobilized there by Col. Christian, who had been reinforced by troops from North Carolina under Col. Williams, Col. Love and Major Winston. By the first of October, 1776, just a little more than a month after the battle of Island Flats, this force was ready for the invasion of the Cherokee territory.

The forces left the fort and crossing Long Island proceeded out what would now be the Horse Creek road, encamping the first night near Chimney Top Mountain. Hearing that a force of 3,000 Indians had been mobilized at the French Broad River, the Christian forces proceeded, by forced marches, to that point, but upon arriving there found no enemy forces to meet them. The Indians had estimated the strength of the invading whites and feared to engage them in a pitched battle.

In November, having crossed the French Broad into the Cherokee territory, Col. Christian began laying waste the Indian villages which he found unprotected and deserted. The spirit of the Indians was broken; they had foreseen the inevitable dominion of the white man. Consequiently they sued for peace and a truce was agreed upon which provided for a treaty council to be held at Long Island the following year.

After this Col. Christian withdrew from the Cherokee country and returned to Fort Patrick Henry, where he disbanded his men, leaving a garrison of 600 soldiers in protection of the fort.

Kingsport-A Romance of Industry by Howard Long 1928 [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive]