Retracing Rutherford's Trace - TribPapers

Retracing Rutherford’s Trace

Retracing Rutherford Trace. Photo by Clint Parker.

Asheville – On Brevard Road, between I-26 and I-240, you’ll find a historic marker for Rutherford Trace – The expedition led by Gen. Griffith Rutherford against the Cherokee, Sep. 1776, passed nearby.

By 1770, the burgeoning settlements in North Carolina were gradually encroaching upon the ancestral lands of the indigenous tribes. The Native American communities residing in the mountains of North Carolina primarily sustained themselves through farming, limited livestock rearing, hunting game, and engaging in trade with European settlers for various essential supplies. This unique dynamic left the Native Americans in a precarious situation, as they were both threatened by the encroaching white settlers and dependent on them for crucial resources.

In May of 1776, the Cherokee, a prominent indigenous group in the region, demanded the immediate withdrawal of settlers from the western settlements within twenty days. Recognizing that their ultimatum was unlikely to be met, the Cherokee began making preparations for an armed assault. Fortunately for the settlers, a network of traders became aware of the impending attack and relayed the information to the threatened communities. This forewarning gave the settlers just enough time to construct rudimentary stockades for protection.

The Cherokee Perspective

Before delving into the campaign, it’s important to understand the context of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee were one of the largest and most powerful indigenous nations in the southeastern United States. They inhabited a vast territory that covered parts of present-day Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.

Photo from the NC Department of Natural & Cultural Resources.
Photo from the NC Department of Natural & Cultural Resources.

During the American Revolutionary War, the Cherokee found themselves caught in a difficult position. The Cherokee Nation was divided, with some Cherokee supporting the American colonists and others aligning themselves with the British. This division led to tensions and violent conflicts, both within the Cherokee Nation and between the Cherokee and American settlers.

As the days passed, the Cherokee launched a series of attacks on various settlements along the North Carolina frontier, resulting in the tragic loss of thirty-seven settlers’ lives. This onslaught sent shockwaves through the backcountry communities, leaving them deeply alarmed and seeking assistance.

Rutherford’s Campaign

In response to this dire situation, General Griffith Rutherford, a commanding officer in the Salisbury District militia, issued a call for volunteers to embark on an expedition against the Cherokee. Gathering militia forces from multiple western counties, Rutherford mustered approximately 2,500 men and secured enough supplies to sustain them for forty days in the field. Departing from Davidson’s Fort (now Old Fort, NC) on September 1, 1776, Rutherford and his assembled troops made their way through Swanannoa Gap, heading toward the Cherokee Valley Towns. The Cherokee, having received advanced notice of the impending expedition, abandoned many of their settlements. In their wake, Rutherford’s forces razed whatever remnants were left behind.

General Rutherford’s original plan involved linking up with Colonel Andrew Williamson of the South Carolina militia, who commanded about 1,800 men. This rendezvous was scheduled to occur in the Middle Towns in mid-September. However, numerous delays, including an ambush attempt aimed at the North Carolinians, impeded their progress. It wasn’t until September 26 that Williamson and his troops finally caught up with Rutherford’s forces at the Hiawassee River. The two armies subsequently split up the following day to initiate their return journeys through the Cherokee Middle Towns.

Over the course of several days, the combined forces of North and South Carolina militiamen systematically reduced thirty-six Cherokee settlements to ashes, leaving no trace of homes, crops, or livestock. General Rutherford’s campaign concluded in early October, effectively neutralizing the immediate threat posed by the Cherokee in North Carolina.

Aftermath of the campaign

Rutherford’s Campaign had a devastating impact on the Cherokee Nation. Entire villages were destroyed, and many Cherokee people were left without homes or resources. The campaign contributed to the suffering and displacement of the Cherokee people.

In the aftermath of Rutherford’s Campaign, the Cherokee leaders were forced to sign the Treaty of Long Island in 1777. This treaty ceded a significant portion of Cherokee land to the American colonies, further diminishing the Cherokee’s territorial holdings.

The Cherokee Nation never forgot the pain and suffering inflicted upon them during Rutherford’s Campaign. The conflict left deep scars and fostered lasting resentment, which would affect relations between the Cherokee and the United States for years to come.

Now, the Cherokee have been reduced to living on a reservation much smaller than the vast land they once held. The majority of the Cherokee were relocated west of the Mississippi, during which many of the Cherokee died, and the march on which the Cherokee were forced became known as the Trail of Tears.