Episode #23: Westward Ho Dysartsville

In the last three posts, I “literally” traveled from my McDowell County neighborhood, westward toward Black Mountain, past the little town of Old Fort which used to be the edge of civilization even before the county lines. The fort was built to protect against Indian attacks in the  1700’s, since the settlers were spaced far apart and needed communal shelter at uncertain times. (See my post about the Ledbetter property, Nanny Saga #47 Port Holes in the Attic)

In March of 2019, there was an article in the Charlotte Observer written by Mark Price about a mysterious Nikwasi Mound, purported to be 1000 years old and possibly built by the ancestors of the Cherokee tribe. So since I was out and about western NC on my blog reporting, I decided to extend this tour of mountain history. According to the recent Nikwasi article, it has been two hundred years since the Cherokee lost ownership of this land in 1819, sad and bitter days for all Americans. This year the town council of Franklin voted to “deed control of this site to the Nikwasi Initiative, (a nonprofit co-owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee,) along with three partners: the town of Franklin, Macon County, and Mainspring Conservation Trust.” A little late for harmony, but not too late for lessons learned.

Also in March, my Dysartsville neighbors went to today’s Cherokee reservation and returned with a book for me to read about the tribe…they know I like history…and I dug out my older research books to broaden my story. I had been to Cherokee two years ago at the perfect time to see a herd of elk come out of the woods and pose for tourists’ cameras. In spite of the warning signs to stay back, there were a couple of fools who either couldn’t read or wouldn’t.

Photo of Elk in 2017 at Cherokee Reservation in western NC

Elk are big animals! And they do not know the command, “Whoa!” But in 2019, they might be the biggest danger in this now peaceful territory, and of course the snakes. And bears crossing the roads with no signals. Do not hit one…you will be the loser. Nor would I rule out some excitement generated from the probable moonshine stills in the hollers. Besides the gaming tables, many things have changed among neighbors living in relative harmony.

Of course it was not always this way. But it has always been about a relationship with the land. Not just in North Carolina, or just in America, but everywhere: remember the Babylonians and Israel? Make no mistake: the hunger for power and control are not the characteristic of only one race. You know that.

Okay, sticking to America, I’ll begin with an article “America’s First War” by Jason Urbanus, published in one of my fav magazines Archaeology, Jan/Feb 2015. On page 32, “Every year in early June, members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut gather at dawn for a ‘First Light’ ceremony,” “to commemorate their deceased ancestors on the anniversary of the Battle of Mistick Fort, the bloodiest engagement of the 17th century conflict known as the Pequot War,” involving Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. Ironically or providentially, the owner of the property accommodating the commemoration of the battle is a distant descendant of the English captain John Mason” who decided to burn the fort, according to Kevin McBride, Director of Research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. (page 37)

Have you ever heard of such? I had not. “The deadly conflict which raged between the year 1636 and 1638 not only pitted English settlers against the Pequot tribe of southern New England, but also unraveled old Native American alliances and resulted in fierce Native versus Native warfare.” It began with Dutch traders establishing a permanent presence along the “Hudson  River Valley and Long Island Sound in the 1620s and 1620s.” Gentle reader, have you noticed as greed escalates, the more money raked in the more desired; no end to it. But don’t be fooled: it was always about the land. Because there is a limited portion of that.

On page 33 of same article: “On the morning of May 26, 1637, English troops and their Native allies attacked and burned the Pequot village of Mistick, killing more than 400 Pequot men, women, and children.” Before this period was over, only a few Pequots survived, reduced not only by armed conflict but also by disease, deportation, and slavery. This was a pattern of corruption spreading like an epidemic rolling westward. I mistakenly titled an earlier post on May 29, 2016, “Patriot Wreath for First American War.” The Civil War was one of many in-house disagreements, and too bloody to forget. However, the shameful Trail of Tears deserves more recognition than the description “systemic land grab.” It has always been about the land. Everywhere, in all time frames.

In this post, I seem to be emphasizing the literary convention of three examples for balance, and therefore I will continue by mentioning three men who excelled at “pioneeringship” and invading the land that was designated “For Indians Only.” Evidently the First Settler West of the Blue Ridge Award is up for grabs, reminiscent of the dispute between Mitchell and Clingman over who discovered the highest mountain peak first. But that’s another story.

First up, is a gentleman I mentioned in my Dysartsville Saga: Episode #7 Dysart Family, Cont’d. William Moore was from Ulster Province in Ireland. His arrival in North Carolina is a mystery but he must have had a good reputation when the new Tryon County was pulled out of Mecklenberg County in 1768. He went into politics.

Moore represented the new Tryon County in NC from 1769 to 1771 and served in the House of Commons 1775-1776, according to website http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/moore.html  even before it had constructed county buildings. However, he did not waiver when his brother-in-law “General Griffith Rutherford led an expedition against Cherokees who had massacred colonists along the NC border. Moore went along in 1776,” nationally known wordsmith Wilma Dykeman wrote on page 46 of her acclaimed perspective, The French Broad, 1955 Wakestone Books, Newport, TN.

http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tryon_County._North_Carolina reports that officially there was peace west of the Catawba River 1763 to 1776, but “the frontier was the target of occasional raids usually by Cherokee but sometimes by Shawnee and other tribes. Established forts were closer to the county line between future McDowell and Rutherford counties, as in Fort McGaugh near Brittain Church, Fort McFadden on Mountain Creek near Rutherfordton, and Potts Fort in Montford Cove.

It is important to note that many of these militia guys were also volunteering for the lines in the Revolutionary War, which supposedly commenced on July 4, 1776. But their hearts were with their homes, with muskets blazing where needed.

More than 6000 armed men descended on Cherokee Nation. They destroyed fifty towns, cut down cornfields, killed or carried off stock. Hundreds of people were killed or died belatedly of starvation. Others were made prisoners, and many were sold into slavery. Those who escaped became fugitives in the mountains, and lived to fight another day. (paraphrase of pages 104-114 which include personal narratives and pension applications collected by local Anne Landis Swann for her engaging historical account of The Other Side of the River, Morris Publishing, Kearney, NE)

Moore was appointed to be a militia captain and marched with Rutherford over the Swannanoa Gap along a route known now as Rutherford’s Trace. Evidently Captain Moore was impressed with this land of bounty and returned in the midst of soldier obligations to build a small log cabin-fort in Dysartsville in 1777. Then he joined a battle with farther reaching consequences. He was a lawyer/warrior; that’s how he rolled, a Renaissance man.

At the end of the American Revolution, the General Assembly of NC opened in 1783 a tract of land west of the Blue Ridge for settlement and with a grant of 640 acres from Governor Richard Caswell, Capt Moore brought in his household in 1784 with his second wife, slaves, three daughters and three sons. Evidently he flourished here, and his descendants are still in residence in Buncombe County. One of his family stars was Daniel Killian Moore, Governor of NC 1965-1969.

Captain Bill is buried in a grave in public ground near a NC county school near Asheville, marked: “William Moore, died November 11, 1812, AE 86 y’rs.” What a life, what a legend.

Moore’s contemporary, Jacob Brown, was a merchant and trader from South Carolina who made trips to the Upper or Overhill Cherokee towns. It must have been a harrowing and lonely way to make a living, accompanied –presumably–only by plodding equine footsteps and tinkling bells tied to the packs.

Brown eventually gave up trading for rich bottom land and dense cane that was easier to clear than timber. He worked a lease with his Cherokee customers in the French Broad watershed and pitched a tent on the North bank of the Nolichucky River. As a business-man, he encouraged others to join him, selling rights of portions of his lease. North Carolina warned them they were on Cherokee land which covered west Tennessee and east North Carolina and eastern Virginia and most of Kentucky….not to mention northern Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. They had a treaty, a legal document signed in 1763. However, most settlers did scoot close to the Watauga settlement, mindful their scalp was more valuable than the land they coveted, and a piece of paper would not protect them.

But soon silver-tongued Jacob Brown worked in 1775 an incredible deal for ten shillings with the Cherokee Chiefs Oconostota, Attakullakulla, Chenesley, and the Bread Slave Catcher, for an area now “embracing the two rich East Tennessee counties Washington and Greene.” (pages 44-45 of Dykeman’s The French Broad) Brown lived only ten more years, but he had made his mark. His tombstone is now in a churchyard, and his grandson built a brick farmhouse near the giant oak where Jacob traded with Cherokee Chiefs.

Round Hill Gravesite on Marion Greenway

Brown’s story crossed into North Carolina numerous times because he was a friend to Hunting John McDowell, Joseph McDowell’s father from Pleasant Gardens (later Marion, NC). The McDowells had come from Pennsylvania around 1750. In 1779 when NC attained statehood, John was given an official royal land grant of 640 acres. At that time, John purchased an additional 440 acres from John Watkins, a tract surveyed by Griffith Rutherford and known as Round Hill Bottom. The deed was witnessed by William Moore and others. See any names you know? The newcomers stuck together. Round Hill Cemetery is located on a knoll along the walking trail overlooking the Catawba River close to US Highway 70 West. (Not to be confused with the Round Hill Baptist Church Cemetery in Rutherford County.)

John McDowell’s grandson was killed by Indians in 1775 while on an expedition with Daniel Boone who cautioned McDowell via letter, “Your company is desired greatly, for the people are very uneasy, but are willing to stay and venture their lives with you, and now is the time to flusterate their (the Indians) intentions, and keep the country whilst we are in it. If we give way to Indians now, it will ever be the case.” (Swann’s The Other Side of the River, page 52)

Hunting John’s friendship with Jacob Brown was used to negotiate land purchases with the Indians. According to Swann on page 59, Brown promised 1400 acres on the Nolichucky to McDowell and wanted John to arrange a meeting with the Indians which took place March 1775 at Pleasant Gardens. One hundred thirty Cherokee camped out at Round Hill Bottom. McDowell provided food for the Cherokees and their animals. Sale of the land was paid for by beef cattle, fat hogs, green and roasting corn, but Jacob never paid McDowell with the Nolichucky lands as promised. When Jacob died, McDowell had to sue Brown’s estate for the debt; At his death, John had received only 400 acres of what was promised for financially backing the deal.

In 1750, John Davidson also came to North Carolina with his five sons: John, Jr., twins Samuel and William, and George and Thomas. Samuel Davidson built a stockade at the intersection of Main and Mill fork of the Catawba River which started in the mountains above it and flowed east and then south for miles.

The stories of three pioneer “first settlers” come together in this sad finale. Remember the pow-wow of Cherokee chiefs negotiating with Jacob Brown in 1775? Chief Attakullakulla had a son named Dragging Canoe who did not have kind feelings toward the settlers and wanted no part of a treaty. In fact he was so hateful, he and 700 of his friends and allies, including Delawares, attacked the TN settlements of Holston and Watauga. Dragging Canoe was shot in both legs which did not improve his temperament. He was particularly angry that his father and friends had “leased” and then “sold” a chunk of Cherokee territory to Jacob Brown via John McDowell.

The chiefs had knowledge there would be a three prong attack on white settlements. Although they did not support it, they did nothing to stop it. According to Swann on Page 77, some of the warriors used warpaint to disguise themselves because they were actually Loyalists (Tories) recruited by the British to wage war with the Cherokee on their neighbors, like John Davidson. Patriots returned home from war to a neighborhood over run with Tories. The fight for freedom was not over, although there was a new component. The Native Americans wanted freedom also.

Dragging Canoe led almost fifty warriors in an attack on the Crooked Creek settlement. While the rest of the country celebrated Independence Day, July 4, 1776, pioneers were being eulogized. John Davidson, Jr, and his wife were killed that day.

Within hours, word had spread and settlers headed to the closest shelter. The Thomas Burchfield family lived north of the area on the northeast shore of small Lake Tahoma; the closest fort was Fort Cathey, one mile west of Pleasant Gardens, home of the McDowells. Joining with neighbors, they struggled toward safety with families and necessities, twenty men in front leading, followed by women and small children, the rear guard being a larger group of larger boys and thirty to forty men.

While some of these men were chasing unruly cattle, seven Indians hit the center of the line and snatched young children from the arms of their mothers. Lydia Burchfield, age 12, sister Mary, age 15, and baby Burchfield were taken, along with four others. The remainder of grieving settlers made their way to the nearest fort.

Since their safe haven needed repairs, it was three days before a search party could prudently follow the victims without jeopardizing the remainder of their group. Approximately twenty men started out and found six of the children had been scalped, five dead. “Not only had the Indians taken the hair, they had taken skin and bone down to just above the eyes.” Lydia was still alive. The recovery party washed her head in the river, bandaged her as best they could, and returned her to a grateful mother who nursed her back to health. Her sister Mary was never found again, although there were stories of spotting her within a band of Indians. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to be grateful for. In this case, Lydia was blessed. She survived and had an almost normal pioneer life. There is a grave marker with her name on it in Drucilla graveyard on Harmony Grove. “In memory of Lydia Hunter, the dear beloved and grately lamented wife of Andrew Hunter, was bornd July 24, 1763, and departed this life October 19, 1846 AGE 83 y 2m 26d: Dear friends go home, dry up your tears, I must be here till Christ appears, When He appears then I shall rise, to meet my Jesus in the skies.” (The Burchfield story on pages 92-99 of The Other Side of the River)

Samuel Davidson’s story will have to wait for the next post. In 1780 a land grant was given to his brother George for 640 acres including Davidson’s Fort, but by then Samuel had moved. Ever headed westward, he was one of the first to venture over the Blue Ridge in the Swannanoa Valley Region, in the Black Mountain vicinity. Continue to the next post to find out his destiny.


Copyright @ 2019 Georgia Wilson

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