The Battle of Boyd's Creek
16 Dec 1780
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The Battle of Boyd's Creek (1) took place on 16 Dec 1780, only two months and six days after the Battle of King's Mountain. The battle was fought, not against the British, but their sometime-ally, the Cherokee.
A number of East Tennessee's and Southwest Virginia's leaders had been calling for an expedition against the Cherokee for some time. British agents, led by John McDonald, had allegedly been encouraging the Indians to attack the white settlements for some time. Regardless of the outcome, the British would benefit since either way, the number of white frontiersmen able to fight the British would be reduced. Major Joseph Martin, Virginia Cherokee Indian Agent and husband of Betsy Ward, daughter of Cherokee chieftainess Nancy Ward, had been relatively successful in restraining the more mature Indian chiefs, but younger chiefs were ultimately able to convince Dragging Canoe to join them. According to Pat Alderman's The Overmountain Men, Nancy Ward was able to get word by way of Isaac Thomas, Ellis Hardin and William Springstone, white traders who were able to alert the settlements, with Thomas and Hardin reporting at Nolachucky and Springstone to Col. Arthur Campbell of Washington County, Virginiaprior to King's Mountain. (2)
J.G.M. Ramsey, in his Annals of Tennessee (see below), implies that the expedition got underway immediately following King's Mountain, stating that Col. John Sevier (3) became concerned about the possibility of an outbreak from the Cherokees due to the absence of so many frontiersmen from Tennessee's settlements (he makes no reference to Nancy Ward). Ramsey reports that Sevier detached Capt. Russell home as soon as the riflemen escorting prisoners had safely crossed the Catawba and that Russell returned by forced march to discover that Sevier's apprehensions were well-founded, two traders by the names of Thomas and Harlin having received information from the Cherokee towns that a large body of Indians were on the march to assail the frontier.&30148; He adds that Russell immediately began organizing an expedition against the Cherokees, and that upon Col. Sevier's return home, he set out without even a day's rest.
Alderman, while agreeing that Col. Sevier had dispatched Capt. George Russell and his company on a forced march soon after the battle of King's Mountain, gives the date of rendevous as 15 December 1780, this in agreement with the later declaration of Private Reuben Riggs who stated that the expedition commenced in December 1780. (4) Private Riggs also stated that the rendevous was at Stockdon's Mill, whereas Alderman states it was set at Swann Pond on Lick Creek in Greene County. Ramsey states that Sevier led 170 men (including Capt. Pruett's soldiers, of whom Reuben Riggs was one), and Alderman 200. A monument at the location of the battlegrounds gives the date as 16 Dec. Capt. James Pearce, who fought at both King's Mountain and Boyd's Creek, later stated in his application for a pension that "Immediately after his return to Greene county [from King's Mountain] ... march[ed] with his company to guard the frontier neighborhood on the Lick Creek flats against the Cherokee Indians and prevent Indian spies from getting into the white settlement..." (5).
Ramsey provides two narratives of the battle, but does not state his source for either:
Excerpted from The ANNALS of TENNESSEE to the END OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY J. G. M. Ramsey, Lippincott, Grambo & Co., Philadelphia, 1853, pp. 261-265
SEVIER'S CHEROKEE EXPEDITION
THE BATTLE OF BOYD'S CREEK
Whilst the volunteers were being enrolled and equipped in sufficient numbers for the magnitude of the campaign he contemplated, SEVIER put himself at the head of about one hundred men, principally of Captain RUSSELL'S and Captain GUESS'S companies, with whom he set out in advance of the other troops. The second night this party camped upon Long Creek. Captain GUESS was here sent forward with a small body of men to make discovery. On ascending a slight hill, they found themselves within forty yards of a large Indian force, before they discovered it. They fired from their horses and retreated to SEVIER'S camp. The Indians also fired, but without effect. SEVIER prepared his command to receive a night attack. Before day, Captain PRUETT reinforced him after a rapid march, with about seventy men. Thus reinforced, SEVIER next morning pursued his march, expecting every minute to meet the enemy. When they came to the point at which the spies had met and fired upon the Indians, they found traces of a large body of them. They had, in their hasty retreat, left one warrior who had been killed the evening before by the spies. The pursuit was continued vigorously by the troops, who crossed French Broad at the Big Island and encamped on Boyd's Creek. The next day, early in the morning, the advance guard under the command of Captain STINSON, continued the march, and at the distance of three miles found the encampment of the enemy and their fires still burning. A reinforcement was immediately ordered to the front, and the guard was directed if it came up with the Indians, to fire upon them and retreat, and thus draw them on. Three-quarters of a mile from their camp, the enemy fired upon the advance from an ambuscade. It returned the fire and retreated, and, as had been anticipated, was pursued by the enemy till it joined the main body. This was formed into three divisions: the centre commanded by Col. John SEVIER, the right wing by Major Jesse WALTON, and the left by Major Jonathan Tipton. Orders were given that as soon as the enemy should approach the front, the right wing should wheel to the left, and the left wing to the right, and thus enclose them. In this order were the troops arranged when they met the Indians at Cedar Spring, who rushed forward after the guard with great rapidity, till checked by the opposition of the main body. Major WALTON with the right wing wheeled briskly to the left, and performed the order which he was to execute with precise accuracy. But the left wing moved to the right with less celerity, and when the centre fired upon the Indians, doing immense execution, the latter retreated through the unoccupied space left open between the extremities of the right and left wings, and running into a swamp, escaped the destruction which otherwise seemed ready to involve them. The victory was decisive. The loss of the enemy amounted to twenty-eight killed on the ground and very many wounded, who got off without being taken. On the side of SEVIER'S troops not a man was even wounded. The victorious little army then returned to the Big Islandafterwards called Sevier's Islandand waited there the arrival of reinforcements that promised to follow.
This prompt collection of troops, and rapid expedition of SEVIER, saved the frontier from a bloody invasion. Had he been more tardy, the Indians would have reached the settlements, scattered themselves along the extended border, driven them into stations, or perhaps massacred them in their cabins and fields. Their force was understood to be large and to be well armed.
Another narrative of this engagement gives further details:
The Indians had formed in a half-moon, and lay concealed in the grass. Had their stratagem no been discovered, their position, and the shape of the ground, would have enabled them to enclose and overcome the horsemen. Lieutenant LANE and John WARD had dismounted for the fight, when SEVIER, having noticed the semi-circular position of the Indians, ordered a halt, with the purpose of engaging the two extremes of the Indian line, and keeping up the action until the other part of his troops could come up. LANE and his comrade, WARD, remounted, and fell back upon SEVIER without being hurt, though fired at by several warriors near them. A brisk fire was, for a short time, kept up by SEVIER's party and the nearest Indians. The troops behind, hearing the first fire, had quickened their pace and were coming in sight. James RODDY, with about twenty men, quickly came up, and soon after the main body of the troops. The Indians noticed this reinforcement and closed their lines. SEVIER immediately ordered the charge, which would have been still more fatal, but that the pursuit led through a swampy branch, which impeded the progress of the horsemen. In the charge, SEVIER was in close pursuit of a warrior who, finding that he would be overtaken, turned and fired at him. The bullet cut the hair of his temple without doing further injury. SEVIER then spurred his horse forward and attempted to kill the Indian with his sword, having emptied his pistols in the first moment of the charge. The warrior parried the licks from the sword with his empty gun. The conflict was becoming doubtful between the two combatants thus engaged, when one of the soldiers, rather ungallantly, came up, shot the warrior, and decided the combat in favour of his commander. The horse of Adam SHERRILL threw his rider, and, in the fall, some of his ribs were broken. An Indian sprang upon him with his tomahawk drawn. When in the act of striking a ball from a comrade's rifle brought him to the ground, and SHERRILL escaped. After a short pursuit, the Indians dispersed into the adjoining highlands and knolls, where the cavalry could not pursue them. Of the whites not one was killed, but three seriously wounded.
This battle of Boyd's Creek has always been considered as one of the best fought battles in the border war of Tennessee. Major Tipton was severely wounded. Besides the officers and men already mentioned as having participated in it, there were Capt. Landon CARTER, James SEVIER, the son, and Abraham SEVIER, the brother of John SEVIER, Thomas GIST, Abel PEARSON, James HUBBARD, Major Benj. SHARP, Captain Saml. HANDLY, Col. Jacob Brown, Jeremiah JACK, Esq., Nathan GAUN, Isaac TAYLOR and George DOHERTY. (6)
The Battle of Boyd's Creek did not signal the end of the Cherokee Expedition. Ramsey reports that "SEVIER remained but a few days at his encampment on French Broad, till he was joined by Colonel Arthur CAMPBELL, with his regiment from [Washington County] Virginia, and Major MARTIN, with his troops from Sullivan county. The army consisted of seven hundred mounted men..." The soldiers went on to burn out town after town, and by the end of the expedition were claiming victory every step of the way.
One question that occurs is whether the Cherokees were actually planning to attack the white settlements, or if SEVIER took advantage of the surge in the spirits of the Overmountain men from the recent victory at King's Mountain together with the ever-present and realistic fears of white settlers. If it is true that Nancy WARD alerted white settlers prior to King's Mountain of the planned attack, why was there a delay of over two months before the expedition commenced? Alderman refers to SEVIER'S impatience with CAMPBELL and MARTIN'S "long drawn-out planning," and it does appear likely that he set out at the same time that he sent a message to the other two officers (rather than waiting).
Also, while it is documented that the British sought to ally the Indians to their cause, it is also true that their efforts were not nearly as harsh as alleged at the time, and that white settlements in East Tennessee were becoming "overcrowded," and that more land was desperately needed (some reports, undocumented, claim that white families were pouring into East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia at a rate of thousands per month). Ramsey does not touch upon this possibility (nor did any early white historians), but did state that when the army returned home, "They found that settlers had followed the route pursued by the army as low as French Broad, and at every spring had begun to erect their cabins."
1 Boyd's Creek is a south branch of the French Broad River, and lies west of Sevierville in present-day Sevier County.
2 The Overmountain Men by Pat Alderman, Overmountain Press, Johnson City, Tennessee, 1970.
3 John SEVIER moved to East Tennessee from Virginia in 1773, was a Watauga Petition signer in 1776, and appointed Colonel of the Washington County Militia in late 1777. See Seviers of the Revolutionary War.
4 Ramsey gives neither the month nor date of the actual battle, but implies the expedition began immediately after King's Mountain. Private Reuben RIGGS, who resided in then-Washington County, and later removed to Giles County, fought under SEVIER in the company of Captain PREVITT [sic], and stated in his 1833 Revolutionary War pension affidavit that the battle took place in Dec 1780, adding that the expedition proceeded until they were overtaken by the troops of Colonels Clark and CAMPBELL of Virginia (several days after the Battle of Boyd's Creek). Private RIGGS also stated that there were several skirmishes that took place at Boyd's Creek, as well as at Echols and Tellico. Reuben's brother, Samuel RIGGS, in his pension application, refers to the campaign, but not to the battle of Boyd's Creek by name. He identifies Capt. PRUETT as Fort Shelby, Squabble State (See Rev. War Soldiers Reuben and Samuel Riggs).
5 Captain James Pearce was then a resident of Washington County, that part that became Greene County. At the time of his pension application in 1832, he declared he was formerly of Washington County, but then of Sevier County. In 1835, he was on the Washington County rolls. Both Capt. Pearce and Lt. Samuel Riggs refer to duty at Lick Creek Flats prior to Boyd's Creek.
6 Major Benjamin Sharp was from Washington County, Virginia and had also fought at King's Mountain (See his narrative of that battle). Capt. Samuel Handley also fought at King's Mountain as well as in other fights with Indians, including being taken prisoner in 1792. Capt. Jacob Brown was presumably the same who purchased land from the Cherokee in 1775 (See Colonial Land Cessions in Tennessee, Part II)
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