Dragging Canoe (ᏥᏳ ᎦᏅᏏᏂ, pronounced Tsiyu Gansini, "he is dragging his canoe") (c. 1738–February 29, 1792) was a Cherokee war chief who led a band of disaffected Cherokee against colonists and United States settlers in the Upper South.
During the American Revolution and afterward, Dragging Canoe's forces were sometimes joined by Upper Muskogee, Chickasaw, Shawnee, and Indians from other tribes/nations, along with British Loyalists, and agents of France and Spain. The series of conflicts lasted a decade after the American Revolutionary War. Dragging Canoe became the preeminent war leader among the Indians of the southeast of his time. He served as war chief of the Chickamauga Cherokee (or "Lower Cherokee") from 1777 until his death in 1792, when he was succeeded by John Watts.
He was the son of Attakullakulla ("Little Carpenter"), who was born to the Nipissing. He and his mother were captured when he was an infant, and they were adopted into the Cherokee tribe and assimilated. His mother was Nionne Ollie ("Tamed Doe"), born to the Natchez and adopted as a captive by Oconostota's household.
They lived with the Overhill Cherokee on the Little Tennessee River. Dragging Canoe survived smallpox at a young age, which left his face marked. According to Cherokee legend, his name is derived from an incident in his early childhood. Wanting to join a war party moving against a neighboring tribe, the Shawnee, his father told him he could stay with the war party as long as he could carry his canoe. He tried to prove his readiness for war by carrying the heavy canoe, but he could only manage to drag it.
War chief of the Cherokee
Dragging Canoe first took part in battle during the Anglo-Cherokee War (1759–1761). In its aftermath, he was recognized as one of the strongest opponents to encroachment by settlers from the British colonies onto Cherokee land. Eventually, he became the headman of Mialoquo ("Great Island Town," or "Amoyeli Egwa" in Cherokee) on the Little Tennessee River.
When the Cherokee chose to ally with the British in the American Revolution, Dragging Canoe was at the head of one of the major attacks. After the colonial militias' counterattack, which destroyed the Cherokee Middle, Valley, and Lower Towns, his father and Oconostota wanted to sue for peace. Refusing to admit defeat, in 1777 Dragging Canoe led a band of the Overhill Cherokee out of the towns, further south. They migrated to the area seven miles upstream from where the South Chickamauga Creek joins the Tennessee River, in the vicinity of present-day Chattanooga. Thereafter, frontiersman called them the "Chickamauga" because of their settlement by the creek. They established 11 towns, including the one later referred to as "Old Chickamauga Town." This was across the river from where the Scotsman, John McDonald, the assistant superintendent of the British concerns in the area, had a trading post. He supplied the Chickamauga with guns, cannons, ammo, and supplies with which to fight.
In spring of 1779, Evan Shelby led an expedition of frontiersmen from Virginia and North Carolina to destroy Dragging Canoe's Chickamauga towns. Shelby reported their success in a letter to Patrick Henry saying "[the Chickamauga Cherokee] are reduced to a Sense of their Duty and a Willingness to treat for peace with the united States."
In 1782, for the second time, their towns were attacked by United States forces. The devastation caused by Colonel John Sevier's troop forced the band to once again move further down the Tennessee River. Dragging Canoe then established the "Five Lower Towns" below the natural obstructions of the Tennessee River Gorge. These were: Running Water Town (now Whiteside), Nickajack Town (near the cave of the same name), Long Island (on the Tennessee River), Crow Town (at the mouth of Crow Creek), and Lookout Mountain Town (at the current site of Trenton, Georgia). Following this move, they were alternately referred to as the "Lower Cherokee."
From his base at Running Water Town, Dragging Canoe led attacks on white settlements all over the American Southeast, especially against the colonists on the Holston, Watauga, and Nolichucky rivers in eastern Tennessee. After 1780, he also attacked settlements in the Cumberland River area, the Washington District, the Republic of Franklin, the Middle Tennessee areas, and raided into Kentucky and Virginia as well. His three brothers, Little Owl, the Badger, and Turtle-at-Home, often fought with his forces.
Dragging Canoe died February 29, 1792 at Running Water Town, from exhaustion (or possibly a heart attack) after dancing all night celebrating the recent conclusion of an alliance with the Muskogee and the Choctaw. The Chickamauga were also celebrating a recent victory by one of their war bands against the Cumberland settlements.
Historians such as John P. Brown in Old Frontiers, and James Mooney in his early ethnographic book, Myths of the Cherokee, consider him a role model for the younger Tecumseh, who was a member of a band of Shawnee living with the Chickamauga and taking part in their wars. In Tell Them They Lie, a book written by a direct descendant of Sequoyah named Traveller [sic] Bird, both Tecumseh and Sequoyah are stated to have been among his young warriors.