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  • Cherokees and Franco-British Confrontation in the Tennessee Corridor, 1730–1760
  • Kristofer Ray (bio)

South Carolina governor James Glen was alarmed in the summer of 1754. In July he received news from Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie that a confrontation had occurred between George Washington’s Virginia militia and French forces near the forks of the Ohio River. He was appalled that Dinwiddie had had to employ "these remarkable Words ‘The French have got the Advantage by Capitulation.’"1 Such a defeat, he feared, could have wide-ranging consequences for the British Empire in North America. At the least, he warned Sir Thomas Robinson, secretary of state for the Southern Department, this "small Spark may kindle a great Fire, and . . . if the Flame bursts out all the Water in the Ohio will not be able to extinguish it."2 It would soon become clear that Glen’s fears were accurate—Washington’s capitulation at the hastily built Fort Necessity was the catalyst for the French and Indian War, the North American theater of what would become known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War.3

A year later the war seemed only to become more problematic for South Carolinians. In July 1755 General Edward Braddock, commander-in-chief of British forces, was killed along with half his army when they attempted once again to march on the forks of the Ohio. Thereafter, Cherokee trader Ludovic Grant noted that France’s "endeavours to the Northward is a plain proof of their Intentions, and ought to put the Southward upon their guard."4 Believing that nothing remained to check French control of the upper portion of the Ohio, he speculated that they would move down the valley and challenge South Carolina on two critical issues: its ability to project British interests beyond the Appalachians, and its long-standing effort to maintain a relationship with Cherokees. [End Page 33]

These two issues were carefully interwoven. Since the early eighteenth century Carolinians had seen themselves as the standard bearers of British-Indian diplomacy in the trans-Appalachian south, a position to which royal governors in Virginia, North Carolina, and eventually Georgia generally acceded. In this capacity they quickly came to understand the importance of a Cherokee alliance, and in the aftermath of the Yamasee War actively encouraged the development of a "Chain of Friendship" with them.5 As described in a 1730 treaty, Carolinians—and Britain’s imperial leadership—felt that the Chain would establish exclusive commercial networks and access to Cherokee territory. Through it Carolina could extend British sovereignty across the trans-Appalachian south and into the lower Ohio valley. A central geographic element of this projection was the Tennessee River—it could be used by Cherokees to challenge France and French-allied Indians along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash Rivers. In the British mind the Tennessee River and Cherokees were an essential combination contributing to their imagined empire in North America. More specifically, Overhill Cherokees were critical. In the mid-eighteenth century Cherokees divided into five locations: Lower towns, Middle towns, Out towns, Valley towns, and Overhill towns. Because Overhill towns were on the Little Tennessee River, nearest both the Tennessee River and the French presence at Fort Toulouse, they were in a position of tremendous geopolitical importance.6

Throughout the 1730s and 1740s Overhill residents used the Tennessee as an avenue to assert their presence in the trans-Appalachian south and lower Ohio valley, in the process acquiring intelligence, harassing French trade, and generally convincing French officials that an Anglo-Cherokee connection existed. By 1754 their extended presence was so common that, as Governor Glen put it, "There never passes one year that the Cherokees do not take a Boat or two belonging to the French on the Mississippi and destroy most of the Crew." Earlier that year, he noted, Cherokees had "killed eight People belonging to one Boat, and brought two People alive into their Nation, and this Year they killed most of the Crew of another Vessel upon that River, and brought in three Prisoners."7

Carolinians considered French Illinois within their conception of British North America because of the region’s connection to the Tennessee, Ohio, and Wabash Rivers...


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