Fort Watauga: Remembering Its Significance

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Many people are unaware of the importance Fort Watauga played in the founding of our great country. It was the location for a major battle against the British in the American Revolution. Some familiar names in Tennessee history played an important role in defending the Fort. Also they helped defeat the British army in the fight for independence. It has been recognized by historians. Many people today have also been instrumental at recreating and preserving the history of these momentous and turbulent times.

Near the Rapids of Sycamore Shoals

The site of Fort Watauga was near the rapids of Sycamore Shoals at the Watauga River. It was constructed around 1775 or 1776. The reason for the building of the Fort was to ward off attacks from the Cherokee. They were, in part, initiated by the British, who aligned themselves with the Native Americans. It is located in what is now Elizabethton, Tennessee. It was originally named Fort Caswell after Richard Caswell, who served as the first governor of North Carolina from 1776-1780.  

Before the fort was built, settlers had been making their home in the river valleys of Holston, Watauga, and Nolichucky. What drew them here was a place called the Old Fields. It was described as a Native American gathering place. The area’s geography consisted of flatlands that had a section of the river--named Sycamore Shoals--that was easily passable by settlers. Conflict arose primarily because the Native Americans used this area for hunting purposes. Therefore, this would severely disrupt their way of life and survival.

Royal Proclamation of 1762

Treaties were drawn up to resolve conflicts but were broken just as quickly, if not, much quicker; this was certainly the case with The Royal Proclamation of 1763. This Proclamation was issued by King George III, and it disallowed the westward expansion of land acquisition. The line being drawn at the Appalachian Mountains. The Cherokee were split on this matter when it came to the new settlers. Some leased their land to the settlers. Some were angrily opposed--Dragging Canoe was one of these Cherokee. He threatened to violently remove the settlers from the land. Because of this Proclamation violation, colonial and Indian officials called upon the settlers to leave these Cherokee lands.

Revolutionary War

When The Revolutionary War began in 1775, the situation along the Watauga became even more tense. A vast majority of the settlers were for the efforts to break from England. Meanwhile, Dragging Canoe was busy forming an alliance with the British. He hoped it would hasten the process of removing the settlers from the land. Land that was rightly theirs under The Royal Proclamation of 1763. After this alliance was formed, the British gave the Cherokee a generous amount of arms. This was to help push the American pioneers off the land. 

20 Days to Leave

The settlers were now faced with an ultimatum: They had 20 days to leave, or else they would be attacked. The situation had reached a point to where the settlers themselves were preparing for an all-out war with the Cherokee. They stocked up on weaponry by a Virginia County Committee of Safety. Food, medicine, and building materials were also gathered in preparation and fortification of existing forts. Even the building of the Watauga fort with these supplies.

By July 1776, with preparations for war mostly completed, trader Isaac Thomas received a tip from Beloved Cherokee Woman, Nancy Ward, regarding an imminent Cherokee invasion. Nancy Ward did not support the efforts of some Cherokee--including Dragging Canoe--to force the settlers away; she was more interested in peaceful ways to resolving the conflict. With this news, Thomas informed future Tennessee governor John Sevier. He was in the process of building Fort Lee. He with the other settlers, went back to the completed Fort Watauga.

Invasion at Nolichucky Settlement

Shortly thereafter, the invasion began at the Nolichucky settlement with the Cherokee invaders burning the settlers’ farms and homes. With Dragging Canoe leading another faction, they burned down the abandoned--and still incomplete--Fort Lee. The Cherokee forces had now split up and were heading toward Fort Watauga for a showdown with the settlers. Dragging Canoe headed for the Holston settlements to the north. Old Abraham’s forces marched toward Fort Watauga. Dragging Canoe met his demise as Captain John Thompson’s men engaged with them at Eaton’s Station in Holston. There they killed 12 other members of the Cherokee.

The Stage Was Set

The stage was set for a bloody battle at Fort Watauga; settlers that numbered in the 200 range were huddled at the Fort. With around 75 men at the garrison, including commander John Carter and John Sevier, they awaited the arrival of the Cherokee, which came on the morning of July 21. The historical accounts of what happened when the Cherokee did arrive almost makes for a good scene in a Hollywood movie. John Sevier’s future wife, Catherine Sherrill, was unable to get inside the fort before the gates were locked, so they dramatically had to use a team effort to pull her over the palisades.

The drama didn’t end there, though: The Cherokee had every intention of setting Fort Watauga on fire, but they were surprised--and burned--by explorer James Robertson’s wife throwing hot water on them. The Cherokee continued to be met with resistance, as the siege went on for days. Eventually, they had to abandon their effort to take Fort Watauga after two weeks of periodic fighting. When the Virginia militia arrived--under the command of William Chastain--the biggest threat to Fort Watauga had passed. 

Overmountain Men

The Overmountain Men is the name given to John Sevier, John Rhea, Isaac Shelby, and other frontiersmen who helped solidify the existence of these communities around Fort Watauga and Sycamore Shoals. Even though the Battle of Kings Mountain was fought in South Carolina--and resulted in a spectacular victory for the patriot militia with many of The Overmountain Men in the battle--what happened prior, cemented Fort Watauga as a major historical marker in Tennessee and American history as well.

British loyalists, led by Patrick Ferguson, were in pursuit of Isaac Shelby’s Overmountain Men, and when he established a base camp in nearby North Carolina, he issued an ultimatum to the militia: he ordered them to lay down their arms, or they would be laid waste to their country. Obviously, they would accept this challenge and decided to call upon other Patriot militia leaders to meet near Fort Watauga in what came to be known as the Muster at Sycamore Shoals. Some of these leaders recruited  volunteers to come to Sycamore Shoals to prepare a major fight against the British.

The resulting Battle at Kings Mountain became a major turning point in the American Revolution; morale received a much needed boost, and British General, Lord Cornwallis, would cancel his plans for an invasion in North Carolina because of the efforts--and victory--of the Overmountain Men and patriot allies who met at Sycamore Shoals along Fort Watauga. 

Quite the Mystery

What happened to the Fort became unclear after this meeting, with no historical documents--except for appearing on land deeds--showing it existed. The design of Fort Watauga also remains quite the mystery; however, nineteenth century historian, J.G.M. Ramsey, has helped in providing us, in modern times, a vision and understanding of the Fort.

When Ramsey visited Elizabethton, he observed that the fort’s remains placed it a half-mile from the mouth of Gap Creek; this is now marked by a 1909 monument from the Daughters of the American Revolution on West G Street. While a few historians and archaeologists have come along in recent years to dispute the exact location of the remains, Ramsey’s work has brought to light the significance of Fort Watauga and resulted in its reconstruction prior to the 1976 bicentennial celebration.  

Lack of Historical Records

Because of the lack of historical records of the Fort, its design became another mystery that people sought to unravel. Through the research of Ramsey and one of his contemporaries, Lyman Draper, they believed the Fort to be situated on a knoll--and with an open glade surrounding it, Fort Watauga’s location made for easy firing to the north side of the river. Prior to its reconstruction in recent years, the Fort was determined to be a bit misshapen with a stockade connecting a group of cabins. When the archaeologists excavated the remains, they decided that Fort Watauga’s design was similar to that of other frontier forts during that time--built with logs with a stockade of sharpened poles around it.  

Historical Playground

Today, the area is nothing short of a historical playground, with history buffs and those with a curious mind coming to this area in Northeast Tennessee for an array of events and souvenirs. Sycamore Shoals is now a state park, and one of its main attractions is the reconstructed Fort Watauga. Next to the Fort is the visitor’s center, which features exhibits that are extremely informative, spotlighting its role in the fight for American independence.

These include artwork done by the talented Richard Luce. He has created mannequins adorned with clothing that accurately portrays how they appeared during this time period. There is also a theater that shows these people’s contributions on film; it is titled, “Sycamore Shoals: Story of the American Spirit.” Not to be discounted is a gift shop, an Eastern National bookstore, and other information about the Park.

For those wanting to take in a little of nature’s beauty, there is the Mountain River trail, which is two miles in length and has signs to periodically remind you of the historical events that occurred here. Even shorter trails can be hiked if you don’t have the time or the energy for this one: the Patriot Path is a short one mile hike on gravel, and the Longhunter Loop is also one mile, but it is a moderate hike due to the rougher terrain. 

Reenactments of the Colonists

Maybe the most popular benefit of visiting Sycamore Shoals State Park is the reenactments of the colonists living history. There is an amphitheater on the grounds for spectators to gather and watch the story of how they made their living, and the important contributions the early frontier men and women made to the history of America. The summer is the perfect time to take your family to this state park for Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals. It runs for three weekends in July at the Fort Watauga amphitheater. This is an outdoor drama which features local actors portraying the history and significance of Fort Watauga during the late 18th century.

The stories that are shared include the violation of the Proclamation of 1763 by crossing the Appalachian mountains and the settlers forming their own government, while having a very conflicting relationship with the Cherokee. People that come to see this are treated with no ordinary concession food: Carter’s Trading Post offers guests a unique method of giving away tasty treats, as it is named after the original store, opened by pioneers, Carter and William Parker.

Ticket Prices

Tickets are available at $14 for adults, $11 for seniors, $6 for students, and free for children under 6. If you are a frequent traveler to the area, you may want to consider becoming a member of Friends of Sycamore Shoals State Historical Park. Then tickets for this event will only be $6. Becoming a member also has its perks. You be helping the Park fund its projects and programs. You will also be able to deduct your membership dues on taxes. There is a membership application that needs to be filled out as a prerequisite. It can be found at www.friendsofsycamoreshoals.org.  

Conclusion

There were many struggles and pieces that came together here at Fort Watauga. They greatly influenced the direction in which the country would be formed. It is nice to see that the history of the area was not lost over the generations. It was also taken to a level that led to the creation of a state park and many fine activities that guests can enjoy. In the process, they get a history lesson that makes it all worth the money spent. So if you’re looking for a nice little side trip on top of your visit to the Smoky Mountains, this is an area that is rich in history and significance.

Photo by Brian Stansberry