The Story of Dragging Canoe: A Cherokee Warrior and Leader


Welcome, history enthusiasts! Today, we embark on a journey through Tennessee’s captivating Native American past. Our focus lies on the renowned Cherokee tribe and one of its illustrious leaders – Dragging Canoe. Though his name may strike you as peculiar, let’s view it as a spirited moniker that reflects his legendary tale. Born to Attakullakulla, a Cherokee diplomat, Dragging Canoe possessed an unyielding desire to become a warrior from a tender age. Eager to prove himself, he devised a plan and sought permission from his father to join a war party. However, met with refusal, he resorted to hiding within a canoe. When Attakullakulla discovered him, he issued a challenge – if Dragging Canoe could carry the canoe, he would be granted his wish. Struggling under its weight, the canoe dragged on the ground, but his father and the other warriors admired his tenacity. It was in this moment that Dragging Canoe’s name was born.

Drawing of Dragging Canoe

Resisting Encroachment

As settlers began pushing farther westward, encroaching upon Cherokee territory, Dragging Canoe vehemently opposed this intrusion. In 1775, Richard Henderson, a North Carolina Judge and land speculator, alongside Daniel Boone, negotiated a deal to purchase over 20 million acres of land from Cherokee leaders. This land later became what we now know as modern-day Tennessee and Kentucky. However, Dragging Canoe steadfastly refused to sign the treaty, predicting a grim and violent future for the settlement. In response, he fled alongside other Cherokee and Native Americans, eventually establishing communities along Chickamauga Creek during the harsh winter of 1776-77. This courageous group would come to be known as the Chickamaugas.

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Leading the Resistance

The year 1776 ushered in the Cherokee Wars, with Dragging Canoe at the helm, guiding the Chickamaugas on daring raids against American towns. Inevitably, the Americans retaliated, forcing the Chickamaugas and other Cherokee to abandon their homes in East Tennessee. It was during this period that Dragging Canoe advocated for a strategic shift for the Cherokee, urging them to relocate further down the Tennessee River to the region we now recognize as modern-day Chattanooga. He also suggested adopting a policy of attack and retreat. In April of 1781, he boldly led a Cherokee assault on Fort Nashborough, known as the “Battle of the Bluffs.” During the attack, the Native forces lured the men out of the fort, ambushing them, while the Chickamaugas cut off any chance of retreat. In a moment of chaos, the settlers managed to escape when Charlotte Robertson released the fort’s dogs. However, the Chickamaugas did succeed in capturing a significant number of settlers’ horses.

The Release of the Dogs at Fort Nashborough

A Legacy of Diplomacy

As Dragging Canoe matured, he transitioned from a fierce warrior to a skilled diplomat. His commitment to preserving Cherokee traditions remained unwavering, leading him to forge alliances with the Shawnees and Creek tribes. Eventually, after a joyous night of revelry celebrating a major victory by the Native American federation he had helped establish, Dragging Canoe passed away. Following his demise, many Cherokee began pursuing peace with white settlers, signifying a transformative shift for the tribe.

Answering Lingering Questions

  • Why did the Cherokee oppose the arrival of white settlers in Tennessee?
  • Why did Dragging Canoe transition from a warrior to a diplomat as he grew older?
  • After Dragging Canoe’s passing, why did the Cherokee seek peace?
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The story of Dragging Canoe stands as a testament to the vibrant heritage of the Cherokee tribe, reminding us of their indomitable spirit and unwavering determination. In a world where legends are created and leaders emerge, Dragging Canoe’s legacy continues to inspire and captivate the curious minds of today.

Philip Staffelli-Suel is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.