DeKalb County Tennessee
Part of the American History and Genealogy Project



Indians in DeKalb County, Tennessee

To go back many years, upon the arrival of the first whites in what is now East Tennessee, a vast portion of Middle Tennessee was unoccupied by Indians, though hunting parties camped here or passed back and forth in their tribal wars beyond the borders. It seems to have been agreed among the red men that it should be held as a common hunting ground. As a result it was a wilderness well stocked with buffaloes, bears, deer, and other wild animals. No one knows how long it had been uninhabited; the numerous burying grounds, mounds, and traces of forts prove that some race in the past had lived here. They had probably disappeared before stronger hostile tribes. For want of a better name, and because of their custom of building mounds and burying their dead in stone-walled graves, that vanished tribe were called the Mound Builders, or Stone Grave race. Some ethnologists believe the Natchez Indians were a branch of this forgotten race.

The mounds and other remains indicate great age and a civilization more advanced than that of the tribes seen when the American explorers came. Judging from the location of the forts, mounds, and cemeteries, the Mound Builders selected the most fertile sections for habitation and near streams. These landmarks are numerous in Middle Tennessee, and the Smith Fork Valley, in DeKalb County, once echoed to the voices of the lost people. In the graves and some of the mounds have been discovered pipes, bowls, ornaments, weapons, and toys. In one place four miles south of Nashville three thousand graves were found and not far off one thousand more. From these were taken nearly seven hundred specimens of burned pottery-some of them semi-glazed, representing animals, birds, fish, and the human figure. On the farm once owned by C. W. L. Hale, north of Liberty, is a very large Indian mound, which had perhaps been used for religious or observation purposes. Many graves adjacent have been plowed into. Graves have also been found on T. G. Bratten's farm, just west of Liberty, in the vicinity of the buffalo trail on which a battle was fought between Indians and whites in 1789. Mr. Leander Hayes, who had lived from boyhood four miles southwest of Liberty on Smith Fork, gave the writer in 1894 this description of the Mound Builders' graves on his farm:

"A great number were rock-lined, square, and contained skeletons in a sitting posture. At our old home, which I own now, there are two of these graves which have not been molested since their discovery, one near the front gate and the other in the garden under an old apple tree."

The Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians lived in Tennessee when the first settlements were made, not in the "hunting grounds" proper, however. The former lived mainly along the mountains of the eastern border; while a portion, the banditti known as the Chickamaugas, had their villages near the present Chattanooga. The Chickasaws, who became friends of the whites after attacking the settlers on Cumberland River in 1781, claimed all West Tennessee. The bitterest enemies of the settlers were the Cherokees, assisted by the Creeks, who lived south of Tennessee.

When Adam Dale, James Alexander, Jesse Allen, and other pioneers came to what is now DeKalb County, the spirit of the Indians had been broken by the Nickajack expedition southward from Nashville in September, 1794; but there were still hostile tribes in the State. Adam Dale arrived on the site of Liberty in 1797, just three years after the Nickajack expedition. Until 1805 a part of the Cumberland Mountains was an Indian reserve known as the Wilderness. As late as 1791 Nettle Carrier, an Indian chief, lived there with his tribesmen. About 1800 a band of Cherokees, under the lead of Chief Calf Killer, had their homes in the present White County. These were called "friendly," but the savages were easily stirred to deeds of violence and readily took the warpath. Then, even after the Nickajack expedition, the Indians committed depredations. At noon November 11, 1794, an attack was made on Valentine Sevier's fort, near the present site of Clarksville, forty redskins being in the raid. Several whites were killed and scalped. With this state of affairs before us, shall we imagine that the Indians did not camp in or pass through some portion of DeKalb County after the first few settlers arrived?

For many years after Tennessee became a State roving families of vagabond Indians journeyed over the trails and highways. Subsequent to the War between the States the writer saw them go through Liberty. They were friendly and made a few cents target-shooting with bows. It was supposed that they came over the mountains from their old East Tennessee haunts. Prior to 1840 the Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Creeks relinquished all claims and were removed across the Mississippi River.

History records one Indian battle on DeKalb County soil. This was on the buffalo trail down Smith's Fork and up Clear Fork. Hon. Horace A. Overall assured the writer that, according to tradition, the battle field was near where the Bratten lane turns south a quarter of a mile west of Liberty. John Carr, a pioneer of Sumner County, says of the fight in his book, "Early Times in Middle Tennessee," published in 1857:

In 1789 General Winchester went out with a scouting party; and on Smith's Fork, a large tributary of the Caney Fork (I believe now in DeKalb County), he came upon a fresh trail of Indians. He pursued them down the creek on the buffalo path, and no doubt the Indians were apprised they were after them and accordingly selected their ground for battle. The path led through an open forest to the crossing of the creek, and immediately a heavy canebrake set in. The General's spies were a little in front. They were Maj. Joseph Muckelrath and Capt. John Hickerson, a couple of brave men.

Just after they entered the green cane a short distance the Indians, lying in ambush, fired upon them. They killed Hickerson at once, but missed Muckelrath. Winchester was close behind, rushing up. The action commenced, lasting some time. Frank Heany was wounded; and the Indians having greatly the advantage, General Winchester thought it proper to retreat, thinking to draw them out of the green cane. In this attempt he did not succeed.

There is no doubt but that Capt. James McKain, now [1857] eighty-five or eighty-six years old, killed a celebrated warrior and, I believe, chief called the Moon. He was a hare-lipped man and it was said that there was but one hare-lipped Indian in the nation. No doubt the same Indian shot down and scalped Capt. Charles Morgan a year or two before (at Bledsoe's Lick).

One of my brothers was in this expedition. The Indians gave an account of the battle afterwards and said it was a drawn fight, that they had a man killed and that they had killed one of our men.

Carr says two of the whites were John and Martin Harpool, Dutchmen. Martin was foolhardy, and his brother suggested to him, after Winchester withdrew, to rush into the canebrake and drive the Indians out while he killed one. With a great whoop Martin entered the cane, making it crackle at a terrible rate, and the Indians fled.

On the first settlement of the county there may have been far inland a few bears and buffaloes left. We have no records. Just twenty years previously Tennessee was overrun with them. About 1781 twenty hunters went from Nashborough Fort up Cumberland River as far as the present Flynn's Lick and soon returned with one hundred and five bears, more than eighty deer, and seventy-five buffaloes. The late Elbert Robinson, of Temperance Hall, once said that when his grandfather came to that settlement bears were frequently seen. Dr. Foster says that when he was an infant (he was born in 1839) his parents removed to Dry Creek, but they were so disturbed by wolves howling at night that they moved back to Liberty within three days. John K. Bain writes that when he was a lad, about 1835, he ran three deer out of his father's cornfield in one day. That was in the eastern part of the county. He adds: "My uncle, Archibald Bain, killed a bear before I remember. Squirrels were so numerous as to destroy cornfields thirty feet from the fence. I killed forty in one day, and one fall kept tab the number I killed was over three hundred." Doubtless game was sufficiently abundant to make hunting and the chase worthwhile to the first comers.

DeKalb County | Tennessee

Source: History of DeKalb County, Tennessee. By Will T. Hale, Nashville, Tennessee, Paul Hunter, Publisher, 1915.


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