Nickajack Cave and the Cherokee Banditti
Into this vast cavern, for the purposes of concealment and murder, the banditti of the “narrows” retired with their spoils and their victims. This place now enlivened and enriched by the genius of Fulton and in view of the steamer and locomotive, was then the dismal and gloomy retreat of savage cruelty and barbarian guilt.
James Ramsey, 1853.
The Tories and half-breeds and “moccasin boys” of Camden County, Georgia and East Florida are not the complete story of the precursor of the Pony Clubs. There was another set of banditti, Tories and half-breeds on the move against Wautauga settlements of Tennessee. Ramsey (1853) gives a tremendously poetic description of the Tennessee River where these Back-country miscreants operated:
If the channel of the river presented dangerous physical impediments, its environs held those of another character, not less formidable. Along those foaming rapids and on either side of the river, the shores are wild, elevated and bold, in some places, scarcely leaving room for a path separating the stream from the adjacent mountain, with here and there a cove running back from the river into the heights which surround and frown down upon it, in somber solitude and gloomy silence. In these mountain gorges were fastnesses, dark, forbidding and inaccessible. Their very aspect invited to deeds of violence, murder and crime. No human eye could witness no vigilance detect, no power punish, no force avenge them. A retreat into these dreary seclusions, stimulated to aggression, as they furnished a perfect immunity from pursuit and punishment (184).
The Tennessee River leaves Ross’ Landing and Chattanooga and swirls around until it heads into Northern Alabama about Tuscumbia where it widens. Before this happens it passes the “suck”, a whirlpool said to have swallowed a fleet of Cherokee Canoe on their way to raid the Shawnee. It brings the river traveler to a cave called Nickajack Cave, with a reputation like Cave in Rock on the Ohio River. Keating, in his History of Memphis (1888: 60), said of the banditti:
…These ruffians made their principal rendezvous at Nickajack Cave, a gloomy cavern, difficult of access and situated in a wild and romantic country…
The dark nature of this Geographic feature began its abysmal history as an almost accidental occurance which the local Indians adjusted to quite well:
About 1773 or 1774, some families from West Virginia and North Carolina, attracted by glowing accounts of West Florida, sought a settlement in that province. They came to the Holston frontier, built their boats, and following the stream reached Natchez by water. Necessity drove them to employ Indians and Indian Traders, as pilots through the dangerous passes of the Tennessee River. Occasionally a boat was either by accident or design shipwrecked, at some point between the Chickamauga Towns and the lower end of the Muscle Shoals. Its crews became easy victims of savage cruelty—its cargo fell a prey to Indian cupidity. As these voyages increased and the emigrants by water multiplied from year to year, so did the Indian settlements all along the rapids, also extend. The Chickamaugans were the first to settle there and to become depredators upon the lives and property of emigrants. Concious of guilt, unwilling to withhold their warriors from robbery and murder, they failed to attend with the rest of their tribe to treaties of peace (185)…
They formed the five lower towns of the Cherokee and led by warriors like Dragging Canoe, refused to come to peace with the settlers of Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia. When the revolution became inevitable, some of the Tories fled into the Cherokee country and found their way to the lower towns. McLoughlin (1986) makes note of the Loyalist nature of those who became leaders of the Cherokee by intermarriage:
…The King’s agent, John McDonald, and his son in law, Daniel Ross, lived among them and encouraged them to keep up the war. Scores of adventurous colonists loyal to the King fled from their homes in the colonies to settle in the Chickamauga Towns. Many of these white Loyalists married Cherokees and later played a part in Cherokee history – John Rogers, John Walker, John McLemore, John Fields, John Thompson, John D. Chisolm, John McIntosh, Edward Adair, Edward Gunter, Arthur Coody, Richard Taylor and William Shorey. Once married to Cherokees they were considered full members of the tribe or “Cherokee Countrymen”. They assisted Dragging Canoe in his guerrilla warfare against those seeking independence from England and some Loyalists donned buckskins and war paint to participate in the continual raids along the frontier for the next seventeen years (20)…
Ramsey indicates also the treacherous nature of the Lower Towns and the banditti that arose and headquartered in that place on the Tennessee where Indians from time immemorial had crossed the great stream:
…Murderers, thieves, pirates, banditti, not of every Indian tribe only, but depraved white men, rendered desperate by crime, hardened by outlawry and remorseless from conscious guilt, fled hither and confederated with barbarian aborigines in a common assault upon humanity and justice and in defiance of all laws of earth and heaven (186)…
To punish these miscreants an expedition was mounted from Virginia and North Carolina by Col.Evan Shelby and 1000 men from the western settlements and a regiment under Col.John Montgomery. Eleven towns were destroyed and great stores of goods destined for the Indian enemies of the rebellion were captured. Shelby also seized 150 horse, 100 head of cattle and many deerskins, belonging to Indian trader McDonald. The net effect of this victory was to thwart an effort by British regulars to unite Northern and Southern Indians and supply them with the means of attacking the rebels. This alliance never occurred (Ramsey, 1853: 188).
1888 Keating, John M., History of the City of Memphis, Tennessee
D. Masons and Publishers: Syracuse, N.Y.
1986 McLoughlin, William Gerald, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic, Princeton Univ Press: Princeton: NJ
1853 Ramsey, James Gettys McGready, The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century, Lippincott Grambo and Co.: Philadelphia