Cherokees in the Revolutionary Era: A Biographical Perspective

This post is a part of our “Native American Revolutions” Series.

By Kate Fullagar

The usual story told of the Cherokees in the revolutionary era is a dire one. Starting with the catastrophic Anglo-Cherokee War of 1760-61, this story traces devastating land cessions from 1765, further horrendous warfare through the summer of 1776, and then complete surrender by July 1777. Whenever historians have tried to shine some light into this sorry tale, they have often reached for the example of the Chickamaugas – a band of mostly young Cherokees who split from the main group in late ’76 and continued the armed resistance to revolutionary settlers for nearly twenty more years.  In the face of such a “hopeless” and “ruinous” general history, the feisty militancy of a minority of hold-outs offers some welcome relief.[1] 

A biographical perspective does not change the basic contours of the Cherokees’ narrative, of course. But biography can propose something other than relief. Zeroing in on the individual indigenous experience of colonial revolution presents ways of rethinking both catastrophe and resistance.  This, in turn, offers a more nuanced and usable past for indigenous survivors.

I am currently researching the life of Ostenaco, an influential though never pre-eminent warrior of the Overhills Cherokee people. Born around 1715, he rose to Mankiller status (an Utsidihi; a second-ranked officer) by the 1740s and was a proficient negotiator with various colonial governors by the 1750s. His approach to peace after the Anglo-Cherokee War, as well as to later events around the settlers’ revolution, illuminates how a singular indigenous perspective complicates conclusions of damage and defiance.

Though Ostenaco had served with British regiments through the mid-1750s, he was an avid prosecutor of the war against British forces through 1760. He was so avid, indeed, that he proved one of the last to accept surrender eighteen long months later. When he finally did, though, his actions bucked the narrative of colonial conquest. Britain’s Major General Amherst expected Charleston to take care of the peace deal, but Ostenaco knew that Williamsburg had contributed greatly to both the outbreak and course of the war. He also knew that the two colonial centers yet vied with each other over indigenous trade and alliance. Ostenaco arranged for a separate party of Cherokees to sign a peace with Virginian forces at the same time as his elder peer, Attakullakulla, was signing a treaty with South Carolina. 

Several historians have since assumed that Ostenaco’s moves here indicated personal opportunism, leveraging a better political position for himself among peers, but it is more likely to have represented diplomatic strategy. If Charleston officials were currently securing ratifications from all four Cherokee regions, Ostenaco would do the same with all relevant British imperial “regions.” This would not only keep South Carolina on its toes when assuming loyalty in the future, but it also would show all Britons that the Cherokees understood perfectly the Janus-faced nature of the British presence in North America – sometimes splintered into colonies, sometimes coalesced into an unwieldy behemoth.

From the meeting between Virginians and Cherokees, Ostenaco further secured his own berth to London to reconfirm the peace agreements with George III. That the Virginian governor agreed to finance this trip, and that the Secretary of State laid down the red carpet once arrived, shows that Ostenaco had made the British see how much they yet needed the Cherokees – beaten or no – in order to win their larger, ongoing war with the French.  While Ostenaco’s ten-week sojourn provided a colorful tale of cross-cultural hijinks, it was more importantly an example of Ostenaco recovering something practical for his people from the ashes of defeat.

Naturally, after the weakening of French rivalry to British authority in North America in 1763, the Cherokees’ position did falter. They no longer faced outright war; instead, they confronted the even more insidious pressure of land cession. Ostenaco was present at most of the signings that gouged away Cherokee territory from 1765. His behavior in these moments, though, once more tweaks our perception of this process from wreckage to some indigenous reclamation of the situation.   

“This cession is an instance of … duty [and] love,” Ostenaco declaimed at the first significant land sale. He acknowledged that it was also about the pressing Cherokee need for trade goods, but he tried to make the moment do political and moral work as well. Raising the issue of duty sought to remind colonial officials of their formal obligations in return to the Cherokees. His extended discussion of love was meant to stir the Christian hearts of those rogue settlers who had already ventured into the land under dispute. While the long-term would suggest failure at both these additional ambitions, the short-term – the term of the individual – makes us see an emotional tussle in place of a triumphant whitewash. 

The worst land cession of the revolutionary era for the Cherokees was the Henderson purchase of 1775. Ostenaco could not attend and sent apologies. His notable absence here, though, suggests he may have guessed at what might transpire. It was, indeed, during this cession at Sycamore Shoals, North Carolina, that some younger Cherokees, led by Dragging Canoe, declared enough was enough. They could not stop Dragging Canoe’s father, Attakullakulla, going ahead with the deal – driven, as he felt, by the threat of Cherokee starvation. But in response, and at length, the younger rebels broke away from the main group and started a new community west of the Overhills along Chickamauga Creek. Ostenaco was perhaps already feeling split loyalties over who to support.

The “Chickamaugas” gathered an armed resistance to settler invasion in the summer of 1776. The colonial backlash was severe, enraged at supposed Cherokee cheek after believing the group fully broken. Most Cherokees—not wanting the battle in the first place—surrendered by the spring of 1777. Ostenaco participated in the early parts of this peace process but, momentously, before they concluded, he had gone over to join the rebel youth.  His wavering was at an end. 

As an esteemed elder by now, who had struggled most of his life to safeguard all his people, it must have been the hardest decision of his life – to join a group that risked splintering the Cherokees forever. But Ostenaco saw that the Chickamaugas were not simply defiant warriors. They were trying to preserve Cherokee values, too, by building a temporary society away from white reach, preferring to call themselves Ani-Yunwiya, the Real People.

All the same, Ostenaco became an unusual Ani-Yunwiya. While most continued fighting settlers until well into the 1790s, he never again lifted a weapon. He also refused to talk to either loyalists or revolutionaries, baffling whites on both sides who had long understood him as a productive negotiator. A renowned warrior-diplomat, his complete withdrawal from all modes of engagement with the newcomers proved his most powerful stance yet.

Most Ani-Yunwiya, of course, did not have the luxury of choosing withdrawal. But Ostenaco’s example sustained them in their battles, reminding them that they were for the greater protection of a people defined by their own internal measures and not just in relation to aggressors. His non-compliance to the us-them nature of settler colonialism was its own inspiring form of resistance. His life offered ways of remembering what had survived over what had been lost, and of sometimes trusting indigenous methods over settler expectations. 


Kate Fullagar teaches Modern History at Macquarie University, Sydney. She is the author of The Savage Visit: New World People and Popular Imperial Culture in Britain, 1710-1795 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). She is completing a history of the interconnected eighteenth-century lives of the Cherokee warrior Ostenaco, the Polynesian traveler Mai, and the British artist Joshua Reynolds. Kate blogs at and tweets as @kfullagar.

Title Image: The Three Cherokees. came over from the head of the River Savanna to London, 1762.

Further Reading:

Tyler Boulware, Deconstructing the Cherokee Nation: Town, Region, and Nation among the Eighteenth-Century Cherokees (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2011).

Kate Fullagar, Faces of Empire: Three Eighteenth-Century Lives – a Cherokee Warrior, a British Artist, and a Tahitian Refugee, forthcoming.

Tom Hatley, The Dividing Path: Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Revolutionary Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).


[1] Colin Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 208; William McLoughlin, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 25. For an example of Chickamauga focus, see Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 47-57.

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