Manliness and the Making of the Revolutionary War in Cherokee Country

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

By Michael Lynch

In the Appalachian mountains, the American Revolution was a contest for land and liberty—between Revolutionaries and the British Crown, as well as between settlers and Cherokees.  While historians have written a great deal about the centrality of land to the Revolution on the frontier, they have paid less attention to the important role gendered ideas played in that struggle.  For both Cherokees and white newcomers, the Revolution was a battle over what it meant to be a man.  Settlers and Natives went to war because their notions of manhood were incompatible, except in one important respect: both held that going to war was a man’s business.

For young Cherokees—as for young men of many Indian groups in eastern North America—hunting and manliness were inextricably linked.  For a people whose women tilled the ground, and whose origin myths associated women with agriculture, hunting constituted a distinctively masculine contribution to a family’s survival.  Proficiency on the hunt was also one of the primary means by which young Cherokees proved themselves as men.  Because young men’s gendered identity depended on access to game, the preservation of tribal grounds was of special concern to them.[1]

White settlers, by contrast, associated manliness with agriculture and with ownership of a specific piece of ground.  A man was not a real man unless he was economically independent, and land was the surest route to independence.  Ownership of land conferred all the privileges and prerogatives that Anglo-Americans associated with full manhood: membership in a political community, respectability, and mastery over a household of dependent women and children.  This association between land and manhood was an idea shared by early Americans from New England to the Carolinas and from the coast to the Appalachians.  George Washington himself referred to agriculture as a “manly employment.”[2]

Members of both cultures thus needed land in order to claim the prerogatives of manhood, but they needed it for different purposes.  In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, as whites pushed farther and farther into Indian country, the loss of tribal hunting grounds became an especially contentious issue for young Cherokee men.  In 1769, for example, the tribe’s headmen complained to the British about whites who “pay no Regard to all our Talks that we have had” and were “in the Middle of our Hunting Grounds.”  White Virginians, they claimed, “Steal our Deer & our Land too, which if not soon altered will be of bad Consequence for our Young fellows are very angry to See their Hunting Grounds taken from them.”[3]

By the mid-1770s, accommodationist headmen could no longer restrain these angry “young fellows” from going to war to defend their right to hunt.  And by going to war, young Cherokee men were exercising another distinctly masculine prerogative.  Just as hunting enabled young Indian men to validate their manhood in times of peace, so too did they earn prestige by their exploits on the battlefield.  A Cherokee war song recorded by Lt. Henry Timberlake tied warlike bravery to manhood and cowardice to womanliness:

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 11.43.52 AMWhen emissaries from Northern tribes visited the Cherokees to convince them to go to war against settlers in 1776, they invoked this connection between manliness and courageous resistance.  It was “better to die like men,” one ambassador told the Cherokee warriors, “than to diminish away by inches.”  For young hunters resentful over years of encroachment on their lands, this gendered rhetoric was persuasive.  That summer, an all-out Cherokee assault fell on the frontier settlements of Virginia and the Carolinas.[5]

But Cherokees were not the only early Americans who associated armed resistance with manliness.  Although they agreed on little else, Indians and whites both linked warfare and boldness with manhood.  Colonial Whigs drew on these gendered ideals to inspire their countrymen in the struggle against Britain.  In the summer of 1776 Washington beckoned his army to “a vigorous and manly exertion,” and the Virginia Assembly pronounced its dependence on the “virtue and manly exertions of our Militia” when threatened with British incursions later in the war.  Military chaplains also drew on the idea of masculine courage when exhorting Continental soldiers; the phrase “play the man” served as a kind of shorthand for ministers looking to stir up martial ardor from the pulpit.[6]  Fired with the same notions of manly courage and defiance that animated Native warriors, frontier Revolutionaries retaliated with devastating raids into Cherokee territory.  The tribe’s 1776 assault terrified settlers, but it failed to dislodge them for good.  It only solidified the alliance frontier Whigs had been building with rebellious Patriots to the east.      

Gender was thus an indispensable aspect of the frontier Revolution.  Natives and white settlers both needed access to land to realize their visions of manhood, but those visions were irreconcilable.  Tragically, the only common ground that settlers and Cherokees shared in 1776 was their association between manliness and organized violence.  It is little wonder, then, that the Revolution brought violent intercultural conflict to the Appalachian frontier.

*****

Michael Lynch is a doctoral student in early American history at the University of Tennessee, where he received the Milton M. Klein Fellowship.  His dissertation explores the connections between manliness, authority, and allegiance on the frontier during the American Revolution.  For more information about his work, visit michael-lynch.net or follow him on Twitter (@mlynchhist).

Title Image: T. Gilbert White’s painting of Dragging Canoe and Daniel Boone at the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals in the Kentucky State Capitol.

Endnotes:

[1] Nathaniel J. Sheidley, “Unruly Men: Indians, Settlers, and the Ethos of Frontier Patriarchy in the Upper Tennessee Watershed, 1763-1815” (Ph.D. diss, Princeton University, 1999), 64-65.

[2] Mark E. Kann, A Republic of Men: The American Founders, Gendered Language, and Patriarchal Politics (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 37; Anne S. Lombard, Making Manhood: Growing Up Male in Colonial New England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 165; “From George Washington to Chastellux, 25 April–1 May 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0202.

[3] “A Talk from the Headmen and Warriors of the Cherokee Nation,” 29 July 1769, Colonial Office Papers 5/70 295-96, UK National Archives.

[4] Tyler Boulware, “’We are MEN’: Native American and Euroamerican Projections of Masculinity During the Seven Years’ War,” in New Men: Manliness in Early America, ed. Thomas A. Foster (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 51-70; Susan Abram, “Real Men: Masculinity, Spirituality, and Community in Late Eighteenth-Century Cherokee Warfare,” in New Men, ed. Foster, 71-91; Duane H. King, ed., The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake: The Story of a Soldier, Adventurer, and Emissary to the Cherokees, 1756-1765 (Cherokee, NC: Museum of the Cherokee Indian, 2007), 30.

[5] Henry Stuart to John Stuart, 25 August 1776, in William L. Saunders, ed., The Colonial Records of North Carolina, vol. 10 (Raleigh, NC: Josephus Daniels, 1886), 778.

[6] George Washington, “General Orders,” 2 July 1776, in Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 5, June-August 1776 (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1993), 180; Virginia House of Delegates, Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA: John Dunlap and James Hayes, 1781), 5; Janet Moore Lindman, “‘Play the Man…for Your Bleeding Country’: Military Chaplains as Gender Brokers During the American Revolutionary War,” in New Men, ed. Foster, 244-45.

Further Readings:

Blackmon, Richard D.  Dark and Bloody Ground: The American Revolution Along the Southern Frontier.  Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2012.

Cumfer, Cynthia.  Separate Peoples, One Land: The Minds of Cherokees, Blacks, and Whites on the Tennessee Frontier.  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Finger, John R.  Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Foster, Thomas A., ed.  New Men: Manliness in Early America.  New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Sachs, Honor.  Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

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