It’s true, Northeast Tennessee really was America’s First Frontier. But what does that mean?
The story goes like this:
After the French and Indian War, in 1763, King George III proclaimed that no English settlement be made west of the Appalachian Mountains. He wanted to keep an eye on his 13 colonies, and didn’t want them trespassing on Cherokee land. So for years, that imaginary line (at the South Fork of the Holston River) separated the colonies from the vast western unknown.
But in the late 1760s, the settlers grew restless and impatient…and the “frontier” looked as inviting as ever. So they filtered down the Watauga, Nolichucky, and Holston Rivers, and formed the Watauga Association.
Many historians agree that this was America’s FIRST “declaration” of independence! They built Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals (in modern-day Elizabethton) to fend off attacks by the Native Americans. This didn’t sit well with supporters of the British monarchy, who demanded (over and over again) that the settlers move back east. But in typical Tennessee style, they said “we’ll do it OUR way,” and stayed at the fort.
Flash-forward to 1776. The Americans had just proclaimed their independence (again), war was imminent, and the settlers and natives are still in a standoff. But because the British army was busy fighting on the coast, they gave Chief Dragging Canoe and the Cherokee an arsenal of weapons to fight against the settlers.
So it all came down to the early morning hours of July 21. While some of the women were out milking cattle, they spotted a group of Cherokee warriors on the attack. But as they raced back to the fort, a lady named Bonnie Kate Sherrill fell behind and couldn’t get inside before the gate was locked. At the last second, John Sevier pulled her over the palisades to safety. (The two would later get married!)
So the settlers and natives exchanged gunfire for about 3 hours. At one point, the Cherokee almost got close enough to set the fort on fire…but not before a lady named Ann Robertson threw a pot of scalding hot water in their faces!
Naturally, the Native Americans backed off, and settled for a siege. A few days later, they captured a teenager named Tom Moore and burned him at the stake. But after two weeks of waiting, the Cherokee went home. The arrival of the Virginia militia later that year would ultimately end their threat to Fort Watauga.
Today, you can still see a re-created fort at Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton, Tennessee. And in the summer months, check out “Liberty: The Saga of Sycamore Shoals,” an outdoor drama detailing the life and times of the Wataugans.
To see more photos of the drama or hear more about the story, visit the Sycamore Shoals website