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The Battle of Etowah Cliffs (Hightower) – Rome, GA – 1793

The Battle of Etowah Cliffs (Hightower) – Rome, GA – 1793

 

The Battle of Etowah Cliffs or Battle of Hightower was fought on October 17, 1793 on the west side of the Etowah River, immediately southeast of its confluence with the Oostanaula River. The battlefield overlooks present day Rome, GA.  The battle was part of the Northwest Georgia Campaign of the Southwest Territorial Militia, against hostile Lower Cherokees and Upper Creeks, which essentially ended the Chickamauga War in Alabama and Georgia.   It was the last pitched battle between the Lower Cherokee under John Watts and militia forces until the Nickajack Expedition in September 1794.

The articles about this battle in online references have been modified so many times by self-styled Cherokee history experts, they can only be described as a mixture of partial history and false history.  For example, they describe the battle as being fought at the great, ancient Cherokee town of Etalwayi.  They add the Yi (place of) at the end to show that they know something about the Cherokee language. They state that the Cherokees were defending their ancestral lands where they had lived for 10,000 years.  Actually, the Cherokees were secretly given Northwest Georgia as a hunting territory in 1786, but their Upper Creek allies, who legally owned the land, didn’t know that and thought that they were defending THEIR territory.

Worse still, the predominantly Tennessean academicians, who write about the battle in university-published books and papers, think that the battle was fought at Etowah Mounds, because Etowah is an ancient Cherokee word, whose meaning has been lost.  Georgia academicians refuse to write about the battle because they suspect that it might have something to do with the Mayas.  They were told by their high priests and department heads not to write about the Mayas because the Mayas were dangerous and un-scientific.

Myrtle Hill in Rome, GA with the Coosa River in the foreground

 

The author lived in the center of this battlefield from December 1998 to June 2000, while planning a large downtown revitalization project in Rome.  He instantly recognized that the river bank dropped straight into the water, where most contemporary accounts place the first attack.  There would have been no place for the militiamen to stand, once they crossed the Etowah River.

 

All of the white soldiers involved were Southwest Territorial militiamen.   There is no record of Georgia troops being involved.

Location: Latitude – 34°15’01″N ~ Longitude – 85°10’42″W

Etymology:  Etowah is the Anglicization of the Cherokee-nized word, Etawah, which is a place name derived from the Muskogee Creek word Etalwa, which means “Principal Town.”  Etalwa is derived from the Itsate-Creek word, Itula, means the same thing both in Creek and its original source, Itza Maya.  So the Georgia academicians are correct, they really shouldn’t mention the word Etowah in any articles, if they wish to maintain their current lack of credibility.

This battle was originally known as the Battle of Etowah Cliffs because Brig. Gen. John Sevier described the combat as Southwest Territorial militiamen assaulting the cliffs overlooking the Etowah River. During the 19th century, Rome residents typically called it the Battle of Myrtle Hill, because they assumed that the Myrtle Hill cemetery was the sole location of combat.  Many illiterate frontiersmen mispronounced the word Etowah as Hightower.  A 2016 revision of the Wikipedia article on this battle, inserted a Cherokee-centric description of the battle and deleted all references to Etowah Cliffs.  It labeled the article, “The Battle of Hightower.”

Satellite image of Etowah Cliffs Battlefield

 

View of historic Downtown Rome, GA from top of Myrtle Hill – The South Broad Street bridge passes over the Etowah River.

 

The Line of Battle

The commander of approximately 800 mounted riflemen of the Southwest Territorial Militia was Brigadier General John Sevier.   Tennessee did not exist at that time.  The commander of the combined hostile Cherokees, Upper Creeks and Chickasaws was Kingfisher. * He died in the battle.

  • The identity of this Cherokee leader, named Kingfisher, is an enigma.  It is the same name as the husband of Cherokee heroine, Nancy Ward.  He supposedly died in the Battle of Taliwa in 1755.  The only trouble is that there was no Battle of Taliwa and the Cherokees signed a surrender treaty with the Coweta Creeks in December 1754 . . . on the 40th anniversary of the murder of 32 Creek leaders at Tugaloo.  When one looks at the published genealogies of the Kingfisher family line, there is a myriad of birth, marriage and death dates for both Kingfisher and Nancy Ward.  There are four, very different dates for Nancy Ward’s death . . . including 1793, the year of the Battle of Etowah Cliffs.  One genealogy has her delivering her first daughter, Ka-ti in 1752 at age 14.  Another has her delivering the baby on the non-existent Taliwa battlefield in 1754.  Two genealogies stated that Kingfisher died before 1750.  We do know that the myth of the Battle of Taliwa was created by a distant white cousin of Nancy Ward in 1828 . . . four years after the latest date that is listed in a genealogy or history text for Nancy Ward’s death.   What  I found was that genealogists and amateur historians used the date of the battle that didn’t happen as a benchmark for guessing all the other dates.  Then later generations copied their speculations as absolute facts.

Several Cherokee men, who would later become some of the most important leaders of the Cherokee Nation in the early 1800s were at Etowah Cliffs.  They included Nunnehidihi (Major Ridge), Uwatie, Charles Hicks, David Hicks, James Vann and Sequoyah. Nunnehidihi was an ethnic Natchez, descended from Natchez refugees, who had been allowed to settle in the Cherokee Nation in 1831.  The other half of the Natchez Refugees settled in Pine Log, Georgia in the Creek Nation.

Casualties

There are many different statements concerning casualties in this battle.  The most common statement is that very few militiamen were killed, but that several hundred Chickamaugas, mostly non-combatants (women and children), were killed.  At the other end of the estimates is an article in Wikipedia, which lists 3 militiamen and three Chickamaugas killed. 

The latter estimate is implausible.   Why would the militiamen find it impossible to cross the Etowah River due to enemy musket fire, if their total deaths in the entire battle were only three men?   Why would the surviving Cherokees flee the battle in panic and never fight again, if they only suffered three men killed?  

Extent of the battlefield

Contemporary accounts by writers, who probably have never even been on the battlefield, place the battlefield on Myrtle Hill, which overlooks the confluence of the Etowah and Oostanaula Rivers.  This is because skeletons were found at the base of Myrtle Hill by early white settlers, which were assumed to be those of fallen Chickamaugas. 

The “Last Stand” of some Chickamaugas may have been on the slopes of Myrtle Hill, but the account of the battle by Brigadier General Sevier suggests that the Native American families were camped, where Silver Creek joins the Etowah River. The Chickamauga sharpshooters were stretched for a considerable ways atop the cliffs overlooking the river. 

Sevier did not mention the word, Myrtle Hill, because it would not exist for several decades.  He merely said that the musket fire from the Chickamaugas atop the steep cliffs overlooking the river, made it impossible for his soldiers to cross the river.  Most of the force then shifted out of sight and “crossed about a mile downstream from the Indian camp,” according to Sevier. There were some Cherokees guarding this ford, but they were greatly outnumbered. 

The mouth of Silver Creek is about a mile downstream from the ford. There was no potable water on Myrtle Hill or the top of Etowah Cliffs.  So the only practical place for families to camp was along Silver Creek. If the non-combatants were camped along Silver Creek, they would have been the next body of Chickamaugas to bear the wrath of the angry militiamen.

In 1785, the first official map of the State of Georgia showed the Creek Confederacy and Chickasaws owning most of northern Georgia. The Cherokees only occupied a small area north of the Tallulah River in extreme Northeast Georgia. However, even as the map was being printed, Georgia officials and South Carolinian, Andrew Pickens, were scheming to steal the Creek and Chickasaw lands without them knowing it.

Origins of the Chickamauga War

This battle was a climatic event in a war that actually began in 1776.  Self-styled Cherokee historians describe the war as beginning in the late 1780s in response to the illegal settlement of white families on Cherokee land, but extreme animosity between the Overhill Cherokees and white frontiersmen began early in the American Revolution.  Killings and atrocities by both sides merely caused the other side to seek revenge.   This animosity really didn’t end until most Cherokees were relocated from Tennessee to Georgia.  Nowadays many Tennesseans proudly brag that they carry a trace of Cherokee heritage.

At the onset of the American Revolution, the British government pressured the Cherokees into becoming their allies against the rebelling 13 colonies.  The Cherokees were only supposed to fight Patriot armies and militias, but instead swept into frontier settlements of Northeast Tennessee and the Carolinas without warning.  Many whites, who were not involved in the rebellion, were killed.  As a result the frontier went from being ambivalent toward the Revolution to becoming fire-breathing Patriots, who believed all Cherokees, regardless of age or gender, should be killed.  

In recent years, the history of this Cherokee-American War has been almost completely edited out of online references such as Wikipedia because it portrays the Cherokees as being the enemy of the United States.  The “Battle of Hightower” article merely states that “the majority of Cherokees wanted to remain neutral.”    That might be true for the year 1778, because by then the majority, who favored the alliance with Great Britain and attacked frontier settlements without warning, were dead or else slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations . . . as were their wives and children.  

In 1777, a Patriot invasion of the Cherokee country caused catastrophic losses among the Cherokees.  The leadership quickly surrendered.  However, a minority faction believed that the Cherokees should keep on fighting.  They were expelled from the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation.  At that time Alabama and Georgia were not considered to be Cherokee territory. 

Most settled farther west in Tennessee or among the Chickmauga-Chickasaws near Lookout Mountain.  At least two small bands were allowed by the Upper Creeks to move into Northwest Georgia.  The renegade bands in NW Georgia and NE Alabama continued the war with the Patriots by raiding frontier farmsteads.  These acts made the frontiersmen hate all the Cherokees even more.

After Great Britain and the United States signed a peace treaty, the renegade Chickamaugas continued their war against the white settlers.  The attacks were against small groups of travelers or family farmsteads.  The victims were killed in particularly gruesome manners.  This further fanned the hatred against all Cherokees.

There is a misconception that the Treaty of Hopewell at Col. Andrew Pickens plantation in December 1785 was between the Cherokee Nation, Creek Nation and United States.  It was not.  The only legal signatories were representatives of the Elate, an independent confederacy of 12 villages  . . . predominantly Hitchiti-Creek, Natchez and Uchee bands in northeast Georgia that also included two renegade Cherokee bands. They were being allowed to live on lands belonging to the Upper Creek branch of the Creek Confederacy.

In the Hopewell Treaty, the Elate ceded all Creek lands in Northeast Georgia to Georgia and in return the white commissioners set the boundary between the Cherokee Nation and the Elate as being the Georgia-North Carolina State Line.  However, the Treaty of Hopewell was declared to be illegal by the United States Congress.  Most “Cherokee” historians do not know this either and list this treaty as a justification for the Chickamaugas continuing their war.

A conference, sponsored by Congress was held in Augusta, GA the following spring in 1786, which did include legal representatives of the Cherokee Nation and Creek Confederacy.  Since their lands east of the Oconee River had already filled with settlers, the Creeks grudgingly ceded them.  However, they thought that they kept all lands west of the Oconee.

In a separate, secret treaty with the Cherokee Nation, the United States commissioners, who were from Georgia and the Carolinas, gave Creek lands west of the Chattahoochee River to the Cherokees as hunting territory.  This left the Creeks with a narrow corridor of land between the Chattahoochee and Oconee that extended northward to present day Clarkesville, GA.

The commissioners representing the United States hoped that the secret Cherokee treaty would stop the Chickamauga War.  It did not.  Creek leaders did not find out about the treaty until 1790 then immediately declared war on the State of Georgia . . . who they thought were responsible for the secret treaty.

The Cherokees were not formerly given Northwest and North Central Georgia as a place to settle until the ratification of the Treaty of Philadelphia in 1794.  At this time, the United States government secretly signed an agreement with the State of Georgia, in which it promised to remove the Cherokees to the new Alabama Territory within 10 years.  Cherokee Principal Chief,  Pathkiller, seemed to know about this provision, because he set up his capital at Turkeytown, Alabama, while the Ridge-Vann Cherokee Faction set up their first capital on the Coosawattee River near the ruins of the ancient Upper Creek town of Kusa. 

This fact is left out of discussions of the Cherokee Trail of Tears.   Had the Cherokee Nation willingly moved into Northeastern Alabama, it is possible that it would still be there today.

Expansion of Chickamauga War

With the approval of President George Washington, an attempt was made to negotiate a new treaty in the Southwest Territory (now the State of Tennessee), but the meeting place was raided by a party of militiamen.  John Sevier secretly ordered Captain John Beard to attack the Cherokees, who were attending the treaty conference.  Many Cherokee were killed. President Washington ordered the arrest and trial of Beard, but John Sevier helped him escape to avoid trial.  Local authorities, who generally wanted the Cherokees out of Tennessee made only token efforts to bring Beard to justice.

In retaliation, John Watts first signed a treaty with Spain in 1792 to obtain muskets and munitions then led a war party of over 1,000 Chickamauga Cherokee and Upper Creeks in a series of attacks against settlements that he and his followers considered to be Cherokee or Creek lands, since their faction had not approved the treaty cessions.  

Newspaper version of Cavett’s Station massacre

While headed to White’s Fort, which is now Knoxville, the Cherokees and Upper Creek hostiles eventually decided that they t would launch an attack on Cavett’s Station on September 25, 1793.. At the time, only Alexander Cavett, two unrelated men and Cavett’s family (totaling 13 people in all) were present at the fort. Cavett and the other two men were reportedly the only competent marksmen. The Cavetts, apparently put up a fierce resistance, killing or wounding at least five warriors from the Cherokee attackers.

The Cherokee attackers pulled back and for a parley. It was agreed that if the settlers were to give up resistance and lay down their weapons, their lives would be spared.  They would be exchanged for a like number of Cherokee held prisoner by local militia.

The settlers agreed, but as soon as they exited the fort, Doublehead and his warriors broke their agreement and attacked the prisoners, brutally murdering every man, woman and child. John Watts attempted to spare one small child from the stockade, but Doublehead himself leaped upon the boy and split the child’s skull with a tomahawk.

Due to his reputation for fierceness, Doublehead had previously been nicknamed “man-killer” by his warriors. However, as a mark of derision for his actions at Cavett’s Station, Watts would henceforth refer to Doublehead as “baby-killer” for the remainder of his life.

 According to a later witness of the scene, the murdered family members were horribly mutilated and their bodies strewn about the area. However, their tragic deaths were not in vain. The unexpected resistance of the little group at the fort had so delayed the main Cherokee force and sown further division among their ranks that the imminent attack upon Knoxville was summarily abandoned; quite possibly saving the town from being completely wiped out

At this point, the lives of all Cherokees in Tennessee, whether hostiles or not, became in danger.  Whites were killing any Indians they saw.  Cherokees, who had attempted to stay out of the fighting, became hostiles after one or more of their family members had been killed by militiamen or settlers, who happened to see a Cherokee walking down a road.  Revenge begot revenge.

Ellijay was probably a Creek town. It soon moved to Florida and joined the Seminoles. The word has no meaning in Cherokee.

Northwest Georgia campaign

After the 1786 Treaty of Augusta, more and more bands of Cherokees began moving southward into remote mountain valleys in Georgia to escape the raids of irate white settlers in what is now Tennessee.  Although the Upper Creeks thought that they still owned the land, they did not object because many Upper Creeks in what is now northern Alabama were allies of the Chickamauga Cherokees.  Chickamauga Cherokee villages would typically stay at one location to plant crops for a year or two then move on.  Their warriors used the hidden locations as bases for making hit and run attacks against small parties of whites.  It was primarily Upper Creeks, who attacked settlements in Northeast Georgia.  The Hitchiti Creek allies of the United States were just a common a target as white settlements.

Word of the massacres spread quickly. John Sevier raised a force to permanently wipe out the Chickamauga Cherokee villages in North Georgia and Kentucky. The Cherokee force split up with some heading toward Kentucky and some toward North Carolina, but most headed toward Georgia.

Sevier’s men killed most of the Cherokee men they encountered. Sevier’s report did not admit it, but there are plenty of legends among white communities that his men killed and scalped Cherokee women, plus sold children, who could walk into slavery.   These legends are difficult to prove, but seem to have some degree of fact behind them.

Many of the atrocities committed by the Southwest Territorial militiamen have been “forgotten” by history.  However, there are strong cultural memories of the massacre of a Cherokee village on Bear Creek in western Gilmer County at a location northwest of Ellijay.  Most of the adult men were gone . . . the women told the militiamen that they were hunting . . . but the Tennesseans did not believe them and preceded to murder the non-combatants.  

The army then moved westward and to attack about 800 Cherokees, Upper Creeks and Chickasaws on the west side of the Etowah River, overlooking what is now Downtown Rome, GA.   The Chickamaugas knew that the white soldiers were approaching and so posted groups of men along principal approaches to their camp site.  As can be seen in that topographic map at the top of the article, the terrain consisted of a series of large hills with steep slopes.

The Etowah River where the militiamen first attempted to cross . . . suicide!  They would have had to climb a steep eight  feet bank to reach a terrace.   Beyond this terrace, the cliff rises steeply about 100 feet before there is less steep land on what is now Lookout Circle.

Sevier wrote an account of the battle. The Etowah, Oostanaula and Coosa Rivers were far too deep at Downtown Rome to wade across.  Most of the river banks on the west side rise up 20-40 feet vertically out of the water.    The militiamen initially tried to cross the Etowah River in canoes and rafts at location where there level land next to the water, but found the fire from the concealed Native American soldiers at the cliff tops made it too dangerous to cross.  Furthermore, there would be no cover from Native musket balls, once they crossed the river.

Satellite image of river shoals where militiamen crossed the Etowah River.

Sevier then ordered the majority of his me to ride their horses about a mile southeast of the main Chickamauga defenses, where there were shoals and shallow water.   It would have been possible for the militiamen to cross the river here on horseback then quickly envelope the defending Chickamaugas.  This fact is left out of all published accounts of the battle.  Some of the Chickamaugas may have owned horses, but they were fighting on foot when the mounted riflemen attacked.  That is why the tide of the battle turned so quickly against the defenders.

The ford was defended by a body of Chickamaugas, but they were grossly outnumbered by the attackers.  The Cherokees rushed to contest the crossing of the Etowah, but failed.  The guards of this ford had already been beaten back and the main body of the attackers was now on the opposite side of the river.

The militiamen soon overtook the retreating Chickmaugas and came upon non-combatants.  Traditionally, it was said that they killed and scalped many of the Native women and elderly there, but this story has been deleted from contemporary texts. When Kingfisher was killed, the remaining warriors fled.  Gen. Sevier ordered the village to be burned.

Aftermath

Nunnehidihi led his friends, Charles Hicks, David Hicks, James Vann, Uwatie and Sequoyah to his sister’s village at Pine Log, Georgia.  It was the location of the portion of the Natchez refugees, who settled among the Creeks, but now was in Cherokee Territory.  They remained in Pine Log until around 1798.

With the surviving Chickamaugas scattered, Sevier’s army marched southwestward down the Coosa River, destroying Upper Creek villages before returning to the Knoxville area.  The exact route he took back to Ross’s Landing is not clear.  The “Battle of Etowah Cliffs” was Sevier’s last battle against Native Americans.   

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

6 Comments

  1. markveale@hotmail.com'

    Richard, Here is a statement from William Bartram concerning a spiral Temple mound like the one at Ocmulgee: “I MADE a little excursion up the Savanna river, four or five miles above the fort, with the surgeon of the garrison, who was so polite as to attend me to shew me some remarkable Indian monuments, which are worthy of every travellers notice. These wonderful labours of the ancients stand in a level plain, very near the bank of the river, now twenty or thirty yards from it; they consist of conical mounts of earth and four square terraces, &c. The great mount is in the form of a cone, about forty or fifty feet high, and the circumference of its base two or three hundred yards, entirely composed of the loamy rich earth of the low grounds; the top or apix is flat; a spiral path or track leading from the ground up to the top is still visible,..” Have you tracked this type of temple mound back to the “Waka” people?

    Reply
    • Yes, my mother’s family lived near Rembert Mounds. My uncle took us there when we were kids. The archaeological zone is now under Lake Russell.

      Reply
  2. wolfojos@aol.com'

    On your first map you have labeled “former mound” across the river from Myrtle Hill. Does this mean an earthy mound, like found in the Mississippian Mound Builders culture? Can you please tell me where you found this information? I very interested in this and want to research further. Thank you so very much for this thoughtful and well researched article.

    Reply
    • When I lived next to Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Rome at the site of the battle, I went on a tour of the cemetery and surroundings, led by an archaeologist. He said that there had originally been mounds at the locations note, but they had been leveled years ago, when the golf course and recreation area was built, to make it easier to mow the grass. They were probably burial mounds, since Creeks typically buried their dead on the west sides of river.

      Reply
      • wolfojos@aol.com'

        Thank you. That makes sense now. I had a different type of mound in mind. I spent the day researching at Rome’s library, and the lack of information regarding the area’s previous dwellers is dishearten. I live in Rome and have always been sadden that the city neglects the memory of the natives that once roamed the area. Few signs and a lack of memorials. Almost nothing. And to learn that they leveled burial grounds for a golf course saddens me more. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Just out of curiosity, have you ever visited the abandoned slave cemetery called Old Antioch Cemetery off Callier Springs Road? There are grave stones with images that seem Cherokee or Creek to me.

        Reply
        • No Michelle I have not even heard of that cemetery. No one mentioned it to me during the 1 1/2 years that I lived in Rome.

          Reply

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