by Mike Slate.
Probably recounted more often than any other Indian attack in Tennessee history1, the heroic Battle of Buchanan’s Station occurred on the moonlit night of September 30, 1792. A confederacy of about 300 Creeks, Chickamauga Cherokees, and Shawnee2 surrounded Major John Buchanan’s Mill Creek stockade, intending to destroy it before advancing on Nashville and the other Cumberland settlements. A mere fifteen sharpshooters3 within the station turned back the onslaught by killing or wounding several notable Indian leaders without losing a single defender. Historian J.G.M. Ramsey called the victory “a feat of bravery which has scarcely been surpassed in all the annals of border warfare.”4
Informants Richard Finnelson and Joseph Deraque had warned the Cumberland settlers of the impending attack.5 In Knoxville territorial governor William Blount was similarly alerted by friendly Indians. Blount ordered Nashville’s James Robertson to raise militia and prepare, but he sent orders to stand down after no attack materialized. Robertson, more skeptical, remained vigilant and sent out scouts to hunt for marauders. Two of the scouts, Jonathan Gee and Seward Clayton, never returned and were later discovered to have been killed.6
Following a war conference that fueled their longstanding outrage over colonial encroachment, the Indians, armed by the Spanish government, began their campaign in Chickamauga country near today’s Chattanooga. As they approached Nashville, they quarreled about whether to attack Buchanan’s Station first. This decision set the stage for the ensuing drama.7
On guard at Buchanan’s Station, John McCrory heard the Indians approaching and fired the first shot of the battle, instantly killing Shawnee Warrior.8 The Indians fired volley after volley at the blockhouse as the little garrison inside struggled against overwhelming odds. Sarah “Sally” Ridley Buchanan, Major Buchanan’s hugely pregnant wife, became the voice of victory. Aided by other women, she reportedly molded and carried additional ammunition to the riflemen, supplied them with distilled spirits, insisted that they make every shot count, and cheered them on. For her courageous acts that night, she would become known as “the greatest heroine of the West.”9
The Indians also demonstrated great courage. Cherokee warrior Kiachatallee (also Chiachattalla) attempted to set the fort ablaze. Although mortally injured, he continued to kindle flames with his dying breath.10 Among other braves who died that Sunday night was White Owl’s Son, possibly the brother of Dragging Canoe.11 John Watts, recently chosen chief of the Lower Cherokees (Chickamaugas), was severely wounded but later recovered.
The battle finally ended, perhaps because of the ineptitude of an inebriated Irishman in the station. Not realizing he had overloaded the Buchanans’ old blunderbuss, Jimmy O’Connor produced a stupendous boom.12 The Indians, terrified of cannon fire, withdrew.
The Battle of Buchanan’s Station has captured the attention of historians since 1792. British scholar Dr. John Sugden recently determined that the Shawnee Warrior killed by John McCrory was Cheeseekau, Tecumseh’s brother and mentor. Moreover, Sugden writes, Tecumseh himself was present at the battle and watched his brother die.13 Such valuable ongoing research will continue to deepen our understanding of this critical frontier event. (2014)
1 Although such matters are difficult to quantify, I know of no single conflict between colonial settlers and Native Americans in Tennessee history, not even Nashville’s “Battle of the Bluff,” that has appeared in print as often as the Battle of Buchanan’s Station (BoBS). Accounts of the BoBS are many, varied, and sometimes conflicting. Tracing and analyzing these accounts chronologically, from 1792 until the present, is a fascinating historiographical journey. The “baseline” account is a 388-word report from James Robertson to territorial governor William Blount, which arrived to Blount on October 9, 1792. That correspondence can be found in American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 294-295. Skipping over many other accounts to the present, three excellent modern treatments of the battle are John Buchanan [a coincidental name], Jackson’s Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters (Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2001, reprint by Castle Books), 131-136; John Sugden, Tecumseh: A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, paperback reprint, 1997), 70-75; and John Anthony Caruso, The Appalachian Frontier: America’s First Surge Westward (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003, new edition of the 1959 original), 353-357.
2 The number of Indians said to have surrounded Buchanan’s Station varies from 280 to 900 or more. Robertson’s original account (in the American State Papers) says, “supposed to consist of three or four hundred.” However, a report from Blount on November 5, 1792, says, “appeared to have been, Creeks, from 400 to 500; Cherokees, 200; Shawanese, from 30-40” (See American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 331). The Tennessee state historical marker on the battle site says “about 300,” and most modern treatments also report “about 300.” I have chosen to use the conservative “about 300” figure.
3 The exact number of defenders, like that of the attackers, is uncertain. Robertson’s original account clearly says “fifteen gun-men,” and that is the number used by some later accounts and most modern ones. Yet it appears possible if not likely that Robertson’s report was not precisely accurate. Over the ensuing years the number increased to about twenty. A few accounts attempt to name the defenders, and a researcher can combine those accounts and arrive at well over twenty. Those accounts which attempt to name the defenders include the following: John Buchanan Todd, letter to Lyman Draper, 9 November 1854, Draper Manuscripts 6XX64; Major Thomas Washington, “The Attack on Buchanan’s Station,” Annals of the Army of Tennessee and Early Western History, Vol. 1 November (1878): 378-381; Josephus Conn Guild, Old Times in Tennessee (Knoxville: Tenase Company, 1971, reprint of the 1878 original), 300-313; Thomas Buchanan, “Buchanan Memoir,” at https://sites.google.com/site/davidsoncounty/home/people-of-interest/buchanan-history, accessed 01-25-14; and Edward Albright, Early History of Middle Tennessee (Nashville: Brandon Printing Company, 1909), 171-177. It appears that some of the pioneers named were indeed involved in the larger context of the battle but not in the actual conflict itself. I have chosen to use Robertson’s conservative “fifteen gun-men” figure.
4 J.G.M. Ramsey, The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Johnson City TN: The Overmountain Press, 1999 reprint of the 1853 original), 566-567.
5 For more on Finnelson and Deraque see American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 288-292.
6 Robertson’s original account (in the American State Papers) reports of Gee and Clayton that “it is supposed they are killed.” Later accounts substantiate this and describe the circumstances of their deaths. Little is known about Jonathan Gee. Ironically, Seward Clayton was captured by Indians when he was a boy, in an incident that involved Major John Buchanan. For that story see Lizzie P. Elliott, Early History of Nashville (Nashville: The Board of Education, 1911), 155-158. The Indians later released Clayton, who then met his death by their hands in 1792.
7 The events and circumstances leading up to the Battle of Buchanan’s Station are substantially covered by the three modern accounts listed in note #1 above. The BoBS was the climax of a much larger story that is instructive as to the political climate of the time as well as to the complicated relationships between Native Americans and Euro-American settlers.
8 “John Mc. Rory” is the only active defender that Robertson mentions by name in his original account. The specific fact that McCrory killed Shawnee Warrior is not stated by Robertson, but is taken from later accounts. Additionally, some later accounts mention Thomas McCrory rather than John. An example of such accounts is the “literary” (complete with dialogue, etc.) story by Octavia Zollicoffer Bond, Old Tells Retold (Nashville: Smith & Lamar, 1906), 154-167.
9 Elizabeth F. Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution, Vol. III (New York: Charles Scribner, 1856), 310-327. Ellet wrote an entire chapter featuring Sarah Buchanan. Concerning the designation, “the greatest heroine of the West,” Ellet’s exact words were: “The fame of this gallant defence [during the BoBS] went abroad, and the young wife of Major Buchanan was celebrated as the greatest heroine of the West.” Also see Wilson and Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), 436-437, in which Sarah is again called “the greatest heroine of the west.”
10 The events of the death of Kiachatalle (also known as “Tom Tunbridge’s step-son”) must have been quite dramatic. Robertson’s report says that he “ascended the roof with a torch, where he was shot, and, falling to the ground, renewed his attempts to fire the bottom logs, and was killed.” Kiachatalle’s body was identified the next morning by Joseph Brown, who knew him well from his captivity by the Indians a few years before the BoBS.
11 White Owl’s Son seems to be sometimes known as “Little Owl,” who was indeed Dragging Canoe’s brother. A Creek chief (perhaps Talotiskee) was also killed at the battle, and Unacate was injured or killed. See American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 331. One or two other accounts report that as many as thirty Indians were killed that night. More research needs to be done about the Indians who participated in the BoBS.
12 The priceless story of Jimmy O’Connor’s fortunate misuse of the blunderbuss has been told over and over again. Some accounts, however, say that it was the boom of the little swivel cannon at Fort Nashborough that so frightened the Indians. I am partial to John Buchanan Todd’s clever statement (in Draper, 6XX64) that, “Jemmy O’Connor blundering with his blunderbuss in all probability saved the station.”
13 It would be difficult to overestimate the importance and influence of Sugden’s determination that Cheeseekau (sometimes called “Chiksika”) died at Buchanan’s Station in the presence of his brother, the iconic Tecumseh. Fortunately, Sugden provides his well-reasoned analysis of the sources related to this matter in Sugden, 421-422 n. 1. Many scholars and Internet sources have accepted Sugden’s discovery as fact, which has placed Buchanan’s Station on the radar of many additional historians.
American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 294-295.
Arnow, Harriette Simpson. Flowering of the Cumberland. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 edition of the 1963 original.
Buchanan, John. Jackson’s Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters. Hoboken NJ, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, reprint by Castle Books.
Caruso, John Anthony. The Appalachian Frontier: America’s First Surge Westward. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 2003, new edition of the 1959 original.
Clements, Paul. Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements. Nashville, self-published, 2012.
Ramsey, J.G.M. The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Johnson City TN, The Overmountain Press, 1999 reprint of the 1853 original.
Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1997, paperback reprint.
James Robertson’s original account of the Battle of Buchanan’s Station as found in American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 294-295:
“On the 30th September, about midnight, John Buchanan’s Station, four miles south of Nashville, (at which sundry families had collected, and fifteen gun-men) was attacked by a party of Creeks and Lower Cherokees, supposed to consist of three or four hundred. Their approach was suspected by the running of cattle, that had taken fright at them, and, upon examination, they were found rapidly advancing within ten yards of the gate; from this place and distance they received the first fire from the man who discovered them, (John Mc. Rory.) They immediately returned the fire, and continued a very heavy and constant firing upon the station, (blockhouses, surrounded with a stockade) for an hour, and were repulsed with considerable loss, without injuring man, woman, or child, in the station.
“During the whole time of attack, the Indians were not more distant than ten yards from the blockhouse, and often in large numbers round the lower walls, attempting to put fire to it. One ascended the roof with a torch, where he was shot, and, falling to the ground, renewed his attempts to fire the bottom logs, and was killed. The Indians fired 30 balls through a port-hole of the overjutting, which lodged in the roof in the circumference of a hat, and those sticking in the walls, on the outside, were very numerous.
“Upon viewing the ground next morning, it appeared that the fellow who was shot from the roof, was a Cherokee half-breed of the Running Water, known by the whites by the name of Tom Tunbridge’s step-son, the son of a French woman, by an Indian, and there was much blood, and signs that many dead had been dragged off, and litters having been made to carry their wounded to their horses, which they had left a mile from the station. Near the blockhouse were found several swords, hatchets, pipes, kettles, and budgets of different Indian articles; one of the swords was a fine Spanish blade, and richly mounted in the Spanish fashion. In the morning previous to the attack, Jonathan Gee, and — Clayton were sent out as spies, and on the ground, among other articles left by the Indians, were found a handkerchief and a moccason [sic], known one to belong to Gee, and the other to Clayton, hence it is supposed they are killed.”