Maryland and the Cherokee, 1754-1763


On May 25, 1757, two envoys of Maryland Governor Horatio Sharpe (Mr. Wolstenholme and Mr. Ridout) reported to him the details of their meeting with a party of Cherokee at Fort Frederick, Maryland. These particular Cherokee had arrived at the fort the previous month, inquiring about a military alliance. Governor Sharpe had immediately sent word to provide ₤100 of gifts to the Indians, along with instructions that they be provisioned by the fort’s commissary while he prepared a response to their proposal.

Since the earliest contacts between Europeans and Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere, gift giving had played a central role in diplomacy, and both sides learned how to use the system to their advantage. During the French and Indian War, Maryland officials employed gifts, which acted as de facto payments for services rendered, to secure the Cherokees as military allies beginning with this first meeting in the spring of 1757.

The gathering described by Wolstenholme and Ridout was, at its core, a diplomatic event at which the Cherokee demonstrated their amity with the English by the display of two Indian prisoners and four scalps taken on Maryland’s behalf. Governor Sharpe’s envoys then read aloud a formal letter of friendship, during which strings and belts of wampum were presented to the Cherokee at predetermined moments, usually preceded by a phrase such as “…I give you this Belt.” This carefully choreographed performance made it seem as though the governor himself was there, and taking part in the ceremony.

After this, Cherokee sachem Wahachey stood on a bench and spoke, encouraging his warriors to look with friendship on the people of Maryland. At the conclusion of his speech, the gifts were divided amongst the warriors, as was customary. Later, Wahachey spoke again, this time in a more warlike manner. “This string my Brother the Governor sent to Sharpen my Hatchet he may depend on our doing so therewith, and that we will always have it stained with the Blood of the Enemy…My talk with the Governor of Maryland shall always be straight, I shall never deal double with him and I hope his Language to us will always be straight and true…”. James Merrell mentions the importance of this ceremonial code in transactions between Indians and the English in Colonial America.

This having been done, Maryland had secured the Indians as comrades-in-arms against the French and their Indian allies, with whom the English in America had been at war since 1754. The French and Indian War, as it would come to be called, was a struggle between European superpowers for control of the interior of North America, and the first flashpoint in this conflict was the Ohio River Valley.

The French, having settled Quebec to the north of the Ohio, had long conducted extensive trade in the area with the Indians and did not wish to permit the English to enter the market as competitors, or worse yet, as colonizers. The English, populous along the Atlantic coast, were expanding toward the interior of the continent and planned to use trade with the Indians as a prelude to new settlement. With waterways acting as the primary modes of transportation in the eighteenth century, control of the confluence of the Ohio, Youghiogheny and the Monongahela rivers (the “Forks of the Ohio”), became essential to each empire’s plans. The stakes were high.

When war broke out in July of 1754, both sides took advantage of their trade contacts within Indian communities to secure much-needed allies through “payments” in the way of supplies. The Indians, comfortable operating in woodland environments (unlike the French and English), provided essential intelligence and became critical to frontier military operations. Natives were soon at work attacking both European settlements and other Indians; at times tribes with whom they were already enemies, and at other times tribes that the Indians’ patron European power had deemed “hostile.” Often these military arrangements were concluded at hastily constructed frontier forts.

The meeting at Fort Frederick in May of 1757 was typical in that it had its share of awkward cross-cultural misunderstandings. One of these occurred soon after the Maryland envoys arrived, as Wahachey, having taken prisoners and scalps, made it clear that he anticipated additional payment for these services. The chief was informed that it “was expected that they should deliver up the Prisoners and Scalps before they received the addition present such being the custom here and what was required by the Laws of the Province.” The Maryland colony had set aside ₤4000 to pay friendly Indians for prisoners and scalps taken, and it was from this fund that the Cherokees were to be compensated.

Wahachey bristled at the demand that he surrender his bounty, replying that it should be sufficient to “shew his Brother the Governor or those that he sent to represent him, the Prisoners and the scalps of the Enemies that they had destroyed, that it was the Indians’ custom to preserve as trophies the Hair of the Enemies that they had killed in Battle and to carry them home to their own People…” The Marylanders may have been suspicious of the scalps and wished to inspect them more closely, as many had come to believe that the Cherokee were in the habit of removing the scalps of any dead they happened across, and even of dividing larger scalps to make it appear that more were killed. Alliances between Indians and the English were historically built more on mistrust than anything else.

Despite this lack of confidence, in the previous two years the Cherokee had become a major component of the military defense network of English colonies with borders on the western frontier. The colonies, which were alternately unwilling or unable to defend themselves against attacks by the French and their Indian allies, had decided to purchase the Indians’ friendship with a torrent of gifts with which the French could not compete. Back in England, manufacturers studied Indians’ tastes and tailored products specifically for that market. A signal strength of the British Empire was its economic engine with its seemingly unlimited capacity for the production of exports, and here it was put to use in the targeted cultivation of Indian allies.

This relationship with Virginia had started for the Cherokee some years earlier, when in 1752 the chieftain Amouskositte had traveled seven hundred miles north to court the favor of Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie, who showered the Cherokee with gifts. Dinwiddie believed he could broker a truce between the Catawba, Cherokee and the Iroquois, thus gaining credibility and creating a united front with which to defend the Virginia frontier. This disturbed South Carolina Governor James Glen, to whom the Cherokee had long been allies; Glen successfully discouraged Cherokee participation in a proposed meeting of all frontier tribes at Winchester in 1754 and he kept them from coming to the aid of British General Edward Braddock’s doomed expedition in 1755. But for the Cherokee, the Virginians presented an opportunity to become less dependent on South Carolina, and to increase their opportunities for trade. It was Glen, however, who inadvertently strengthened Virginia’s hand by not completing a fort near the Overhill settlements that he had promised to the Cherokee early in 1755. The Virginians saw the opening and undercut Glen and South Carolina by promising to build the disputed fort. 

By the spring of 1757 over 250 Cherokee warriors, divided between small bands numbering no more than a few dozen each, patrolled the Virginia-Maryland-Pennsylvania frontier.  These bands were further divided into war parties of around 14, which, combined with a similar number of English, comprised one-half of a forest patrol, led by a lieutenant. Such patrols were typically based out of Fort Cumberland in far western Maryland. Wahachey’s group of 60 was the largest of these bands. For these Indians, gift-giving was “part of the essential protocol of friendship and treaty making, symbols of ratification and good faith…’a meaning which went beyond words’…”. To not fulfill one’s promise to provide gifts was a breach of honor and a slap in the face to the Indians. In fact, it was a Virginia misstep in this critical area that would lead the Cherokees to a pact with the Maryland colony, which happened to be in the right place at the right time for Wahachey.

In early April 1757, as Dinwiddie was redeploying 200 men under Washington’s command from Fort Cumberland to South Carolina to deal with a threat from enemy Indians there, Wahachey’s band was encamped on the property of Clement Reed, a justice of the peace in Lunenburg County, Virginia. The Cherokee, on their way to Winchester, had been expecting both guides and gifts of guns, powder and other necessary supplies to be waiting for them there; neither was, having been redirected to Bedford Court House, closer to the mountains where Dinwiddie had expected the Indians to pass on their way northward.

Outraged that Reed did not have the gifts for them, they demanded that he write an angry letter on their behalf to Dinwiddie. In the interim, Wahachey gave free rein to his men, who were accompanied by interpreter Richard Smith and guide Captain Richard Pearis. The Indians soon were wreaking havoc all over the county, helping themselves to over 1,000 pounds of meat and disemboweling a Chickasaw who had dared to suggest that they restrain themselves. Dinwiddie, in response to the Indians’ letter, ordered Reed to call out the militia and have the Indians delivered to him in Williamsburg. By the time Reed received the letter, however, Wahachey’s band had moved on to Bedford, which spared the justice from this unpleasant duty.

At Bedford, the Indians finally received their payments, which kept the inhabitants there from their wrath. When they arrived at Winchester, however, the still unhappy Cherokees again expected to receive more payments, this time from George Washington’s deputy, Captain George Mercer, but he had little to give. Mercer spoke to Wahachey and offered some wampum, which the sachem angrily refused. Swallow Warrior, a leading Cherokee warrior from the Estatoe settlements, told Mercer that the large body of Indians that were with them had been enticed with promises of payments, and that Dinwiddie was making them liars before their men. The Cherokee warrior threatened to lead his men to desert to the French. Mercer implored them to be patient, and promised them payments upon their return from the fighting. Wahachey, for his part, protested throughout the town, demanding that Dinwiddie himself come to Winchester to appease him. Mercer wrote to Washington, then at Fredericksburg on his way south, begging him to send payments without delay, but Washington also had nothing.

In late April, the Cherokees left Winchester unfulfilled and made their way north to Pennsylvania, where they were successful in a clash with enemy Indians. From there, they turned southward into Maryland, which was in the market for Indian allies, largely because of a combination of apathy and years of political infighting in the colony.

Three years earlier in 1754, as hostilities with the French became more open, Maryland officials had at first reacted with indifference – Maryland, after all, was not being invaded, and with Virginia claiming almost all of the territory around the western panhandle of the province, many Marylanders felt that Virginia should bear the burden of frontier defense. This lethargy must have seemed ironic at the time, as Horatio Sharpe had just been named by the Crown as commander in chief of the united colonial effort against the French and their Indian allies. In this first year of the war, Sharpe expended a great deal of time trying to persuade the Maryland Assembly to allocate funds to support the defense of the frontier. Eventually, he was able to obtain ₤6000 in July, the same month that Lt. Colonel George Washington surrendered Fort Necessity to the French, temporarily removing the English presence in the Ohio River Valley. As 1754 ended, Washington was one of many who insisted that the Valley could only be contested with the help of Indian allies, and these would have to be purchased.

An English counterstroke would have to wait until the next campaign season in 1755, when General Edward Braddock arrived to take command. At a council of war held in Alexandria, Virginia, in April, Braddock and the colonial governors present agreed that the Crown would supply the cash for Indian payments, with that amount supplemented by funds from the individual colonies. (Governors Shirley of Massachusetts, Dinwiddie of Virginia, De Lancey of New York, Sharpe of Maryland and Morris of Pennsylvania were in attendance. A critical absence was James Glen of South Carolina, who was not invited, perhaps due to lingering animosity over Dinwiddie’s outreach to the Cherokees. Feeling left out, he exercised his influence with the Cherokees and Catawbas, who failed to support Braddock’s campaign, despite Dinwiddie’s promise of 400 Southern braves. Without Glen’s support, Dinwiddie’s payments did not produce the desired or anticipated effect, leaving Braddock without critical numbers of native warriors as he trekked through the Pennsylvania forests.

After Braddock’s columns were routed along the Monongahela, second in command Colonel Dunbar retreated to Fort Cumberland, burying Braddock’s body in the road so that it could never be recovered and mutilated by Indians. His defeated forces arrived on July 22 and tarried only eleven days before withdrawing to the safety of far away Philadelphia. In a letter to Sharpe dated October 24, 1755 from London, Cecil Calvert seemed dumbfounded over Dunbar’s abandonment of the Maryland frontier. “It more particularly Effects My Lord, his Province being in view of the Conquering Enemy, now bereft of Britain’s Force sent to it’s Protection…”.

By that time, it was being reported that over one hundred Marylanders had been killed or taken captive by Indians on the frontier, while their farms and homes were being ransacked. Maryland had been left alone to defend itself against the French and their Indian allies, while the Assembly steadfastly refused to approve funding for the colony’s defense. The nature of their refusal was largely political – they would not tax the people unless the Proprietor exposed his property to the new taxes, and this Calvert would not do; in fact, Sharpe was under orders to veto any such provision found in an Assembly bill.

Throughout that harvest season of 1755, the colony’s main newspaper, The Maryland Gazette, dutifully reported accounts of Indian attacks on the western frontier. “The same party of Indians have also killed or carried off Benjamin Rogers, his wife, and seven children, and Edmund Marle of Frederick County. On Patterson’s Creek many families have, within this month (October) been murdered, carried away, or burnt in their houses, by a party of these barbarians…” Maryland seemed at the same time swept up in hysteria over the Indian incursions and politically paralyzed in Annapolis. It would be left for someone else to provide a way out, and fortunately for Maryland, Virginia Governor Dinwiddie had not yet given up on the Cherokees.

In December of 1755, Dinwiddie became more aggressive in his pursuit of the Southern Indians, sending Virginia commissioners to purchase their assistance (cleverly promising them the fort which South Carolina had failed to build), while simultaneously complaining to Whitehall that it was Glen who had sabotaged Braddock’s campaign. In 1756 Glen was recalled, and his successor, William Henry Lyttleton, made certain that Virginia got its Cherokee alliance. This turn of events would, in the course of eighteen months, bring Maryland a group of angry Cherokee warriors looking for new English “friends.”

The Cherokees who arrived at Fort Frederick on April 29, 1757, were greeted enthusiastically by the captain in command, who quickly reached an understanding with Wahachey and Pearis. The sachem dictated a letter to be sent to Sharpe, indicating his desire to serve Maryland and an expectation of receiving payment for services already rendered. While Sharpe’s answer was pending, the Cherokees joined with a group of Maryland soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Shelby and set out for the Forks of the Ohio, where they surprised a small group of Delawares and Shawnees squatting around their breakfast fire, taking prisoners and scalps.

As they returned to Maryland through Pennsylvania, Wahachey’s party stopped briefly at Fort Lyttelton, in south-central Pennsylvania near the Maryland border, where they were irritated to learn that the colony’s Indian agent had conferred with Mohawks and other “friendly” Indians. Pennsylvania had made it a policy to grant safe passage to any Indians who would agree not to attack their settlements. Representatives of the Penns’ colony were invited to meet formally with the Cherokees at Fort Frederick, which they were delighted to do, grabbing up all of the gifts they could find and hastily making the journey south. At Fort Frederick, the gifts were delivered to Wahachey, who took on a tone of reverent gratitude as he recounted his men’s defense of Pennsylvania. Apparently unwilling to disrupt the positive atmosphere created by the gift-giving, he said nothing of Pennsylvania’s conduct with enemy tribes.

In Annapolis, Sharpe, upon receiving Wahachey’s correspondence, spent ₤300 on payments and hurried them by wagon to Fort Frederick, where they arrived with Wolstenholme and Ridout on the May 20, 1757. When the Marylanders arrived, Wahachey spoke of his disapproval of the overtures of Pennsylvania with tribes “…with whom they were at open War, by whom they had been so cruelly used, and against whom the English had been and were still Solliciting their assistance.” The Marylanders did their best to assure them that they had been ill-informed and that only certain nations that were on good terms with the English were involved. Ironically, “Shawanese and Delawares” are mentioned specifically as peoples in “Amity with the English.” It is not known whether the Maryland envoys realized that the prisoners and scalps they had just paid for were from Shawnee and Delaware warriors.

After adding the gifts of Maryland to Pennsylvania’s, the Cherokees, with prisoners and scalps in hand, left for Winchester, where Mercer had promised them more payments the month before. By this time there were 148 Cherokees, 124 Catawbas and 60 other Indians at Winchester, all without English leadership. Throughout that summer, most of them stayed to defend the frontier, with some even venturing as far north as Fort Duquesne to take scalps, “…under no manner of command…& greedy after payments,” complained Governor Dinwiddie. Finally, on August 13, the last Cherokee left Winchester and headed south for home. It was customary for the Indians to go off to war early in the spring and to move quickly against their enemies; they grew impatient with the deliberate pace maintained by the redcoat army. For this reason, many of them got bored and simply returned home in the mid to late summer months; as far as the English were concerned, these native allies were deserters.

While there were never more than a few hundred Indians operating in the field with the English army, this does not diminish their value in the war against the French. Without Indian guides and scouts to help screen their movements, redcoats became easy targets for the French and their Indian allies. The critical nature of this assistance can be seen in the disaster of the ponderous Braddock expedition, which found itself ambushed in the Pennsylvania wilderness as it moved without strong Indian support toward Fort Duquesne.

For the Indians’ part, they understood how the system of gift-giving could work to their advantage, how desperately the English needed them and as a result, they found ways to “work the system” to their advantage. Depending on the availability of gifts, Wahachey could be pleasant and cooperative or intimidating and threatening. For him, the failure to provide promised gifts represented not just a delay or oversight, but an unforgivable violation of diplomatic protocol; it is not to be forgotten that the Virginians had used just such as lapse by South Carolina Governor James Glen to gain Cherokee trust (and eventually a military alliance) in 1755. The English understood the system well enough to plan their future campaigns with it in mind.

For Maryland, with its uneven support of the war effort, the enlistment of Indian allies such as Wahachey’s Cherokees was central to their ability to defend the western frontier. When Wahachey arrived unexpectedly in April of 1757 at Fort Frederick, Maryland officials must have regarded it as a stroke of incredibly good fortune, and they wasted little time in exploiting it. When Governor Sharpe’s envoys met with the Cherokees in May of 1757, they employed long-standing customs of gift giving and established patterns of diplomacy to conclude a pact of military alliance.


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