Cherokees Ambush a Militia Army
Park at the entrance to Forest Service Road 388, just off Wayah Gap Road. You are near the top of the Black Hole, the ravine that extends about 1.5 miles downhill.
A faction of Cherokees retaliated for continuing incursions on their lands with a series of attacks over the Summer of 1776, so commanders from the Carolinas and Virginia have launched coordinated campaigns to destroy native towns.
Knowing they cannot defend the villages one at a time, warriors have evacuated their families and joined in a plan to ambush the militia. Anywhere from 500 to 1,200 have gathered at a long, narrow gorge that is the main route deeper into the mountains over Wayah Gap. It is possible a small number of Loyalist militia are among them.
Several thousand South Carolina militia, with Catawba natives, under Col. Andrew Williamson tried to join up with a North Carolina force under Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford. They missed each other at Nĭkwăsĭ´ (modern Franklin). Rutherford headed southwest a few days earlier to attack more villages. He probably intended to use Wayah Gap, but missed the turn, so Williamson likely thinks he is following Rutherford. His troops camped overnight in a village called Canucca seven miles east, across from where Wayah Gap Road now meets US 64. They leave early in the morning and head for the gap.
Thursday, September 19, 1776.
Imagine the Scene
Walk or drive to the edge of Wayah Gap Road and look downhill.
In 1776 there is a native trail where the road runs today. You see Patriot militiamen make their way slowly toward you on horseback in pairs, side-by-side. The militia wear standard backwoods clothing, not uniforms, and carry long guns, hatchets, knives, and perhaps some swords. Each pair stays close to the one ahead of them per Williams’ orders, because his scouts have warned him of Cherokees in the area. Still, the line stretches almost two miles. As you watch, the front (“vanguard”) of the army, a detachment of 100 men, rides past you.
Follow them with your eyes up the pavement to where it curves out of sight.
The vanguard disappears around the time the main part of the column arrives near you. It is roughly 10:30 in the morning. Suddenly guns blaze from the woods in front of and behind you, and men fall. All along the gorge on both sides, as far as you can see in both directions, Cherokees hidden in the trees are marked by their muzzle blasts. (For most of the length of the Black Hole, the slope on the far side of Wayah Creek is within 50 yards, the effective range of muskets of the day.) The militia still in the gorge take cover as best they can and begin firing back.
Militiaman Arthur Fairie wrote, “‘we marched into a valley or rather a hollow, named Black Hole, surrounded by mountains on all sides. (T)he Indians… fired on our guard, and all our regiment was soon engaged, & the firing of the Indians was incessant.’”
Walk or drive uphill on the dirt forest road. Stop just past the gate, and looked toward the houses nearby and across Wayah Gap Road. (The far one is barely visible in summer.) This relatively flat and open area is Crawford Cove, though it was probably still wooded at the time.
Part of the column moves into the cove, joined soon by the retreating vanguard. The militia find themselves firing in all directions here. You also hear a continuous din of gun reports reverberating up the valley. The militia get increasingly desperate as smoke fills the area, further obscuring their attackers.
Around the cove, a number of the Cherokee maneuver to the lower slopes, eager for the hand-to-hand combat with war clubs preferred in their culture, because it is considered more courageous. As they emerge you see they are in traditional battle dress: loin clothes and red body paint, accented by different shapes in black on the face and body—the color of death. At some point the soldiers charge outward in all directions to drive them back, and are met by the warriors.
It is likely in the cove that 41-year-old Capt. Francis Ross finds himself in a vicious fight. A gunshot drops him with a slight but bloody head wound. Fairie wrote, “‘the Indians thought to have his scalp and… struck him with the gun in his hand, until the force of the strokes broke the butt piece; but the Captain recovering, seized the fellow and overcame him getting his scalp.’”
Eventually the warriors retire upslope. After two hours, the heavy fire dies away as the natives run out of ammunition and pull out of the gorge. However, potshots keep the militia pinned down until around 4 p.m.
At least four of the Cherokees remain behind dead, while an unknown number of casualties were taken away to prevent scalping by the militia. One account says one of the warriors “was afterward discovered to be a woman, painted and armed like a warrior.”
The army camps in place to tend to the militia dead and wounded. “‘A most dreadful sight to behold,’” Fairie declared, with three of their men found scalped, and one speared. The dead are “buried in a swampy place, with a causeway built over the graves to hide them” made of poles (location unknown).
If you will drive toward US 64 when you are done here, start with the “Uphill” section below; if you will leave over the gap, go to the “Downhill” section first. In either case, follow the directions in the other section as you leave the area.
First return to Wayah Gap Road.
Drive uphill, getting a better look into Crawford Cove as you pass through it.
As you curve left, you enter the area where the vanguard of the militia was attacked. Imagine the panic if you were surrounded by the muzzle blasts, and realized you had no place to go except a narrow trail backwards filled by other men and horses.
After a sharp curve left, you will see the state historical marker about this battle on the right. There is a long pullout across the road if you wish to read it.
For a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains, continue a short distance uphill to the crest and take the Forest Service road to the right. A 4.4-mile drive, on a sometimes bumpy dirt road, takes you to a parking lot just past the observation tower on Wayah Bald. For those with mobility issues, a patio at the tower is fully accessible by a paved trail from adjacent parking.
Downhill in the Hole
From the intersection of the first stop, at Forest Road 388, drive downhill 1.6 miles to a pullout on the right side, just past two small, green utility enclosures. Along the way, think what it was like to be trapped here with gunfire from both sides of the ravine. After parking, look back uphill.
Around here, where the creek valley begins to spread out, the Cherokee lines ended. The militia column stretches another half-mile downhill. Unable to move up the trail, Col. Thomas Sumter leads his riflemen up the sides to prevent the militia from being surrounded, and holds that position until the last shots are fired.
The Battle of the Black Hole: All locations except the trail route are approximate; “X” marks first tour stop. 1) S.C. militia march up trail to Wayah Gap as Cherokees await. 2) Vanguard is ambushed. 3) Vanguard and part of column crowd into cove; hand-to-hand combat occurs. 4) Riflemen move up slopes to prevent column getting surrounded. 5) Cherokees withdraw as ammunition runs out.
- Cherokee: At least 4-14 killed and 8 wounded, 0-13 captured.
- Militia: 12-17 killed, 20-31 wounded.
After the Battle
- Ten days later, on Sunday the 29th, Rutherford’s army passed this way from the gap downhill as they headed home. Lt. William Lenoir reported, “we marched by ware (sic) the South army fought the Battle saw the Dead Indians lying & where they buried their dedd (sic) in a Branch…”
- This was the last direct confrontation between massed Cherokees and militia in modern North Carolina. Raids by both sides continued for years, and more open battles occurred across the mountains.
- Beadle, Michael, ‘Rutherford Trace: Local Historians Examine the Legacy of a Shock-and-Awe Revolutionary War Campaign against the Cherokee’, Smoky Mountain News, 2006 <https://www.smokymountainnews.com/archives/item/13169-rutherford-trace-local-historians-examine-the-legacy-of-a-shock-and-awe-revolutionary-war-campaign-against-the-cherokee> [accessed 5 April 2020]
- ‘Cherokee Defeat by South Carolina Militia, 1776’, NC DNCR <https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2014/09/19/cherokee-defeat-by-south-carolina-militia-1776> [accessed 7 April 2020] /
- Cucumber, Devin, Cherokee History, In-person interview, Cherokee, N.C., 8/26/2020
- Hamilton, J. G. de Roulhac, ‘Revolutionary Diary of William Lenoir’, The Journal of Southern History, 6.2 (1940), 247–59 <https://doi.org/10.2307/2191209>
- Jones, Randell, Before They Were Heroes at King’s Mountain, North Carolina/Tennessee Edition (Winston-Salem, NC: Daniel Boone Footsteps, 2011)
- Lewis, J. D., ‘Coweecho River’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2009 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_coweecho_river.html> [accessed 7 April 2020]
- ‘Marker: Q-7’, North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=Q-7> [accessed 7 April 2020]
- Mooney, James, Myths of the Cherokee (New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995) <https://books.google.com/books?id=YU9LpoZq5EwC&lpg=PA49&dq=rutherford%20expedition%20north%20carolina&pg=PP5#v=onepage&q=rutherford%20expedition%20north%20carolina&f=false>
- Oconaluftee Indian Village Tour, Cherokee, N.C., 2020
- Reynolds, William R., The Cherokee Struggle to Maintain Identity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015)
- Walker, Melissa, The Battles of Kings Mountain and Cowpens: The American Revolution in the Southern Backcountry (Routledge, 2013)