Wata’gi or Watauga Town

Militia Burn their First Village


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Coordinates: 35.2219, -83.3977.

Type: Stop
Tour: Cherokee
County: Macon

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View the site of this Cherokee town’s mound from the shoulder of NC 28. A business is on the east side (right side if coming from Franklin) near the coordinates. Park on the shoulder between it and the houses to the north, somewhere you can see clearly into the field behind the business.

Mug saying, "Do Whig Out!" on a parchment scroll

Mug with a fortifications map saying, "Wilmington 1781"




Button for audio tourCherokees attacked European-Americans along a British treaty border due to repeated treaty violations and threats by the Americans to invade. Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford’s part-time “militia” army marched to retaliate by destroying Cherokee villages. It includes around 2,400 men on horseback, 1,400 pack-horses, and a herd of cattle. (See Davidson’s Fort for details).

Watauga Town and Mound

Look at the highest point of the farm field to the east.

An advance detachment of 1,000 men of Rutherford’s militia arrived at the Cherokee village of Wata´gi (pronounced “wah-TAH-gee”[1]) on Sunday, September 8, 1776, now called “Watauga.” Dropping down from Cowee/Watauga Gap, they must have forded the Little Tennessee River somewhere nearby. It curves around the east and north (left) sides of the modern fields. (You can drive through the town site later.)

Portrait of a man in late 1700s clothing, a blue coat and white cravat, with ear-length gray hair
William Bartram (by Charles Willson Peale, 1808)

At the high point of the hill is the town’s earthen mound, built hundreds of years earlier by Native Americans of the Mississippian culture or ancestors of the Cherokees and topped by a wooden community building. Naturalist William Bartram had visited Wata´gi in May 1775. “‘Riding through this large town,’” he wrote, “‘the road carried me… up to the council-house, which was a very large dome or rotunda, situated on the top of an ancient artificial mound and here my road terminated. All before me on every side, appeared little plantations of young Corn, Beans, (etc.) divided from each other by narrow strips or borders of grass, which marked the bounds of each one’s property, their habitation standing in the midst…’”[a]

An historian adds, “At Watauga the chief invited Bartram for a meal of boiled venison, corn cakes, and boiled hominy, washed down with cool milk. After the meal, the host offered his guest tobacco and pipe, decorated with feathers and wampum and sheathed in snake skin.”[b]

Photo of a large green hill with an slight rise to the left by a lone tree, with a forested mountain peeking over the right side
(AmRevNC photograph)

Like most of the ancient mounds adopted by Cherokee villages, this one was plundered and leveled by Americans starting in the 1800s, but some of it remains atop the hill.

The town was warned by Cherokees fleeing Rutherford’s approach the next year, so everyone had left. Its warriors were probably at the Black Hole valley west of modern Franklin with many others, hoping to ambush the militia later.

The next day the rest of the army arrived. On Tuesday the 10th, a detachment of 600 was sent south to Nĭkwăsĭ´ (now Franklin), hoping to meet up with a South Carolina militia force that planned on meeting Rutherford there.[2] Meanwhile Rutherford’s men began destroying the crops here by trampling them with horses and livestock, and taking any valuables left behind. After camping overnight, the next day they march north to Cowee after setting all of the buildings ablaze.[3]

Town Site

Drive north (away from Franklin) to the first right turn, Riverbend Road. Turn right. The road curves left and then eventually begins a long curve to the right through the town site along the empty hill. Just before the next house on the right, you will see a wide entrance leading to a gate. Pause or park there.

Wata´gi stretched along the banks of the river through its curve to the south.[4] Up the slope from the bottomlands on the left, you would have seen sturdy log cabins, round sweat lodges of vertical logs, farm fields, livestock pens, and at least one granary.

The mound and surrounding acres are now owned by a conservation trust protecting it.[c]

Depending on which direction you are headed next, you can either turn around or simply stay on Riverbend, which eventually loops back to NC 28.

Photo of a pasture with tufts of weeds, three cows, and a line of trees across the back along a river
(AmRevNC photograph)

[1] Cucumber, Devin, Cherokee History, In-person interview, Cherokee, N.C., 8/27/2020.

[2] 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>

[3] In addition to the other footnoted sources, “Stop” information comes from one of two guidebooks; NCpedia; the online essay for the relevant North Carolina Highway Marker; and related Sight pages (see “About Sources“). See also Dean, Nadia, A Demand of Blood: The Cherokee War of 1776 (Cherokee, N.C.: Valley River Press, 2012).

[4] Marshall, Lamar, ‘A Cherokee Journey: Chronicles of History, Geography and Ecology’ <https://www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=aec262c784ea4902a26a865bfe7949b6> [accessed 15 April 2020].

[a] Quoted in: Reynolds, William R., The Cherokee Struggle to Maintain Identity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015).

[b] Walker, Anthony, ‘Campaigns Against the Cherokees, 1776-1782’, Undated (Museum of the Cherokee Indian Archive, E99.C5 W355 19uu, Walker, Anthony, Campaigns against the Cherokees).

[c] ‘Watauga Town’, Mainspring Conservation Trust <https://www.mainspringconserves.org/projects/watagua-mound/> [accessed 20 April 2023].

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