John Watts (Cherokee chief)

John Watts (or Kunokeski ), also known as Young Tassel, was one of the leaders of the Chickamauga Cherokee (or "Lower Cherokee") during the Cherokee-American wars. Watts became particularly active in the fighting after the murder of his uncle, Old Tassel, by militant frontiersmen who attacked a band of delegates traveling to a peace conference in 1788.

Family life

John Watts was the "mixed-blood" son of a British trader (who was also named John Watts and was the official British government Indian interpreter for the area until his death in 1770). His mother was a sister of Old Tassel, Doublehead, and Pumpkin Boy.[1] Watts' parents resided in the Overhill Towns along the Little Tennessee River. Wurte Watts, Sequoyah's mother, may have been his sister.

Separation from the Overhill Towns

Although he withdrew from the Overhill Towns along with Dragging Canoe's band, Watts was, at first, only occasionally involved in the activities of Dragging Canoe and his Chickamauga warriors. He moved first to Running Water Town, and later to Willstown.

Watts eventually became Dragging Canoe's hand-picked successor.


Watts led his first major action of the Cherokee-American wars in 1786 against the forces of the State of Franklin over their incursions into the territory of the Overhill Towns. Warriors from the Valley Towns also joined in the attacks.

His next major action came in October 1788. Following Old Tassel's murder, he led a large war party into North Carolina's Washington District (now Tennessee). The band included The Ridge (known as Nunnehidihi, or Ganundalegi) going into his first battle. They captured and burned Gillespie's Station, killing its defenders and taking several prisoners. The Cherokee warriors then proceeded against White's Fort (modern day Knoxville, Tennessee), where they were repulsed. Afterward, the group made a semi-permanent camp along Flint Creek (in the area of the future Unicoi County, Tennessee), harassing, raiding, and attacking white settlers in the surrounding countryside. Their base was discovered (in January the following year) and they were attacked by a troop commanded by John Sevier.

Watts signed the 1791 Treaty of Holston, along with fellow war leaders: Doublehead, Bloody Fellow, Black Fox (a future chief of the Cherokee Nation), The Badger (Dragging Canoe's brother), and Rising Fawn.

War chief of the Lower Cherokee

In 1792, Dragging Canoe died suddenly. Watts, who had been living back in the Overhill area, succeeded Dragging Canoe as council head of the Lower Cherokee (in accordance with the old warrior's wishes).[2]

First actions

Watts, along with Bloody Fellow, Doublehead, and "Young Dragging Canoe" (Tsula), continued Dragging Canoe's policy of Indian unity. He honored the agreement with McGillivray, of the Upper Muscogee, to build blockhouses (from which warriors of both tribes could operate) at Running Water, Muscle Shoals, and at the junction of the Tennessee and Clinch Rivers. Watts traveled to Pensacola to conclude a treaty with the Spanish governor of West Florida, Arturo O'Neill. The treaty provided them with arms and supplies with which to carry on the war. At about this time, Watts moved his base of operations to Willstown, which positioned them closer to their Muscogee allies while further insulating his band from the westward expansion of the new United States.

In September 1792, Watts assembled a large gathering of Cherokee and Muscogee warriors (which also included a contingent of cavalry). He planned to lead a campaign into the Cumberland region of Appalachia. It was to be a three-pronged attack: Tahlonteeskee (Ataluntiski) would lead a force to ambush the Kentucky road; Middle Striker would take the Walton road; and Watts would lead the main army of 280 Cherokee, Shawnee, and Muscogee warriors against Nashville itself (then capital of the Mero District of the new Southwest Territory). On the way to Nashville, the army encountered and attacked a settlement known as Buchanan's Station. It proved to be a disaster. Watts was seriously wounded, while Siksika (known as "The Shawnee Warrior,"—and an older brother of Tecumseh)); Tahlonteeskee (also called Talotiskee of the Broken Arrow—a Muscogee warrior); Little Owl (a brother of Dragging Canoe); and Pumpkin Boy (a brother of Doublehead), all died in the encounter.[3]

Last campaign

A delegation of Shawnee is known to have stopped in Ustanali in 1793 on their way to the Muscogee and Choctaw settlements. The purpose of the trip was to ask the tribes to join in a united effort to punish the Chickasaw for joining St. Clair's army in the north.

Later in 1793, Watts sent envoys to Knoxville, which was at the time the capital of the Southwest Territory, to meet with Governor Blount to discuss terms for a lasting peace. The peace party included Bob McLemore, Tahlonteeskee, Captain Charley of Running Water, and Doublehead, as well as the white delegates. Along the way, the group was attacked by a militant group of frontiersmen during a stop at the Overhill town of Coyatee. Hanging Maw was wounded, while his wife and daughter (along with several other Indians and one of the white delegates), were killed. The Cherokee people, along with Watts' Chickmauga warriors, agreed to await the outcome of the subsequent trial. In large part because the man responsible (who had lost his family in an Indian raid) was a close friend of John Sevier, the trial proved to be a farce.

Watts responded by invading the Holston area with one of the largest Indian forces ever seen in the region, over one thousand Cherokee, Muscogee, and Shawnee. He intended to attack Knoxville itself. On the way, the Cherokee leaders were discussing among themselves whether to kill all the inhabitants of Knoxville, or just the men. Doublehead argued for the former, while James Vann advocated the latter.

On the way to Knoxville, the war party encountered the small settlement of Cavett's Station. After they had surrounded the place, Bob Benge negotiated with the inhabitants, agreeing that if they surrendered, their lives would be spared. However, after the settlers had walked out, Doublehead's group and his Muscogee allies attacked and killed them. Vann managed to grab one small boy and pull him onto his saddle, only to have Doublehead smash the boy's skull in with an axe. Watts intervened in time to save another young boy, handing him to Vann, who put the boy behind him on his horse and later handed him over to three of the Muscogee for safe-keeping; unfortunately, one of the Muscogee chiefs killed the boy and scalped him a few days later.

Final peace

With the defeat of the Western Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and the destruction of Nickajack Town and Running Water Town in September 1794, the leaders of the Lower Cherokee became convinced that continuing the war was futile. The council signed the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse in November, officially ending hostilities.

Although a "national" government, complete with a Principal Chief and National Council, was elected in 1794, it had no real power, with individual regional councils for each of the major Cherokee geographic divisions predominating. Watts himself spurned any "national office." He served as chief of the Lower Cherokee until his death in 1802, upon which he was succeeded by Doublehead.


  1. Note: Under the Cherokee clan system, a maternal uncle-nephew link was more important than a father-son lineage, since clan identity was centered on that of one's mother.
  2. Chronicles of Oklahoma; article; Brown, John P.; "Eastern Cherokee Chiefs" (Volume 16, Number 1); March1938; retrieved July 2013.
  3. "Chickamauga Cherokee Wars (1776-1794) - part 7 of 9".


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  • Evans, E. Raymond. "Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Bob Benge". Journal of Cherokee Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 98–106. (Cherokee: Museum of the Cherokee Indian, 1976).
  • Evans, E. Raymond. "Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Dragging Canoe". Journal of Cherokee Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 176–189. (Cherokee: Museum of the Cherokee Indian, 1977).
  • Haywood, W.H. The Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee from its Earliest Settlement up to the Year 1796. (Nashville: Methodist Episcopal Publishing House, 1891).
  • Klink, Karl, and James Talman, ed. The Journal of Major John Norton. (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1970).
  • McLoughlin, William G. Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
  • Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee. (Nashville: Charles and Randy Elder-Booksellers, 1982).
  • Moore, John Trotwood and Austin P. Foster. Tennessee, The Volunteer State, 1769–1923, Vol. 1. (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1923).
  • Ramsey, James Gettys McGregor. The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century. (Chattanooga: Judge David Campbell, 1926).
Preceded by
Dragging Canoe
Leader of the Chickamauga/Lower Cherokee
Succeeded by
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