Learning our local history on a Kentucky hillside

Ned Jilton • Jun 25, 2019 at 9:30 PM

One of the themes of the American Battlefield Trust’s conference I recently attended in Kentucky was Daniel Boone and the American Revolution.

We rolled out early on a Friday morning and after a brief stop along the Kentucky River we were soon walking in a light sprinkle of rain along the trail to Fort Boonesborough. I was ready to hear the exploits of Daniel Boone in the Bluegrass State when the historian leading the group, Daniel Davis, stopped and called everyone together to catch our breath and wait for stragglers. As we did so, he began his presentation.

“Back in 1775, a man by the name of Richard Henderson made a deal with the Cherokee at a place called Sycamore Shoals, located in modern day Elizabethton, Tennessee, to purchase Kentucky.” Davis said.

Nothing like traveling to Kentucky to get a history lesson on East Tennessee.

As the story goes, Henderson, a North Carolina judge and land speculator, thought that after the defeat of the Shawnee in 1774 the British would control much of what is today Kentucky and Tennessee. Seeing an opportunity to make a profit and establish a 14th colony, Henderson sent Daniel Boone into the region to contact the Cherokee, the last major land holders in the area, and have them gather at Sycamore Shoals along the Watauga River in modern day Elizabethton to see if he could negotiate a land purchase.

The deal Henderson struck was known as the Transylvania Purchase and was in two parts.

One part, known as the “Path Deed,” acquired land for a road through the wilderness from Sycamore Shoals to Kentucky and read in part, “Beginning on the Holston river, whence the course of Powell’s mountain strikes the same; thence up the river to the crossing of the Virginia line; thence westerly along the line run by Donelson to a point six English miles east of Long Island of Holston river; thence a direct course toward the mouth of the Great Kanawha until it reaches the top of the ridge on Powell’s mountain; thence westerly along said ridge to the beginning.”

The second part was known as the “Great Grant,” which was for the purchase of 20,000,000 acres of land between the Kentucky Rive and the Cumberland River. The grant in part read, “Beginning at the Ohio river at the mouth of Kentucky, Cherokee, or what, by the English, is called Louisa river; thence up said river and the most northerly fork of the same to the head spring thereof; thence a southeast course to the ridge of Powell’s mountain; thence westwardly along the ridge of said mountain to a point from which a northwest course will strike the headspring of the most southwardly branch of Cumberland river; thence down said river, including all its waters, to the Ohio river; thence up said river as it meanders to the beginning.”

The Transylvania Purchase was in trouble from the very beginning.

First, it was illegal. The purchase violated the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which blocked any settlement west of a line drawn along the Appalachian Mountains to preserve Indian territory.

Second, not all the Cherokee were on board with the deal.

While Attakullakulla, also known as “Little Carpenter” and Oconastota, also known as “Stalking Turkey” signed the agreement Attakullakulla’s son, “Dragging Canoe” refused to sign and left Sycamore Shoals with his followers. From 1777 until his death in 1792 Dragging Canoe would serve as war chief of the Chickamauga Cherokee against the settlers coming into the region.

Henderson disregarded all of this and sent Daniel Boone to blaze what would become the “Wilderness Road” through Southwest Virginia and into Kentucky, ending at Boonesborough.

Henderson followed closely behind widening the road to accommodate more settlers and wagons, upsetting the Cherokee, already unhappy with Boone’s road, who thought he was overstepping the bounds of what was agreed to at Sycamore Shoals.

When Henderson arrived at Boonesborough, he quickly set up a government for the colony of Transylvania and returned to North Carolina to seek recognition from the Continental Congress.

Congress refused to act without consent from North Carolina and Virginia which both claimed jurisdiction over the region in question. Neither would consent.

There would be no colony. In 1778 Virginia would declare the Transylvania Purchase void but would grant Henderson and his partners 12 square miles on the Ohio River. Boone would continue to work and explore the area around Boonesborough and command militia in the American Revolution.

If you would like to see and lean more about Daniel Boone, the Transylvania Purchase as well as the Overmountain Men who fought at Kings Mountain you don’t have to go to Kentucky like I did. You have a great opportunity right here in East Tennessee.

Starting July 11, Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park will present “Liberty!,” a historical reenactment of events occurring at Fort Watauga starting with the formation of the Watauga Association in 1772, through the Transylvania Purchase in 1775 to the gathering of the Overmountain Men in 1780.

Liberty runs Thursdays-Saturdays, July 11-13, 18-20 and 25-27 in the Fort Watauga Amphitheater at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton.

Opening Night on Thursday, July 11th is First Responders’ Night. Admission this night is free for a first responder and one guest. Reduced admission for opening night is also offered to adults and seniors at $9.00 each. Veterans Night is on Thursday, July 18th. Veterans will be formally thanked for their service during the show and also with free admission for them and a guest.

General admission tickets range from free for children five and under; to $6.00 for students six to 17 years; $11.00 for seniors 55 and up; and $14.00 for adults. Members of Friends of Sycamore Shoals, veterans and first responders may attend the drama any night for a reduced adult/senior admission price of $7.00. For online ticket sales, go to www.TheLibertyDrama.com or you can purchase tickets at the door until all seats are sold.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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