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Considering one of history's mysteries: whether a Cherokee operative betrayed his people at the Battle of Buchanan's Station — and saved Nashville

The Station Agent



There are two related things that are curious about the Battle of Buchanan's Station, which marks its 220th anniversary on Sept. 30. Aside from a small, dedicated bunch of folks working to preserve the station cemetery, located on the bluffs of Mill Creek off Massman Drive, it's a clash that has been all but forgotten locally. And yet, among historians of the colonial era — especially those studying Spain in North America and the role of Scottish traders among the Indians — the battle's importance is so monumental, so self-evident, that it barely warrants explanation.

Before the Battle of Buchanan's Station, Spain thought it could arm Middle Tennessee's Indian tribes to attack settlers along the Cumberland, in hopes of driving them out of the area or into the arms of Spain. The Cherokees and Creeks thought that they could wage a vicious enough war to get the United States to abide by its treaties and leave the land between the mountains and the Mississippi to them. And indeed, settlers seriously wrestled with the idea of becoming Spanish subjects.

After the Battle of Buchanan's Station, however, Spain agreed to stop arming the Indians. The Creeks and Cherokees realized they couldn't count on Spain as an ally. And the Cumberland settlers realized their future was as U.S. citizens, not with Spain. We may not realize it here in Nashville, but on the night of Sept. 30, history took a sharp turn down a new road.

That's the first curious thing about the battle — that even though it's recognized as a turning point in Tennessee and U.S. history in some circles, it's somehow unknown in others. The second — another big unknown — is why the Battle of Buchanan's Station went down the way it did. Not the logistics of the battle itself, which are fairly well-known. More interesting is the strangeness in September just before the battle.

Specifically, the tale, and the fate of what would become modern-day Nashville, hinges upon a mysterious, mostly forgotten figure from the mustiest pages of Tennessee history: a Cherokee named Richard Finnelson who may have betrayed his own people — in order to save ours.

Much of the information in this story comes from the Indian Affairs edition of the American State Papers archive, a treasure trove of letters, dispatches and other historical documentation that opens a window onto the actions and motivations of those involved. But first, let's look at this account from Edwin Drake's The Annals of the Army of Tennessee and Early Western History, from 1878. It's a reasonably faithful rendering of what people in Nashville thought happened, as related by Col. Moses Ridley of Rutherford County, the nephew of John Buchanan, whose station it was:

Colonel Ridley also states that some time in August preceding the date of the attack Findleston [sic] a half breed Cherokee and one Joseph Durat [sic] a Frenchman brought information to Nashville being as they stated direct from the Indian Nation that the Indians were preparing an expedition against Nashville and the settlements in the neighborhood and intended to make their attack at the next full moon. Findleston had been about Nashville before as a trader and was acquainted with a number of the inhabitants and in the course of his visits had conceived an attachment for a white woman named as he thinks Black. So the story went but at all events he afterward married her. He left the Indian Nation as he stated in company with Durat under pretense of acting as a spy in finding out the situation and strength of the defenses about Nashville and of returning and giving information. [...]

A meeting of the heads of families in the settlement was called by General Robertson immediately after the receipt of the above mentioned information from Findleston and Durat and the meeting was disinclined to believe the story and dispersed. Findleston then offered to General Robertson that he might put him in the Nashville jail and there keep him until after the next full moon and if the Indians should not then have arrived he was willing to be shot.

He's referring to Richard Finnelson and Joseph Deraque — but the spellings aren't the only thing fishy about this telling. As far as I've been able to ascertain, except for the part where Finnelson and Deraque lie to the Cherokees about being willing to spy on Nashville, none of this account is true. Finnelson and Deraque did not show up in August. No other sources corroborate Finnelson's wife being a Nashville gal.

What's more, it's highly unlikely that Finnelson was trading with Nashville, since Cherokee trade routes were firmly controlled by the Scottish, who could get the British goods the Cherokee wanted in return for their furs. (There's speculation that Finnelson's dad was one of these Scottish traders.) By virtue of the Revolutionary War, these furs were not readily available to the Americans. And it doesn't seem that Finnelson and Deraque were disbelieved in the slightest.

But at least this version takes a stab at answering a very basic question: Why were Finnelson and Deraque warning Nashville in the first place? The more you look into the actual history, the stranger their behavior seems — especially Finnelson's.

So let's look at what we do know. In mid-1792, Richard Finnelson, a Cherokee man of the Bird Clan, leaves Clarksville for L'ance a la Graisse (New Madrid) to deliver a message from General Robertson to the Spanish government.

At the time, Nashville — and here's a fun fact to share with your Nashville neighbors complaining about all the Mexicans — was busy trying to become Spanish.

The city had two very good reasons for this. One, Spain controlled the Mississippi and the port at New Orleans. If you weren't a Spanish subject and you wanted to trade your goods there, you had to pay. Nashville desperately wanted these fees reduced or eliminated. Two, Spain was allied with the local Indians — specifically the Cherokees and the Creeks. Local settlers desperately wanted the Cherokees and the Creeks to stop attacking them.

The U.S. had recently learned of the Cumberland settlements' desire to become Spanish. It responded by removing the settlements from North Carolina and making them part of a separate U.S. territory. This was supposed to reassure the settlers that they had the weight of the U.S. army behind them, not just North Carolina's militias. But as evidenced by Finnelson's running messages between Robertson and Spain, not everyone in the Cumberland settlements felt reassured.

The Creeks and the Cherokees, for that matter, were also feeling out Spain and one another. The two tribes had just concluded a vicious, bloody war against each other in the 1750s. And while they understood they had to work together to keep the U.S. on the eastern side of the mountains — and Spain near the river — this was not an easy, natural alliance.

But as the Cherokees saw further and further evidence that the U.S. wasn't going to abide by its treaties, a militant faction of warriors — who came to be known as the Chickamauga, or the Lower Cherokees — began to work openly in conjunction with the Creeks and other local American Indian tribes to drive U.S. settlers from the Cumberland.

Tennesseans tend to tell ourselves that it's fine that we settled here — after all, it's not like the Indians were living here. What we fail to appreciate, though, is that we built Nashville on their hunting grounds, right in the middle of their workplace. Imagine rearranging the Saturn plant to build a village in the middle of it, then acting confused when the workers get pissed.

The greatest of the Chickamauga leaders, Dragging Canoe, famously promised the U.S. settlers that if they located in Middle Tennessee, he would turn this land into a "dark and bloody ground." For years, he kept his word. He utilized alliances — first with the British, then with the Spanish — to get the weapons and horses necessary to wage full-on war against the U.S. settlers. His wrath ended only in March of 1792, when he died. John Watts, his hand-picked successor, took up the lance.

Arming the Indians looked like a shrewd tactical move by Spain. Either it would drive the U.S. settlers out of an area Spain wanted to control, or it would force the settlers to become Spanish. There was no downside Spain could see to supplying the Indians with weapons — as long as the U.S. had no direct proof they were doing so.

Those wheels churn in the distance as Finnelson makes his way from Clarksville to L'ance a la Graisse, then (at the behest of Spanish officials) on down to New Orleans. Finnelson travels on a boat owned by Anthony Fagot, a French trader from St. Louis. The trader has been in Nashville doing business, accompanied by an employee.

The employee's name is Joseph Deraque.

Fagot has reason to watch his step in Nashville. Back in 1789, according to H.W. Brands' Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, he pissed off Jackson by telling Spain — and frankly anyone who would listen — that Jackson was all for the Cumberland settlements seceding from the U.S. and subsequently joining with Spain. Only trouble was, Jackson actually held a much different position — that the U.S. should own Spain's holdings in North America, or at least the ones on the eastern side of the Mississippi. You didn't go around misquoting the future Old Hickory on sovereignty, not unless you kept a brass-plated Bible tucked over your heart. Things got ugly.

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