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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



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So it's not surprising that on this trip down the Mississippi, Fagot is telling the Spanish a different story, one that blows Jackson's personal beliefs up into a political vision — that the Cumberland settlements are where they are because the U.S. plans to use them as a launching point for a great war against the Spanish.

From accounts at the time, some of which are reproduced in the Indian Affairs edition of the American State Papers, you get the sense that the Spanish aren't quite sure whether to believe Fagot. At every Spanish settlement where he stops his boat, Fagot tells this story about how the people of the Cumberland settlements are preparing to go to war with Spain. And at every settlement, some high-ranking Spaniard pulls his traveling companion Finnelson aside and asks, "Is this so?"

Finnelson says he doesn't know. The settlers seem eager to make peace with the Indians, he says — the implication being that if they're trying to make peace with the people killing them, they're probably not in any position to go to war with those who aren't.

The party hits a major snag once they reach the end of the voyage in New Orleans. Turns out Fagot can't sell his goods — which means he can't pay Deraque, and now Finnelson doesn't have a way home. When fate intervenes, it comes in the form of the Spanish government. It offers the two men money as well as a way back — in exchange for a not-small favor.

Spain offers Deraque $500 and Finnelson $400 — around $10,000 to $12,000 in our terms — along with passports and transportation. In exchange, the two men will go to the different Indian nations and deliver a message: If the nations want to take up arms against the Cumberland settlements, Spain will provide them.

It is not surprising that Finnelson and Deraque accept. What do a Frenchman living under the Spanish crown, and a Cherokee care if Nashville and its pesky settlers get wiped off the face of the earth? And so, for weeks, the two men go about earning their money.

But by the time they get to the Cherokee village Willstown — home of the newly appointed leader John Watts — Finnelson is tearing up his orders. Suddenly, he and Deraque are lying their way out of town. If they make it back to Nashville — which, spoiler alert, they do — they can warn the settlers, who will have time to shore up their own defenses and ward off the annihilation of their settlement.

So here's the crux of the mystery — why? What happened to change the two men from conspirators in Nashville's doom to agents of its salvation?

It's easy enough to guess why Joseph Deraque might change his mind. His boss — Fagot — is a lippy troublemaker who can't pay his bills. But Deraque has learned of another French trader living by the Cumberland, one Timothy Demonbreun, who has no such inability to pay his employees (and a sterling reputation to boot).

So Deraque stayed in Nashville for six months, getting to know Demonbreun. Perhaps more importantly, Deraque has been getting to know Demonbreun's mistress Elizabeth — quite well, it seems. Deraque will marry her in 1793. But why would Finnelson do a complete about-face? It makes no sense.

Unless, of course, Finnelson wasn't completely changing his mind.

John Watts had only been in charge of the Chickamauga since March. The attack he was planning — coordinated against many different settlements, among disparate Indian nations, armed with Spanish weapons — was to be Watts' triumphant introduction as war chief of the Lower Cherokees.

Finnelson may have believed that Watts was jumping the gun, being reckless and overreaching in order to prove his readiness as a leader. There's some evidence that this was the opinion of the prominent Cherokee leader known as Bloody Fellow. Finnelson says in letters that when he and Deraque arrived at Willstown, Bloody Fellow was arguing against going to war, saying that "it was a bad step they were taking."

But there's something a little odd about how Finnelson describes their time in the town of Savannah, a Creek village led by the Black Dog. This next part is quoted directly from Finnelson's testimony, which appears to be somewhat paraphrased by the man who took it:

"[There] they saw the Black Dog, the chief of the town; he said, as soon as his people returned from Pensacola, we shall turn out to war against Cumberland, in conjunction with the Cherokees; this he said F. might depend on, as the two nations were friends, and the Cherokees may expect to see us as the beginning of the next new moon."

For whose benefit is that bit about the two nations being friends? Certainly Spain knew the Creeks and Cherokees were working together — the Spanish had told both nations they'd arm a coordinated attack. And Nashville certainly knew the Creeks and Cherokees were working together: that's partly what terrified the settlers. Plus it had been a long-standing policy under Dragging Canoe to work with the Creeks, so it's not surprising that Watts would maintain that agreement. Who, then, needed to know that the two nations were now friends?

Perhaps Richard Finnelson himself. Maybe, knowing that Watts was still unproven as a war leader, he worried how much influence the Creeks could bring to bear on the Cherokees. Maybe he saw the size of the Creek army, with its established leaders; compared it against the relative size of the Cherokee army, with its new leadership still establishing credibility; and thought his people stood in danger of being absorbed into the Creek nation.

There is evidence to support the theory that Finnelson feared the Creeks more than either the settlers or the Spanish. In 1793, territorial Gov. William Blount writes to Maj. Hugh Beard, the U.S. military officer assigned to thte district: "The object of your command is to relieve the Cumberland inhabitants, Miro district, from a powerful invasion of the Creeks [...] You will have with you, for your guide, Richard Finnelson, a Cherokee."

Furthermore, in 1794, James Ore writes of his leaving Nashville with a large cavalry to destroy the Cherokee settlements of Nickajack and Running Water. In his letter, he says, "The prisoners taken, among whom was the wife and child of Richard Finnelson, my pilot, informed me that on the fourth instant, sixty Creeks and Lower Cherokees passed the Tennessee, for war against the frontiers."

The times Finnelson helps the U.S. are always against the Creeks.

When you look at the Battle of Buchanan's Station, it's hard not to think that some combination of distrust of Watts' leadership ability and concern about the Creeks' exploiting that weakness might have been reasonable. When Watts' combined forces approach Buchanan's Station the evening of Sept. 30, Talotiskee, the leader of the Creeks, argues for attacking it right then, not wanting to leave any enemy behind them. Watts wants to wait until after they've attacked Nashville, save it for the return trip. They argue, and Watts gives in.

Around midnight, they attack. Watts is seriously wounded. Chiachattalla, another Chickamauga leader, is killed. So is Dragging Canoe's brother, Little Owl, as well as John Watts' brother Unacata. Also among the dead is Cheeseekau, Tecumseh's brother. (Some scholars believe that Tecumseh may have been at the battle as well. See John Sugden's Tecumseh: A Life for an accessible account of the battle from the perspective of the attacking forces.) Watts' combined forces are forced to retreat.

We may never know exactly why Richard Finnelson changed his mind. I spent a great portion of my summer trying to track down anyone who might have some insight. Answers came back ranging from "I don't know" to "Well, identities were malleable back then." (That is fancy-talk for "I don't know.")

In trying to solve this mystery, we thus run into the same frustrations as the larger Buchanan's Station problem. To fully understand this event, you have to know a little about Spanish politics, U.S. politics, and the politics among and within the Creek and Cherokee nations — and you have to know a great deal about Nashville history. And yet, for the most part, all the information we need to assemble to fully understand the Battle of Buchanan's Station is still scattered here and there.

Luckily, there are people working to bring those pieces together. Surely there is someone — if not a university professor, then a Cherokee historian or a Creek grandma with a head for the gossip of two centuries past —who knows exactly why Richard Finnelson switched loyalties when and how he did. To that person, it makes perfect sense that a man who agreed to drum up support for the obliteration of Nashville and its settlers could decide, instead, to sabotage his own efforts.

But the person who can solve that question remains a mystery. And so, more than two centuries later, does the man who may have betrayed his employers, his fellow Indians and his own leader — and in the process saved our city.

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