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

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.


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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