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YAHOO FALLS MASSACRE, McCREARY COUNTY, KENTUCKY

Kenneth Barnett Tankersley, Ph.D.
Native American Studies Program
Northern Kentucky University
Copyright 2004-2007

Introduction

Yahoo Falls is located in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, National Park Service, McCreary County, Kentucky. "Yahoo" is a local variation of the Cherokee word, Ya-hu-la, used in reference to a story about a trader who lived in a great stone house and was taken away by the Nu-ne-hi, the Spirit People. 4 Ya-hu-la would sing his favorite songs as the bells hanging around the necks of his ponies tinkled, echoing through the mountains along the Great Tellico Trail. One time, all the warriors left on a hunt, but when it was over and they returned, Ya-hu-la was nowhere to be found-the Nu-ne-hi had taken him to the Spirit World. While he was there, Ya-hu-la made the mistake of eating the food of the Nu-ne-hi, which meant that he could never return to his people except as a spirit. Although he was never seen again, the Cherokee believe that the songs of Ya-hu-la and the tinkling bells of his horses can still be heard at night near the running water of Yahoo Falls. On the Trail of Tears, the story of Ya-hu-la was used to urge the people forward into Indian Territory by saying, "Maybe Ya-hu-la has gone there and we shall hear him." They never did. The story of Ya-hu-la is hauntingly similar to the story of Big Jake Troxel.

 

Yahoo Falls, McCreary County, Kentucky
A Sacred Place
Many Innocent Indian Women
and Children who Knew No Wrong
Were Massacred by Indian Fighters
On August 10, 1810
Let us Remember them
With a Cherokee Tear
In Loving Memory of Red Bird do-tsu-wa

Dedicated 12 Aug 2006 with an Inter-tribal Ceremony

The Great Tellico Trail of the Cherokee is known today as US 27. It extended from the Sequatchie Valley, near present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the Cumberland River Valley of Kentucky, and beyond. 2 The Alum Ford Trail, SR 700, connected the Great Tellico Trail with east-central Tennessee by way of an enormous sandstone rock shelter, i.e., rock house, located behind one of the tallest waterfalls in the state of Kentucky, Yahoo Falls.

During the first forty years of the 20th century, blight devastated the American chestnuts. Although the blight provided an economic boom to the local timber industry, logging operations deforested the shallow unstable soils around Yahoo Falls. Unprecedented headward erosion extended into the great sandstone rock shelter behind the falls and exposed a mass grave filled with human skeletal remains. 1 2 7 9 Grave robbers, artifact collectors, curiosity seekers, and gravity began to disperse the bones down slope until it was impossible to walk into the shelter without stepping on them. Today, all that survives is an empty trench behind the falls, which approximates the size of the mass grave at Wounded Knee Memorial on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Historical Events Leading up to the Massacre

The story of the empty trench behind Yahoo Falls, and the human remains that once filled it, began in the winter of 1777-1778 when Jacob Troxel, known as Big Jake because of his height, was a private in the Continental Army at Valley Forge under the command General George Washington. 2 3 7 8 9 Big Jake, born in 1758, was the son of a Jewish immigrant from Switzerland and his mother was said to be Delaware. 2 3 7 8 9 In February 1778, word reached Washington that British forces had abandoned old French Post Vincennes, present-day Indiana, and it was in the hands of American militia. Primarily mixed-blood families, Piankeshaw Miami, Piqua Sept Shawnee, Chickamauga Cherokee, Jesuits, Voyagers, and Indian traders were using it. Washington's staff assigned Big Jake to pose as a mixed-blood trader and go to Post Vincennes to persuade the Cherokee and Shawnee to support the Continental Army in their war against the British.

At Port Vincennes, Big Jake befriended a young Cherokee warrior, about his same age, from the Cumberland River valley, Tu-ka-ho, son of Doublehead and Creat Priber. 2 5 9 Doublehead (Tal-tsu'ska'), born in McCreary County, Kentucky, was the son of Great Eagle (Wilenawa), grandson of Moytoy, and great-grandson of Amatoya Moytoy - a fourth generation Principal Chief of the Cherokee. 4 5 Tu-ka-ho invited Big Jake to his village, Tsalachi, which was located near present-day Burnside, Kentucky. 2 9 In the summer of 1779, Chief Doublehead (Tal-tsu'ska') welcomed his son's new friend and invited him to stay and trade with his people. Not long afterwards, Big Jake became smitten over one of Doublehead's four daughters.

Big Jake was adopted by the Chickamauga and learned about their sacred sites (Natural Arch, Doublehead's cave and spring, and Yahoo Falls) in the vicinity of Tsalachi. They are associated with the Cherokee stories of Creation-How the World Was Made, Journey to the Sunrise, Daughter of the Sun, and Uktena. 4 Natural Arch is known as Gulkwa'gine Di'ga;un'latiyun,' the seventh height, or seven handbreadths above the earth, the height that the sun rises. Doublehead's Cave, known today as Hind's and Hine's Cave, is the place where people entered the underworld, a Cherokee ossuary. Like water, the bodies of the dead entered the cave. Their spirits followed the water inside and resurfaced at Doublehead's spring, known today as Mill Springs. The great rock house behind Yahoo Falls is the place where the breath of Uktena can be felt. He is a malevolent Cherokee spirit that lives underground, a great warrior that was shape-shifted into a horned serpent by the Little People to kill the Daughter of the Sun-Totsu'hwa-Red Bird. It was also a place for great oratories, a place where large numbers of people could gather and listen to the Clan Mothers, Clan Chiefs, and Principal Chiefs of many nations, since time immemorial.

During the winter of 1779-1780, Tory infantry from Watauga, under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson, British Commander of the 71st regiment, were robbing and killing Cherokee hunters as they traversed the Great Tellico Trail. Big Jake accompanied Doublehead and his daughter in their attack on a Tory camp on the Little South Fork, in what is today Wayne County, Kentucky. 2 7 9 He used the incident to explain why Doublehead and his warriors should not support Ferguson's British and Tory force. Big Jake had successfully completed his mission. At the decisive Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, there were Cherokee warriors fighting against the British. Among them was King David Benge, nephew of Red Paint Clan Mother, Wurteh, (Wurteh Watts, granddaughter of Doublehead), and first cousin of Sequoyah.

Following the end of the American Revolution, Big Jake married Tu-ka-ho's sister and was soon blessed with a son-Little Jake. 3 8 9 Their seemingly idyllic life in the Cumberland River valley was short lived. The Cherokee did not recognize England's cession of Kentucky to the United States in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. This situation was worsened when a group of colonists illegally created the State of Franklin (1785-1788), from significant portions of Cherokee land in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. John Sevier, who had served as an ad hoc commander in the Battle of Kings Mountain, was elected as Governor. On May 31, 1785, Sevier and other representatives of the self-declared state met with Cherokee Chiefs to negotiate the "Treaty of Dumplin Creek." Unbeknownst to the Cherokee, the United States government did not recognize the State of Franklin, thus, the treaty was completely illegal. Sevier and his Franklinites engendered a spirit of distrust between all subsequent treaty-makers and the Cherokee. Big Jake and his family were now in the middle of a bloody conflict over Cherokee homeland in the Cumberland River valley, which became nothing less than genocide.

The first official treaty between the United States and Cherokee Nation was negotiated at Hopewell, South Carolina, on November 28, 1785. The Hopewell Treaty included the cession of all land in Kentucky north of the Cumberland River and west of the Little South Fork. Although Cherokee Chief Corn Tassel, brother of Doublehead, signed the treaty, other leaders of the Red Paint Clan did not. Doublehead and his nephew (sister's daughter's son), Robert Benge, began a war with Euroamerican settlers in the Cumberland River valley. They fiercely resented the intrusion of immigrants and were determined upon their expulsion.

Many of Doublehead's warriors joined the northern confederacy of the Shawnee-Delaware-Wyandot-Miami who continued to be supplied and encouraged by England to defeat the newly formed country. For the next thirteen years, they waged war upon the settlements in their land. Although most American history books do not include this war, it was the first to be declared by Congress in 1790. It has been referred to as President George Washington's Indian War - the struggle for the old northwest. In December of 1790, Kentucky settlers petitioned Congress to fight the Cherokee in whatever way they saw fit. A Board of War was appointed, and on May 23, 1791, it authorized the destruction of Cherokee towns and food resources by burning their homes and crops.

In an attempt to make peace with the Cherokee, and redefine the new boundary lines in Kentucky, the United States negotiated the Treaty of Holston on July 2, 1791. It restated that the Cherokee land in Kentucky was restricted to the area east of the Little South Fork and south of the Cumberland River. The treaty was signed by Kentucky Cherokee Chief Doublehead, his brother, Chief Standing Turkey, their nephew, John Watts, and witnessed by Thomas Kennedy, representative of Kentucky in the Territory of the United States South of the Ohio River. 4 Unfortunately, the boundary line remained unclear and disputed by Robert Benge, not present at the treaty signing, and he continued to fight for the Cumberland River valley until he was shot to death on April 9, 1794. His warriors continued the fight for another year. One of the last skirmishes in Kentucky occurred at the salt works and Cherokee burial grounds on Goose Creek in Clay County, on March 28, 1795.

The Treaty of Greenville, negotiated in Ohio on August 3, 1795, ended the war. It was made between Major General Anthony Wayne, commander of the army of the United States, and the Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Miami, Eel River, Wea, Kickapoo, Piankeshaw, and Kaskaskia. Although the treaty tried to settle controversies and restore harmony and friendly intercourse between the United States and all Indian Nations, Doublehead and his warriors were not permitted to attend. Cherokees who were living north of the Ohio River with the Piqua Sept Shawnee returned to their homes in the Cumberland River valley.

A treaty with the Cherokee was not made until October 2, 1798, the first Treaty of Tellico. It allowed for safe passage of settlers using the Kentucky road, running through Cherokee land between the Cumberland Mountain and the Cumberland River, in exchange for hunting rights on all relinquished lands, a further refinement of the Holston Treaty of 1791. By this time, the Cherokee of the Cumberland River valley were almost unrecognizable to the whites now settled in the area. Big Jake and his family, like other Cherokee, lived in a cabin, herded cattle, horses, and pigs, and used metal farming tools to tend crops of potatoes, native corn and beans, orchards of peach trees, and bees for honey and wax for trade.

By 1803, the demand for salt produced on Cherokee land in Kentucky dramatically increased when England seized American ships involved in the salt trade. In 1805, the remaining Cherokee land in Kentucky was considered crucial to the security of the United States. Between October 25 and 27, 1805, Kentucky Cherokee Chiefs Doublehead and Red Bird singed the final Treaties of Tellico, ceding the land south of the Cumberland River. By this time, Doublehead had built an estate near Muscle Shoals, Tennessee. His estate included twenty enslaved African Americans and at least one mixed blood, thirty head of cows, 100 head of fine stock cattle, two stud horses, eight mares and geldings, and nine head of common horses, fifty head of sows, pigs and small stock hogs, and 100 head of large hogs. His home was furnished with four large beds with contemporary bedding and bedsteads, six dining room and twelve sitting chairs, dining room and kitchen tables, dishes and tableware, large and small iron cooking pots, a brass kettle and teapot, three large ovens, and three pair of iron fire dogs. Doublehead's immense fortune was thought to have come from money that he skimmed from treaty entitlements. Feeling that they had been betrayed and sold out, Doublehead was assassinated on August 9, 1807, in McIntosh Tavern, Hiwassee, Tennessee, by Charles Hicks, Alexander Saunders, and Major Ridge - his own people. 4 5

News of Doublehead's murder spread across the Great Tellico Trail and into the Cumberland River valley. Without the protection of his powerful father, Tu-ka-ho Doublehead was powerless and vulnerable. His people were greatly reduced in number and dispirited from fighting off the advance of white settlers and smallpox. To make matters worse, Tu-ka-ho had married a white woman, Margaret Mounce, from Chery (sic) Fork, Tennessee, present-day Helenwood. 5 The white settlers' prejudice and hatred of Doublehead's people grew. Like other warriors his age, Big Jake's friend and brother-in-law, Tu-ka-ho Doublehead was hunted down and murdered atop a ridge that still bears his name, Doublehead Gap, present-day Wayne County, Kentucky.

The Massacre

On January 15, 1810, the "War Hawks" of Congress expressed concern about the "Indian presence" in Kentucky and extinguished all Cherokee land claims. 4 Although the Cherokee in the Cumberland River valley had made every possible concession to maintain peace with the United States, many of the white settlers were former Franklinites, followers of John Sevier who considered the Cherokee subhuman. 3 8 9 Expecting the worse, Doublehead's daughter realized that the only way her people could survive would be if they moved south on the Great Tellico Trail. Between 1803 and 1804, her father had helped Reverend Gideon Blackburn, a Presbyterian pastor from Big Jake's hometown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, open an school on Cherokee land near present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee. 4 5 In the late summer of 1810, Blackburn agreed to offer protection and a "white man's" education to all Cherokee women and children from the Cumberland River valley. Doublehead's daughter sent Little Jake on horseback to spread the word that anyone seeking protection at the Blackburn school should meet in the great rock house behind Yahoo Falls when the moon was full and round.

All that remained of Doublehead's people in the Cumberland River valley, mostly women and children, gathered at Yahoo Falls, waiting for Doublehead's daughter and her son, Little Jake, to arrive and lead them to safety. Fearing that she was not going to show up, some of the mothers gathered their children, shouldered their packs, and began to walk out of the shelter. 2 3 6 7 8 9 A volley of gunfire erupted from the darkness in front of the falls. A local "Indian fighter," Hiram Gregory, had learned of the gathering in the big rock house behind Yahoo Falls, enlisted a group of young vigilantes, and set out to exterminate the Cherokee from the Cumberland River valley once and for all. 2 7 8 9 Gregory's mercenaries focused their initial attack on the few warriors that were present, and then they been began to slaughter the women and their children. Campfires illuminated them and the shelter was completely open and exposed-there was nowhere for them to run or hide. After it was all over, more than 100 Cherokee lay dead or dying behind Yahoo Falls.

As the sun began to rise, Little Jake and his mother arrived, just in time to find the murderous white men in the rock house, walking among the dead and dying, making sure that there were no survivors. Enraged at the grisly sight, Little Jake and his mother took a commanding position, which cut off the slayers' escape route, and opened fire. 2 7 8 9 Now Gregory's mercenaries were exposed to attack. Before resuming fire, Doublehead's daughter recalled the words that were spoken to her father during the negotiations of the Treaty of Tellico, "if the Cherokee do not steal horses, then the white men will not kill the Cherokee." 4 These white men had broken the treaty. Before resuming fire, she shouted out, "You kill our men. You kill our women and our babies. Their blood made red the land you steal." 2 7 8 9 Two of the remaining white men were then shot dead. The third escaped. Doublehead's daughter, died a few days later, likely from injuries received from gunfire. She was buried at the base of a large flat stone in what is today, Sterns, Kentucky, the birthplace of her father. 2 6 7 8 9 Big Jake Troxel was said to have lost his mind in grief. A mass grave was excavated in a high terrace behind the falls, the only place where the soil was deep enough to dig a trench. The bodies of the slain Cherokee men, women, and children were laid to rest until the grave was exposed during logging operations.

Caveats

The exact date of this horrific event is unknown. Some say that the massacre occurred on the 130th anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt, August 10, 8 9 and others have placed it in the fall, 6 7 early October. 2 Regardless of the exact day and month, all of the published documents and family histories agree that the massacre of Yahoo Falls took place in the latter half of the year, 1810. 2 3 6 7 8 9 10

There is a similar misunderstanding on the date and place of death of Big Jake Troxel. Although the military tombstone along SR 700 reads Jacob Troxel, Pennsylvania, Pvt, 6 Co., Philadelphia, Co. Militia, Revolutionary War, January 18, 1758, October 10, 1810, family records indicate that he was taken to Alabama where he lived until 1817. 3 8 9 If he suffered catatonic depression following the death of his Cherokee wife as reported, then he would have been considered a living dead man, a person whose body was alive, but his spirit had left him, a situation not unlike the trader in the story of Ya-hu-la.

There is a great deal of confusion about the death of Doublehead. 3 What most people miss is that there were many Doubleheads because all of his thirteen children with four wives were named Doublehead-Tu-ka-ho Doublehead, Tuskiahoote Doublehead, Saleechie Doublehead, Ni-go-di-ge-yu Doublehead, and Gu-lu-sti-yu Doublehead with Creat Priber-Bird Tail Doublehead and Peggy Doublehead with Nannie Drumgoole-Tassel Doublehead, Alcy Doublehead, and Susannah Doublehead with Kateeyeah Wilson-Two Heads Doublehead, Doublehead Doublehead, and William Doublehead with an Cherokee woman whose name is unknown. 5 Because Tu-ka-ho Doublehead's murder occurred in the same year as his father, 1807, the two events have been confused. Chief Doublehead was murdered in Tennessee and Tu-ka-ho Doublehead was killed in Kentucky.

Some versions of the massacre suggest that Chief Red Bird was with Doublehead's daughter, and her son, Little Jake, at the scene of the massacre. 8 9 Chief Red Bird lived out his later years in Clay County, Kentucky, with friend or relative named Jack who may have been crippled at the massacre. They were brutally attacked in their sleep by a party of white men. An angry young man in the party that had lost his father, some say at the Yahoo Falls massacre, mutilated Chief Red Bird and Jack in their sleep with their own tomahawks, threw their bodies into the Red Bird River, and stole their belongings. Not long after the crime, Red Bird's longtime friend, John Gilbert, discovered the slaughtered bodies. The angry young man, said to have had an odd surname, returned to the scene just as John Gilbert was pulling the bodies ashore. Together, they buried the elder Cherokee in the sandy floor of a nearby rock shelter where he frequently visited. Some of the traditional Cherokee symbols inscribed in the rock shelter are thought to be associated with the massacre, including death symbols of women, women with child, and children.

Perhaps the biggest problem with all versions of the massacre, written or oral histories, is that Big Jake's wife, Tu-ka-ho's sister, Doublehead's daughter, was named "Princess Corn-blossom." 2 6 7 8 9 The first problem with the name Princess Corn-blossom is that there was no such thing as a "Cherokee Princess." The term came from the time when Moytoy (1730-1760) was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee. Sir Alexander Cuming proclaimed him as King of his people. If Moytoy was a King, then his daughters must have been princesses. Doublehead was the son of Great Eagle, who was the son of Moytoy, and tribal leadership was passed down from father to son. Princess is the way eighteenth century English communicated the kin term "daughter of a Chief." Secondly, the name Corn-blossom is not a Cherokee word. While Corn-tassel (Utsi'dsata' and Onidosita) and Corn-silk (Selu-u-ne-nu-di) are Cherokee words that approximate Corn-blossom, they are masculine names. One of Doublehead's children by Kateeyeah Wislon was named Tassel, gender unknown and not born until about 1798.

Cherokee census and enrollment records indicate that Doublehead had four daughters living with him at the time Tu-ka-ho brought Big Jake to Tsalachi, and they were all very close in age-Tuskiahoote, Saleechie, Ni-go-di-ge-yu, and Gu-lu-sti-yu respectively. 5 Which one caught the eye of Big Jake Troxel? Tuskiahoote and Saleechie were both reported as the wives of Colonel George Colbert, and Ni-go-di-ge-yu and Gu-lu-sti-yu were reported as the wives of Samuel Riley. We can rule out Saleechie Doublehead because it is well documented that she survived the Trail of Tears and died in Indian Territory, Oklahoma in 1846. 5 Tuskiahoote Doublehead is thought to have lived until 1817, but we cannot rule her out because this date is by no means a certainty. It is also interesting that Tuskiahoote Doublehead's death date not only matches that of Big Jake Troxel, she reportedly died in Alabama. 5

Samuel Riley is an especially interesting character because he seized most of Chief Doublehead's personal property after his murder in 1807. 5 Furthermore, he was known as the "White Patron" of Gideon Blackburn's School; the same school Doublehead's daughter was taking the Cherokee of the Cumberland River valley to at the time of the massacre. Although Riley is reported to have fathered five children by Ni-go-di-ge-yu and eleven by Gu-lu-sti-yu, it is quite possible that he falsely claimed two wives in order to ensure his entitlements to Doublehead's fortune. On April 28, 1819, Riley filed a suit for his entitlements, about fifteen days before he succumb to an illness. He is assumed to have been Doublehead's son in law solely on the basis of his last will and testament, which was accepted by the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation on October 25, 1825, as recorded by John Martin. At this juncture, the best we can say is that Big Jake fell in love with the sister of Tu-ka-ho, daughter of Doublehead.

Epilogue

On January 31, 1811, just months after the Yahoo Falls massacre, the former Cherokee land was granted for sale at the minimal price of ten cents an acre in order to encourage the development of iron and salt works. As salt was an expensive commodity at $25.00 a barrel, the families who had orchestrated the Yahoo Falls massacre purchased the land containing salt springs and became rich.

Perhaps the most fitting words to describe the Yahoo Falls Massacre site can be found on Joseph Horn Cloud's monument next to the mass grave site at Wounded Knee Memorial.

MANY INNOCENT WOMEN AND CHILDREN
WHO KNEW NO WRONG DIED HERE

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Anderson, Manuel 1967
Personal Communication.

2. Collins, Robert F. 1975
A History of the Daniel Boone National Forest. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Region.

3. McBride, Kim A. and W. Stephen McBride 2000
Big South Fork Region Historic Context Study. Program for Archaeological Research, Department of Anthropology, Technical Report No. 412, University of Kentucky, Lexington.

4. Mooney, James 1900
Myths of the Cherokee. Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1897-1898.

5. Starr, Emmet 1921
History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore. Periodicals Service Company.

6. Troxel, Thomas H. 1958
Legion of the Lost Mine. Cumberland Publishing Company, Oneida, Tennessee.

7. Troxel, Thomas H. 1967
Family Oral History, Personal Communication, Scott County, Tennessee.

8. Troxell, Dan 1996
Manuscript on file. Research Department, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky.

9. Troxell, Dan 2002
Family Oral History, Personal Communication, McCreary County, Kentucky.

10. Troxell, Mrs. Gilbert 1994
Family Oral History, Personal Communication, Wayne County, Kentucky.

 Following pages used by permission of Kenneth B. Tankersley, Ph.D., anthropologist, Natural History Unit, BBC, Northern Kentucky University

CHIEF RED BIRD ~ Excerpt from his book-in-progress, Kentucky Cherokee: People of the Cave

 Yahoo Falls by Kenneth B. Tankersley

 Kentucky's Native Past, by Kenneth B. Tankersley

 Kinship Notes, by Kenneth B. Tankersley

NOTES: Kentucky Treaties, by Kenneth B. Tankersley

 Cherokee Syllabary, by Dr. Tankersley

 Kinship & Brock Cherokee Nation Enrollment, by Dr. Tankersley

In Search of Ice Age Americans by Kenneth B. Tankersley

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