Cherokee Ferry Crossings

Tony Holmes

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(Excerpts from article in Journal of East Tennessee History, No. 62, 1990)

Ferries played an important role in the development of Tennessee's early frontier. Not only were they the most reliable and convenient method of stream and river crossing on main routes, but they also served as foci for commercial activity between river and wagon transportation. Inns, blacksmith shops, taverns, tanneries, country stores, and even entire communities sprang up near or around them. Ferry crossings functioned as vital transportation conduits, facilitating westward expansion and sometimes stimulating economic growth. Where streams were too large, too swift, too wide, too deep, and too unpredictable to be safely forded, ferries were all the more needed.

Given the critical demand for river crossings in East Tennessee during the 1790's and early statehood period, ferry ownership was a potentially profitable, not to mention competitive, enterprise. Although subject to regulation by the county courts, ferries were owned and operated by individuals and families, many of whom were Cherokees and so-called "white Indians" who had married into the tribe and lived as tribal members.

Among those in McMinn and adjacent counties, were several located along the Tennessee, Hiwassee, and Ocoee Rivers. Blythe's ferry was located on the Tennessee River at the mouth of the Hiwasse River. John, Michael, and Peter Hildebrand owned ferries on the Ocoee and Hiwassee Rivers near their confluence. Lewis Ross operated a ferry in the present day Calhoun community and at Chattanooga. Most notable among those in McMinn County was the ferry owned by John Walker, Jr. located on the Hiwassee River at present day Calhoun.

John Walker, Jr.

John Walker, Jr. and John Ross had a good deal in common. Both were Cherokee chiefs who sided with the whites during the Creek War. Both were rich ferry owners who had white fathers and Indian mothers. But their strong disagreement on the Removal question divided them and created a gap that could not be bridged. The two men clearly did not like each other. So strong was the enmity between them that Walker tried in 1819 to kill Ross with a knife in Washington, DC, where several of the tribe's most influential chiefs had assembled for treaty discussions. When Walkers son, John Walker III, was assassinated in 1834 by Ross's political supporters, the murder so intensified a tribal feud that it spanned several generations and states. Young Walker's assassination fueled the ongoing conflict and disintegration of the Cherokee Nation, driving a wedge between those supporting and those opposing removal to Arkansas.

In some respects, John Walker, Jr. was symbolic of the transition, which the Chickamaugans experience between the 1780's and 1830's. Although he had fought against the Americans when he was only fourteen years old, he later assimilated white customs. In his early years he was a follower of Dragging Canoe. He took white scalps during a raid on Buchanan Station in 1792. After the end of the Indian wars, however, he became a respectable trader, a licensed blacksmith, and an accomplished businessman.

In 1819, the United States government granted Walker two 640-acre reservations; one included his home and ferry, the other included his grist and saw mills. He laid out the town of Calhoun on one of his tracts and retained several valuable lots. He may have served in the Lighthorse Guard before McMinn County was organized and he was a member of the prestigious National Council of Thirteen. During the War of 1812, he received a major's commission and he was decorated for his bravery. He was among the most influential chiefs representing tribal delegations to Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. The popular Walker was also one of the county's first justice of the peace and the county's first elected coroner. The organizational meeting of the circuit court which organized McMinn County was held in his home.

Perhaps one reason for his success, was his family tie. Walker's wife, Elizabeth Lowrey Sevier, was the daughter of Assistant Principal Chief George Lowrey and a former wife of one of Jon Sevier's sons. His grandmother was the famed Nancy Ward and his son's wife was the granddaughter of Indian Agent Return Jonathan Meigs. Walker was related directly or by marriage to some of the most prominent families, both white and Indian. His family was educated, wealthy, and influential and undoubtedly much of their wealth originated from the family ferry. Known to have been operating as early as 1806, the busy crossing was on the Old Black Hawk trail that passed through present downtown Charleston, Tennessee. When several years later the Indian Agency headquarters moved from the mouth of the Hiwassee to Charleston, Lewis Ross, John's brother, opened a store and ferry nearby.

The Walker family lived, in many respects, a privileged life of glory, fame, riches, and political power. By the late 1830's, however, the family, like so many others in the Eastern Cherokee nation, had been torn apart by tensions arising from the Removal crisis. The area near the old Walker home was converted in 1838 into a relocation camp. One of the points of departure was the Indian Agency near Walker's ferry.

Transcribed by:  Harold A. Mitchell

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