Ethnohistory, Archaeology, and Lt. Henry Timberlake

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 5

Aaron Deter-Wolf
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

Timberlake's map of the Overhill towns. This is one of the earliest historic documents to use the modern spelling of

Timberlake’s map of the Overhill towns, recorded in 1761-1762. This is one of the earliest historic documents to use the modern spelling of “Tennessee.”

The prehistoric period in Tennessee effectively ends with the arrival of the DeSoto expedition along the Nolichucky River in 1540. Although the specific route of that expedition has not been conclusively identified to date, possible Spanish contact artifacts recovered from a site in Hamilton County in 2007 suggest that European material culture rapidly diffused throughout the region. In addition to glass beads, metal tools, and other exotic trade goods, the arrival of Europeans west of the Appalachian Mountains resulted in the first written accounts of Native American lifeways in the region. Today both archaeologists and the public enjoy unprecedented access to ethnohistorical documents through research gateways such as UNC’s Documenting the American South project,  American Journeys from the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Early Americas Digital Archive from the University of Maryland, Archive.org, and of course Google Books. Ethnohistorical sources are not without their flaws, and are widely varied in their authorship, intent, and veracity. Some were written down years after the events they chronicle, while others were plagiarized in part or whole from earlier sources, and all are subject to the historical, cultural, and personal biases of the authors. However, careful reading of ethnohistorical documents can also serve as an interpretive aid for archaeologists examining sites and artifacts from the late prehistoric and early historic period. With this in mind, today I would like to highlight the anniversary of one ethnohistorical source.

This month marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Lt. Henry Timberlake, whose memoirs (published that same year) chronicle travels through Overhill Cherokee territory in East Tennessee. Timberlake was born in 1730 in Hanover County, Virginia, and entered the military at the age of 26, serving first in a local militia unit and later with the Virginia Regiment in the French and Indian War. In 1761 Timberlake was dispatched to Fort Robinson, on the Holston River in present-day Kingsport, Tennessee. After the first Treaty-of-Long-Island-on-the-Holston was signed later that year, Timberlake volunteered to journey south into Cherokee country, acting both as a diplomat and perhaps also as a spy for the British Colonial government.

Outacite, one of the Overhill Cherokee who accompanied Timberlake to London in 1762. This heavily stylized engraving, which includes a throat tattoo of a European-style cross, was probably not made from life.

Outacite, one of the Overhill Cherokee who accompanied Timberlake to London in 1762. This stylized depiction, which includes a throat tattoo of a European-style cross, was probably not made from life.

From December of 1761 through March of 1762 Timberlake traveled up the lower Little Tennessee River through Overhill Cherokee territory, visiting a series of towns and recording his impressions of Cherokee culture. Following this adventure he escorted Cherokee delegations to England in 1762 and 1764. These trips resulted in Timberlake’s financial ruin, and he died on September 30, 1765. His memoirs, titled The Memoirs of Lieut. Henry Timberlake, (Who accompanied the Three Cherokee Indians to England in the Year 1762);  Containing Whatever he observed remarkable, or worthy of public Notice, during his travels to and from that nation; wherein the Country, Government, Genius, and Customs of the Inhabitants, are authentically described; also the Principal Occurrences during their Residence in London. Illustrated with an Accurate Map of their Over-hill Settlement, and a curious Secret Journal, taken by the Indians out of the pocket of a Frenchman they had killed, were published in London following his death.

Timberlake’s record of Overhill Cherokee settlement in Tennessee has become an important source for interpreting the archaeological record. Two hundred years after Timberlake’s voyage, the TVA began construction on the Tellico Dam, which along with the Chilhowee Dam would eventually inundate the Little Tennessee River Valley and all of the Overhill towns Timberlake visited. Prior to completion of the dams, the University of Tennessee conducted archaeological excavations at sites below the final reservoir pool elevation, including Citico, Chota, Tomotley, and Toqua. Additional sites were excavated by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and the Tennessee Archaeological Society. Timberlake’s map (included above) aided in the identification of site locations, while his descriptions of the towns provided revealing first-hand accounts of the features and artifact classes discovered during this work.

I would encourage anyone interested in the late prehistoric or early historic period in Tennessee to read through Timberlake’s memoirs, the first edition of which is available for free via Archive.org. For those that prefer a hard copy, an edition edited by Huane H. King was published in 2007 by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian Press.

Excavated footprint of Townhouses 1 and 2 at Chota (after Schroedl 1986: Figure 4.2). When Timberlake visited this site, he wrote:

Map of the excavated footprint of Townhouses 1 and 2 at Chota (after Schroedl 1986: Figure 4.2). Timberlake visited the site, and wrote: “The town-house, in which are transacted all public business and diversions, is raised with wood, and covered over with earth, and has all the appearance of a small mountain at a little distance. It is built in the form of a sugar loaf, and large enough to contain 500 persons, but extremely dark, having, besides the door, which is so narrow that but one at a time can pass, and that after much winding and turning, but one small aperture to let the smoke out … Within it has the appearance of an ancient amphitheater, the seats being raised one above another, leaving an area in the middle, in the center of which stands the fire.” For further discussions of Cherokee Townhouses, see this excellent 2011 article by Chris Rodning.

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