Wilkes County and John Cunningham
in the American War for Independence
This is the first installment of an ongoing research effort by Steve Brown of The Georgia Refugees. Steve has done an incredible job of poring over manuscripts and books and assembling this series of articles, and we commend his efforts. Please check back often for updates.
In 1773 the Creeks and Cherokees ceded over a million acres of land in Northeast Georgia and Western South Carolina. This was to settle debts to the Crown, accrued by the natives in the buckskin trade. The area was known as the Ceded Lands and was opened to settlement. Thomas Brown came from England with over 75 slaves and indentured servants. The Dooly brothers and Elijah Clarke crossed the Savannah River to set up farms. By 1775 the southern portion of the frontier counted over 300 families, mostly from the Carolinas. Among them was a young man named John Cunningham. All these characters were to play essential roles in the struggle for the area that Georgia’s Continental Government would designate Wilkes County, and the men who would fight for it would dub “The Hornet’s Nest.”
Georgia adopted a Constitution in 1777. Article IV authorized the establishment of counties from the former colony’s parishes and territories. It designated, “The ceded lands north of the Ogechee shall be one county, and known by the name of Wilkes.” It was named after John Wilkes, a British peer and advocate for the rights of man. The county was split on the issue of independence. Thomas Brown, only recently arrived from England, was tarred and feathered for his allegiance to the Crown. Known there after as “Burnt Foot Brown,” he led a brilliant backcountry campaign against the Whigs that practically drove them out of Georgia. The Native American population leaned towards the Crown in order to maintain their positive trade relations with the British, and they opposed their American rivals. Most of the early actions in Wilkes were between the Whig Militia and the Indians.
On July 22, 1777, Captain Thomas Dooly led a company of militia into the western extremities of the Ceded Lands. His second in command was Lt. John Cunningham. Dooly decided to attack a large band of Creeks along the Oconee River. The attack was roundly repelled; Dooly and three others were left by their fleeing comrades, to later be tortured to death. Cunningham was arrested and tried for cowardice, he claimed to have been swept up by the rout of his men. His defense must have been convincing, as he was acquitted. (The deposition of one of the participants, and a reference to Cunningham’s successful acquittal can be read in the Timeline section)
The Georgia Militia combined with units in Western South Carolina in a savage campaign against the Cherokees and Northern Creeks. John Dooly gained a reputation as a bloodthirsty avenger of his brother’s death. Andrew Pickens and Elijah Clarke also became recognized as effective leaders during the expedition. The war was brought to the native’s home country along the Tugaloo and Chattahoochee River. Their villages were razed, crops were destroyed and game driven out. Faced with starvation, the Cherokees capitulated and the Creeks withdrew further into their nation and were effectively neutralized as an immediate threat.