J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Monsters in the Southwest Territory

On 24 Sept 1794, William Butler of Northampton ran this item on the last page of his Hampshire Gazette newspaper:

In February last, a detachment of mounted infantry, commanded by Captain John Beaird, penetrated fifteen miles into the Cumberland Mountain:

On Cove Creek, ensign M’Donald and another man, in advance of the party as spies, they discovered a creature about three steps from them it had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales, of a black, brown, and light yellow colour, in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top of its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two pound stone, and large eyes, of a fiery red. It stood about three minutes in a daring posture

(orders being given not to fire a gun except at Indians,) Mr. M’Donald advanced and struck at it with his sword, when it jumped up, at least, eight feet, and lit on the same spot of ground, sending forth a red kind of matter out of its mouth resembling blood, and then retreated into a Laurel thicket turning round often, as if it intended to fight. The tracks of it resembled that of a goose, but larger.

The Indians report, that a creature inhabits that part of the mountain, of the above description, which, by its breath, will kill a man, if he does not instantly immerse himself in water.
You can see that item starting at the bottom of the first column on this page spread (P.D.F.).

Other newspapers ran the same story, crediting it (as Butler had not) to the Knoxville Gazette. At the end of the year, the same report was reprinted in Greenleaf’s New-York, Connecticut and New-Jersey Almanack for 1795.

Militia captain John Beaird was a notorious figure in the Southwest Territory, which became Tennessee in 1796. In June 1793 President George Washington’s federal agents were visiting a friendly Cherokee chief named Hanging Maw and other leaders at the town of Coyatee, planning a treaty meeting. Beaird led a renegade militia company charging into the town, killing a dozen people and wounding others, including Hanging Maw. Beaird’s men then burned the goods that the agents had brought as gifts.

The federal government tried Beaird in a military court, but public opinion forced his acquittal. The secretary of the territory reported, “to my great pain, I find, to punish Beard by law, just now, is out of the question.” The next month, Beaird attacked another Native town and killed half a dozen more people. Clearly he intended to stir up a war, scotching any treaty that limited white settlement.

And it worked. Cherokees counterattacked at Cavett’s Station. That fall, John Sevier led a larger militia force against the Cherokees, both friendly and understandably unfriendly, and drove them further west. (Some authors say Sevier had urged Beaird on in his early attacks.)

That Cherokee-American War explains why in February 1794 Beaird’s men were pushing into the Cumberland area with orders “not to fire a gun except at Indians.” However, there’s still no explanation for the creature that Ens. McDonald and his companion saw. Recent books on cryptozoology have dubbed it the “Cumberland Dragon” or “Goosefoot.”

A period term for the creature appears in a 7 Nov 1798 letter from William Blount, governor of the Southwest Territory during Beaird’s raids, about a court case:
All the usual writs known in law are distinguished by some technical name or term, and this production of [Judge David] Campbell’s being unknown in law, it has been deemed proper to call it by a new name, to-wit, Cheeklaceella. I make no doubt you remember a description of an animal (a monster in nature) of this name being published in the Knoxville Gazette in the year 1793 [sic]. Campbell’s production is certainly as great a monster in law as anything under any description or name whatever could be in Nature. What a misfortune to a Country to have a fool for a Judge.
After Tennessee became a state, Sevier served multiple terms as its governor as well as representing it in the U.S. House. Blount was a U.S. Senator until being impeached in 1797; he remained popular at home, and his half-brother Willie succeeded Sevier as governor. Campbell was impeached as a state judge in 1798 and 1803, but acquitted both times. John Beaird served in the state legislature before moving his family and slaves to Kentucky and then to Illinois. Tennessee politics appear to have been lively.

1 comment:

G. Lovely said...

I've found avarice mixed with a ready supply of bourbon often yields "interesting politics".