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Henry Timberlake

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Henry Timberlake
Born 1730 or 1735
Hanover County, Virginia
Died September 30, 1765(1765-09-30)
Occupation Officer, journalist, and cartographer
Known for Emissary to the Overhill Cherokee

Henry Timberlake (1730 or 1735 – September 30, 1765) was a colonial Anglo-American officer, journalist, and cartographer. He was born in Virginia and died in England. He is best known for his work as an emissary from the British colonies to the Overhill Cherokee during the 1761–1762 Timberlake Expedition.

Timberlake's account of his journeys to the Cherokee, published as his memoirs in 1765, became a primary source for later studies of their eighteenth-century culture. His detailed descriptions of Cherokee villages, townhouses, weapons, and tools have helped historians and anthropologists identify Cherokee structures and cultural objects uncovered at modern archaeological excavation sites throughout the southern Appalachian region.[1] During the Tellico Archaeological Project, which included a series of salvage excavations conducted in the Little Tennessee River basin in the 1970s, archaeologists used Timberlake's Draught of the Cherokee Country to help locate important Overhill village sites.[2]

Early life and career

Henry Timberlake was born in Hanover County, Virginia to Francis and Sarah Austin Timberlake.[3] The Dictionary of American Biography states that Timberlake was born in 1730, though Timberlake's age on his marriage license implies that he was born in 1735.[3] Timberlake was a third-generation American; his grandfather had emigrated from England.[3] Although he inherited a small fortune when his father died, Timberlake still had to support himself, and sought a military career.[4] In 1756, at the outset of the French and Indian War, he joined a Virginia militia company known as the "Patriot Blues." It had embarked on a campaign to expel French and Native American raiders from the western part of the colony. Shortly thereafter, he applied for a commission in the Virginia regiment—then commanded by George Washington—but was denied due to a lack of vacancies.[5]

In 1758, Timberlake successfully applied for a commission in Colonel William Byrd's recently formed 2nd Virginia Regiment. Commissioned as an Ensign,[6] Timberlake accompanied the regiment on its march to Fort Duquesne, but illness kept him from proceeding. In 1759, he took part in several minor operations in the present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, mostly overseeing the construction of defensive works.[7]

In 1760, British relations with the Cherokee, which had been moderately friendly for several decades, grew sour after several Cherokee chiefs were imprisoned and killed in South Carolina. In early 1760, the Cherokee laid siege to Fort Loudoun, a remote outpost in what is now Tennessee. The garrison held out until August of that year, but was forced to surrender due to lack of provisions. A relief column under Archibald Montgomerie failed to reach the fort after burning the Cherokee Lower Towns and being stopped at the Battle of Echoee. In spite of the garrison leaving the fort under a flag of truce, the Cherokee killed 22 of its members on their march home in retaliation for the colonists' earlier killing of 22 Cherokee held as prisoners at Fort Prince George.

In 1761, Jeffrey Amherst, the British commander in North America, responded with a larger invasion force, sending James Grant against the Middle Towns[8] and sending Byrd to threaten the Overhill towns.[1][9]

While Byrd proceeded to destroy the Cherokee Middle towns in North Carolina, he dispatched Colonel Adam Stephen into the Holston River valley to attack the Overhill towns. Timberlake accompanied Stephen to Long Island of the Holston (in modern-day Sullivan County, Tennessee), where they began building a base known as "Fort Robinson", and made preparations for a march south.[10]

Journey to the Overhill country

On November 19, 1761, as Fort Robinson was nearing completion, a 400-man Cherokee force led by Chief Kanagatucko (or "Old Hop") arrived at the camp and asked for peace, which was immediately granted by Col. Stephen. Kanagatucko asked for an officer to accompany him to the Overhill towns as proof that hostilities had ended. Stephen was reluctant to allow it, but granted the request when Timberlake volunteered.[11] Timberlake was accompanied by Sergeant Thomas Sumter, an interpreter named John McCormack, and an unnamed servant. The group purchased a canoe and ten days' worth of provisions with money Sumter had borrowed. The plan was to follow the Holston River to its confluence with the French Broad River, and then proceed to the Little Tennessee River, where the Overhill towns were situated.[12]

Timberlake's party left Long Island on November 28, 1761. The Holston River's unusually low water levels almost immediately stalled the journey, as the party was forced to drag their canoe over exposed shoals and sandbars. The party ran out of provisions after several days, but McCormack managed to shoot a bear, supplying them with several days' worth of meat. Around December 7, the party explored a stalactite-filled cave situated approximately 50 feet above the river. Timberlake described an incident in which Sumter swam nearly a half-mile in the near-freezing river waters to retrieve their canoe, which had somehow drifted away while they were exploring the cave.[13]

On December 13, the expedition reached a series of treacherous cascades that Timberlake called "Great Falls." The party spent a whole day carefully maneuvering their way down the cascades only to find the Holston frozen over immediately downstream. The ice slowed the expedition's progress, but rains on the night of December 14 thawed the ice, and the party passed through the mouth of the Holston (in modern Knoxville) into what is now the Tennessee River on December 15.[14]

The Overhill country

Timberlake's "Draught of the Cherokee Country"

The deeper waters of the Tennessee River allowed the Timberlake expedition to proceed much more quickly. A hunting party led by the Cherokee chief Slave Catcher met the Timberlake expedition near the mouth of the Little Tennessee River, and supplied the weary expedition with provisions of "dried venison, homminy, and boiled corn."[15] The following day, Slave Catcher guided the expedition by canoe up the Little Tennessee, although the Timberlake party struggled to keep up. Timberlake recalled, "my hands were so galled, that the blood trickled from them, and when we set out the next morning I was scarce able to handle a pole."[15] The Timberlake party arrived in the Overhill town of Tomotley on December 20, where they were greeted by the town's head man, Chief Ostenaco.[16]

After spending several days in Tomotley as guests of Ostenaco, Timberlake and McCormack proceeded to the Overhill mother town of Chota, where a number of chiefs had gathered in the town's large councilhouse.[17] Ostenaco gave a speech and ceremoniously buried a hatchet in the ground, symbolizing a state of peace between the English and the Cherokee. Afterward, Timberlake partook in a peace ceremony in which he smoked several ceremonial pipes with the gathered chiefs, a practice Timberlake personally found "very disagreeable," but participated in without openly complaining.[18]

Timberlake and Ostenaco continued southward to Citico, where Timberlake was greeted by a ceremonial dance involving some 400 Cherokee.[19] Timberlake recalled that the dancers were "painted all over in a hideous manner" and that they "danced in a very uncommon figure."[20] The town's chief, Cheulah, presented Timberlake with a string of beads and held another pipe-smoking ceremony. The non-stop pipe smoking made Timberlake so sick that he "could not stir for several hours."[21] The following day, Timberlake and Ostenaco traveled to Chilhowee, the second southernmost of the Overhill towns on Timberlake's map, where the town's chief, Yachtino, held a peace procession similar to that at Citico.[21]

Return to Virginia

His assignment largely completed, Timberlake returned to Tomotley with Ostenaco on January 2, 1762. He spent the next few weeks studying Cherokee habits and making notes for his map of the Overhill country. At the end of January, rumors began trickling in from Cherokee scouts of renewed hostilities with rival tribes to the north. Although the rumors turned out to be based on a misunderstanding, Timberlake grew anxious and begged Ostenaco to guide him back to Virginia. Ostenaco reluctantly agreed, and the party set out on March 10, 1762. Just before departure, Timberlake witnessed the ceremonial return of a war party led by Chief Willinawaw. The party sang "the war-song" and planted a scalp-filled pole next to the councilhouse door.[22]

The Timberlake party had decided to make the return trip overland, having purchased horses from the Cherokee. Ostenaco, accompanied by several hundred Cherokee warriors, guided the Timberlake group northward across what is now known as the Great Indian Warpath, which follows the western base of the Appalachian Mountains. On March 11, the party arrived at the abandoned village of Elajoy along Little River in what is now Maryville, Tennessee, and crossed the French Broad River the following day. A week later, they reached Fort Robinson, which the Stephen garrison had abandoned but stashed a large supply of flour. The expedition left Long Island on March 22, continuing northward to an army camp where Timberlake had left some belongings. He was deeply disappointed to find the trunk had been looted and most of his goods had been stolen. The party finally reached Williamsburg, Virginia in early April.[23]

Visits to London

Drawing of Chief Ostenaco during his visit to London, 1762, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

While in Williamsburg, Timberlake and Ostenaco attended a dinner party at William & Mary College; that evening Ostenaco said he would like to meet the king of England. Although he feared the trip would break him financially, Timberlake agreed to arrange such a trip and meeting for him. In May 1762, Timberlake, Sumter, and three distinguished Cherokee leaders, including Ostenaco, departed for London.[24][25]

Arriving in early June, the Cherokee chiefs were an immediate attraction, drawing crowds all over the city. The poet Oliver Goldsmith waited for three hours to meet the Cherokee, and offered a gift to Ostenaco.[26] They sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint their portraits,[27] and they met personally with King George III.[28] The Cherokee completed their return voyage to North America with Sergeant Sumter on about August 25, 1762.[29] Timberlake remained in England dealing with some financial difficulties. He was appointed by Jeffrey Amherst, promoted to Crown Governor of Virginia, as a Lieutenant in the "42nd or Royal Highland Regiment of foot." His increased pay from this commission enabled Timberlake to pay for his return voyage to Virginia in March 1763.[30]

Having reached Virginia, Timberlake set out for New York to meet with Amherst to receive his commission. Not long afterward, he received notice that he was among a number of officers to be reduced to half pay. Having learned this, he left the militia and returned home to Virginia to petition the General Assembly to compensate him for his expenses for the journey , but was denied.[31]

In the summer of 1764, five Cherokee visited Timberlake, seeking an audience with the governor of Virginia and requesting passage to London. The Cherokee wished to appeal to King George to enforce the Proclamation Line of 1763, which restricted colonists to east of the Appalachians, due to continuing encroachment by white settlers on Cherokee land. The governor denied their request, but Timberlake agreed to help them. He accompanied three Cherokee to London in the fall of 1764. Not long after their arrival, the benefactor of the trip fell ill and died. Lord Halifax refused to grant the Cherokee an audience, as the trip was unauthorized. Timberlake was accused of attempting to profit off the public attention given to the Cherokee. The government sent the Cherokee back to North America in March 1765. Shortly after their departure, Timberlake was arrested for failing to pay the debt for the last bill for lodging of himself and the Cherokee. He likely wrote his Memoirs while incarcerated.[32]


Timberlake had one child, a son, Richard Timberlake, by one of Ostenaco's daughters,[33] Sakinney.[34] In his old age, Timberlake's friend Ostenaco lived in retirement with his grandson, Richard.[35]


Timberlake's primary legacy is the journal he kept while living with the Cherokee. The volume was published in 1765, likely following Timberlake's death in September of that year. The journal is of importance both as an ethnological study, as it contains detailed descriptions of various facets of Cherokee society, and as a historical account, as it gives insight into Cherokee political decision-making and the tribe's early reactions to the encroaching European colonists.[36]

Along with Cherokee methods of warfare, Timberlake described their agricultural and hunting customs, religious beliefs, birth and death rites, and marital habits.[37] He described Cherokee government as a "mixed aristocracy and democracy," with chiefs chosen on the basis of merit.[38] he also described Cherokee methods for building canoes and dwellings, and the general size and form of Cherokee summer and winter houses.[39] Timberlake's description of the Cherokee councilhouse (the central structure in a typical Cherokee village) has aided archaeologists in the location of such structures at modern excavation sites.[40]

Timberlake's map, entitled A Draught of the Cherokee Country, accompanied the journal. On it he located all the Cherokee villages on the lower Little Tennessee River and provided important demographic information about village sizes, populations, and leaders. Modern studies have generally confirmed that Timberlake's map was remarkably accurate. The journal, simply entitled Memoirs, and his map of the Overhill Cherokee country have been reprinted several times.[1] Timberlake's Memoirs remains one of the best contemporary accounts of the 18th-century Cherokee.[41]

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Schroedel, G.F. Henry Timberlake in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Retrieved 2012-04-24.
  2. Gerald Schroedl and Kurt Russ, "An Introduction to the Ethnohistory and Archaeology of Chota and Tanasee", in Overhill Cherokee Archaeology at Chota-Tanasee (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Department of Anthropology — Report of Investigations 38, 1986), 12.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Timberlake, H.; King, D.H.; Indian, M.C. (1765). The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake: The Story of a Soldier, Adventurer, and Emissary to the Cherokees, 1756-1765. Museum of the Cherokee Indian Press. ISBN 9780807831267. Retrieved 2015-08-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Henry Timberlake, Samuel Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 1756–1765 (Marietta, Georgia: Continental Book Co., 1948), 27.
  5. Timberlake, Memoirs, 28-29.
  6. Timberlake, Memoirs, 29.
  7. Timberlake, Memoirs, pp. 30-37.
  8. Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766. New York: Knopf, 2000, pp. 460-467
  9. Inez Burns, History of Blount County, Tennessee: From War Trail to Landing Strip, 1795–1955 (Nashville: Benson Print Co., 1957), 6-7.
  10. Timberlake, Memoirs, 41.
  11. Timberlake, Memoirs, 38-39.
  12. Robert Bass, Gamecock: The Life and Campaigns of General Thomas Sumter (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961), 9.
  13. Timberlake, Memoirs, 41-48.
  14. Timberlake, Memoirs, 49-54.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Timberlake, Memoirs, 56.
  16. Timberlake, Memoirs, 57-58.
  17. Schroedl and Russ, Overhill Cherokee Archaeology at Chota-Tanasee, 12.
  18. Timberlake, Memoirs, 59-61.
  19. James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee (Nashville, Tenn.: Charles Elder, 1972), 493.
  20. Timberlake, Memoirs, 63.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Timberlake, Memoirs, 65.
  22. Timberlake, Memoirs, 109-113.
  23. Timberlake, Memoirs, 118-129.
  24. Timberlake, Memoirs, 130-133.
  25. Stanley Folmsbee, et al., Tennessee: A Short History (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1969), 46.
  26. Timberlake, Memoirs, 136.
  27. St James Chronicle, July 3, 1762.
  28. Timberlake, Memoirs, 143-144
  29. Timberlake, Memoirs, 145-147.
  30. Timberlake, Memoirs, 147-157
  31. Timberlake, Memoirs, 157-161.
  32. Henry Timberlake, Duane King (ed.) The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake: The Story of a Soldier, Adventurer, and Emissary to the Cherokees, 1756–1765. UNC Press, xxvii-xxx.
  33. Hoig, Stan (1998). The Cherokees and Their Chiefs: In the Wake of Empire. University of Arkansas Press. p. 45.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Baigent, Elizabeth (2004). "Timberlake, Henry". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27457.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  35. Conley, Robert J. (2007). A Cherokee Encyclopedia. University of New Mexico Press. p. 172.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. Timberlake, Memoirs, 57-64, 95-96.
  37. Timberlake, Memoirs, 68-78, 87-90.
  38. Timberlake, Memoirs, 93.
  39. Timberlake, Memoirs, 84-85.
  40. e.g., Bennie Keel, Cherokee Archaeology: A Study of the Appalachian Summit (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), 33.
  41. The East Tennessee Historical Society, Mary Rothrock (ed.), The French Broad-Holston Country: A History of Knox County, Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn.: The East Tennessee Historical Society, 1972), 24.

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