It’s July, and at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton, Tennessee that can mean only one thing: the annual production of The Official Outdoor Drama of the State of Tennessee, Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals. Throughout the year Sycamore Shoals State Park offers both historic and natural programming, festivals, traditional arts workshops and a host of living history events. However, during the last three weekends in July visitors can take the opportunity to see the story of nationally significant events unfold in a dramatic presentation performed on the grounds of Sycamore Shoals with the reconstructed Fort Watauga as the backdrop. Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals is a two act outdoor drama depicting four major events that took place in the late 18th century within the Watauga Settlement now present day Elizabethton, TN.
America in the 18th century was a loose knit collection of 13 British colonies. In 1763 King George III of Great Britain and his parliament issued the Proclamation of 1763 stating that no lawful settlement could occur west of the Appalachian Mountains. This was done chiefly to protect the Cherokee Indians who had allied themselves with Great Britain during the French and Indian War and to keep a tight rein on the western colonial population. Increased taxes and continued harassment from the crown prompted a large number of families to move across the proclamation line and settle in the fertile valleys over the mountains. By 1772 over 90 families had settled in the Watauga Valley alone. Finding themselves outside the protection of the crown and their settlement as a haven for outlaws hiding from the authorities, the settlers saw a need for law and order. In May of 1772 deliberations were held and a governing body of thirteen commissioners established a majority rule system called the Watauga Association. Theodore Roosevelt in his Winning of the West said that the Watauga Settlement was the first “free and independent community on the continent” and “they successfully solved the difficult problem of self-government”. Law and order united with the idea that every free man would have a vote came about in the Watauga Settlement a full four years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Three years after the formation of the Watauga Association, Sycamore Shoals would once again become the site of major historic significance. Judge Richard Henderson of the Transylvania Land Company had entered into negotiations with the Cherokee Indians for the purchase of a large tract of land within the Cumberland and Kentucky River valleys to be opened up for settlement. The negotiations concluded on March 17, 1775 when the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals was signed by members of the Transylvania Company and the headmen of the Cherokee Nation led by peace chief Attakullakulla. For a sum of ten thousand English pounds in trade goods and silver the Cherokee turned over twenty million acres of what is now present day Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. In response to the Cherokee loosing such a vast tract of land, Dragging Canoe, son of Attakullakulla and leader of a militant faction of Cherokees, gave a very ominous and prophetic warning to the settlers stating that a dark could hung over their lands and they would find their settlement to be a “dark and bloody ground”. Henderson’s dream of a fourteenth colony did not last long. The revolutionary governments of Virginia and North Carolina refused to recognize the legitimacy of Henderson’s claim and so the “Transylvania Purchase” faded into obscurity. However, it remains the largest private real estate transaction in the history of the United States.
The following year America found itself declaring independence from Great Britain and in the throes of a revolution. The frontier settlements were in constant fear that Dragging Canoe and the militant Cherokee may raid at any time. British Indian agents supplied arms and ammunition to the natives in hopes that they could persuade the settlers to remove from their illegal communities west of the mountains. A string of loosely guarded forts and blockhouses were built in and around the settlements to provide protection should an attack occur. Fort Watauga was constructed at Sycamore Shoals and the local settlers piled into the quickly built palisade and waited for the imminent attack. On July 21, 1776 three hundred Cherokee warriors under the command of Old Abram stormed out of the dense morning fog in a surprise attack on the fort. After an intense three hour battle the Cherokee settled in for a two week siege of the fort. After hearing that Dragging Canoe had been defeated at Long Island, present day Kingsport, TN, Old Abram and his warriors retreated and the defenders of Fort Watauga emerged scarred but victorious.
By 1780 the outcome of the revolutionary effort looked very grim. General Washington had reached a stalemate in the north and the British were methodically taking back the south. Savannah, GA and the major port of Charleston, SC had both fallen to the British, and the Americans were dealt a crushing blow at the defeat of Camden, SC. The cause needed a shot in the arm to boost morale and encourage victory over defeat. British Major Patrick Ferguson, who had been given command of all loyal militia in the North and South Carolina backcountry, sent a verbal warning over the mountains. He ordered the overmountain people to cease in their opposition to the crown, or he would march his army over the mountains and “lay [their] country waste with fire and sword”. The size of Ferguson’s army was unknown, so instead of waiting for his arrival and mounting a defense against unknown odds, the overmountain leaders chose to take the fight to Ferguson. The word was passed and on September 25, 1780 the frontier militia that would become known as the Overmountain Men gathered at Sycamore Shoals. So many volunteers turned out that a draft was issued for men to stay behind and protect the settlements. The next day Reverend Samuel Doak prayed with the men and beseeched them to “wield the sword of the Lord and of Gideon”, and they began their trek over the mountains in search of Ferguson. Eleven days later on October 7, 1780 the Overmountain Men found Major Ferguson and his Tory army atop Kings Mountain just across the South Carolina Line. In a battle that lasted just over an hour Ferguson was killed and his entire army surrendered to the Patriot militia. Many historians recognize the Battle of Kings Mountain as the turning point of the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson referred to the victory as the “turning of the tide of success”. The Patriot forces now had that shot in the arm that was so desperately needed. Just over a year later British forces surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown, VA and the war was all but over.
These events reflect the rich and vast historical significance that surround Sycamore Shoals and the East Tennessee region as a whole, and the role that early settlers played in the formation of a new nation. Visiting The Official Outdoor Drama of the State of Tennessee is a great way to see these stories unfold. Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals begins its 36th season July 10, and continues for a three-weekend run. During your visit to Sycamore Shoals, please plan to visit the new interpretive exhibit, shop in the Eastern National Gift Shop, and take in the sights and sounds of your Tennessee State Park.
Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals runs Thursdays-Saturdays, July 10 – 12, 17 – 19, and 24 – 26, in the Fort Watauga Amphitheater at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton. Performances begin nightly at 7:30. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors (55 & over), and $5 for children (6 – 17 years of age). Children 5 and under are admitted free. Also, a family cap discount for immediate members of one family (parents and their children) is offered for $39.00. Friends of Sycamore Shoals members will be admitted for $6.00. Veterans night is Thursday, July 17: veterans and one escort are admitted free of charge for this performance. Interpretation for the Hearing Impaired will be available on Saturday, July 19. For more information, please call the park at (423) 543-5808 or visit these websites: http://www.sycamoreshoalstn.org or http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/sycamore-shoals
Thank you to our Sponsors!……..
Friends of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, A to Z Rentals, Appalachian Lighting & Production, Big John’s Closeouts, CH2M Hill Corporation, the City of Elizabethton, Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce, Elizabethton Electric, Holston Gas, LeBleu, Massengill-DeFriece Foundation, Inc, Northeast TN Valley Regional Industrial Development Association, the Tennessee National Guard, Tennessee Society Sons of the American Revolution, John & Susan Kubenka, Michael & Lynne Barnett, Dr. Samuel Powell (Burlington, NC), 11Connects – WJHL TV, and WCYB TV 5
For more information, please call the park at (423) 543-5808.
Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area
1651 W. Elk Avenue
Elizabethton, TN 37643