Chief Doublehead, the Cherokee Cannibal
For longer than anyone could remember, the Tennessee Valley had been the
ancestral hunting grounds of the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Creek nations. This
was a land where Indians could live peacefully without fear of encroachment
from the whites.
By the late 1700s, however, times began to change as white settlers from
Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia began moving onto the Indian lands.
The great Indian nations, decimated by war and fragmented by internal strife,
could no longer offer resistance. Only one man stood in the way of this
Part cannibal, part savage and part statesman, Chief Doublehead would leave
his bloody mark on the pages of the Tennessee Valley's history.
Doublehead was born into the Cherokee aristocracy in the Cumberland foothills
of Tennessee. His father had been a ferocious warrior, well-known for his
bravery and his brother, Tassel, was a principal chief and statesman. His
oldest sister, Wurteh, married a white man, Nathan Gist, and produced a son
who was destined to become the greatest of all Cherokees, Sequoyah. Another
sister married a white soldier and their son, John Watts, became the Chief of
Chiefs among the Cherokee Nation.
The Indian nations were a scene of much turmoil during Doublehead's youth.
Part of the tribes wanted to fight the white men who were taking their lands,
while others, guided by their heads rather than their hearts, charted a
course of peaceful cooperation.
To say that Doublehead was a rebellious youth would be an understatement.
Even as a child, barely out of puberty, Doublehead began leading raiding
parties against white settlers. Although too young to fight, the youths would
lie in wait until the settlers were away from home, then sneak in, burn their
cabins and run off the livestock.
Soon tiring of this, Doublehead began to look for other ways to harass the
settlers. The isolated settlements depended on traveling peddlers for
necessities such as salt, gunpowder and cloth. Realizing this, Doublehead
fanned his group of teenage warriors out across the wilderness trails where
they laid in ambush. Within a short while no peddler dared to enter the
territory unless provided with a large armed escort. The few brave souls who
did go alone met with a premature, and often gruesome death.
Doublehead purposely cultivated his image as a bloodthirsty savage. Though
the taking of scalps was not common among the Cherokees, he quickly made it
his trademark. Even more grisly was his habit of cannibalizing his enemies'
bodies. After a successful raid he would cut a piece of flesh from one of his
victims, and often with blood running down his chin, eat it as a sign of the
conquered's impotence. Afterwards, he would demand that his warriors, as a
symbolic blood oath, do the same.
Years later, when in Philadelphia meeting with President George Washington,
an inquisitive reporter asked Doublehead's opinion of the white race. Without
even giving the matter a moment's thought, the chief replied: "Too salty."
In order to keep his warriors loyal to him, Doublehead knew he had to do more
than merely lead them on raiding parties. He made the acquaintance of several
white traders who quickly met an untimely death. Soon he was selling their
goods to stores in the white settlements. Doublehead made enough money to
supply his band with guns, powder and other items not normally available to
Despite Doublehead's growing popularity among the tribes, his days of running
wild throughout the Cumberlands were numbered. The whites were putting
increasing pressure on the Indians as a result of the raids and even many of
his own tribesmen were beginning to turn against him.
Realizing this, Doublehead gathered his band, a motley mix of Cherokees,
Chickasaws and Creeks and moved to the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley.
They settled on a site several miles south of the present day Athens,
Alabama, which in a few years became a thriving village.
The land was supposed to be shared as a hunting ground by the Cherokees and
Chickasaws, with none of them actually living on it. Doublehead quickly
solved this problem by giving two of his sisters to George Colbert, the chief
of the Chickasaw Nation.
Though Doublehead continued to be a nuisance, leading occasional raiding
parties against the Tennessee settlements, it was the murder of his brother,
Tassel, that ignited the fires of open hostility.
Tassel, head chief of the Cherokees, had been invited to meet with Major John
Hubbert under a flag of truce. After a series of talks, the unarmed chief was
escorted to a smoke house where he was to spend the night. That night, with
Hubbert guarding the door, a youth armed with a tomahawk, entered the
building and killed the chief as he lay sleeping. To the whites this was only
justice, as the youth had recently lost his parents to a Cherokee war party.
A murderous rage descended upon the Tennessee Valley when Doublehead learned
of his brother's death. His name soon became synonymous with terror as his
band fanned out for hundreds of miles in every direction dealing death and
destruction to any settlements in their paths.
Knowing the importance of symbolism among his Indian warriors, he used the
death of Captain William Overall to enhance his already gruesome reputation.
Overall had distinguished himself as a particularly brave fighter before
finally falling under Doublehead's tomahawk.
Doublehead carried the captain's body back to his village, where in full view
of everyone he dismembered the body and began eating the choicest parts,
inviting his tribesmen to join him.
"The white man is no more than a dog, or a pig of the woods," he reputedly
said, "and should be treated the same way."
Perhaps the most unforgivable atrocity, and the one that turned many of the
Cherokees against him, happened in 1793. Doublehead's brother, Pumpkin Boy,
had been killed in a recent raid against the whites and he was still bitter
about it when he entered a village and saw a small white child mounted on a
horse behind his nephew, John Watts. Watts had captured the child while
assaulting a white settlement, and as was Cherokee custom, had taken the
child to raise as his own.
With a wild scream of uncontrollable rage, Doublehead charged, burying his
tomahawk deeply in the body of the small child. Afterwards for the rest of
his life he was known as "Kill Baby" to many of the Indians who were shocked
by the ghastly incident.
Suddenly and with no apparent reason, in 1794 Doublehead abruptly quit the
warpath. Almost immediately he began displaying a new found wealth. Indian
couriers were sent to Nashville on a regular basis to purchase furniture and
other items for his house. He became a collector of fine race horses, once
sending all the way to Charleston, South Carolina to purchase one that had
captured his fancy. He even began to dress the part of a wealthy man.
The source of his wealth became an item of speculation for people who knew
him. Especially intriguing was the fact that much of his wealth seemed to be
in the form of bars of silver bullion. At first it was supposed that this was
treasure he had stolen during his days on the warpath, but as time went on
people realized there had to be another answer.
Before long everyone in his tribe was wondering about the source of the
bullion. According to legend, Doublehead once asked two of his warriors to
accompany him on a trip. After walking for days he finally led them to a cave
where a great quantity of silver was stored. The men loaded as much as they
could carry in backpacks before returning to the village, where Doublehead
warned the Indians against ever revealing his secret, under pain of death.
Quite naturally, as Doublehead had expected, later that night one of the
Indians revealed to his wife what he had seen. Doublehead, who was lurking
outside the cabin listening, immediately burst into the cabin and killed the
No one in Doublehead's tribe ever again spoke of the mysterious silver
Though secure in his new found wealth, Doublehead still took his life in his
hands when he traveled outside of the Indian lands. For the people whose
relatives had been murdered by Doublehead, there could be no forgiveness.
In 1794, a leading group of Cherokees had been invited to Philadelphia to
meet with the president, and Doublehead, aware of the political ramifications
of such a visit, appointed himself as the spokesman. With his tall,
foreboding looks and dressed in an elaborate costume, he was the center of
attention. People nudged and poked one another to catch a glimpse of the man
reputed to be the most bloodthirsty savage in America.
Doublehead undoubtedly capitalized on his reputation, for when he left,
Secretary of War Henry Knox awarded him an annual annuity of $5,000. Knox
probably realized this was cheaper than having Doublehead return to the
This also placed Doublehead under the protection of the United States
Government, much to the ire of the whites who had lost their homes and
relatives to his murderous band.
Doublehead quickly settled into his new life-style. He made frequent trips to
New Orleans, Pensacola, Charleston and even visited New York once, where he
was described as "the classic example of the noble savage." Strangely enough,
Doublehead, who once feasted on his enemies' bodies, even visited some of the
finer restaurants and attended a play while in New York.
Unfortunately, although Doublehead had become wealthy and was prospering, the
Cherokee nation was not. Every year with every treaty the Indian lands became
smaller. John Hunt had already settled near the Big Spring in northern
Alabama and more settlers were pouring in every day.
In January of 1806, Doublehead and the other chiefs of the Cherokee nation
signed a treaty giving up all the land lying between the Tennessee and Duck
rivers. Unbeknownst to the other chiefs, Doublehead had negotiated a secret
agreement with the Indian agent where he received a large tract of land,
numbering in the tens of thousands of acres, in exchange for signing the
If Doublehead was hoping his duplicity in the treaty would go undiscovered he
was sadly mistaken. Several months later, while attending an Indian ball game
at Hiwassee, in the Indian Nation, he was accosted by a fellow chief named
Bone Polisher, who loudly denounced him and called him a traitor to his
As matters reached the boiling point, Bone Polisher drew his tomahawk and
rushed Doublehead, swinging wildly at his head. Doublehead, despite having
received numerous wounds managed to shoot his assailant through the heart.
Onlookers carried the wounded chief to McIntosh's Tavern where they sought
assistance. Instead of help, however, they were confronted by another group
of angry accusers who also called Doublehead a traitor. Someone in the tavern
(it's never been established who) extinguished the light. Instantly, as soon
as the tavern went dark, a shot rang out. When finally the light was relit.
Doublehead was lying on the floor mortally wounded.
Friends hastily carried the chief across the field to the home of the
schoolmaster where they attempted to hide him. Unfortunately, his blood trail
was easy to follow and within minutes another group of avengers appeared to
finish the task.
Doublehead, the scourge of the Tennessee Valley, was dead.
Doublehead's death signaled the end of the Cherokees in North Alabama. Though
they would remain here for another thirty years, they would never again be a
Almost immediately after Doublehead's death, people began searching for the
source of his wealth. In 1840 two prominent men of the Shoals area, Levi
Cassity and James Thompson found a cave that they believed to be the source
of Doublehead's treasure trove. In the cave they found tools and crucibles
used for melting silver. Many of the tools still had traces of silver on
But there was no mine or any ore. The closest thing resembling a treasure
were a few old Spanish coins retrieved from the cave floor.
Were the coins part of Doublehead's treasure? Many people think so. When
Hernando de Soto visited North Alabama during his explorations he was alleged
to have hidden a large amount of silver coins somewhere in present day
Jackson County. Could Doublehead have stumbled across the treasure and
transported part of it to a cave closer to where he lived? If so, it would
explain the tools and crucibles, as many people who would readily accept
bullion would not take two hundred year old Spanish coins.
We will never know, for as Doublehead once said, "When I die, my secrets are
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