The sordid scent of war wafted heavy in the air.
Events at Lexington and Concord and the subsequent Patriot siege of Boston — marking the onset of the Revolutionary War — at first caused barely a ripple of impact here in the hometown area. On the border of Indian territory, our Yadkin Valley was lightly populated and far removed from the new conflicts up north.
Our frontiersmen had about as much in common with the tri-cornered hat- and stocking-wearing Patriots of New England as we have in common with Wall Street bankers.
But events brought the war home prematurely to the South. War came from, of all folks, the Cherokee Indians.
A little known chapter of the war involved conflicts between white settlers and the Cherokee. Early in the war, Native Americans from north of the Ohio River traveled to the Tennessee River on the other side of the mountains on behalf of the British. There, the Indian emissaries urged the Cherokees to make war against encroaching mountain settlements, and the ambassadors promised British guns, ammunition and cash.
“It is better for the red men to die like warriors than to diminish away by inches,” Shawnee leader Cornstalk famously urged the Cherokee.
However, most Cherokee declined and sided with continued peace. But 11 Cherokee villages accepted and began attacking settlements under the leadership of warrior Dragging Canoe. Colonists responded by building forts and mustering community militias, which had been around for up to 100 years prior. Think of the local volunteer fire department with guns.
Thus began the Cherokee wars of the American Revolution. The climax was a 1776 two-hour, hand-to-hand battle near present-day Franklin, west of Asheville. A South Carolina militia repulsed 300 Cherokee and 50 Loyalists whose gunpowder ran low.
Though the Cherokee Nation accepted a peace treaty with the settlers the following year, Dragging Canoe defiantly pressed on with raids long after the Revolutionary War, up until the Cherokee warrior’s death in 1792.
So I noted with some admiration when Poplar Springs history reenactor Doug Mitchell unfurled his new Surry County militia flag in honor of the old Revolutionary War heroes. And it all began to fit.
Surry and Wilkes militias were a force in the war, from the Cherokee conflicts up until the pivotal victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780 and some time beyond.
The actual flag carried then by the Surry militia is lost to history, Mitchell told me. Before the Stars and Stripes became the American flag, the early militias resorted to making their own banners of varied designs.
For instance, the Culpeper militia up in central Virginia – my great-great-great-great grandfather Harris’ outfit – adopted a flag with a familiar coiled snake in the center and with the words “Liberty or Death” above and “The Culpeper Minute Men“ below.
With the Cherokee in mind, Mitchell made up a flag with a raven sporting 13 feathers, representing the original 13 colonies, and with the words “Surry County NC” below.
“The Ravens were Cherokee scouts who went towards danger to lead their war parties who followed them,” Mitchell explained. When carried into battle, the Surry flag would have the forward-flying raven leading its charges into the fight.
Mitchell chose a background of an orange-shaded red symbolizing the North Carolina soil for which our forebears fought, bled and died.
The Surry militia raven flag debuted during the snow-shortened Overmountain Victory Trail Association encampment in Elkin in March. The flag led a reenactment march of association members in period costume and Elkin High School students during a field teaching session along the portion of the Victory Trail beside Big Elkin Creek downtown.
The raven flag will be a staple at association events, including parades, Mitchell told me. It will help “educate the public both young and old about our historical past,” he said. Hope this “Hometown” column helps, too.
What a unique symbol, this Surry raven flag, a good reminder of our rich heritage. Raven, fly on.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.