Henry Timberlake, his adventure and his sad end (part 1)

September 2, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism, writers, writing.

Henry Timberlake‘s short life came to a sad end. He died in 1765 in debtor’s prison in London, there because of some unfortunate but well-meaning decisions and some truly bad luck. He was somewhere between 30 and 35 years. We’re not exactly sure when he was born.

We probably wouldn’t remember Timberlake at all except for the manner in which he tried to get out of debtor’s prison. He wrote his memoirs (The Memoirs of Henry Timberlake). And unlike many memoirists, Timberlake had an interesting and important story to tell.

In 1761 Timberlake, born in Hanover County, Virginia, was a lieutenant in the British army. He had been assigned to a company headed by Colonel Adam Stephen to venture into the Holston River valley (in what is now upper East Tennessee) to attack the Overhill towns of the Cherokee Indian tribe. The company made it to present-day Kingsport where they built a fort to serve as a base for their forays into Indian territory.

When the fort was complete and they were about to venture on, something surprising happened. Four hundred Cherokees showed up and asked for a peace treaty. Colonel Stephens obliged, and Lieutenant Timberlake served as secretary and wrote everything down. At the end of the negotiations, the Cherokees made one final request. They asked that a member of the British force come back with them to their towns and stay for a while to demonstrate the sincerity of their agreement.

Stephens was caught in a dilemma. He did not want to refuse the request, but he also did not want to order one of his men to take on such a potentially dangerous assignment.

Timberlake sensed the colonel’s quandry and volunteered to travel into Cherokee country. He did it, he later wrote, “for the love of my country” — Great Britain.

The Indians left, and a few days later — this was in late November 1761 — Timberlake and three companions — a sergeant, an interpreter, and a “servant” — got into canoes and began a cold and dangerous trip floating down the Holston River. They took 10 days worth of food and provisions. Mishaps and delays plagued them the entire trip, which took nearly twice that long as planned.

Finally, after they had floated into what is now the Tennessee River, they were met by a friendly band of Cherokees and guided into the villages that were their destination.

All that was just the beginning of Timberlake’s adventure. 

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