Henry Timberlake, his adventure and his sad end, part 2

September 10, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

When Henry Timberlake floated from the Holston River into the Tennessee in December 1761 and saw a small band of Cherokees on the bank, his first emotion was fear. He was in the middle of a harrowing journey where he had come close to freezing to death, starving, and being eaten by a bear.

He and his three companions had escaped those fates, but now this: reddish faces with dark eyes, staring at him from the nearby riverbank. Were they friendly or not?

Timberlake was a lieutenant in the British Army and part of a unit that had been sent south from Virginia to put down a Cherokee insurrection in East Tennessee. They had made it as far as present-day Kingsport and built a fort there when 400 Cherokees showed up and asked for a peace treaty. Part of the terms they requested was to have a British soldier return to their villages as a show of good faith. Timberlake volunteered.

That was two weeks before, and he had plenty of reasons to regret the decision. But Timberlake had soldiered on. (His adventures on the Holston River appeared in the newsletter last week.) Timberlake later wrote about seeing the Cherokees.

Finding it impossible to resist or escape, we ran the canoe ashore towards them, thinking it more eligible to surrender immediately, which might entitle us to better treatment, than resist or fly, in either of which death seemed inevitable, from their presented guns, or their pursuit. We now imagined our death, or, what was worse, a miserable captivity, almost certain, when the headman of the party agreeably surprised us, by asking, in the Cherokee language, to what town we belonged? (The Memoirs of Henry Timberlake).

They were friendly, after all, and they conducted him and his companions to the main set of Overhill villages, located further south on the banks of the Little Tennessee River.

Timberlake spent three months with the Cherokees, experiencing every part of tribal life during that season. He also toured several villages and settlements and made careful notes about what he saw. Timberlake returned to Virginia with one of the Cherokee chiefs, Ostenaco, and several warriors. Once in Virginia, the chief asked if he could go to England to meet King George III. Timberlake arranged the trip, and when they were in London, the Cherokees created a sensation. Hundreds of people lined up to see them, and Ostenaco had his portrait painted by Joshua Reynolds.

Two years later, Timberlake arranged a second trip to London for the Cherokees, but this one got him into financial trouble when a benefactor who was backing the trip died suddenly. Timberlake was thrown into debtor’s prison, destined to remain there until the debts were settled.

While in prison, Timberlake wrote his memoirs in an effort to raise money. His writing was clear and direct, and his observations about Cherokee life fascinated readers. Timberlake published a detailed map of that part of the Cherokee nation (right)that was so accurate that it helped archeologists 200 years later locate some of the significant sites in the area, particularly the abandoned Fort Loudoun.

Unfortunately for Timberlake, he never made it out of prison. He died there on September 30, 1765,


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