One of the most popular legends passed down through the generations in Henderson County is the story of Polly Mills Stepp. Polly and her husband, James, were among the first pioneer settlers in the county.
It is told that during the Revolutionary War, when the couple lived along the Green River in old Rutherford County, Indians attacked the cabin, kidnapping a son, scalping Polly and injuring a baby.
Polly’s legend picks up later in Henderson County, in a scene atop Point Lookout, when Polly kills the leader of a band of Indians attacking a settlers’ fort.
There is documentation for one part of the legend.
In 1780, Tory Militia Lt. Anthony Allaire and his men were heading westward in the colony of North Carolina. On Sept. 28, 1780, they crossed Mountain Creek in Rutherford County, the Broad River and the Green River at McDaniel’s Ford, according to Allaire’s military journal.
On the morning of Sept. 29, they walked three miles farther west to the “James Stepp Plantation,” where they halted. (Note that the word plantation at this time simply meant the homestead or their land)
“This man has been very unfortunate in his family; his wife, who is a very decent woman, was caught by the Indians about a twelvemonth past, (1779)” Allaire wrote in his journal. “They scalped and tomahawked her several times in the head, treated the infant she had in her arms in a most inhuman and savage manner. They mashed its head in such a manner that its recovery is truly astonishing; but what this poor, unhappy woman seems most to regret is the loss of her oldest son, whom the savages took, and she now remains in a state of uncertainty, not having heard from him since.”
Allaire wrote the story as told to him 12 months after the incident.
Allaire and Dickey in his pension application described the Indians as “savages,” a term often used by whites throughout American history.
Using this term to describe Indians is equivalent to using any racial, ethnic or religious slur. Stereotypes and misrepresentation of American Indian history are numerous and frequent.
Were the Indians any more “savage” than the Tories or Patriots? (See Anthony Dickey pension application) Were the Patriots such as Dickey and the men with him, several of whom were among the first settlers into Henderson County, also “savages”?
Atrocities can be found in every war.
In colonial times, the French and English paid bounties for the scalps of American Indians. In 1756, Pennsylvania Gov. Morris, in his Declaration of War against the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) people, offered “130 Pieces of Eight, for the Scalp of Every Male Indian Enemy, above the Age of Twelve Years,” and “50 Pieces of Eight for the Scalp of Every Indian Woman, produced as evidence of their being killed.”
Separating Fact from Fiction
The story of Polly Mills Stepp killing the leader of a band of Indians who were attacking the county’s early pioneer settlers, after the Revolutionary War had ended, cannot be documented.
There is no documentation or archaeological evidence indicating that there was a pioneer fort atop Point Lookout in Henderson County.
The majority of the Cherokee were no longer attacking settlers after the Revolutionary War. There is no documentation of attacks in the county by American Indians against early settlers after 1783.
Sometimes, when the story is passed down through the generations, it is stated these attacking Indians were Chickasaw, not Cherokee. But the Chickasaw were not anywhere near Henderson County and did not take up arms against settlers after the Revolutionary War. The Chickasaw lived in Mississippi and western Tennessee.
One Cherokee leader, Dragging Canoe, did continue to fight after the Revolutionary War. But those attacks on pioneer settlements were in eastern and middle Tennessee and Kentucky.
The Cherokee fighting with Dragging Canoe were called the Chickamauga because they lived in the area of the Chickamauga River near today’s Chattanooga, Tenn. The attacks by the Chickamauga Cherokee and those against them are well documented. None of these attacks took place near Henderson County.
There was a pioneer fort near Point Lookout, a mountain in McDowell County near Old Fort, now in Pisgah National Forest. This was the fort for which the town of Old Fort is named. This was Davidson’s Fort and settlers did gather here during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.
If Polly Mills Stepp killed an Indian in an attack at a fort at or near Point Lookout, then it was most likely at Davidson’s Fort near Old Fort.
These web sites have information on the Point Lookout Trail, the Point Lookout near where early settlers had a fort: