According to the anthropologist James Mooney, Attakullakulla's Cherokee name could be translated "leaning wood", from ada meaning "wood", and gulkalu, a verb that implies something long, leaning against some other object. His name "Little Carpenter" derived from the English meaning of his Cherokee name along with a reference to his physical stature. As naturalist William Bartram described him, he was "a man of remarkable small stature, slender, and delicate frame." "His ears were cut and banded with silver, hanging nearly down to his shoulders." He was mild-mannered, brilliant, and witty.
Attakullakulla is believed to have been born in the territory of the Overhill Cherokee, in what is now East Tennessee, sometime in the early 1700s. His son, Turtle-at-Home, said that he was born to a sub-tribe of the Algonquian-speaking Nipissing to the north near Lake Superior. He was captured as an infant during a raid in which his parents were killed, and brought back to Tennessee to be adopted by a Cherokee family, where he was raised as Cherokee. He married Nionne Ollie, a Natchez captive adopted as the daughter of his cousin, Oconostota. The marriage was permissible because they were of different clans; he was Wolf Clan and she was Paint Clan.
He was a member of the Cherokee delegation that traveled to England in 1730. In 1736, he rejected the advances of the French, who had sent emissaries to the Overhill Cherokee. Three or four years later, he was captured by the Ottawa, allies of the French, who held him captive in Quebec until 1748. Upon his return, he became one of the Cherokees' leading diplomats and an adviser to the Beloved Man of Chota.
In the 1750s, Attakullakulla worked to provide a steady supply of trade goods for his people. When the French and Indian War began, Cherokees journeyed to the Pennsylvania frontier to serve in British military campaigns against French and Indian strongholds. Cherokees were murdered on their way home by Virginia frontiersmen. Attakullakulla journeyed to Pennsylvania, to Williamsburg, and then to Charles Town, securing the promise of trade goods as compensation. But this was not enough to satisfy young Cherokee who wished to honor their cultural obligation of "blood revenge" and sought social status. Throughout 1758 and 1759, Cherokee warriors launched retributive raids on the southern colonial frontier. Hoping that matters might be forgiven, Attakullakulla even led a Cherokee war party against French Fort Massiac, and tried to negotiate peace with the British.
These efforts proved unsuccessful. In late 1759, Cherokees went to Charleston to try to negotiate with South Carolina authorities for peace. The colonial governor, William Henry Lyttetton, seized the delegates as hostages until the Cherokee responsible for killing white settlers were surrendered. Having raised an expeditionary force of 1700 men, Lyttleton set out for Fort Prince George, with the hostages in tow, and arrived on December 9, 1759. Attakullakulla was forced to sign a treaty agreeing that the Cherokees would deliver up "murderers" in exchange for nearly two dozen hostages confined at Fort Prince George.
Attakullakulla returned to Fort Prince George in early 1760 to negotiate for the release of the hostages, but to no avail. As peaceful negotiations failed, Oconostota subsequently lured a Lt. Richard Coytmore out of the fort by waving a bridle over his head. He then incited Cherokee warriors hiding in the woods to shoot and kill Coytmore. The garrison in the fort retaliated with the execution of all the remaining Cherokee hostages. Cherokee Indians launched an offensive against settlements on the southern frontier. Many Cherokees blamed Attakullakulla for the death of the hostages. While he worked to try to bring about peace, later in 1760, British and South Carolina troops invaded the Cherokee Lower Towns and Middle Towns. They were forced to retreat and Fort Loudoun fell to the Cherokees. Attakullakulla again attempted to negotiate a peace, but this did not come until after a punitive British and South Carolina military expedition against the Middle and Lower Towns in 1761. Attakullakulla signed peace terms in Charles Town on December 18, 1761, but was robbed and harassed by angry frontiersmen on his journey home. Throughout the 1760s, he would work in vain to stall white settlement, and was a frequent guest in Charles Town and Williamsburg.
During the Revolutionary War, Attakullakulla was one of a party of elder Cherokee leaders who ceded lands to Virginia, contrary to the wishes of younger warriors. Attakullakulla's son, Dragging Canoe, the Chickamauga Cherokee leader during the Cherokee-American wars, split with his father during this time.
Attakullakulla is believed to have died in 1777. He was succeeded as First Beloved Man by Oconostota.