Cherokee Indians are a tribe that originated in the Southeastern United States. Their traditional lands included north Alabama from Noccalula Falls at Gadsden, Alabama, to all of Georgia north of Atlanta, to Kings Mountain, S. C. in the east; all of western North Carolina, southwest Virginia and East and Middle Tennessee. They also had traditional hunting claims in Kentucky. Their territory was eventually eliminated through about three dozen treaties between 1721 and 1835. The Treaty of New Echota (near Calhoun, Georgia) ceded the last remaining territory east of the Mississippi in exchange for land in Oklahoma.
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The whole tribe of Cherokees was forced to go west to Oklahoma in the 1830s on the infamous Trail of Tears that began at Red Clay Council Grounds in Tennessee just north of the Georgia state line. Among those who were force to leave were several thousand who died on the Trail of Tears. However, a few were able to hide in the mountains of western North Carolina. This group became the Eastern Band of Cherokees. Their tribal headquarters are at Cherokee, North Carolina.
Today there are reservations in North Carolina with about 10,000 Cherokee and Oklahoma with about 100,000 Cherokee. Many are mix bloods rather than full bloods.
Many Cherokee place names have been left in the places where they previously lived. The name Tennessee was taken from one of the Cherokee towns.
The Cherokee were counted as one of the five civilized tribes of the Southeast which includes the Choctaw, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles. They had the most vital and richest culture of all the tribes north of Mexico, a feature that most modern Americans have forgotten unless reminded in movies such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
Prehistoric and pre-Columbian knowledge of the Cherokee is limited. Their first European contact was with the expedition led by Hernando de Soto in 1540. The contact with de Soto was limited because his goal was exploration. He was followed eventually in the 1600s growing numbers of contacts French colonies in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and with the Spanish in Florida. However with the founding of the English colonies of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina the contract grew into trade relationships.
The trade relations developed with the Cherokee getting guns, powder, shot, and other trade goods in exchange for deer skins. The skins were valuable in Europe as a type of leather goods. Guns were more efficient hunting tools than bows and arrows. British merchants, who were frequently Scotsmen moved into Cherokee villages and established trading post. Many of these traders married Indian women. Their children, who were mix-bloods, usually grew up in the wilderness but with some European education. They were to be important because they provided much of the leadership in the future, at times in agreement and at times in opposition to the full bloods. Being of both cultures they were able to interpret each culture to the other.
During the Eighteen Century the struggle between the French and English for control of North American meant frequent warfare. To protect the deer skin trade forts were built in Cherokee country which was divided into three basic areas. For the most part the Cherokee lived in towns. South Carolina held the “lower towns;” Western North Carolina the “middle towns;” and the “over the hill towns” were in east Tennessee.
Fort Loudoun had been built in 1756-1757 at the confluence of the Little Tennessee and Tellico Rivers. It was a trade center and the Cherokee had free access to it until the outbreak of the Cherokee War (1759-1761).
The Cherokee War occurred during the French and Indian War (1754-63). Known as the Seven Years War globally The French and Indian War is the name for its North American Theater of Operations. The origin of the Cherokee War was an incident in late 1758. A Cherokee war party, returning from unrewarding service in the Forbes Expedition, stole a few horses from frontier settlers. In a brief fight both Cherokee and whites suffered casualties. The Cherokee then sought revenge under their law which was in essence the law of the feud in which retaliation soon killed many on both sides.
In November of 1759 South Carolina Governor William Henry Lyttleton declared war on the Cherokee. Efforts at peace negotiation failed because the Cherokees refused to surrender the individuals who had begun the fighting. To do so would have satisfied English ideas of justice; but would have violated Cherokee traditions. By 1760 a growing number of Cherokee and white settlers had been killed. In June Colonel Archibald Montgomery led an army of British regulars and colonial forces against the Cherokee. The Lower Towns and Middle Towns in the southern Appalachians were destroyed. Montgomery won a costly battle near Franklin, North Carolina on June 27, 1760 after which he returned to Charlestown.
The gravest incident was the massacre of the Fort Loudoun garrison. The fort had been surrounded by the Cherokee and reduced to starvation. It was surrendered and its garrison was retiring to South Carolina, when it was attacked at Ballplay, Tennessee, where Cain’s Creek joins the Tellico River. Twenty-two officers and soldiers along with three women were killed in revenge for Cherokee losses. The survivors were held captive until the war’s end.
In June 1761 an expedition commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Grant defeated the Cherokee near the village of Estatoe. He then burned all of their neighboring towns and all of their crops reducing them to near starvation. The Cherokee accepted peace term in August 1761.
The Cherokee suffered numerous losses during the Cherokee War; however, more devastating were the losses from European diseases such as small pox, measles and other contagions. In response the Cherokee fought back with the Booger Dance, a spiritual weapon. Booger Dancers wore ugly masks and danced to ward off diseases or to ceremonially reduce fear of the deadly diseases.
During the American Revolution the Cherokee remained loyal to the British and conducted military operations on their behalf. This led to fighting with the colonists and to demands for their removal after the Revolution. Among the Cherokee women often played an important role as counselors. Some became known as “war women.” An important “War Woman” was Nancy Ward. The acceptance of female leadership and influence was contrary to the male dominated white practice.
By the 1790s Cherokee leadership came to the conclusion that he best way to preserve themselves was to become “civilized.” They began to develop more European style farm, clothing, government and Christianity. Often led by the mixed bloods such as John Ross, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot they were aided by missionaries such as the Moravians who had a mission at Spring Place, Georgia. The Cherokee leadership began to develop into a “civilized” nation complete with the practice of slavery.
A great event in the advancement of the Cherokees was the invention of a Cherokee language syllabary by the mixed blood Sequoya (Sequoya, Sequoia, Sikwayi). Named George Gist by his English father he was a skilled craftsman who developed a system of 86 symbols that represented the sounds of the Cherokee language. The syllabary was finished by 1821 and opened the way for thousands of Cherokee to learn it within a few years.
The Cherokee Council was the government of the Cherokee nation and based upon its constitution. It met in the town of New Echota (now a restored state park just east of the current City of Calhoun, Georgia). The Council adopted the syllabary and provided for the publication of an official Cherokee newspaper, “The Phoenix.” Published in both Cherokee and English it was the first Indian newspaper in the United States. By 1827 the Bible, hymnbooks, pamphlets and many other writings were being translated into Cherokee.
During the War of 1812 many Cherokee aided the Americans against the British and their allies including the Creeks (Muscogee). At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (Alabama) in 1814 General Andrew Jackson’s life was save by a Cherokee brave, Junaluska. However, this was not enough to prevent then President Jackson allowing their removal to Oklahoma in the 1830s.
The demand for removal of all Indians east of the Mississippi River had been strong since at least the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. In Georgia it was a major issue especially after the discovery of gold at Dahlonega in 1828. A huge influx of miners moved, often illegally, onto Cherokee land increasing demands for removal which occurred despite Supreme Court rulings in favor of the Cherokee: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v Georgia (1832).
The Five Civilized Tribes were removed in whole or in part. A remnant of the Cherokee found refuge in the deep coves of the Smokey Mountains of Appalachia. With legal help from whites they eventually purchased land at Cherokee and became the Eastern Band.
The bulk of the Cherokee in northern Georgia and elsewhere were forcibly expelled from their homes and conducted under military guard to Red Clay Council Grounds (now Tennessee historic state park) just north of Cohutta, Georgia, but in Tennessee. From there one group set out in the autumn to journey to Oklahoma. Many died on the Trail of Tears, a few escaped to North Carolina, and those that arrived in Oklahoma eventually had to develop their own farms and institutions.
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During the War Between the States most of the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy. They fought in battles in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. After 1885 Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts introduced what became the Dawes Act. It abolished the communal property of tribes and instituted a policy of individual ownership that was to further promote their “civilizing.” While the Five Civilized Tribes were exempt from the Dawes Act they came under increasing pressure to accept it. In 1895 the Curtis Act dissolved Indian tribal governments and forced allotments of the land. The results were a great deal of swindling of the Cherokee and many other Indians. Almost all of the original land granted to the Cherokee under the terms of the Treaty of New Echota was lost. In compensation Cherokee were made American citizens in 1901 and allowed to vote. On March 3, 1906, the Cherokee Nation was abolished. The present Cherokee Nation was organized in 1948 under the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act (1934). Economic justice was to some degree awarded the Cherokee Nation in 1961 with payment of $15,000,000 by the U.S. Claims Commission for lands of the Cherokee Strip (Outlet).
Modern Cherokee have served in the United States military and government. Most are educated and only a small number speak Cherokee. The seat of the Cherokee Nation (tribal government) is at Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The tribe adopted a new constitution in 2006. Under the leadership of their Principle Chiefs since the 1950s, who have included W.W. Keeler (1971-1975), Ross Swimmer (1975-1985)¸ Wilma Mankiller (1985-1995), Joe Byrd (1995-1999) and Chad “Corntassel” Smith (1999-Present).
The tribe conducts many different programs to promote the welfare and its cultural traditions. Among its money making ventures are casinos in Oklahoma and North Carolina. The Cherokee are in the process of building their own future with aid from many sources.
Andrew J. Waskey
References and Future Reading
Bass, Althea. Cherokee Messenger. 1936. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1996.
Cotterill, R. S. The Southern Indians: The Story of the Civilized Tribes Before Removal. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.
Foreman, Grant. The Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934.
Hudson, Charles. The Southeastern Indians. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
King, Duane H. ed. The Cherokee Indian Nation. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1979.
McLoughlin, William G. Cherokees & Missionaries, 1789-1839. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Mooney, James. History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. 1900 & 1891. Ashville, NC: Historical Images, 1992.
Purdue, Theda. ed. Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Woodward, Grace Steele. The Cherokee. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
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