The Cherokee Nation was and still is the largest Native American tribe in North America. This may explain why most researchers seeking their Native American roots, tend to say, "My ancestor was Cherokee."
In the 19th century, the Cherokees were known as one of the "Five Civilized Tribes", because they had assimilated numerous cultural and technological practices of their European-American neighbors. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, they are the largest of the 563 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States.
Of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians have headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is located in Cherokee, North Carolina. Another large tribe, not federally recognized, is the Cherokee Nation of Texas located in northeast Texas. There may be up to four dozen other smaller Cherokee tribes throughout the country.
Over 14,000 years ago, Native Americans or paleo-indians appeared in what is today referred to as "Southern United States." Paleo-Indians in the Southeast were hunter-gatherers who pursued a wide range of animals, including the megafauna, which became extinct following the end of the Pleistocene age. It is commonly assumed that Paleo-Indians were specialized, highly mobile foragers that hunted late Pleistocene fauna such as bison antiquis, mastodons, caribou, and mammoths, although direct evidence is meager in the Southeast.
In the late Archaic Period, the Cherokees began to cultivate plants such as marsh elder, lambsquarters, sunflowers, pigweed, and some native squash. The increased food supply provided leisure time, which people used to build mounds, refine arts and crafts (and create new art forms like shell gorgets), and celebrate religious ceremonies. During Mississippian Period (900 A.D. to 1500 A.D.), Cherokee ancestors developed a new variety of corn called eastern flint, which closely resembles modern corn. At the Green Corn Ceremony, families, clans, and tribes came together for prayers, dances, marriages, and reconciliations.
Several early explorers, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, claimed to have collected evidence that some of the Native American tribes might be descended from the Ten Lost Tribes. James Adair, an Irish trader and historian who lived among the Cherokees for forty years in the 18th century, decided the Indians were one of the lost tribes of Judah, and wrote seventy thousand words on the subject at a time when printed words were dear. He used as evidence such topics as their division into tribes; their language and dialects; their festivals, feasts, and religious rites; their absolutions and anointings; their laws of uncleanness, their avoidance on unclean things; their practices of marriage, divorce, and punishment for adultery; and their ornaments. Adair was one of a series of writers who held similar views, among them Gregorio Garcia Bartolome de las Casas, Thomas Thorowgood, John Eliot, Manasseh ben Israel, Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, William Penn, and Charles Beatty.
The belief that some Native Americans were a Lost tribe of Israel goes back centuries and includes individuals like the 1782 President of the Continental Congress Elias Boudinot and Mordecai Noah, the most influential Jew in the United States in the early 19th Century.
The Book of Mormon, one of the religious texts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), claims that early residents of the Americas were actually descended from the tribe of Joseph, and particularly through Manasseh. Although these viewpoints were generally discounted by most 20th century historians, anthropologists and theologians who wrote on the subject, several recent books, articles and television features have focused on these theories. Some sources such as Rabbi Howshua Amariel and various researchers assert that there is DNA evidence, linguistic research and other research which indicates links between the Cherokee Nation and the Jewish people.
Much of what is known about pre-19th century Cherokee culture and society comes from the papers of American writer John Howard Payne. The Payne papers describe the account by Cherokee elders of a traditional societal structure in which a "white" organization of elders represented the seven clans. According to Payne, this group, which was hereditary and described as priestly, was responsible for religious activities such as healing, purification, and prayer. A second group of younger men, the "red" organization, was responsible for warfare. Warfare was considered a polluting activity which required the purification of the priestly class before participants could reintegrate into normal village life. This hierarchy had disappeared long before the 18th century. The reasons for the change have been debated, with the origin of the decline often located with a revolt by the Cherokee against the abuses of the priestly class known as the Ani-kutani.
Ethnographer James Mooney, who studied the Cherokee in the late 1880s, first traced the decline of the former hierarchy to this revolt. By the time of Mooney, the structure of Cherokee religious practitioners was more informal, based more on individual knowledge and ability than upon heredity. In addition, separation of the Eastern Cherokee, who had not participated in the removal and remained in the mountains of western North Carolina, further complicated the traditional hierarchies.
Another major source of early cultural history comes from materials written in the 19th century by the didanvwisgi, Cherokee medicine men, after Sequoya's creation of the Cherokee syllabary in the 1820s. Initially only the didanvwisgi used these materials, which were considered extremely powerful. Later, the writings were widely adopted by the Cherokee people.
Unlike most other Indians in the American southeast at the start of the historic era, the Cherokee spoke an Iroquoian language. (Other exceptions were the Tuscarora, Nottoway, Meherrin, and Coree.) Since the Great Lakes region was the core of Iroquoian language speakers, scholars have theorized that the Cherokee migrated south from that region. However, some argue that the Iroquois migrated north from the southeast, with the Tuscarora breaking off from that group during the migration. Linguistic analysis shows a relatively large difference between Cherokee and the northern Iroquoian languages, suggesting a split in the distant past. Glottochronology studies suggest the split occurred between about 1,500 and 1,800 B.C. The ancient settlement of Kituwa on the Tuckasegee River, formerly next to and now part of Qualla Boundary (the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), is often cited as the original Cherokee settlement in the Southeast.
Early European Influences
According to James Mooney, the English first had contact with the Cherokee in 1654. Around this time, the Powhatan were threatened by a tribe they knew as the Rickahockans or Rechahecrians, who invaded from the west and settled near the falls of the James River. While some scholars have linked these references to the Cherokee, others deduce they were a Siouan tribe, since they appeared in company with Monacan and Nahyssan groups.
One of the earliest English accounts comes from the expedition of James Needham and Gabriel Arthur, sent in 1673 by fur-trader Abraham Wood from Fort Henry (modern Petersburg, Virginia) to the Overhill Cherokee country. Wood hoped to forge a direct trading connection with the Cherokee to bypass the Occaneechi Indians, who were serving as middlemen on the Trading Path. The two colonial Virginians did make contact with the Cherokee. Needham departed with a guide nicknamed 'Indian John' while Arthur was left behind to learn the Cherokee language. On his journey, Needham engaged in an arguement with 'Indian John', resulting in his death. 'Indian John' then tried to encourage his tribe to kill Arthur but the chief prevented this. Arthur, disguised as a Cherokee, accompanied the chief of the Cherokee tribe at Chota on raids of Spanish settlements in Florida, Indian communities on the east coast, and Shawnee towns on the Ohio River. However, in 1674 he was captured by the Shawnee Indians who discovered that under his disguise of clay and ash he was a white man. The Shawnee did not kill Arthur but alternatively allowed him to return to Chota. In June of 1674, the chief escorted Arthur back to his English settlement in Virginia. By the late seventeenth century, colonial traders from both Virginia and South Carolina were making regular journeys to Cherokee lands, but few wrote about their experiences.
The character and events of the early trading contact period have been pieced together by historians' examination of records of colonial laws and lawsuits involving traders. The trade was mainly deerskins, raw material for the booming European leather industry, in exchange for European technology "trade goods", such as iron and steel tools (kettles, knives, etc), firearms, gunpowder, and ammunition. In 1705, traders complained that their business had been lost and replaced by Indian slave trade instigated by Governor James Moore of South Carolina. Moore had commissioned people to "set upon, assault, kill, destroy, and take captive as many Indians as possible". When the captives were sold, traders split profits with the Governor. Although colonial governments early prohibited selling alcohol to Indians, traders commonly used rum, and later whiskey, as common items of trade.
During the early historic era, Europeans wrote of several Cherokee town groups, usually using the terms Lower, Middle, and Overhill towns to designate the towns, from the Piedmont across the Allegheny Mountains. The Lower Towns were situated on the headwater streams of the Savannah River, mainly in present-day western South Carolina and northeastern Georgia. Keowee was one of the chief towns, as was Tugaloo.
The Middle Towns were located in present western North Carolina, on the headwater streams of the Tennessee River, such as the upper Little Tennessee River, upper Hiwassee River, and upper French Broad River. Among several chief towns were Nikwasi and Joara, first recorded in the late 16th century during Spanish settlement there with the establishment of Fort San Juan.
The Overhill Towns were located across the higher mountains in present eastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia. Principal towns included Chota, Tellico, and Tanasi. These terms were created and used by Europeans to describe their changing geopolitical relationship with the Cherokee.
There were two more groups of towns often listed as part of the three: the Out Towns, whose chief town was Kituwa on the Tuckaseegee River, considered the mother town of all Cherokee; and the Valley Towns, whose chief town was Tomotley on the Valley River (not the same as the Tomotley on the Little Tennessee River). The former shared the dialect of the Middle Towns and the latter that of the Overhill (later Upper) Towns.
Of the southeastern Indian confederacies of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, etc.), the Cherokee were one of the most populous and powerful. They were relatively isolated by their hilly and mountainous homeland. A small-scale trading system was established with Virginia in the late seventeenth century. In the 1690s, the Cherokee had founded a much stronger and important trade relationship with the colony of South Carolina, based in Charles Town. By the 1700s, this overshadowed the Virginia relationship.
Around 1710, the Cherokee and the Chickasaw forced their joint enemy, the Shawnee, north of the Ohio River. In the 1660s, the Cherokee had allowed a refugee group of the Shawnee to settle in the Cumberland Basin when they were fleeing the Iroquois during the Beaver Wars. The Shawnee also acted as a buffer against the Cherokees' traditional Chickasaw enemies.
The Cherokee allowed another group of Shawnee to pass through their territory to settle on the Savannah River, where they would be a buffer against the Catawba. Over time, more Shawnee came into the area and began to attract the attention of the Iroquois. In addition, they were allied with the French. The British-allied Cherokee and Chickasaw finally decided to act in concert to expel the Shawnees. The conflict lasted 1710-1715. Sporadic warfare continued until 1768 when a peace was forged between the Shawnee and Cherokee.
Upon hearing reports that the French were planning to build forts in Cherokee territory (as they had with Ft. Charleville at the Great Salt Lick now Nashville, Tennessee), the British hastened to build forts of their own, completing Fort Prince George near Keowee (in South Carolina) among the Lower Towns, and in 1756, Fort Loudoun near Chota. In this year the Cherokee gave their assistance to the British in the French and Indian War; however, serious misunderstandings between the two allies arose quickly. In 1760, the Cherokee besieged both forts, eventually capturing Fort Loudoun. The British retaliated by destroying 15 Cherokee communities in 1761, and peace treaties ending hostilities were signed by the end of the year. A Royal Proclamation of 1763 from King George III forbade British settlements west of the Appalachian crest, attempting to afford some temporary protection from encroachment to the Cherokee, but it proved difficult to enforce.
The Cherokee and Chickasaw continued to war intermittently with the Shawnee along the Cumberland River for many years; the Shawnee allied with the Lenape, who remained at war with the Cherokee until 1768.
In 1815—after the War of 1812, the U.S. Government established a Cherokee Reservation in Arkansas. The reservation boundaries extended from north of the Arkansas River to the southern bank of the White River. Cherokee bands who lived in Arkansas were: The Bowl, Sequoyah, Spring Frog and Tatsi, or Dutch. Another band of Cherokee lived in southeast Missouri, western Kentucky and Tennessee in frontier settlements and in European majority communities around the Mississippi River.
John Ross was an important figure in the history of the Cherokee tribe. His father emigrated from Scotland prior to the Revolutionary War; his mother was a quarter-blood Cherokee woman whose father was also from Scotland. John Ross began his public career in 1809. The Cherokee Nation was founded in 1820, with elected public officials. John Ross became the chief of the tribe in 1828 and remained the chief until his death in 1866.
Cherokees were displaced from their ancestral lands in northern Georgia and the Carolinas in a period of rapidly expanding white population. Some of the rapid expansion was due to a gold rush around Dahlonega, Georgia in the 1830s. Various official reasons for the removal were given. One official argument was that the Cherokee were not efficiently using their land and the land should be given to white farmers. Others suggest that President Andrew Jackson's reasons for this removal policy were humanitarian. Jackson said that the policy was an effort to prevent the Cherokee from facing the fate of "the Mohegan, the Narragansett, and the Delaware". However there is ample evidence that the Cherokee were adapting modern farming techniques, and a modern analysis shows that the area was in general in a state of economic surplus.
The Cherokee were to bring their grievances to U.S. judicial review that set a precedent in Indian Country. In June 1830, a delegation of Cherokee led by John Ross defended Cherokee rights before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia case. In the case Worcester v. Georgia, the United States Supreme Court held that Cherokee Native Americans were entitled to federal protection from the actions of state governments which would infringe on the tribe's sovereignty. Worcester v. Georgia is considered one of the most important decisions in law dealing with Native Americans.
Despite the Worcester v. Georgia ruling in their favor, nearly all those in the Cherokee Nation were forcibly relocated westward to the Ozark Plateau in 1838-1839, a migration known as the Trail of Tears or in Cherokee Nunna Daul Tsunny (Cherokee:The Trail Where They Cried) and by another term Tlo Va Sa (Cherokee: The Tragedy). This took place during the Indian Removal Act of 1830, although as of 1838, the Cherokee were the last large southern Indian tribe to be removed. Even so, the harsh treatment the Cherokee received at the hands of white settlers caused some to enroll to emigrate west. As the Cherokee were slaveholders, they took enslaved African Americans with them west of the Mississippi.
Among the Cherokee, John Ross led the battle to halt their removal. Ross' supporters, commonly referred to as the "National Party", were opposed by a group known as the "Ridge Party" or the "Treaty Party". The latter was in reference to those who advocated a treaty for terms of emigration to the west, which ultimately led to the Treaty of New Echota, stipulating terms and conditions for the removal of the Cherokee Nation from the lands it then occupied to take up residence in Indian Territory along with their cousins of the Cherokee Nation West (aka "Old Settlers"), which was initially signed by Major Ridge, Elias Boudinot, James Foster, Testaesky, Charles Moore, George Chambers, Tahyeske, Archilla Smith, Andrew Ross (Principal Chief Ross' brother), William Lassley, Caetehee, Tegaheske, Robert Rogers, John Gunter, John A. Bell, Charles Foreman, William Rogers, George W. Adair, James Starr, and Jesse Halfbreed, then later in Washington City by John Ridge and Stand Watie.
On June 22, 1839, Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot were assasinated by a party of twenty-five extremist Ross supporters that included Daniel Colston, John Vann, Archibald Spear, James Spear, Joseph Spear, Hunter, and others. Stand Watie fought off the attempt on his life that day and escaped to Arkansas.
After the end of the American Civil War in 1865, John Ridge's son, novelist John Rollin Ridge, led a group of delegates to Washington, D.C. at the behest of Principal Chief of the Confederate Cherokee Stand Watie in a failed attempt to gain federal recognition for a faction of Cherokee opposed to the leadership of John Ross who wanted to establish a "Southern Cherokee Nation". The federal government signed a treaty with Ross' delegation instead, and the afore-mentioned entity never came into being, and all the former Confederate Cherokee eventually rejoined the Cherokee Nation.
Not all of the eastern Cherokees were removed on the Trail of Tears. William Holland Thomas, a white store owner and state legislator from Jackson County, North Carolina, helped over 600 Cherokee from Qualla Town (the site of modern-day Cherokee, North Carolina) obtain North Carolina citizenship. As citizens, they were exempt from forced removal to the west. In addition, over 400 other Cherokee either hid from Federal troops in the remote Snowbird Mountains of neighboring Graham County, North Carolina, under the leadership of Tsali (ᏣᎵ) (the subject of the outdoor drama Unto These Hills held in Cherokee, North Carolina), or belonged to in the former Valley Towns area around the Cheoah River who negotiated staying in North Carolina with that state's government. In addition, another four hundred (400) or so Cherokee stayed on reserves in Southeast Tennessee, North Georgia, and Northeast Alabama, as citizens of their respective states, mostly mixed-bloods and Cherokee women married to white men. Together, these groups were the basis for what is now known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Out of gratitude to Thomas, these Western North Carolina Cherokees served in the American Civil War as part of what became known as the Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders. Thomas' Legion consisted of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The legion mustered approximately 2,000 men of both Cherokee and white origin, fighting on behalf of the Confederacy, primarily in Virginia, where their battle record was outstanding. Thomas' Legion, along with the Western District of North Carolina under Brigadier General John Echols (of which it was the only effective unit) surrendered after capturing Waynesville, North Carolina on May 9, 1865, after learning of Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House (the decision was made by Brig. Gen. Echols, the senior commander; Thomas wanted to keep fighting). They agreed to cease hostilities on the condition of being allowed to retain their arms for hunting. Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, commanding officer of the First Indian Brigade of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi as well as Principal Chief of the Confederate Cherokee, demobilized his forces under a cease-fire agreement with the Union commander at Fort Towson (which was within in the territory Choctaw Nation) on July 23, 1865.
As in southern states, the end of the Civil War brought freedom to enslaved African Americans held by Cherokee. By an 1866 treaty with the US government, the Cherokee agreed to grant tribal citizenship to freedmen who had been held by them as slaves. Both before and after the Civil War, some Cherokee intermarried or had relationships with African Americans, just as they had with whites. Many Cherokee Freedmen were active politically within the tribe.
The US government also acquired easement rights to the western part of the territory, which became the Oklahoma Territory, for the construction of railroads. Development and settlers followed the railroads. By the late 19th century, the government believed that Native Americans would be better off if each family owned its own land. The Dawes Act of 1887 provided for the break up of commonly held tribal land. Native Americans were registered on the Dawes Rolls and allotted land from the common reserve. This also opened up later sales of land by individuals to people outside the tribe.
The Curtis Act of 1898 advanced the break-up of Native American government. For the Oklahoma Territory, this meant abolition of the Cherokee courts and governmental systems by the U.S. Federal Government. This was seen as necessary before the Oklahoma and Indian territories could be admitted as states.
By the late 19th century, the Eastern Band of Cherokees were laboring under the constraints of a segregated society. In the aftermath of Reconstruction, conservative white Democrats regained power in North Carolina and other southern states. They proceeded to effectively disfranchise all blacks and many poor whites by new constitutions and laws related to voter registration and elections. They passed Jim Crow laws that divided society into "white" and "colored", mostly to control freedmen, but the Native Americans were included on the colored side and suffered the same racial segregation and disfranchisement as former slaves. Blacks and Native Americans would not regain their rights as US citizens until the Civil Rights Movement and passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.
Between 1835 and 1839 a near civil war state existed in the Cherokee Nation between the Ross Faction (those that were part of the "trail of tears" ) and the Ridge or Treaty Party (those that were signers and supporters of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota). Some fifty Cherokees fled for their lives to Texas. These went to what is now the area where Rusk, Smith, Cherokee and Gregg counties come together in a place coined in the book Cherokee Cavaliers as Mt. Tabor, Texas, thus the beginning of the Mount Tabor Indian Community.
Most Texas Cherokees, still in Texas, retained close ties to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. In fact most viewed the group as a band of the Cherokee Nation. This though changed in 1975 with the adoption of the constitution for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. With the adoption of that constitution which allowed only the descendants of Dawes Commission enrollees to gain membership in the Cherokee Nation, the Texas Cherokees were thereby cutoff and completely separated.
Texas Cherokees who remained in Texas did not qualify for enrollment based upon the fact that they were not citizens of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory during the enrollment period. Although more than seventy appeared on the Guion Miller roll this was to do them little good towards their descendants maintaining ties with the Cherokee Nation. In 1989, the group at a meeting in Kilgore, Gregg County, Texas, chose to change the name officially from the Texas Cherokees and Associated Bands to the Texas Band of Cherokee Indians. In 1990 to further clarify the group, with so many others claiming the title "Texas Cherokee", the words "of the Mt. Tabor Indian Community" was added.
A lot has changed in the Cherokee Nation; it has now become a leader in housing, education, vocational training, economic development and business. The Cherokee Nation which is recognized by the federal government has the right to exercise control over their tribal assets.
The Government of the Cherokee Nation is democratic in nature. The government includes in itself the Judicial, Legislative as well as the Executive branches. That’s the main reason for its tripartite democratic form. In 1976 the Cherokee Indian had revised its constitution and was approved by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The Principal Indian Chief was vested with the Executive powers, the Tribal Council was appointed the Legislative powers and the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal was given the Judicial powers. The powers and duties of some of the authorities were overlapping each other.
The election of the council was similar to that of the Principal Chief and Deputy Principal Chief. The council is the legislative branch of the Cherokee Government. Fourteen counties of the jurisdictional area and Cherokee Nation’s nine districts are represented by the council.
A Cherokee Nation District Court was created when the Cherokee Nation passed legislations regarding Cherokee Indain Legal System. Self Governance became a major part of Cherokee Nation and along with the Cherokee Nation District Court came the code of punishments and the procedures regarding the same. More action took place when four acts were passed which were related to the cooperative law. These laws will be enforced within the jurisdictional boundaries of the Cherokee Nation.
Laws related to the provisions for bonding and bail, penal code, Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substance Act and a Uniform Vehicle Code were brought into action. All these laws were brought into compliance with Statutes of the State of Oklahoma. These acts were passed to strengthen the sovereignty of the Cherokee Indian tribe. These laws also allow other non Indian law authorities to take action relating to vehicle code violation and crimes.
A tax code was approved by the Cherokee Nation on February 10, 1990. This tax also includes the sales tax and tobacco tax on all the services and goods sold in the Cherokee Indian tribal land. The main purpose of the tax code is to increase the revenue so that they can provide the Cherokee Indians with a better way of life.
The Cherokee are a Native American people originally from the Southeastern United States (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). Linguistically, they are connected to speakers of the Iroquoian language family. The Cherokee refer to themselves as Tsa-la-gi (pronounced "Jah la gee" in the western dialect, "Zah la gee" or "Tsa lah gee" in the eastern Giduwa dialect) or A-ni-yv-wi-ya (pronounced "Ah knee yuh wee yah" (Western dialect) or "Ah nee yuhn wi yah" (Eastern dialect), literal translation: "Principal People" or Anikituwahgi (original dialect). The individuals listed below, both Native American and European American, are part of the historical record of the Cherokee nation.
Europeans & Colonial Americans
References, Sources & Footnotes