Cherokee Indians

Cherokee Indians once occupied an area encompassing approximately 140,000 square miles that became parts of North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. The Cherokee thrived in North Carolina well into the late eighteenth century, but as Euro-American settlers steadily moved into and near Cherokee lands, sharp conflicts arose between Cherokees and whites and between Cherokees themselves, as leaders with competing claims to speak for the tribe secured treaties and formed other agreements with white settlers that were not acknowledged by all Cherokee people. In 1838-39, the U.S. government forcibly removed the Cherokee from their lands in North Carolina, leading them on the infamous Trail of Tears to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). A small number of Cherokee people successfully resisted removal, however, by claiming North Carolina citizenship and by maintaining the right to remain on lands they owned. These people and their descendants were recognized in 1868 by the federal government as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. In the early 2000s these Cherokee, living on the Qualla Boundary in the western part of the state, were the only Indian tribe in North Carolina fully recognized by the federal government. The tribe has more than 13,000 enrolled members.

Cherokee Origins and First European Contact

The Cherokee, members of the Iroquoian language group, are descended from the native peoples who occupied the southern Appalachian Mountains beginning in approximately 8000 b.c. By 1500 b.c., a distinct Cherokee language had developed, and by 1000 a.d. the Cherokee were living a Woodland lifestyle with unique cultural characteristics influenced by Mississippian religious traditions. The growing and harvesting of corn, or selu, beans, and squash—the Cherokee "three sisters"—were ascribed deep spiritual significance, as were other occupations, including hunting, the care and cleaning of homes, the gathering of other essential foods, games, dances, and religious ceremonies. The central philosophy of duyuktv, meaning "the right way," prescribed that the Cherokee attempt to obtain harmony and balance in every aspect of their lives, particularly with respect to the natural world. Communal responsibility and sacrifice were essential to the Cherokee vision of life, as symbolized by the central plaza—used for public ceremonies—and the council house, or town house, which held the "sacred fire," embodying the spiritual essence of the town. Besides food, the environment provided all that the people needed, including medicine, clothing, weapons, shelter, musical instruments, and personal adornments. The governing of Cherokee towns was through democratic consensus as well as the leadership of priests, war chiefs, and peace chiefs. Familial ties and clan affiliations came through Cherokee women, who owned the houses and fields and passed them on to their daughters.

Although initial contact took place during Hernando De Soto's expedition in 1540, sustained relations between Europeans and the Cherokee were not established until the late seventeenth century by traders from Virginia and South Carolina. During the seventeenth century, Cherokees living in what became North Carolina were distributed among the "Middle Towns" along the Little Tennessee River, the "Valley Towns" along the Hiwassee and Valley Rivers, and the "Out Towns" on the Tuckasegee and Oconaluftee Rivers. As British and French colonial aspirations began to clash, the Cherokee became increasingly important as a buffer and continued to alternate alliances between the two nations. In 1730 Alexander Cuming took seven Cherokees to England, reinforcing Cherokee alliances with the English that had been established through a treaty signed at the Town of Neguassee. The increasing pressure of European expansion, and the subsequent loss of much of their territory, led the Cherokee to initiate hostilities as the French and Indian War (1754-63) progressed. Virginian hostility toward the Cherokee led to the Cherokee War of 1760-61, a war in which the tribe suffered extensive losses.

Disease, Destruction, and the Loss of Cherokee Land

Smallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans and enslaved Africans were more devastating to the Cherokee and other southeastern Indians than war. Since the Indians did not have the immune system the Europeans had built up after centuries of contact with these diseases, simple contact could set off an epidemic. Cherokee people were exposed to smallpox for a period spanning over three centuries. Probably their first exposure was in 1698, when a smallpox epidemic decreased their population measurably. In 1738-39 the tribe experienced its worst epidemic from smallpox, when the disease was brought by traders or was brought back from an expedition in which the Cherokee aided the British against the Spanish in Florida. Between 7,000 and 10,000 Cherokees died, representing about one-half of the tribe's population. Since medicine men were unable to provide a cure, the Cherokee tried a traditional method of purification—sweat houses followed by plunging into icy streams. This practice only added to the number who died. Others who survived the disease were horror stricken by their disfigurement and killed themselves rather than live in disgrace.

In addition to population losses, the 1738-39 epidemic had other consequences for the Cherokee. Towns were relocated, Cherokee distrust of the English increased, and the French gained a foothold among the tribe. The epidemic also brought a deterioration of Cherokee culture by challenging religious beliefs, almost destroying the medicine man's perceived power. Smallpox struck the Cherokee people again in 1759-60 during the French and Indian War.

Although the Cherokee first made land cessions to Europeans in 1721 and 1755, British victory in the French and Indian War in 1763 ended the need for the tribe as a buffer and brought increasing pressure of colonial expansion. Although the Proclamation Line of 1763 officially prohibited white settlers from entering Indian territory, white encroachment on Cherokee lands continued after the establishment of the line. The years 1768, 1770, 1773, and 1775 saw a series of "voluntary" land cessions made by the Cherokee. The 1775 cession, led by land speculator Judge Richard Henderson, involved most of the upper half of Cherokee hunting grounds and included most of what is modern-day Kentucky. In all during this period, the Cherokee people ceded almost 50,000 square miles of land.

The Revolutionary War, Cherokee Defeat, and Additional Land Cessions

When the Revolutionary War erupted in 1775, John Stuart, British superintendent of the South, planned to use Indian tribes in conjunction with English troops against the colonists. White encroachers at the Tennessee-North Carolina border along the Watauga, Nolichucky, and Holston Rivers, as well as a delegation of Shawnee and other northern Indians urging the Cherokee to fight against the Americans, inspired their decision to aid the British. The Upper Cherokee planned a three-pronged attack on the intruders along the North Carolina and Virginia frontiers. The Cherokee Middle Towns were to attack North Carolina, while the Lower Towns were to attack South Carolina and Georgia. The Lower and Middle settlements met with limited success. In reaction to these attacks, Gen. Charles Lee, commander of the southern Continental forces, urged a joint punitive expedition, known as the Cherokee Campaign of 1776. Under Col. Andrew Williamson, South Carolina troops moved against the Lower Towns and then traveled northwest to join the North Carolina forces under Gen. Griffith Rutherford in devastating the Middle and Valley Towns. Virginia troops under Col. William Christian crushed the Overhill Towns in present-day Tennessee. More than 50 Cherokee towns were destroyed in the summer of 1776, and the survivors were left without food or shelter.

These attacks devastated the Cherokee people, who sued for peace, giving up huge parcels of land in the process. The treaties signed after the Cherokee Campaign of 1776 marked the first forced land cessions by the Cherokee, and for the first time the land ceded was not unsettled hunting grounds but the sites of some of the tribe's oldest towns, in which the Cherokee people had lived for centuries. The Cherokee Campaign of 1776 also caused a schism between the old chiefs and young warriors. Many of the latter withdrew to Tennessee and northern Alabama, where they became known as the Chickamauga Cherokee and continued to fight white Americans until 1794.

While the American Revolution brought independence to white North Carolinians, the region's Indians, including the Cherokee, were a conquered people. Nevertheless, the Cherokee managed to maintain a semblance of political independence and cultural integrity despite military defeat. With the Treaty of Holston (1791), the United States initiated a "civilization" program aimed at assimilating the Cherokee people into the mainstream of American society. To a great extent this meant the adoption of sedentary agriculture. Consequently, with Indians living by means of farming, their huge hunting grounds would no longer be needed and whites could easily acquire more Cherokee land. The Tellico Treaty was signed in 1798 as a result of the movement of settlers into Cherokee territory in western North Carolina, west of the 1791 Holston Treaty line. The Tellico Treaty specified that a line, called the Meigs-Freeman Line, was to be drawn from the "Great Iron" or "Smokey" mountain in a southeasterly direction so as to exclude settlers from Cherokee territory. War Department agent Return Jonathan Meigs supervised the running and Thomas Freeman the surveying of the line from July through October 1802. They were assisted by Cherokee leaders and settlers. The line ran from the peak of Mount Collins (located between Clingman's Dome and Newfound Gap) to a point on the North Carolina-South Carolina border near the southwestern corner of Transylvania County.

Within their newly established boundaries, the Cherokee took the lead in adopting Euro-American ways in the early nineteenth century, establishing schools and a bicameral tribal legislature. In the 1820s, the Cherokee Sequoyah invented a syllabary that enabled his people to read and write in their own language, and a bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, soon began publication. Cherokee men and women took up farming of cotton, flax, and livestock, and engaged widely in trade with whites. Some Cherokees even built columned plantation houses and bought slaves. Historians have referred to this period of recovery as the "Cherokee renaissance."

Despite the successes of this period, which saw the Cherokee willingly embrace white culture, seeds were also planted for a new and even greater crisis for the Cherokee people. In an attempt to save land that had been lost after the Creek War of 1813, the Cherokee signed two more treaties in 1817 and 1819. The 1817 treaty was the first Cherokee treaty that included a provision for their removal from North Carolina lands. The treaty proposed exchanging Cherokee lands in the Southeast for territory west of the Mississippi River. The government promised assistance in resettling those Cherokees who chose to remove, and approximately 1,500-2,000 did. The Treaty of 1817 also contained a proposal for an experiment in Cherokee citizenship. Cherokees who wished to remain on ceded land in the East could apply for a 640-acre reserve and legal rights as American citizens.

In 1819 the remaining Cherokees who opposed removal negotiated still another treaty. During the period from 1783 to 1819, the Cherokee people had lost an additional 69 percent of their remaining land. Although the tribe ceded almost 4 million acres by the 1819 treaty, they hoped that this additional cession would end any further removal effort. In fact, the Cherokee National Council agreed that they would not enter into any more negotiations involving the giving up of "even one foot of land." The continuing westward movement of North Carolina settlers usually brought whites into conflict with Indians, however, especially those on whose land gold was discovered in 1828. These whites were reaching into lands that treaties supposedly had guaranteed to the Cherokee. Yet instead of enforcing the treaties, the U.S. government—with President Andrew Jackson leading the way—decided to relocate the Cherokee people.

The Trail of Tears and the Creation of the Eastern Band of Cherokees

In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, setting the stage for the forced removal of the Cherokee and the infamous Trail of Tears. In 1835, a small, unauthorized group of about 100 Cherokee leaders (known as the Treaty Party) signed the Treaty of New Echota (Georgia), giving away all remaining Cherokee territory in the Southeast in exchange for land in northeastern Oklahoma. Principal Cherokee Chief John Ross collected more than 15,000 signatures, representing almost the entire Cherokee Nation, on a petition requesting the U.S. Senate to withhold ratification of this illicit treaty. The Senate, however, approved the treaty by a margin of one vote in 1836. The treaty gave the Cherokee people two years to vacate their mountain homeland and go west to Oklahoma.

By May 1838, few Cherokees were prepared to move, so President Martin Van Buren, who had succeeded Jackson in 1837, dispatched federal soldiers commanded by Gen. Winfield Scott to round up Cherokees in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama and place them in various internment camps and stockades. The horrible conditions facing his people at these poorly planned facilities led Ross to appeal to the president for a delay in the removal until fall, when water and game would be more plentiful. Van Buren agreed, and between October 1838 and March 1839, the Cherokee moved west. The journey was mismanaged; there was a shortage of supplies; and the troops rushed the Indians onward, refusing to allow them to minister to their sick or bury their dead. Of the approximately 15,000 who began the trek, an estimated 4,000 perished.

Approximately 300 to 400 Cherokees remained in North Carolina, hiding in the mountains. One of their leaders, Tsali, was captured and executed for killing two federal soldiers pursuing him and his family, but some of his followers and other Cherokees (who had possibly aided in Tsali's capture) were allowed to remain. Between removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838 and the end of the Civil War, many Cherokees gave their money to William Holland Thomas, their agent and later their only white chief, to purchase land for them. Thomas acquired many of the tracts that would make up the modern-day Qualla Boundary, the official name of the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. These Cherokees—together with the hundreds who had hidden in the mountains, who already legally owned land through the Treaty of 1817, or who had escaped the Trail of Tears and returned--formed the nucleus of what would become the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Federal Recognition and the Fight for Cherokee Rights

During the Civil War, the most serious Cherokee losses resulted not from the conflict itself but from smallpox brought by a returning tribal member who had joined the Union forces. The vaccine provided by a doctor proved ineffective. Disillusioned by white medicine, the Cherokee attempted traditional cures again, which as before proved no match for the deadly disease. After the war, Thomas sought official permission for the Cherokee to remain in North Carolina. In 1866—in recognition of Cherokee ownership of land as well as their efforts to aid the Confederacy during the Civil War—North Carolina acknowledged the legal right of the Cherokee people to reside in the state. Two years later, the U.S. Congress recognized the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as a separate entity from their brethren in Oklahoma and directed the secretary of the interior to assume the same guardianship of the tribe. The Eastern Band adopted a constitutional government in the 1870s that provided for two chiefs and for council representatives from each Cherokee community. The Cherokee received the right to vote, although they were disfranchised along with African Americans by the 1900 North Carolina General Assembly. Soon the first English-language schools for the Cherokee were established; these, however, often attempted to destroy traditional beliefs and practices, forbidding the children to use the Cherokee language. This situation was not reversed until late in the twentieth century, when the Cherokee school system reintroduced courses in Cherokee language and culture.

In the early twentieth century, a shift in federal emphasis encouraged the coexistence of tribal membership with state and federal citizenship. Eastern Cherokee citizenship status had not been fully resolved when World War I began, but approximately 70 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were drafted or joined the armed forces. The largest single group served in the 321st Infantry Regiment, which also included some Lumbee Indians from eastern North Carolina. On 16 Nov. 1919, a congressional act granted citizenship to Indians who had served in the armed forces during World War I. In spite of this, the Cherokees fully regained voting rights only in 1946, with the return of Cherokee veterans from World War II.

In 1924 the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the federal government agreed to put Cherokee tribal lands in trust. As a result, North Carolina state law did not apply to Cherokee lands within the Qualla Boundary. While most Indian reservations were carved out of existing federal property and set aside for individual tribes, the federal government never owned the lands comprising the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina.

The economy of western North Carolina in the early twentieth century was dominated by the timber industry, and when the timber boom ended in the mid-1920s, Cherokee people had little to fall back upon. Tourism became an important economic boost to the Cherokee beginning at this time. Substantial economic relief came only when the New Deal programs of the mid-1930s provided jobs and the opening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee land brought large numbers of visitors to the area.

In 1953 a new federal policy was designed to extend civil and criminal protection to reservation Indians in specific states. This policy ultimately failed; it was followed by the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which provided specific protections for individual tribal members and limitations on tribal governments. In 1971 the North Carolina General Assembly created the Commission of Indian Affairs to deal with a broad range of Indian concerns. Subsequent decades have witnessed renewed interest in and respect for Indian culture. The commission was created to assist Cherokees and other Indians in gaining access to local, state, and federal funds; to help tribal communities establish social, educational, and economic development programs and enhance economic self-sufficiency; to protect Indian rights and interests when necessary; and to ensure that Indians are permitted to pursue their cultural and religious traditions.

Modern-Day Cherokee Life and Culture

Despite many acts of Congress and more than 40 court decisions specifically related to the Cherokee in North Carolina, questions have continued to arise concerning tribal, state, and federal jurisdictions. The modern charter and governing document of the Eastern Band was adopted in 1986 and has 24 sections covering tribal officers, qualifications for office, and council meetings. The Cherokee code, published in 1998, consists of 36 chapters on a wide range of subjects. Court cases may be handled in tribal, state, or federal court, depending on the persons and subject matter in question. A Tribal Council of 12 members and a principal and vice chief carry out the executive and legislative functions, while a Court of Indian Offenses handles judicial matters not under federal jurisdiction. The largest section of the Qualla Boundary, approximately 50,000 acres, surrounds the Swain County town of Cherokee. Sixty miles away, in Graham County, a parcel of 2,250 acres is occupied by about 400 members of the Cherokee's Snowbird Community. Another 5,575 acres of Cherokee land lies in various parts of Cherokee County. Individual Cherokees can sell or exchange their land only to other Eastern Band tribal members.

The Eastern Band's approximately 13,000 tribal members, those living on or off the Qualla Boundary, were by the early 2000s leading lives reflective of both their Cherokee heritage and the diversity of American culture and society. Working as business owners, teachers, police officers, medical professionals, and homemakers as well as Cherokee historians, storytellers, and craftsmen, modern Cherokee people are bound by their desire to remain faithful to Cherokee traditions. This desire often informs many of the decisions made by tribal leaders.

The town of Cherokee is both the spiritual and governmental center of the Eastern Band and a thriving tourist spot dedicated to enlightening visitors about Cherokee culture, tradition, and current affairs. The Oconaluftee Indian Village Living History Museum, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, and many important historic and natural sites around the town offer opportunities for firsthand, authentic encounters with Cherokee history. Cherokee One Feather, a weekly broadsheet newspaper owned and published by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, was launched in 1966 as a three-to-four-page weekly under the supervision of a tribal publications committee. Its content is tightly focused on matters of tribal interest, including local news, commentary, arts and entertainment, sports, and community announcements.

Cherokee festivals and events include the presentation, during the summer months, of Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama portraying the history surrounding the Trail of Tears; the Cherokee Fall Fair; the annual Ramp Festival in April; and the Cherokee Voices Festival in June. Cherokee artisans have been widely recognized for their traditional basketry, weaving, and stamped pottery. The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, a Cherokee-operated artists' cooperative, plays an important role in promoting the quality and authenticity of Cherokee crafts. Traditional storytelling in the Cherokee language, as well as in English, also remains an important part of the living heritage of the Cherokee. The legality of gaming on Indian land, established by the Indian Gaming Act of 1988, has had a huge economic impact on the Cherokee, as thousands of people from around the country visit the Harrah's Cherokee Great Smoky Mountains Casino and other establishments in Cherokee every year. The growth of business interests surrounding the casinos, such as hotels and restaurants, has allowed more tribal members access to higher salaries and benefits, as well as improved health care and educational opportunities.

References: William L. Anderson, Cherokee Removal: Before and After (1991); Barbara R. Duncan and Brett H. Riggs, Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook (2003); John Ehle, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (1988); John R. Finger, The Eastern Band of Cherokee, 1819-1900 (1984); Tom Hartley, The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Era of Revolution (1993); William G. McLaughlin, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (1986); James H. O'Donnell III, The Cherokees of North Carolina in the American Revolution (1976); Theda Perdue, The Cherokee (1988); Timothy Silver, A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500-1800 (1990); Russell Thornton, The Cherokees: A Population History (1990).

William L. Anderson
Ruth Y. Wetmore
Additional research provided by John L. Bell.

See also Etchoe, Battle of; Museum of the Cherokee Indian; Oconaluftee Indian Village.


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