Strength, Unity, and Pride: Cherokee Indians Triumphed Over Adversity
The story of the Native American Cherokee tribes is a sad one. But in the end the Cherokee found a way to survive after being decimated by war and disease and being forced to live far from their homes. There are more Cherokee Indians in North America than almost any other Indian nation.
The Cherokee tribes originally occupied about 140,000 square miles (363,000 square km) in parts of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
Since the infamous Trail of Tears, when the Five Civilized Tribes were forced to march to Oklahoma, Cherokee territory is now just in North Carolina and Oklahoma. That said, many Cherokee individuals live outside of their nations’ territories.
A c. 1724 English copy of a deerskin Catawba map of the tribes between Charleston (left) and Virginia (right) following the displacements of a century of disease and enslavement and the 1715–7 Yamasee War. The Cherokee are labelled as "Cherrikies". ( Public Domain )
The Population of Cherokee People
More Americans claim descent from a Cherokee ancestor than Indians of any other nation and the population of Cherokee Indians numbers more than 320,000 in just the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Altogether, there are estimates that put Cherokee numbers at more than 350,000 people. The Cherokee are of three tribes recognized by the federal government, including two in Oklahoma and the one in North Carolina. They say they live not on reservations but are nations.
The Advanced Cherokee Culture
The Cherokee were known as some of the most advanced people of the Americas when Europeans arrived. The Cherokee.org website says :
“Since the earliest contact with European explorers in the 16th century, the Cherokee people have been consistently identified as one of the most socially and culturally advanced of the Native American tribes . Cherokee culture thrived many hundreds of years before initial European contact in the southeastern area of what is now the United States. Cherokee society and culture continued to develop, progressing and embracing cultural elements from European settlers. The Cherokee shaped a government and a society matching the most civilized cultures of the day.”
This is an illustration of a Cherokee war chief. Cherokee Indians had both war chiefs and peace chiefs. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )
The Cherokee were hunters and gatherers and also farmed. Their lives were interrupted by first the Spanish and then the British in the 16th and 17th century.
Cherokee History Goes Back 1,000 Years
The Cherokee culture has been traced back to 1000 AD by archaeologists in western North Carolina. This culture is known as the Pisgah phase of Cherokee prehistory. An official Web page of the Amonsoquath Band of the Cherokee people has a section on that prehistory.
It says Pisgah villages were between 1 and 5 acres (0.4 to 2 hectares) with square or rectangular houses constructed of wooden posts, bark, and daub arranged around an open plaza. The village was protected by a wooden stockade. Archaeologists have found that post-holes from multiple palisades or stockades may be an indication of the growth of villages over time.
Cherokee Indians Farmed, Hunted and Gathered
The Cherokee diet included the maize, beans, gourds, and squash they farmed in river valleys where alluvial soils were good for farming. Corn, beans and squash are known as the Three Sisters by some Native Americans. The bean vines grow on the corn stalks, and the low-growing squash leaves cover the ground around the corn and keep the weeds away.
Cherokee Indians ready for The Green Corn Dance, Cherokee, N. C. (Boston Public Library/ CC BY 2.0 )
Archaeologists studied carbonized plant remains and found the Cherokee of the Pisgah phase were also eating nuts, seeds, greens and fruits. Archaeologists also examined animal bones from the trash heaps and found that “the Pisgah people practiced a generalized subsistence pattern. While cultigens (domesticated plants) were important, wild plant foods and animals probably contributed equally to the overall diet.”
Earthen Mounds Indicate Possible Civic or Ritual Sites
At a site called Garden Creek, scientists found additional evidence for the social, political, and ceremonial features of Pisgah culture. There are two villages near there and both have earthen mounds that possibly were platforms upon which civic or ceremonial buildings stood.
Of the three mounds, an even more ancient people probably constructed two before the Pisgah phase. Archaeologists say construction of the third mound began during the Pisgah phase, but it was originally partly below ground. It was an earth-covered structure called an earth lodge. The Amonsoquath Band of the Cherokee people website states:
“At a later date a second earth lodge was constructed adjoining the first and eventually both were covered with earth and capped with a clay mantle. Not all Pisgah sites included mounds and it is likely that their presence at Garden Creek indicates it may have served as a central town with respect to social and political alliances and ceremonial activity.”
A view of Town Creek Indian Mound in Montgomery County, North Carolina. (Dincher/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Cherokee Tools and Weapons
Pisgah tools and other artifacts were made from wood, shell, bone, clay, and stone. Their ceramics were jars and bowls, pipes, small gaming discs, and beads. They made their small, triangular arrow points, drills, and scrapers of chert and quartz. They made axes and chisels of granite and gneiss.
The Pisgah Cherokee made pipes, gorgets, hammer stones, mortars, and gaming stones of stone. They quarried and cut mica for ornaments. They also made beads and gorgets out of animal bones and marine shells. Walls of conch shells were fashioned into circular gorgets, many incised with a stylized snake design. They also made ear pins, beads, and ceremonial bowls of conch. Shell artifacts were used in burials. Cherokee clothing was made of animal hides in the prehistoric era.
Miniature contemporary, cross-in-circle gorget by Dan Townsend (Muscogee Creek-Cherokee), Florida. ( Public Domain )
Contact with Europeans: A New Era
In the early 16th century, the Cherokee made contact with Spanish explorers. This is the beginning of a new historic era, of which the Amonsoquath Band of the Cherokee people website says:
“Following the Pisgah is the Qualla phase (AD 1500 - AD 1850). Qualla is identified with the historic period Cherokee Indians. Because of similarities of artifact styles, house and village structure and burial patterns it is quite clear that the Pisgah folk were direct ancestors of the Cherokee people. However, it is also likely that other peoples (from east Tennessee and north Georgia) also contributed to the historic period Cherokee culture.”
The Cherokee started adapting European building styles and woven European clothing. They even owned slaves for a time. They began intermarrying with British traders and using firearms. The Cherokee took advantage of the deer hide trade that the British wanted for making clothing and shoes.
A fascinating list of trade goods is at the Cherokee Nation website.
After the Anglo-Cherokee War, bitterness remained between the two groups. In 1765, Henry Timberlake took three of the former Cherokee adversaries to London to help cement the newly declared friendship. ( Public Domain )
The Cherokee could get a gun for 30 hides, and 50 bullets for one deer hide. A hatchet or a narrow hoe could be had for two hides, and a wide hoe for four. A pistol cost 20 hides, and a cutlass sword was worth eight, to name a few examples.
Continually Embroiled in Conflict
By the early 1700s, the British government of South Carolina defined five groups of Cherokees. One was in east Tennessee, another in north Georgia, and three in North Carolina. The Amonsoquath Band site states:
“The 18th century saw the Cherokees continually embroiled with their Indian neighbors and the governments of the frontier populations, first with the British Colonial and French governments and ultimately with the United States government. It was a period of shifting alliances formed to protect their lands and preserve trading relations.”
The Cherokees were often more favorably disposed towards the French, who were less interested in land than in trade; however, the Cherokee Indians often found themselves allied with the English against their traditional enemies, such as the Tuscarora and Creek Indians, in the early 1700s.
Cól-lee, a Band Chief, 1834. ( Public Domain )
By 1730, the British reached out to the Cherokee to see if they could persuade the Indians to form an alliance. Sir Alexander Cuming and several Cherokee chiefs met at the town of Nequassee. He convinced them to submit to English rule.
After 20 years, the Cherokee were trading regularly with the British. But settlers encroached on Cherokee territory, which led to battles, especially during the French and Indian War. That war was disastrous for the Cherokee. Sadly, in 1769, the British destroyed all 15 of what were known as the Cherokee Middle Towns.
Depiction of the Cherokee attack on the retreating Fort Loudoun garrison in Monroe County, Tennessee, United States, in August 1760. ( Public Domain )
After the war, even more settlers entered Cherokee territory. The British persuaded the Cherokee to attack American settlers. The Americans sent armies against the Cherokee in response. The Amonsoquath site states:
“In 1776 General Griffith Rutherford led a North Carolina militia against the Middle, Valley, and Out Towns while South Carolina forces attacked Lower Towns. Finally, a Virginia force destroyed the Overhill Towns. Sporadic actions occurred for the duration of the war and the end of the war saw additional land lost and the further disintegration of Cherokee political and social boundaries. In less than 60 years most of the Cherokees were forcibly removed from what remained of their homelands on the infamous Trail of Tears.”
Cherokee museum - trail of tears mural. (nick chapman/ CC BY NC 2.0 )
Cherokee Religion: An All-Powerful Creator
The Cherokee believed in the Great Spirit, or Creator, who ruled over all creation. Like the God of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims, he is thought to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere at once.
The Cherokee had tried live in cities, but first disease brought by Spanish explorers, then wars and encroachment by settlers, whittled away at their population. Then most of them were forced west to the Indian Territory that would later be called the U.S. state of Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation is now in several Oklahoma counties. Now the Cherokee Nation is self-governing and has its own civil and criminal code, tax code, police, and court system.
The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians have territory adjacent to the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah Oklahoma. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee is in North Carolina. There are about 12,000 speakers of their Southern Iroquoian language , the only such language which differs significantly from Northern Iroquoian.
This modern casino in North Carolina is a source of income and pride for Eastern Band of the Cherokee. (Jared/ CC BY 2.0 )
Top Image: Joseph Erb’s painting “Petition” recalls the role of creation figures as observers in the transcription of Cherokee Indian history. Source: Joseph Erb/ Western Carolina University
By Mark Miller