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Cherokee Indians

As one of the dominant Indian tribes of the American South, the Cherokee inhabited 140,000 square miles spanning from North Carolina to Alabama. However, as white Europeans moved into their southern settlements, conflicts arose with these newcomers and inter-fighting split up the once prominent tribe. By the middle of the nineteenth century, many Cherokee had been sent away to Oklahoma, but some of the tribe remained in western North Carolina. Today, the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians, a federally recognized remanent of the original Cherokee, inhabit the Qualla Boundary lands in North Carolina.

According to the Museum of the Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee developed their language around 1500 B.C., and by 200 A.D., the tribe had emerged as a distinct southern Appalachian Indian culture. The women of the tribe focused on growing corn, squash, and beans, known as “the three sisters.” The Cherokee men and warriors supplemented the crop system with hunting and fishing ventures. Duyuktv, or “the right way,” was the harmonious and communal philosophy that permeated the tribe’s inner-workings and daily life. Ceremonies, festivals, and dance rituals were also common practices of the Cherokee, all part of the distinct Cherokee culture that survives today.

Hernando De Soto was the first European to come across the Cherokee in 1540, but the Cherokee did not begin a solid trade relationship with the white settlers until the 1690s. Fur traders started to rely on Cherokee hunters in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as deerskins became an important commodity in Charleston, South Carolina. However, white men eventually exploited their trade relationship with the Cherokee as both the British and French played the tribe and their rivals for land and goods. The Tuscarora War in 1711 and the Yamassee War of 1715 illustrate the rising tensions between white settlers and the Cherokee tribe.

While the Cherokee lost many due to the wars with European setters, smallpox and other European diseases proved more fatal than warfare. From 1738 to 1739, half of the Cherokee tribe had been wiped out by smallpox; death toll estimates range from 7,000 to 10,000 Cherokee men, women, and children. Following the French and Indian War, settlers continued to encroach Cherokee land, and the tribe surrendered nearly 50,000 square miles of land to colonial governments by 1775.

At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the British government commissioned the Cherokee to wage war against North Carolina and Virginia, and the colonists retaliated. General Griffith Rutherford led a large troupe against the Middle and Valley Cherokee tribes, and by the end of the summer of 1776, over fifty Cherokee towns were destroyed. By the end of the American Revolution, the Cherokee recognized their defeat.

Through a series of treaties and agreements, the Cherokee gave up land but sought to maintain some political autonomy. With help of Sequoyah’s creation of a written language in 1821, many tribal natives became literate and assumed many European practices such as schooling and legislative government. According to some William Powell, “this period of recovery” has often been referred as the “Cherokee renaissance” (p. 209). However, by the time of Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, the Cherokee were relocated, due to the president’s wish to remove the tribe from the eastern United States.

The Indian Removal Act passed in the U.S. Congress in 1830, compelling the Cherokee to move away from the southern states to Oklahoma. Despite the government’s promise to ease the transition process, over 4,000 Cherokee died during the Trail of Tears from 1838 to 1839. However, some 300 to 400 Cherokee remained in the western mountains of North Carolina, and with the help of William H. Thomas, a friend of Yonaguska, these Cherokee received federal permission to remain on their homeland. Blount secured land for the Qualla Boundary, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were recognized by the state in 1866 and by the federal government in 1868.

Although there has long remained a debate about the authority over the Eastern Band of Cherokee, in 1986 the Eastern Band created a government over the Qualla Boundary and other outlying Cherokee communities in the Swain, Cherokee, and Graham Counties. Two years later, the Indian Gaming Act passed in the U.S. Congress allowing the Cherokee to operate gambling on its territory. In 1990, Congress passed the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act that protected the uniqueness of Cherokee crafts. The Eastern Band later opened Harrah’s Cherokee Smoky Mountains Casino in 1997.

Today, the 13,000 strong Eastern Band of Cherokee carry on their cultural traditions and practices. While some members work as business people, teachers, and medical providers, some Cherokee work as craftsmen and historians. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village Living History Museum, and the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual are several cultural and historical attractions of the Cherokee tribe. In addition, the Cherokee Fall Fair, the Cherokee Voices Festivals, and the Ramp Festival remain important Cherokee events that attract tourists each year.


“Cherokee Indians.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).

“History.” Cherokee, North Carolina Information Website., (accessed March 19, 2012).

“Information Packet.” Museum of the Cherokee Indians website., (accessed March 19, 2012).

“Early History; William H. Thomas.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. (accessed March 19, 2012).

By Jonathan Martin, North Carolina History Project

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Related Categories: Early America
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Timeline: 1585-1663 , 1664-1775 , 1776-1835 , 1836-1865 , 1866-1915 , 1916-1945 , 1946-1990 , 1990-present , Pre-1585
Region: Mountains

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