This page is about the Cherokee Nation before 1800. For information on the Cherokee Nation in Georgia including the nationalist movement in the early 1800's and the Trail of Tears, see Cherokee Nation. For information on the present-day Cherokee Nation, including genealogy, please see http://www.cherokee.org
At its height, the Cherokee Nation ranged from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, and from the Ohio River to the Piedmont of present-day Georgia and Alabama, an estimated area of 100,000 square miles. While estimates of its population vary widely most scholars believe that when the tribe formed as the Moundbuilders began to decline (before 1400 AD) there may have been as few as 10,000 members. By the time of the first European epidemic (1697) there may have been as many as 50,000 members of the tribe, although a more reasonable estimate would be 30,000-35,000 people living within the Cherokee Nation. Cherokee mythology speaks of an early law limiting women to bearing one child a year.
As they watched the English and later, the American society grow, their society dwindled, as did their land. After the 1738 smallpox epidemic it is possible that the Cherokee Nation had fallen to a total population of 7,000 to 10,000. By the time of the Cherokee Removal in the 1830's population estimates are as high as 20,000 Cherokee in the east with north Georgia and northern Alabama holding the majority of tribal members.
The Cherokee were a heterogeneous society, freely accepting members of other tribes as well as Europeans and Africans as equals and are considered to be one of the "Five Civilized Tribes." The clan was viewed as the social group above a family and members of the same clan were viewed as brothers and sisters. Daughters of the women became members of her clan for life. Marrying within your own clan was forbidden and when a Cherokee maiden selected a husband he became a member of his wife's clan. When a stranger came into a village (or was taken during a battle) they would normally be accepted into a clan. This made them a Cherokee.
There were seven clans within the Cherokee Nation, so throughout Cherokee life the number 7 was considered to be very good. Council houses were built with seven sides and within the council each clan sat in front of their wall. Seven chiefs, one selected by each clan, ruled the council. The council chiefs (sometimes simply called councilors) selected a single chief, normally not one of the councilors, to make decisions about political and social matters for the tribe when council was not in session and to lead the council when it was in session. A second chief was also appointed, known as the "war chief." It would be his job to decide matters of war and lead the warriors into battle.
A Cherokee family combined subsistence farming with hunting and gathering. Normally the wife would grow crops as husbands journeyed to traditional hunting grounds in search of food. As contact with Europeans increased after 1680, Cherokee discovered that deerskins were as important to traders as the meat was to the Cherokee. The Cherokee society was matrilineal, one of only a handful of tribes to organize itself based on the lineage of the mother. Their distant relatives, the tribes of the Iroquois Confederation, were also matrilineal.
The Cherokee believed that the land they occupied was the center of the universe. They also believed that everything, not only living things, had a soul, except for the bear. So the ground they walked upon was sacred, the trees were sacred, even the rocks were sacred.
A single shaman (holy man) would make decisions about religious matters and was normally viewed a the second most powerful man in the tribe. When the shamans failed to end the smallpox epidemic that ravaged Cherokee society in 1738 their power fell and they were no longer considered as leaders.
Three common threads divided both the Cherokee language and the Cherokee society, the designation of the Towns as Upper (Overhill), Middle or Lower. Until the middle 17th century the designation indicated culturally distinct groups which were joined by a common language. Although there were differences between the three languages spoken, a Cherokee from the Lower Towns would be able to understand one from an Overhill Town. Most Cherokee were also fluent in the common trading language used between other nearby tribes, like the Creek and Catawba.
Within the Cherokee Nation there was a clearly defined division of labor. Men were responsible for clearing fields, helped plant the crop, and would rejoin their wives to harvest the crop. In between planting and the harvest they would journey to the hunting grounds. A woman's main responsibility was raising the children and tending the crop in the field, as well as planting and harvesting the crop. Normally, three or four women would work together, first on one field, then the next, until each of all the families fields were tended.
In colonial Carolina and across the Savannah River, John Barnwell established a trading post called "English Factory" near a number of Cherokee towns. Here Cherokee could trades deerskins and other pelts including fox, otter, bear and raccoon, slaves (normally Indians taken in battle), arrows made from river cane and many smaller items. In exchange the Cherokee wanted muskets, pistols, knives, and flint (for the muskets and pistols). Surprisingly, they also brought hoes, axes, coats, shirts, petticoats, and girdles (red was the most popular color).
By 1760 the English Factory in settlements had been replaced by individual traders. The Cherokee also would trade with settlers during times of peace. As the English were replaced by Americans after the Revolution trading continued, although the number of deerskins traded dropped, in part because of competition for the resources by settlers and other Indians, in part because of overhunting by the Cherokee. The Cherokee viewed this as a sign the world was in turmoil.
Many of the the English and American traders would take Cherokee wives and establish homesteads starting in the 1780's. The children of these traders and other Cherokee began to learn English.
From 1540 until 1750 the Cherokee had occasional contact with Spanish explorers (DeSoto, 1540, Moyano, 1560, Juan Pardo, 1566) and Spanish miners who journeyed into the Cherokee Nation in search of gold. First English contact came in 1680, when they turned back Carolinian James Moore as he attempted to reach the gold fields in White County, Georgia. From 1680 until 1712 contact with the Cherokee was sporadic. Carolinian George Chicken was an occasional visitor to the Upper Towns, mostly in the Blue Ridge Mountains during this time period.
As tensions heated up between South Carolina and Yamassee/Creek Indians in 1715, the Cherokee Upper Towns aligned with settlers while the Lower Towns sided with the Creek. James Moore arranged a meeting at Tugaloo to discuss peace in 1716, but before he arrived the Cherokee murdered the Creek delegation even through they came under the peace flag.
The Tugaloo Massacre not only turned the tide of the Yamassee War, it adversely affected the relationship between the Cherokee and Creek for the next 40 years. In 1721 James Moore, Jr. negotiated the first treaty with the Cherokee as governor of South Carolina, although by the time the treaty was ready to sign, Francis Nicholson had been appointed governor. At this time the Cherokee Nation began an extremely slow shift first to the to the west and later to the south.
Arriving in Charleston in 1729, in 1730 Alexander Cuming journeyed through the Appalachians to Chota, the traditional seat of Cherokee power in the Tanasi region where he met the newly appointed chief, Moytoy. Cuming returned to England with 7 "chiefs", Moytoy and six friends. Cuming gave Moytoy the impressive title of "Emperor of the Cherokee."
In 1736 Christian missionary Christian Priber traveled in the Cherokee country to create the "Kingdom of Paradise." Priber was not successful, but he did teach the Cherokee about trading with the English. For this a bounty was offered (1739) and collected by a Georgian from Fort Augusta. The Smallpox Epidemic of 1738-9 was the worst of four that devastated the Cherokee.
By 1750 already strained relationships with the adjacent Creek tribes turned into open warfare. With fewer warriors thanks to contact with the settlers, the Cherokee Nation struggled to defeat the Creek. On a ballground near the Cherokee settlement of Long Swamp (near the present-day border of Cherokee and Pickens County, Georgia, the two tribes engaged in the Battle of Taliwa. After six attacks, Chief Oconastota (alternate spelling:Oconostota) was wounded, and his warriors were in disarray. Nancy Ward, whose husband, Kingfisher, had been killed, grabbed a banner and, singing a war song, began walking toward the Creek warriors. The site so inspired the Cherokee warriors that they joined her lead and defeated their Creek opponents.
After the battle the Creek Indians were forced south of the Chattahoochee River (technically, crossing the first ridge south of the Chattahoochee would mean war). In the east, this border was strictly enforced, simply because of the larger population of Cherokee. In the west, however, a "trading zone" eventually developed north of the Chattahoochee but south of the Cherokee Nation.
Part of a larger French-British conflict known as the Seven Years War, the French and Indian War saw the Cherokee side with the British in 1756, when they agreed to engage the Shawnee further north. As part of their agreement, the British built Fort Loudoun on the Tellico River. During an attack in 1759 by the Shawnee in Virginia, settlers abandoned a Cherokee war party and many lives were lost. The Cherokee returned to the Overhill Towns, raiding settlers for supplies on their trip home. Settlers retaliated, attacking the Cherokee and killing a number of warriors. To the Overhill Cherokee who returned from Virginia, Fort Loudoun represented the people that abandoned and attacked them.
Soon, the Middle and Lower Towns were also in revolt and in a futile attempt to control the Cherokee, South Carolina sent troops into the region. These troops secured 29 chiefs as hostages from the Cherokee Towns who were executed when the war exploded as the troops left. Soon, Fort Loudoun, Fort Prince George and Fort Nintysix (both in the Lower Towns) were attacked. In March, 1760 the Cherokee laid siege to Fort Loudoun, forcing the surrender of the occupants on August 7. After a forced march 15 miles east, the Cherokee abandoned the soldiers in a field. The following morning, as the soldiers prepared to leave the Cherokee attacked, killing the entire garrison.
Over the next year war raged across Cherokee land, but by the end of 1761 the British gained the upper hand and forced the Cherokee to cede their claim to the land in South Carolina. In 1762 John Stuart was appointed Royal Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Southern District of North America.
Between 1763 and the start of the American Revolution, the Cherokee Nation repeatedly ceded lands south of the Ohio River. The two largest of these cessions was the land between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers known as the Translyvania Purchase (present-day central Kentucky and northern Tennessee) and two million acres of land, mostly in Georgia north of Augusta.
Unlike most of the Cherokee Nation, which decided to stay neutral in the Revolution, the Chickamaugan Cherokee sided with the British. One of the first attacks against American settlers came at Fort Watauga near Sycamore Shoals on the Holsten River in July, 1775 and over the next 25 years violence flared across much of present-day Tennessee and northern Alabama. By 1799 repeated truces and treaties (always with a cession of land) did little to stop the fighting. Only the Chickamaugans move west ended the fighting.
The Eastern Cherokee began to assimilate advanced technology - everything from spinning wheels to weapons, provided by the Washington Administration and continued under Adams. The Cherokee also became concerned because vast amounts of land was still being handed over to the United States. By 1800, the majority of the remaining Cherokee Nation was in present-day Georgia.