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History of the Cherokee Nation (United States)

“To be Aniyvwiya (Cherokee)
is to exist under heaven but above and just barely touching the earth”

Chief Charles “Jathohi” Rogers

Historical facts about the Cherokee are often obscured by the stereotyped version presented by television, movies, and the modern reservation. There is no single Indian way of life, even before the coming of the white man. Each geographical region contained independent Indian groups with their own languages, styles of living, customs, and beliefs. The early settlers encountered many types of Indians before they reached the Appalachians; none rode horses, and few possessed “war bonnet” headdresses.

One of these tribes was the Cherokee. They were the mountaineers of the South, holding the entire Allegheny region from the interlocking head-streams of the Kanawha and the Tennessee rivers southward almost to the present-day Atlanta, and from the Blue Ridge on the east to the Cumberland range on the west. A territory comprising almost 40,000 square miles which today would include portions of Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

The proper name by which Cherokee call themselves is “Aniyvwiya” or “The Principal People.” On ceremonial occasions, they often refer to themselves as “Anikituhwagi” or “The People of Kituhwa.” Cherokee, the name by which the are known today has no meaning in their language. It first appears as “Chalaque” in the Portuguese narrative of DeSoto’s first expedition, published originally in 1557. In a French document in 1699, we find “Cheraqui,” and “Cherokee” first mentioned in an English document in 1708. There is also evidence that it is derived from the Choctaw word choluk or chiluk signifying a pit or cave. Adair’s attempt to connect the name with their word for fire, atsila, is an error based on his imperfect knowledge of the language.

DeSoto first arrived among the Cherokee in 1540. In their journals they told of temples and mounds and rulers they called “emperors” and “queens” who were carried about on litter chairs. The journals told little of the Cherokee or any town they may have encountered, but it seems reasonable to assume that the Cherokee were probably a mound building society until the early part of the 1500s. When our standard history books tell of the early Spanish explorers in America, they are really talking about roving bands of ruffians, murders and thieves, operating with the blessing of their monarch back in Spain. DeSoto was the worst.

For three years, DeSoto and his followers inflicted devastation and horror on the southeast, but remarkably the Cherokee suffered little from them even though it seems they visited at least three Cherokee towns. No doubt the Cherokees were aware of what DeSoto was doing to the other tribes in the area and made the decision to isolate themselves in the mountains with the Wolf Clan protecting the passes. The Cherokee population was about 22,000 with about 6,000 living within present-day North Carolina.

By 1700 the vast land base of the Cherokee was divided into three regions known as the Overhills, the Middle Towns and the Lower Towns. Three major dialects of the Cherokee language were spoken, one in each of these regions. The Eastern dialect (the Lower Towns) was originally spoken in all the towns along the Keowee and Tugaloo rivers in South Carolina and northern Georgia.

In 1788, the Cherokee who had fought alongside the British during the Revolution contacted the Spanish governor in New Orleans and reuested permission to settle in the Spanish territory west of the Mississippi. We do not know how many actually immigrated but we do know that many Cherokee and Shawnee visited the settlements in that region.

In 1794, a group of Chickamauga Cherokee who had been involved in an altercation with a group of white settlers on the Tennessee River. Fearing reprisals from the Cherokees who were attempting to negotiate a peace treaty traveled up the St. James River into what is now Missouri to await a response. Initially the tribal leaders condemned their actions but later exonerated them of any wrong doing. Angered by the initial response of the tribe and pleased with the land and availability of game in the region, they decided to stay.

As early as 1807, Cherokees visited a trading camp at present-day Nacogdoches, Texas and reported that they lived further up the Red River. By 1808, the Osage complained about Cherokee hunting on the White River without permission.

A severe earthquake in 1811 which caused the Mississippi to flow north for a while convinced the Cherokee that they were not to remain in this area however and they left and crossed the Red River into what was then Spanish territory. By 1816, small groups of Cherokee were living in southwest Arkansas and northeast Texas.

In 1817, a multi-tribal force of 600 Cherokee, Delaware and Shawnee attacked an Osage village in retaliation for Osage raids and horse stealing. The Osage warriors were out on a hunt and the village was poorly defended. This raid, known as the Battle of Claremore Mound, resulted in Osage casualties of 80 killed and over 100 captured. The attackers lost only one warrior, a Delaware. The government refused to send aid to the Cherokee which led the main body of Cherokee still in the east to demand that all Cherokees return home. This prompted the government to make another treaty in which further land cessions in Tennessee and Georgia were traded for lands in northwest Arkansas.

The Arkansas Cherokee requested the U.S. recognize the Eastern and Western Cherokee as two separate and distinct Nations but the government refused. However, the Treaty of 1817 did provide for a separate census of Cherokee in the east and west as a basis for annunity payments. Sequoyah was a member of the Arkansas Cherokee

In 1819 the naturalist Thomas Nutall visited Cherokee Villages along the Arkansas River and reported that, “Their superior industry either as hunters or farmers proves the value of property among them, and they are no longer strangers to avarice and the distinctions created by wealth. Some of them are possessed of property to the amount of many thousands of dollars, have houses handsomely and conveniently furnished, and their tables spread with our dainties and luxuries.”

A delegation of Cherokee, which included Sequoyah, visited Washington in 1828 and contrary to their mission, forced to sign another treaty to give up their Arkansas lands in exchange for 7 million acres in present day Oklahoma. The delegation initally refused but when President John Adams threatened to take several million acres of Cherokee land and surround them with white settlers, the delegation gave in. This new land, after some modification of boundaries five years later, became the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory under the Treat of New Echota in 1835. When the delegation returned home, they were accused of fraud and deception and the treaty was declared null and void. Fearing reprisals, a large number refused to move to Indian Territory and instead decided to join Chief Duwali (Bowles) in present day Texas now under Mexican jurisdiction.

After the Trail of Tears there were several attempts to re-unite the Eastern Nation and the Western Nation. These attempts did not meet with great success, as cultural differences had become too deep. Therefore the Eastern and Western Nations never reunited and remain separated to this day.

In 1994 a group of Western Cherokee attempted to unite, officially, the independent Cherokee families and towns. They chose to be called the Confederated Western Cherokee, recognizing their existence as a separate Nation since around 1818 when they officially split from the Cherokee Nation East, and traced their roots to the original Western Cherokee settlers of 1625.

The Cherokees
There is a place in the mountains
where I can discover who I am.
A place where my spirit will be set free.
Marijo Moore - Cherokee

copyright © 2012 Cherokee Nation of Sequoyah
     Must have permission to use or reprint by Charles Jahtlohi Rogers MD.

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