Origins of the Cherokee
The Cherokee language is in the Iroquoian language family. The Iroquoian languages are predominant in the Northeast. At some point the Cherokee migrated South to the Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Northern Georgia area.
The map below shows the general locations of Native Americans
Notice where the Cherokee area is located and the names of the surrounding groups. A few of the groups, the Shawnee (who moved West of their own accord), the Choctaw and Creek, survived through contact. Several of the others did not, the Yamasee, Cusabo, Hitchiti, and Apalachee. The demise of many of the Southeastern Indian groups open space for other Indian groups that migrated in.
It is possible that the migration began before contact because there is some evidence that De Soto may have encountered the Cherokee.
We are not studying the Northeastern Indian groups but many of the characteristics of the Cherokee are similar to Northeastern groups.
We have already discussed many of the beliefs of the Cherokee in the Beliefs section and social organization. Here is some history.
The Cherokee lived pretty much according to tradition until the early 1700s. Then the English settlers began encroaching on Cherokee land. From 1759 to 1761 the Cherokee had continual conflicts with encroaching English settlers. They lost most of the conflicts. During the Revolutionary War the Cherokee sided with the British. This was a mistake but perfectly understandable. The Cherokee accurately perceived that negotiating with the British crown as recognized entity would be better than negotiating with the unknown political entity that would emerge if the British lost.
After the revolutionary War there was peace with the new government of the United States until 1835. The main reason that the Cherokee were not in conflict with the United States was the Cherokee’s propensity for acculturation. Many Cherokee adopted the ways of life of the Europeans, building cabins, farming, marrying European men, converting to Christianity. Another important reason the Cherokee were not in conflict with the United States is that they, all Indian tribes, were accorded the status of domestic dependent nations on their own land by the Supreme Court of the United States.
There was, however, conflict between the Cherokee and the various states in which they lived, especially North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. It is difficult now to understand the power the states had during this period. The federal government had a very small army and the states had militias. The states at the time also saw the land to the west as part of their future and a place for new settlers and larger populations as the states competed with each other for dominance. As the European, now American, populations grew in the states they saw the Indians as an impediment because of the land they controlled. It was the states, not the federal government that continually pushed in the Southeast to encroach on Indian land. States cared little for the treaties that the federal government signed with Indian tribes.
As a result of the increasing encroachment of Europeans on Indian land conflicts increased. During this time another problem for Southeastern Indians appeared. Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a general in charge of federal and state troops and then became president in 1829 until 1837. Jackson did not believe that Indians and Europeans could coexist. Jackson also had some racist and romantic ideas about Indians. He thought that no matter how acculturated they became, they could never really live like white people. He also thought that they should move somewhere far away from white people so they could preserve their way of life. And if they wouldn’t move away, he could force them to.
In 1830 the congress passed the Indian Removal Act. The act provided that the Federal government could buy Indian land and remove the Indians to areas West that were not state land, in essence areas still considered frontier, such as Oklahoma. Jackson supported and signed the Indian removal act.
Consequently, the next important event was the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 which ceded all Cherokee territory East of the Mississippi. The treaty was a sham, signed by Cherokee who were not recognized as leaders. The Cherokee went to courts to have it overturned, they lost one case but won in the US Supreme Court. Andrew Jackson rejected the Supreme Court’s ruling explaining to the Chief Judge that it was his order, let him enforce it.
The map above shows the Cherokee territory from 1819 to 1838 and the town of New Echota. Notice how much of the Cherokee land lay in North Georgia. New Echota was not far from Dalonaga Georgia where all the gold the Spanish were looking for came from. By the 1800s Georgians knew where the gold in Georgia was and wanted the land.
By 1838 only 2000 Cherokee had moved. In 1839 Federal and state troops rounded up the rest of the Cherokee they could find and forced them to move West to Oklahoma. The term we would use today is ethnic cleansing. The term used to describe the forced move is the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee were marched from the Southeast to Oklahoma.
There were however, about 1000 Cherokee who were not forced to move West because they were living in Qualla Town on private land off tribal land. These Cherokee resisted removal and with the help of William Holland Thomas they succeeded. William Holland Thomas was half Cherokee by our kinship reckoning, but by Cherokee matrilineal kinship he was full Cherokee since he had a Cherokee mother. Thomas bought land for the Cherokee who stayed in the East.
Here we have the importance of matrilineal descent among Southeast Indians, especially the Cherokee. If a Cherokee woman married and had children by a European, the Cherokee still considered the children to be full Cherokee because their mother was Cherokee. This was not uncommon among the Cherokee, for a woman to marry a European and have children who would be considered and accepted as full Cherokee.
The 1000 Cherokee who remained in Quallatown became the basis for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
The map above shows both the Qualla boundary (upper right corner of map) and the lands of the Eastern Band in 1881, all private land.
The Western Band of the Cherokee are those who moved West. The Western Band reorganized after the move West and were somewhat successful until the Civil War. There was strife during the Civil War, and disease when approximately one third of the Western Band died. In 1886 the Dawes Severalty Act was passed that allotted land to the tribes in Oklahoma on an individual basis.
The diagram above shows the tribal divisions in the Oklahoma territory. The southeastern tribes were the first to be resettled in the territory. After the Dawes Severalty Act was passed and implemented the amount of land the Indians controlled shrank by more then half. This is where we get the term Oklahoma Sooners. The land taken from the Indians was opened for settlement by whites who had the opportunity to race across the land and set claims. One of the consequences of the Dawes Act was the creation of the Dawes rolls, lists of Indians were created so the land could be allotted to them. The Dawes rolls have been used to determine tribal membership ever since.
What about the Eastern Band. The diagram above showing the Qualla boundary and Eastern Cherokee lands shows where the Eastern Cherokee remained.
Once again, as an anthropologist I want you to consider the importance of social organization in understanding how the Eastern band of the Cherokee came to be. Because the Cherokee had matrilineal descent, women who married European men had children who were still considered full Cherokee. They were taught about being Cherokee, and they had loyalties to the Cherokee. Ross, is the important case. It was Ross who provided private land, that later became the federally recognized Cherokee reservation, that made it possible for some Cherokee to remain and not be removed in the Trail of Tears.
Another point about the Cherokee and their relations with Europeans and later Americans is that no matter how the Cherokee lived, no matter how similar it was to the settlers coming in, they still got hauled away. Acculturation was no defense against the land grabs of the Americans.