Cherokee history and culture were nearly extinguished in Appalachia. Learn about efforts of a new generation to preserve their unique past.
According to Cherokee legend, the Great Smoky Mountains in Southern Appalachia formed centuries ago when a giant buzzard, wearily circling the earth after a great flood, plummeted to the ground in exhaustion. Where his vast wings hit the earth, the mountain valleys appeared.
Deeply spiritual people, the original Cherokees believed the blue mist creeping through these mountains took the form of both good and evil spirits. They also believed magical creatures filled the deep forests. They named their home “Sha-cona-ge,” or “Land of the Blue Smoke.” Consequently, their mysterious and rugged surroundings inspired folktales like the Wampas Cat and other Cherokee legends told to this day.
Cherokee history and culture still echo throughout much of Southern Appalachia. But if not for their resourcefulness in a rapidly changing world, these native peoples may have had their voices silenced for good.
Table of contents
- Are Cherokees Indigenous to Appalachia?
- Cherokee Culture and Early America
- Cherokee Nation in a New United States
- Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
- Cherokee Culture Today
Are Cherokees Indigenous to Appalachia?
There are two main theories as to where the Cherokee nation came from. First, many historians believe they are descendants of the prehistoric Iroquois people of the Great Lakes region. Linguistic connections along with stories from Cherokee oral history about a massive southern migration seem to back this theory up.
Secondly, some believe the Cherokees lived in the Southeast for thousands of years, sharing the Iroquian language with other native peoples. These early tribes were likely part of the broader Mississippian Culture, ancestral to the Cherokees, Catawba, Muscogee and other tribes.
Where Did the Cherokees Live?
Traditional Cherokee homelands were located in western North Carolina along with parts of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and eastern Tennessee. But long before the United States was a concept, early Spanish explorers like Hernando de Soto documented encounters with ancestral Cherokees in the 1500s. Our understanding of Cherokee history often begins with these written records.
Ancestral Cherokees lived in communal villages along mountain valleys, lowlands and riverbanks, each ruled by clans and a supreme chief. They were a matrilineal culture, meaning mothers were heads of household and ancestral lines were traced through them. Additionally, they were a largely agrarian people who observed sacred religious practices. Indeed, some territories were built around huge, earthen platform mounds believed to have significant spiritual meaning.
Spanish explorers mistakenly spread diseases like smallpox and measles, killing scores of helpless native peoples. Some scholars credit these diseases for splintering the larger Mississippian Culture into individual tribes like the Cherokees and the Creeks. In fact, the word “Cherokee” is believed to be a Creek word meaning “people of a different speech.”
At one time, the Cherokee nation encompassed over 135,000 square miles of territory. As Spanish, French and British colonization grew, the Cherokees aligned with one side then another, primarily for self-preservation. But their eventual alliance with the British would guide them toward a highly advanced, yet turbulent, future.
Cherokee Culture and Early America
By the 18th century, the Cherokees became important trading partners with the British, primarily for their deerskins. As part of the broader fur trade, deerskins became a preferred fashion item in London. But more importantly, they kept the British settlers warm in frigid mountain regions. Deer hunting was so prevalent in the Southeast they almost became extinct.
In return, the Cherokees often received guns and ammunition. This trading system introduced the Cherokees to the world economy. Sadly, it also introduced the concept of capturing and selling their fellow native peoples as slaves. Often the Cherokees had little choice but to kidnap other tribesmen at gunpoint, the constant supply of slaves being part of their trade debt.
A More “Civilized” Tribe
Europeans designated the Cherokees one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Southeast. Others included the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. Their adoption of European-style government and farming methods, literacy, religion, intermarriage and economic ties with whites, and slave ownership were considered “civilized” traits.
After British victory in the French and Indian War, King George III approved the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This law forbade colonial settlements west of the Appalachian crest in an effort to protect the Cherokees and other tribes. This massive, British-created Indian reservation introduced the idea of Native American land titles, which would become the cornerstone of Native American law to this day.
On the other hand, this law did not sit well with settlers wishing to push further into the Appalachian mountains. Famed settlers like Daniel Boone led incursions into Native American territories. Bloody turf wars with settlers across the Southeast became commonplace. This perceived insult from the British crown added to a list of colonial grievances that eventually sparked the American Revolution.
Cherokee Nation in a New United States
After the American colonies won their independence, the Cherokees paid a price for their British alliance. Forced to sue for peace, the Cherokees gave up huge parcels of land throughout Appalachia. With many of their towns destroyed during the Revolutionary War, the Cherokees further assimilated into white culture – if only to retain some independence and integrity.
United States president George Washington sought to further “civilize” the Cherokees through government programs that changed communal systems into individual farm operations (now supervised by men instead of women). Cherokees followed the white man’s home building methods (primarily log cabins) and wore European-style dress.
Sequoyah and New Echota
Most importantly, the Cherokees developed their own literacy program thanks to the efforts of Sequoyah, who developed and taught a unique syllabary (system of written characters, or symbols, that represent syllables). One result was the founding of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper.
Some Cherokees blended almost entirely into white society. There were Cherokee tavern owners, hotel managers, ferry operators, and even Cherokee plantations – with African slaves of their own.
But many Cherokees sought to preserve their culture by forming an official nation, stretching across four states. They named their Georgia capital New Echota and patterned their constitution after the U.S. Constitution, with three branches of government. This new nation consisted of eight districts, each represented by an elected official in the capital. For the most part, the United States government approved of the new Cherokee nation.
However, the State of Georgia did not. Georgia’s leadership claimed that creating a “nation” within state boundaries without the approval of the state’s government was unconstitutional. Georgia lawmakers decided to put an end to the new Cherokee nation. So in 1828, they voted to extend state laws and court authority over the Cherokee nation, proclaiming all Cherokee laws “null and void.” Outraged, the Cherokees appealed to Washington for help.
Georgia Gold Rush
But another event that same year would eventually bring an end to this Cherokee nation – the discovery of gold in the North Georgia mountains. Thousands of prospectors flooded into the region, and despite appeals to the U.S. Government, the Cherokees were unable to stop them from taking over their land.
Historic Cherokee territory had already dwindled thanks to broken land treaties, settler encroachment and disuse of hunting lands abandoned for new farming practices. Even before the Georgia gold rush, Cherokees were encouraged to relocate to a newly established and protected “Indian Territory” in what is now Oklahoma. Cherokees who left became known as the “Old Settlers.”
Furthermore, new U.S. president Andrew Jackson was a strong proponent of Cherokee removal, ostensibly to protect them from further encroachment. Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act in 1830, authorizing the forced removal of the Cherokees and other tribes to the new Indian Territory.
Trail of Tears
As a result, a small group of wealthy and influential Cherokees, known as the “Treaty Party,” saw the writing on the wall and tried negotiating a land sale to the U.S. Government in exchange for a large tract of land in Indian Territory. This treaty angered many Traditionalists who refused to sign, most notably Chief John Ross. Nevertheless, the 1835 Treaty of New Echota passed Congress by a one vote margin.
Although this treaty was supposed to buy more time, U.S. president Martin Van Buren sent federal troops and state militia to evict the remaining, resistant Cherokees in 1838. This forced march out West became known as the infamous “Trail of Tears” removal. Over 16,000 Cherokees were marched across 800 miles in a highly disorganized military operation. An estimated 4,000 died from starvation, disease and exposure and never saw their new home. In addition to native Cherokees, their enslaved Africans and intermarried Europeans also made the journey.
As payback for their sale of traditional Cherokee lands, some Treaty Party leaders were assassinated by order of Chief John Ross’ son. But as it turns out, the Trail of Tears would not spell the end of Cherokee culture in Appalachia.
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
During the Indian removal period, a small group of nearly 400 Cherokees disappeared into the North Carolina mountains. According to legends, they would occasionally reappear to attack white encroachers or survey their land. One popular story is that of Tsali, a Cherokee leader who killed a federal soldier to protect his family. He then agreed to give himself up to authorities in exchange for the promise that his tribe could stay in the mountains.
Tsali’s followers, along with other longtime holdouts and those who escaped the Trail of Tears, enlisted state legislator William Holland Thomas to purchase mountain land. This land would later become their new home.
William Holland Thomas and the Qualla Boundary
Thomas was a white man with a unique background. Confederate soldier, attorney and legislator, he was also a prosperous merchant in Qualla Town. This North Carolina mountain community of Cherokees separated from the larger nation around 1820. Federal troops often ordered Qualla Town leaders to help locate holdout Cherokees in the mountains. According to legend, they instead sent these troops on exhausting, wild goose chases.
Thomas’ fluency in Cherokee language gained him trust with local tribes. So much so he would become the white chief of the North Carolina Cherokees in 1839. He used his own money to pay for food, clothing and shelter for Cherokee refugees. Thomas was also an early advocate for Cherokee rights. But most importantly – since Cherokees were not allowed to enter into land deals with the U.S. government – he purchased 50,000 acres of western North Carolina land on their behalf, just south of today’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Ultimately the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), as this group became known, were allowed to live freely in North Carolina. In the 20th century, they became one of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. The others being Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (both in Oklahoma).
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians eventually bought back William Holland Thomas’ original land purchase – known as the Qualla Boundary – placing it in a federal protective trust along with neighboring land. Since Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians members can buy or sell land, it is incorrect to refer to this territory as a government controlled “reservation.”
Cherokee Culture Today
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians headquarters is located in the namesake town of Cherokee, North Carolina in the Qualla Boundary. Membership has now grown to over 14,000 members. Most Cherokees in this region make a living in manufacturing, textiles, and tourism from nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
At the same time, the community seeks to preserve Cherokee history and culture through popular attractions like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and the living history exhibits of the Oconaluftee Indian Village. The beloved outdoor drama Unto These Hills has told the Cherokee story to an international audience. Additionally, the tribe has purchased several sacred mounds along the Little Tennessee River and elsewhere, providing a direct link to their ancestors from over 1,000 years ago.
With the 1997 opening of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were able to use gaming revenue for economic development, public services, tribal affairs and cultural preservation programs. Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River in Murphy, North Carolina followed in 2015.
Cherokee history and culture has long been a part of Appalachia and the founding of America. Despite frequent wars, betrayals and attempts to erase their history, the Cherokee nation has adapted and survived. Their very presence gives us a glimpse into an ancient world we are still striving to understand.