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.  

Smoky Mountains Cherokee Nation
Photo courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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.

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.

Cherokee History Nation Map Territorial Limits 1884

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.

Cherokee History Council House New Echota Georgia
Cherokee council house at New Echota. Public Domain.

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.  

Cherokee history Trail of Tears by Robert Lindneaux
The Trail of Tears by Robert Lindneux. Painting here (and top banner) courtesy of Woolaroc Museum & Nature Preserve, Bartlesville, OK

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.”

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Logo

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.

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Arnetta Michel

    I have a question about my grandmother she died before I was born, the depression era. I’ve heard that she was longing to be around her people again, but an abusive marriage kept her isolated. And unfortunately she hung herself feeling that it was the only way out. I want to honor her, her tradition, I know it’s been such a long time but her heart cried out to once more be with her people ? and I wonder if you could please give me the me of some kind. Thank you.

  2. “Widmer Bros. brews about 2,500 barrels of beer a day at its facility in North Portland. Its parent company, Craft Brew Alliance, announced Tuesday that it intended to form a strategic partnership with a North Carolina brewery. (Lynne Terry Craft Brew Alliance plans ‘strategic partnership’ with N.C.-based Appalachian Mountain Brewery”

    So not only does a company from Portland steal an Indian name
    ” Appalachian”, The Appalachian Mountain Brewery targets a university age group whose minds on average aren’t fully grown or developed until average of age 25 a cording to neurologists.. howeever the greatest problem with breweries are the garden space they hijack and water they poach from communities:

    “Widmer Bros. brews about 2,500 barrels of beer a day”..
    Hmmnn lemme try to count count 2500 barrels of beer equals 77500 gallons of beer. takes that multiply 5 barrels of water to make one barrel of beer that equals 387500 gallons of water. Then in California it takes another 590 gallons of water to make barley and hops grow to make one gallon of beer so that’s 77,500?590
    =45725000… therefore 45725000 +387500= 46112500 gallons of water everysingle day.

    Then there’s all the carbon footprints…the diesal the semi trucks the machinery the cooking pot the evaporation the heat etc.
    That’s a lot of resources for a luxery item
    I propose replace all hops and barely and also tobacco fields with green plant life and trees that will reduce greenhouse effect and global warming thus extending earths lifetime warrenty

  3. Richard Easley

    “Revolution” by Richard Easley

    Keep all my old snakeskins dry and safe for me

    Keep them in the rafters near Heaven on high

    Revolve them thrice weekly and gently I decree

    For one day I will wear them again by and by

    Old trees my old friends where will I howl Which way will I go

    I’ve been dancing with indian rose and a little dog on that peice of land secretly like nobody knows

    though many miles and thorns only changes Peirced my soles

    Its not me that is uncomfortable, cant’t grow, or can’t breathe

    But rather its these new clothes

    strangers & society lawlessly upon little ol’ me imposed

    I have to shed more taxing snakeskin from my feet past my chin and again

    Swing crazy down like a vine to feel Free

    Run with guitar, dance with the savage dogs and do my snakecharm

    even up the odds and immortalize

    Rest on some Appalachian Indian sod

    then only then do I feel like me

  4. Richard Easley

    Hi, my name is Richard Easley and I live in beautiful Boone, NC.I don’t like Appalachian Mountain Brewery putting the name of our home on their bottle. I live here in the Appalachia and I don’t want a beer named after my beautiful mountains.The Appalachee were a tribe of Indians   Apalachee. Various forms of the Itsati (Hitchiti,) Apalachicola(Lower Creek) and Koasati word for torch or lamp, apala, are still used today. In these languages, Apalaci (pronounced ?-p?-l?-ch?) means “torch bearers” or “people who bring light.”…its an Indian word. ” Native Americans might file an opposition if: 1) they are the first users of the word in commerce; 2) the trademark is a name used by tribal businesses, organizations or religious groups; 3) the trademark uses the name or insignia of their Nation; 4) it is morally offensive and scandalous to them to have their names listed on a beer can, a pick-up truck or a home heating oil companyThe Federal Trade Commission has already ruled against several companies selling products using Native American tribal names and symbols.”The Appalachian Mountain Brewery misrepresents the product’s place of origin or geographic original.Appalachian Mountain Brewery needs to change their name. Its offensive to native Indians which are already predisposed to alcohol problems. Alcoholic beverages was a genocidal drink that aided in destroying them.Besides, none of the locals like the name. They go to church and spend time with their families. The locals can be proud. They dont like drinking and we have one of the highest drunk driving fatalities around They aren’t fond of some company that isn’t even from around here coping a name from  their  heritage and an stealing the name of an entire mountain range for stupid beer… the locals have lived here all their lives. I have some cherokee in my family tree. .We are for sueing andAppalachian Mountain Brewery!Sincerely,Richard P EasleyPresident of Community Gardening &President of Student Government P.S. Furthermore there are a lot of mothers, grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers that are up at arms about  Apalachian State University  fostering a fermentation business in their basement and pandering to AMB (Appalachian Mountain Brewery) brewery business under the guise of a place called the Ivory tower. Our  humble hardworking Appalachian community is offended by this.The brewery tried to put my name on a beer and name a dance after me… they are going to do the same to our children when they are 21. I refuse to sit back and let ASU and their brewery mess with my students like that!The Appalachian Mountains are also part of our children’s lives. It is also our children’s territory. Our children’s mountains and part of our childrens garden!  :)I will write and disclose more views and information in regards to Appalachian States University’s role in our community at a later timeThank you ,Richard

  5. I don’t know how much Cherokee I have in me or a lot about my family history. But I want to know more about who my family is traced back from. The only think I know about my Cherokee past is that my some what great grandfather was the last Cherokee to leave the region.

  6. I have known all my life I had Cherokee indian blood in me but I did not know how much until we started looking on and we found that i have enough to get help with college being paid for but we don’t know how to start that process. can u help me please? And i have aways been interested in indian stuff and I love anything indian including horse back riding.

  7. Victoria

    Okay Im 15 And I just recently found out my nationality. but i want to know more about it. im not full native american but im a really good percent i was wondering if thier was any way someone could get in contact with me or something so i could find out more of who i am.