They Were Here First
By the time of the American Revolution, the Cherokees were the largest of several nations whose borders included parts of modern North Carolina. At one time their lands stretched from the South Carolina Piedmont across modern Kentucky, but when Europeans arrived they primarily lived around the western “point” of N.C. After the French & Indian War, they signed a treaty with Britain in 1763 establishing a border at the base of the Appalachians. Repeated violations of that treaty by European-Americans caused tensions with both the Cherokees and King George III.
This page is built on extensive research, but was written by an “outsider” (non-Cherokee). Visit our “Cherokee Museum and Village” stop to learn more about the nation directly from the descendants of the warriors you meet on our Cherokee Tour.
Who They Weren’t
When you visit locations on this website associated with the Cherokees, please do not imagine teepees or wigwams, feathered headdresses, and nomads roving about on horseback! Some of those describe Native Americans of the Western United States, which were only a small percentage of the native nations in the U.S. Other ideas were mistakes or fiction from Hollywood Westerns, like:
- Grunted dialog like “how” as a greeting, made up by movie writers.
- The music, drumbeats, chants and motions promoted by sports teams with Native American mascots, again made up by whites.
- Men making vibrating war cries—a misuse of “ullalling,” a sound made by women (in many cultures around the world) for various reasons including signaling a camp location or providing warnings.
- Archery in battle—though it was used by the Cherokees, the most common and preferred method prior to the arrival of guns was war clubs in hand-to-hand combat; killing from a distance was considered cowardly.
Who They Were
This website avoids the word “settlers” for European-Americans because Cherokees were every bit as “settled” when Europeans arrived. Cherokees lived in permanent homes, usually one- or two-story log cabins by the Revolution, in long-established towns. In 1776 naturalist William Bartram, while at Cowee, described the typical house: “‘one oblong four-square building, of one story high; the materials consisting of logs or trunks of trees, stripped of their bark, notched at their ends, fixed one upon the other, and afterwards plastered well, both inside and out, with clay well tempered with dry grass, and the whole covered or roofed with the bark of the chestnut tree or long broad shingle.’”
The Cherokees grew crops and livestock, played team sports, and erected public buildings. One reason the first immigrants to North America were able to spread quickly was that land had already been cleared for agriculture by the natives, and trails had been blazed, from the coasts to the mountains and throughout the later colonies. There was no significant difference in lifestyle between natives and white frontiersmen, who adopted native practices well adapted to life in the forests. Both groups ranged widely for hunting; trapped and fished using technology; traded with distant people; and originally wore furs and buckskin clothing because those were the available materials.
Some stereotypes have a basis in fact. For example, the Cherokees did indeed share pipes after making agreements, but less widely known is why. They believe that smoke carries the smoker’s thoughts and prayers to the Creator. Thus sharing a pipe is similar to Christians of the 1700s requiring an oath to God on written contracts: the parties’ intentions are revealed to the divine.
In contrast to European-American society, to this day Cherokee women hold the economic power. In what scientists call a “matrilineal society,” women own the homes and crops. (Prior to the Cherokees accepting U.S. laws, their land was owned communally.) This female power confused and amused European-Americans forced to deal with women as equals in trade or in councils.
Women chose whom to marry. The man joined his wife’s family group or “clan” upon marriage. Though in ancient times there were more clans, by the 1700s and still today there were seven. Each is named after an animal, and they emphasize a particular skill. That is, members were trained from early on to be warriors or healers, for example, based on clan. However, that did not prevent members of other clans from taking on those occupations. Each town would have members of all of the clans.
In another difference, whites never understood, or purposely ignored, that there was no central Cherokee government. Cherokee villages were similar to city-states like in Germany of the time or Ancient Greece that sometimes banded together for mutual defense, religious ceremonies, etc.
Many Cherokee towns featured human-made artificial hills now called “mounds.” These were already at least 1,000 years old by the time of the Revolution. Though some were built by natives of the Mississippian Culture famous for mounds nearer that river, archaeological evidence says Cherokee ancestors built others.
The mounds included dirt from each resident’s homesite, to symbolize coming together. Contrary to the expectations of later American looters, the mounds were not used for burials or buried treasure. Council houses were built on top, which served multiple purposes, like community centers in small U.S. towns today: political events, worship, trading, and communal work and recreation.
Almost all of the mounds that existed during the Revolution are gone or greatly reduced in size. Farmers and disappointed looters knocked many down, and without maintenance, erosion had its natural effects. Residents of Franklin put a road through the Nĭkwăsĭ´ Mound, shown above. Probably the only N.C. mound that approximates its original height is Cowee Mound near the modern town of that name.
Stickball, a game shared by many tribes, has evolved into modern lacrosse. More than one modern Cherokee has described the original game, still played by the Cherokees, as a combination of lacrosse and mixed martial arts! Indeed, in the past it was used as a substitute for armed conflict to settle differences. In fact, the Cherokee name, a-ne-tsa, translates to “little brother to war.”
The rules and field apparently vary, historically and even today. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian describes the stickball field as 120 yards long with pairs of goalposts on each end. A point is scored by carrying or throwing the ball through, or touching a post with it. Each player carries two sticks, shorter than lacrosse sticks and with smaller baskets for the ball. In addition to knocking the ball away, legal defense moves of the past included tripping, kicking, and choking! Equivalent to modern referees were “drivers” who carried wooden switches to whip players apart. Yet losing one’s temper was frowned upon.
The first team to 12 points wins, no matter how long that takes. The museum says games have been known to last as little as 30 minutes or up to seven hours.
A Struggle over Land
There were conflicts over land between Europeans and the people already living here almost from first contact. At first some natives cooperated, not realizing how many whites were going to show up.
North Carolina was the site of a famous example of both conflict and cooperation, the “Lost Colony.” A merchant named Sir Walter Raleigh brought people to set up the second English settlement in America on Roanoke Island near the coast (by today’s Manteo). The first attempt failed, and when he came back for the second group after being delayed two years, they were gone. Though supposedly mysterious, we now know the word “Croatoa” found etched on a tree was a prearranged signal. Without supplies, and possibly in trouble with a neighboring tribe, the colonists apparently moved in with a friendly nation by that name on Hatteras Island.
Besides the fact natives had already cleared farmland, the main reason European-Americans found a lot of it was smallpox. Because the virus was in Europe for centuries, many Europeans had built up enough resistance that they either did not get it, did not get symptoms, or survived it (though usually scarred for life if they did). The virus did not exist in America until it hitched a ride in Europeans and spread. Historians believe as many as 90% of Native Americans in the British colonies died, leaving behind empty farms, homes, and trading paths for the taking. If the Cherokees and other native people had been immune to smallpox, the European colonies may well have failed throughout the Americas.
The flood of immigrants taking over homesteads or intruding on hunting grounds belonging to surviving natives contributed to many natives supporting France in the French & Indian War. This led to the Proclamation of 1763 from British King George III that banned European-Americans from settling in or west of the Appalachian Mountains. However, many whites broke that treaty, venturing far into Cherokee lands to hunt, trap animals for fur, and even build farms. Because the Cherokees did not have a central national government, a coordinated response to the European invasion was difficult. Europeans often exploited this different approach to government, signing a treaty with the leaders of a few towns and then claiming it applied to all Cherokees.
By the 1770s, the Cherokees recognized several frightening trends. Skiagusta, headman of a town named Keowee, complained that his people had become dependent on the English for guns, ammunition, and even clothing. Traditional buckskin was heavier and didn’t breathe as well as European textiles, which also were more colorful.
Worse, more and more of the “outsiders” pushing into their lands were also talking about independence from Britain, which was trying to stop them. These trends were related, being one of the causes of tension between colonists and the British government.
Dragging Canoe Fights Back
When it became clear colonists were trying to form their own country, many Cherokee leaders realized they could not stop the incursions on their lands, much less win a war with the more numerous, better-armed “Americans.” In 1775, they signed a treaty giving up rights to more of those lands to the company represented by legendary N.C. frontiersman Daniel Boone.
However, younger men objected. One, Dragging Canoe, led an effort to convince older leaders to fight. Regarding the treaty he argued in part, “‘The white man makes treaties only to break them. He is not satisfied with the land (he has)… Now he wants still more. And what we do not give him, he will take anyway until our whole Nation is gone from this earth… Old men make paper talks; young men fight for what is theirs. I will not lose these lands without a fight.’”
Those who followed him, which probably included the majority of younger warriors, began attacking European settlements along the frontier in May 1776. They also launched a series of raids in July that spread further panic along the borderlands.
A Cherokee historic interpreter noted in 2020 that younger men, perhaps more comfortable with using guns to fight long distance, had reason to be more confident of victory than older warriors who preferred up-close combat. However, that source added, Dragging Canoe was also upholding Cherokee values.
Americans claimed the British were encouraging the attacks, listing it as a complaint in the various petitions to the king prior to, and in, the Declaration of Independence. The opposite was true: Some minor representatives helped Dragging Canoe, but official envoys from King George openly discouraged the Cherokee attacks, knowing the likely outcome. Plus, many of the encroaching settlers were Loyalists, which gave the British another reason to prevent aggression. Note, too, that the British military never made any move to enforce the Proclamation of 1763 or support the Cherokees during the Revolution.
Starting in September 1776, the southern colonies launched coordinated invasions of the Cherokee nation, destroying each town they found without caring whether it supported Dragging Canoe or not. To some degree that year’s Cherokee Campaign was a separate action from the American Revolution, given that many Loyalists or “Tories” fought alongside later Patriots despite their political differences. Regardless, the damage was catastrophic. Homes that took a year to build and food stored away for winter were wiped away as the weather turned cold. This did not stop Dragging Canoe’s faction, which continued its resistance throughout the war, attracting several more equally ineffective militia campaigns as late as 1782.
After the War
Though Dragging Canoe continued the fight white expansion, most of the Cherokees accepted the American victory. Without formally stating this, Pres. George Washington and the new United States created a “civilization policy” calling on natives to adopt European-American lifestyles as their best chance for survival. Washington wrote in 1796 that “scarcely anything short of a Chinese wall or a line of troops will restrain land jobbers and the encroachment of settlers upon the Indian territory.” (He was referring to the Great Wall of China.)
Most of the Cherokees conformed. They became Christians, learned English, paid taxes, created a central government, and learned to read. Shi-gwo-ya (“Sequoyah”) developed a written version of Cherokee. (Some Cherokees debate whether there was already a form of written Cherokee that Sequoyah merely “revealed.”)
In short, the Cherokees were living mostly like any other Americans when gold was discovered on their lands. Neither they nor the U.S. government could stop the State of Georgia and gold-seekers from flooding into their nation. Despite legal property rights to the land, and a Supreme Court decision supporting those rights, the Cherokees and other nations were ordered west by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. His successor Martin Van Buren illegally sent the U.S. Army to round up Cherokees who had not moved on their own by 1838.
They were first held in terrible conditions in concentration camps throughout the mountains, and then led to today’s Oklahoma. Anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000 people died in transit along what now is called the “Trail of Tears,” including many elders and children.
However, a few courageous people escaped the army, or were already living in places too remote to be found. After years of legal battles they eventually won the right to become North Carolina citizens and ownership of what now is the Qualla Boundary along Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here the Cherokee survive and thrive.
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