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 crest 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 Campaigns 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.
- The music, drumbeats, chants and motions promoted by sports teams with Native American mascots, 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.
What they also weren’t were “Cherokees,” originally. The origins of that word are debated, but it isn’t what they called themselves. One name they used was “ani-yun-wiya,” meaning “peaceful people.”[a]
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. In 1760 a South Carolina newspaper reported, “the Cherokees allow no settlements to be called towns, except where they have a house for their own public consultations.”[b] Known as a “townhouse” or “council house,” this was a larger, typically round building which served multiple purposes, like community centers in small U.S. towns today: political events, worship, trading, and communal work and recreation.
One reason the first immigrants to North America were able to spread quickly was that land had already been cleared for agriculture by the first people here, 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 Native Americans 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.
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 Native nations 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. Smallpox is thought to have wiped out roughly half of the Cherokees in two years, 1738–9.[c] 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 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 west of a line basically along the Eastern Continental Divide in N.C. 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.
The Cherokee Fight 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 (illegal according to both colonists and the British!).
However, younger men objected. One, Tsiyu Gansi-ni or “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 agreed, which probably included the majority of younger warriors, began attacking European settlements along the frontier in May 1776. The naturalist Bartram had written of the Cherokees in terms Patriots would apply to themselves, calling them “‘tenacious of their liberties and (the) natural rights of men’” and “‘ready always to defend their territory and maintain their rights.’”[d] 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, the interpreter added, Dragging Canoe was also upholding Cherokee values.
Colonists 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. For the most part, the opposite was true: Some Tories and minor representatives supported Dragging Canoe, but official envoys from King George openly discouraged the Cherokee attacks, knowing the likely outcome.[e] Many of the encroaching colonists were Loyalists or “Tories,” which gave the British another reason to prevent aggression. However, the message was mixed, given that the envoys provided a supply of weapons and powder, and were present when delegates of several northern nations including Shawnees and Mohawks came to Chota in modern Tennessee in the spring.[f] They were meeting with Native nations all along the colonial frontier urging war. Again older leaders resisted. After a threatening letter from leaders in western Virginia arrived, along with news of the gathering militia forces, the headmen consulted again, and declared war on July 9. A British agent got the Cherokees present to agree not to attack Loyalists or women and children, and to stop attacking when he so ordered. But those leaders could not enforce that promise; they did not have command of warriors the way army officers command soldiers.[g]
One veteran claimed in his memoir that Tories arranged with the Cherokees a signal in the form of “passover poles,” stripped logs wrapped in white cloth, and that only one was killed during the summer raids. However, no other source from the time mentions this.[h] Note, too, that the British military never made any move to enforce the Proclamation of 1763 or support the Cherokees during the Revolution. A modern lieutenant colonel concludes attempts to ally with the Cherokee “provided little benefit to the British,” in part because Tories felt equally threatened and cooperated with Patriots in fighting them.[i]
Starting in August 1776, the southern colonies launched coordinated invasions of the Cherokee Nation, destroying each town they found without caring whether it supported the raids or not. Many Cherokees were surprised to hear that instead of “seeking thirty or forty lives, which would be proper and expected” under Native American tradition, whites went after “the life of every Indian.”[j] Cherokee ethics allowed for “a demand of blood” in response to injury or murder, meaning equal retaliation like “an eye for an eye.”[k]
To some degree that year’s Cherokee Campaign was a separate action from the American Revolution, given that many Loyalists 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.
Onitositaii (“Old Tassel”) provided a snarky Cherokee view of the 1776 campaign in an open letter to whites: “‘You marched into our territories with a superior force; our vigilance gave us no timely notice of your manouvres (sic); your numbers far exceeded us and we fled to the stronghold of our extensive woods, there to secure our women and children.
“‘Thus, you marched into our towns; they were left to your mercy; you killed a few scattered and defenseless individuals, spread fire and desolation wherever you pleased, and returned again to your own habitations.’” He throws out a taunt that “‘as a conquest you omitted the most essential point; you should have fortified the junction of the Holston and Tennessee rivers (northeast of modern Chatanooga), and have thereby conquered all the waters above you.’” He calls this a “‘mishap of generalship.’”[l]
Still, many Cherokee leaders signed a treaty with the new state governments the next year, giving up lands already occupied by European-Americans.[m] This did not stop Dragging Canoe and his followers from creating a faction which continued its resistance throughout the war, attracting several more militia campaigns as late as 1782.
One of the treaty signers, Savanuca (“Raven”) sent a letter to the new state’s governor, Richard Caswell, in 1778 trying to stop the continuing flow of whites into their lands. Caswell issued an order, later turned into law by the General Assembly, making it illegal to go west of the Holston treaty line, and requiring traders to have state licenses. It had little effect.
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.
- ‘A Demand of Blood: The Cherokee War of 1776’, NMAI Magazine <https://www.americanindianmagazine.org/story/demand-blood-cherokee-war-1776> [accessed 5 April 2020]
- ‘Cowee Heritage’, Cowee Community Development Corporation <https://www.coweenc.com> [accessed 9 April 2020]
- ‘Cowee Mound’, Mainspring Conservation Trust <https://www.mainspringconserves.org/projects/cowee-mound/> [accessed 8 April 2020]
- Cucumber, Devin, Cherokee History, In-person interview, Cherokee, N.C., 2020
- Dean, Nadia, A Demand of Blood: The Cherokee War of 1776 (Cherokee, N.C.: Valley River Press, 2012)
- East, Lt. Col. Jackie, Lessons from the British Defeat Combating Colonial Hybrid Warfare in the 1781 Southern Theater of Operations (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2014)
- Editors, ‘Trail of Tears’, HISTORY, 2020 <https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/trail-of-tears> [accessed 2 September 2020]
- Ehle, John, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1988)
- Ganyard, Robert L., ‘Threat from the West: North Carolina and the Cherokee, 1776-1778’, The North Carolina Historical Review, 45.1 (1968), 47–66
- Greene, Lance, ‘The Archaeology and History of the Cherokee Out Towns’ (unpublished Master’s thesis, University of Tennessee, 1996) <https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_gradthes/3304>
- Gulahiyi, ‘Celebrating Nikwasi’, Ruminations from the Distant Hills, 2008 <https://gulahiyi.blogspot.com/2008/05/celebrating-nikwasi.html> [accessed 15 April 2020]
- Harless, Richard, ‘Native American Policy’, George Washington’s Mount Vernon <http://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/native-american-policy/> [accessed 2 September 2020]
- Hatch, Richard, ‘Revolutionary War Smashed the Power of the Cherokees’ (Lee County Public Library, Local History Vertical Files)
- ‘Judaculla Rock’, Atlas Obscura <http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/judaculla-rock> [accessed 31 August 2020]
- ‘Judaculla Rock Petroglyphs’ (Marker, Cowarts, NC), 2020
- King, Duane, ed., Cherokee Heritage (Cherokee, N.C.: The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, 1988)
- Landry, Alysa, ‘George Washington: First Author of Federal Indian Policy’, Com, 2016 <https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/george-washington-first-author-of-federal-indian-policy-4yxXRZUfhE6QaG7A6Z3izQ> [accessed 2 September 2020]
- Lewis, J. D., ‘Cherokee Interaction and Treaties in the Carolinas 1693 to 1835’, Carolana <https://www.carolana.com/Carolina/Native_Americans/native_americans_cherokee_treaties.html> [accessed 5 April 2020]
- ‘Marker: Q-4’, North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=Q-4> [accessed 31 August 2020]
- Marshall, Lamar, ‘A Cherokee Journey: Chronicles of History, Geography and Ecology’ <https://www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=aec262c784ea4902a26a865bfe7949b6> [accessed 15 April 2020]
- McKay, Joanne, ‘Conflict and Confusion: The Rutherford Expedition Against the Cherokee Indians in 1776,’ Western Carolina University, 1996, (Museum of the Cherokee Indian Archive, 2010.253.0207, Rutherford Expedition: Miscellaneous).
- Mize, Jaime, ‘The U.S. Government Imposes a “Civilization” Plan’, S. National Park Service, 2017 <https://www.nps.gov/articles/imposing-civilization.htm> [accessed 2 September 2020]
- Mooney, James, Myths of the Cherokee (New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995) <https://books.google.com/books?id=YU9LpoZq5EwC&lpg=PA49&dq=rutherford%20expedition%20north%20carolina&pg=PP5#v=onepage&q=rutherford%20expedition%20north%20carolina&f=false>
- Museum of the Cherokee Indian, ‘Exhibits’ (Cherokee, N.C., 2020)
- ‘Native Americans in the Revolutionary War’, 2018 <https://historyofmassachusetts.org/native-americans-revolutionary-war/> [accessed 5 April 2020]
- Oconaluftee Indian Village, Tour, 2020
- O’Donnell, James, Southern Indians in the American Revolution ([Knoxville] : University of Tennessee Press, 1973) <http://archive.org/details/southernindiansi0000odon> [accessed 5 October 2022]
- O’Donnell, James, The Cherokees of North Carolina in the American Revolution (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1976)
- Reynolds, William R., The Cherokee Struggle to Maintain Identity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015)
- Rockwell, E. F., ‘Parallel and Combined Expeditions Against the Cherokee Indians in South and in North Carolina in 1776’, Historical Magazine (Clipping without Title Page), October 1867, pp. 212–20 (Museum of the Cherokee Indian Archive, 2010.253.0207, Rutherford Expedition: Miscellaneous)
- Rozema, Vicki, Footsteps of the Cherokee: A Guide to the Eastern Homelands of the Cherokee Nation, Second (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 2007)
- Siler, Margaret, Cherokee Indian Lore & Smoky Mountain Stories (A Teresita Book, 1980)
- South, Stanley, Exploratory Archeology at Ninety-Six (38GN1-5) (Institute of Archeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, September 1970) <http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?filename=2&article=1000&context=archanth_books&type=additional>
Starr, Emmet, History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore (Tulsa, Okla.: Oklahoma Yesterday Publications, 1993)
- Stone, Jessi, ‘Protecting the Past: Mounds Hold Key to Understanding Cherokee History’, Aug 3 20116 <https://www.smokymountainnews.com/archives/item/18153-protecting-the-past-mounds-hold-key-to-understanding-cherokee-history> [accessed 10 April 2020]
- ‘The Nikwasi Indian Mound’ (Macon County Historical Society) <https://maconnchistorical.org/data/documents/The-Nikwasi-Indian-Mound.pdf> [accessed 15 April 2020]
- Walker, Anthony, ‘Campaigns Against the Cherokees, 1776-1782’, Undated (Museum of the Cherokee Indian Archive, E99.C5 W355 19uu, Walker, Anthony, Campaigns against the Cherokees)
- ‘What Happened on the Trail of Tears? – Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail’, S. National Park Service, 2020 <https://www.nps.gov/trte/learn/historyculture/what-happened-on-the-trail-of-tears.htm> [accessed 2 September 2020]
- Wilburn, Hiram, ‘Nununyi, the Kituhwas, or Mountain Indians and the State of North Carolina’, Southern Indian Studies, 2.2 (1950) <http://www.rla.unc.edu/Publications/NCArch/SIS_2_2.pdf> [accessed 10 April 2020]
- Wolfe, Dustin, Cherokee History, In-person interview, Cherokee, N.C., 2020
- Woodward, Grace Steele, The Cherokees (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963)
 Reynolds 2015.
 Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
 Cucumber 2020.
 Oconaluftee Indian Village.
 Rozema 2007.
 Museum; Wolfe 2020.
[a] Siler 1980.
[b] South Carolina Gazette, 6/28-7/5, 1760, quoted in: Smith, Betty Anderson, ‘Distribution of Eighteenth-Century Cherokee Settlements’, in The Cherokee Indian Nation: A Troubled History, ed. by Duane H. King (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979).
[c] O’Donnell 1976.
[d] Quoted in Ehle 1988.
[e] Henry Stuart, an agent for his brother, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Southern Department John Stuart, said in a letter he and another agent “tried to convince the Cherokees that war with the white colonists would lead to their own destruction.” He blamed young warriors and the representatives from northern nations for the start of the attacks (Hatch).
[f] Woodward 1963.
[g] Dean 2012.
[h] Saye, Rev. James, ‘Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin’, 1848 <http://www.carolinamilitia.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Memoirs-of-Major-Joseph-McJunkin.pdf>. All modern sources found to make this claim cite only McJunkin. A search of a large database of veteran’s pension applications found no mention of the word “passover.”
[i] East 2014.
[j] Ehle 1988.
[k] Dean 2012.
[m] The Treaty of Long Island of the Holston.