Who Were the Cherokee?
Origins and Descriptions:
It is believed the Cherokee tribe originated in the Northeast of our country in the Great Lakes area as one of the Iroquoian peoples. What prompted their move to the Southeast is not known but is acknowledged within their oral history. Their very language is known as a tongue that originated as an Iroquoian dialect. Some believe the move was prompted by ongoing battles with other tribes, threats to the tribe’s safety and security, or ancient weather patterns that may have caused the move southward to improve their habitat. The migration most likely took place in prehistoric times and evidence of their habitation of the Mississippi and Appalachian regions of the Southeast shows the tribe to be well ensconced by the time of the Spanish exploration as early as 1540-1541 but is believed to have preceded that time period by many hundreds of years. The Cherokee were indigenous to North and South Carolina, Tennessee and most populous in what is now Georgia when European settlers first explored the Southeast United States.
They were a highly developed tribe with its own complex social structure which included a system of centrist government where a major population area was deemed to have a high level of authority over surrounding smaller communities. Although co-located in what was known as the Mississippian culture of native Americans, later studies have shown though the Cherokee shared some traits and benefited from knowledge and practices, they were not a part of the more ancient peoples who built the burial mounds for which the Mississippian culture is best known. Certain attributes were shared, however, such as a maize-based food dependence and cultivation; religious beliefs and ceremonies; a system of government by a chiefdom; a sophisticated trade network that stretched from the Great Lakes to Mexico; a social strata that embraced social inequality; the utilization of riverine to temper their shell-based potteries (a characteristic rather unique to the Mississippian culture); and an established community rather than a migratory or nomadic culture. The importance of the method of pottery making in tracing origins of Native American cultures is critical as one generation handed down knowledge of methods and materials to the next. Thus, the clay used, the method of forming pots, the manner in which the clay was tempered or fired all contribute to an archeologist’s ability to trace the peoples’ movements from one area to the next through history.
The name “Cherokee” given to this tribe may represent one of the most controversial issues among researchers. Many different origins for the name have been proposed, as shown in Wikipedia, from sources shown at the end of this article:
“Many theories—though none proven—abound about the origin of the name "Cherokee". It may have originally been derived from the Choctaw word Cha-la-kee, which means "those who live in the mountains", or Choctaw Chi-luk-ik-bi, meaning "those who live in the cave country." The earliest Spanish rendering of the name "Cherokee," from 1755, is Tchalaqueil Another theory is that "Cherokee" derives from a Lower Creek word, Cvlakke ("chuh-log-gee"). The Iroquois in New York have historically called the Cherokee Oyata’ge'ronoñ ("inhabitants of the cave country").
Tsalagi (Ꮳ ᎳᎩ) is sometimes misused as a name for the people; Tsalagi is actually the Cherokee (Ꮳ ᎳᎩ) word for the Cherokee language.”
Of great interest to me in researching the Cherokee was this description of the Cherokee by “American colonist Henry Timberlake as he perceived them in 1761:
“The Cherokees are of a middle stature, of an olive colour, tho' generally painted, and their skins stained with gun-powder, pricked into it in very pretty figures. The hair of their head is shaved, tho' many of the old people have it plucked out by the roots, except a patch on the hinder part of the head, about twice the bigness of a crown-piece, which is ornamented with beads, feathers, wampum, stained deers hair, and such like baubles. The ears are slit and stretched to an enormous size, putting the person who undergoes the operation to incredible pain, being unable to lie on either side for nearly forty days. To remedy this, they generally slit but one at a time; so soon as the patient can bear it, they wound round with wire to expand them, and are adorned with silver pendants and rings, which they likewise wear at the nose. This custom does not belong originally to the Cherokees, but taken by them from the Shawnese, or other northern nations.
They that can afford it wear a collar of wampum, which are beads cut out of clam-shells, a silver breast-plate, and bracelets on their arms and wrists of the same metal, a bit of cloth over their private parts, a shirt of the English make, a sort of cloth-boots, and mockasons (sic), which are shoes of a make peculiar to the Americans, ornamented with porcupine-quills; a large mantle or match-coat thrown over all complete their dress at home…"
The Cherokee and the Revolution:
The history of the Cherokee is filled with stories of battles and ongoing wars between their tribe and others. During the American Revolution, the Cherokee sided with the British. This relationship was the outgrowth of an ongoing military alliance, which began during the French and Indian war. The British were permitted by the Cherokee to build forts to defend against the French. This alliance appears to have been borne out of long-standing feuds with other Indian tribes who had aligned themselves with the French, thus making it most beneficial to negotiate a workable mutually beneficial arrangement. One of the things the British attempted to enforce was a ban on American colonists encroaching on traditional Cherokee hunting grounds.
Research into my own family tree provided the first of a number of clashes with the Cherokee people when tracing our Bullard line. My 5th Great Grandfather, Joseph Bullard was born about 1732 and first recorded as having migrated to North Carolina along with his brothers. It is believed he migrated with his siblings to America in the early to mid-1700’s (possibly 1750), probably from Northern Ireland and was of Irish or Scotch-Irish origins. Records show his father on tax lists of North Carolina, Rowan County, in 1761. Records show Joseph Bullard to be living along the Watauga River in or near modern day Elizabethton, Tennessee by about 1771. He and other pioneers bristled at the controls exerted by the British crown over their efforts to carve a living out of the Appalachian Mountains. The boundaries of this area were rather fluid at that period of time, being a confluence of eastern Tennessee, western Virginia and northwestern North Carolina. These independent mountain men formed an association, which was formalized in 1776 as the Watauga Association. Joseph Bullard was one of the signatories of that document which formed the basis of the charter, which developed, into the State of Tennessee. The document also engendered apprehension among the British who perceived it as a “dangerous example” of American colonists forming a government “distinct from and independent of his majesty’s authority”.
The Cherokee viewed this settlement as a violation of the agreements with the British crown to protect their historic hunting grounds from invasion, or use by the colonists. A group of Cherokee who inhabited the western side of the Appalachian mountains (now a part of the state of Tennessee) was called the “Overhill Cherokee”. A very famous Cherokee woman, Nancy Ward (her Anglo name) Nanyehi was one of the “Beloved Women” of the Cherokees. She earned this honor by valor in battle against the Creek Indians with her husband, Tsu-la or Kingfisher, at the young age of about fourteen. After her husband was struck down, she is said to have taken up his long rifle and joined in the affray, ultimately leading her people to victory. A few years later, at the age of 18, she was awarded the title of “Ghigau” awarding her membership in the tribal council of chiefs. She was also the leader of the Women’s Council and the negotiator for her clan. Nanyehi believed in a peaceful coexistence with the American colonists. In 1776, after a battle with the Watauga colonists, she used her authority to spare the life of a female colonist who had been injured. She took this woman into her home and nursed her back to health. This act of benevolence proved to be of great benefit to Nanyehi and her people as well, for the woman, Lydia Russell Bean, taught Nanyehi how to use a loom to weave fibers into yarn and use the yarn to make clothing. Mrs. Bean also introduced Nanyehi to the value of cattle. In return for the sparing of her life and the resulting friendship, Mrs. Bean rescued two of her own cattle and gave them to Nanyehi, teaching her how to milk the cow and utilize the milk to make butter and cheese. These two acts of kindness actually resulted in a change in the traditional roles of women in the Cherokee culture.
Nanyehi had a cousin named Dragging Canoe who headed up a rebellious faction of Cherokee who despised the colonists and vowed to rid his land of their very existence. In an act of defiance against the efforts of Nanyehi who wished to peacefully coexist with the colonists, Dragging Canoe led his band of rebel warriors in a series of attacks against the Watauga colonists. His efforts were rewarded by the British as those colonists took up arms to aid in the American Revolution. When Dragging Canoe and his band migrated to an area near where the South Chickamauga Creek joins the Tennessee River, the colonists began distinguishing this band of warriors as the “Chickamauga” separate from the friendly Overhill Cherokee.
Capt. Joseph Bullard was one of the colonists who followed John Sevier into battle at King’s Mountain, successfully defeating the British Loyalist forces and bringing the first significant victory to the fledgling American Revolution. Bullard and Sevier were also Indian fighters, waging war against the Indians who sought to wipe out the colonists’ communities. In 1788, he was killed in ambush by Dragging Canoe’s band. Dragging Canoe believed Joseph Bullard to actually be John Sevier and they celebrated their perceived execution of Sevier by dancing three days and nights over Bullard’s body. The resemblance between Sevier and Joseph Bullard was said to be significant and the two were brothers in arms, neighbors and valiant pioneers working to establish a thriving community in the Watauga, Nolichucky and Washington area of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Dragging Canoe was a brilliant and bloodthirsty chief, who numbered among his band the famous Tecumseh and Sequoyah. He was reputed by many to be the most significant Native American leader of the Southeast. (Sequoyah may be best known for creating a written alphabet permitting the Cherokee language to survive and evolve.)
The Cherokee were primarily a farming people who resided in cabins built of logs, not the tipi. Following the American Revolution, the Cherokee were adept at negotiating with the American government in attempts to preserve their culture and the right to peacefully co-exist in their historic living and hunting grounds in the Southeast of the United States. After discovery of gold in their lands in Georgia, however, their fate was sealed. Sufficient animosity existed from the decades long battles, attacks and counter-attacks that resulted in many atrocities among both the Cherokee and American colonists members. The efforts of several of the Cherokee factions to sell off portions of their lands in return for a continued presence in their native region ultimately failed.
The negotiations for sale of their lands also resulted in bitter feuds among the Cherokee, dividing them into political factions. One of the strategies of the Cherokee was to voluntarily remove from Georgia and relocate in Missouri and Arkansas. In 1815, a Cherokee reservation was set aside in Arkansas. “The reservation boundaries extended from north of the Arkansas River to the southern bank of the White River. Di'wali (The Bowl), Sequoyah, Spring Frog and Tatsi (Dutch) and their bands settled there. These Cherokees became known as "Old settlers." [Wikipedia: the Cherokee]
Other Cherokee would migrate to the Missouri Territory where the Osage and Creeks were already established. The Creek Indians would accept the Cherokee, but the Osage were territorial and warred against the newcomers. Others would migrate into then Spanish territorial Texas. The Spanish welcomed them as potential allies in their ongoing confrontations against the Anglo-American colonists. Later, Sam Houston, an adopted Cherokee, would champion their cause although they would face ultimate eviction from his successor, Lamar.
When Andrew Jackson attained the Presidency in 1829, he would sign the Indian Removal Act, a forcible eviction cloaked in political jargon asserting the move was to protect the native Americans from ultimate extinction, by setting aside a territory exclusively for their habitation.
This removal was effected in a most harsh and cold-blooded manner, marching men, women and children (regardless of age, health or disability) to abandon their established farmsteads and household goods, cattle, crops and implements, poorly clothed and with insubstantial foods across hundreds of miles of territory. This inhumane “relocation” is known as the Trail of Tears and resulted in the brutal deaths of more than ten thousand from exhaustion, starvation and exposure.
From Wikipedia, “The Trail of Tears:
“The phrase "Trail of Tears" originated from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831.
Between 1830 and 1850, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Creek, Seminole and Cherokee peoples (including European Americans and African American freedmen and slaves who lived among them) were forcibly removed from their traditional lands in the Southeastern United States, and relocated further west. The Native Americans were forced to march to their designated destinations by state and local militias, in some cases at the express objection of the federal government and the US Supreme Court.
The Cherokee Nation removal in 1838 (the last forced removal east of the Mississippi) was brought on by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush. The Cherokee was divided into thirteen groups, the last of which was led by John Ross, who had negotiated the nation's emigration contract with the Van Buren administration. Approximately 2,000-6,000 of the 16,543 relocated Cherokee perished along the way.”
The Cherokee Today:
Today the Cherokee Nation has its headquarters at Tahlequah, Oklahoma. It is headed by Principal Chief Bill John Baker and has a thriving community. The nation has real estate, banking, agricultural, commercial and medical interests providing its membership with immense opportunities. Cherokee Nation Industries is a very large defense industry contractor. A string of casinos are operated under the leadership of Cherokee Nation Entertainment. An extremely beautiful university, Northeastern State, provides advanced training and education with its main campus in Tahlequah and two other campuses located in Muskogee and Broken Arrow. About one quarter of the students are Cherokee and the school offers classes focused on Cherokee linguistics and the preservation of the language and history of the Cherokee people.
photo By Phil Konstantin 2013
Principal Chief Bill John Baker
In closing, this article can only begin to touch on the rich history and culture of the Cherokee. Researching the tribe could take a lifetime’s devotion and still more could be learned for this is a people whose origins reach back beyond written or oral history, whose legends extend into the mists of time. My own curiosity was aroused as a result of our family lore that insists we have Cherokee bloodlines, a fact I have yet to document for our direct lines, but have found to be true for ancillary relationships. For this reason alone, my research into the Cherokee people will continue. Perhaps we can take another armchair trip through the genealogy of the Cherokee.
1.Cherokee Indian Tribe. Access Genealogy. (September 21, 2009)
2. Charles A. Hanna, The Wilderness Trail, (New York: 1911).
3. Martin and Mauldin, "A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee." Sturtevant and Fogelson, p.349
4. "Cherokee: A Language of the United States". Ethnologue: Languages of the World. SIL International. 2013. Retrieved 20 Oct 2014.
Cunne Shote, Cherokee Chief, by Francis Parsons - English-1762 Oil on Canvas, Gilcrease Museum the Chief "Old Hop" who was also know as Standing Turkey - illustrating the description given of the Cherokee in my column - an oil painting (public domain) See Portrait below.
Cumnacatogue (also known as Cunne Shote, Stalking Turkey or Standing Turkey) was one of three Cherokee chiefs who travelled to London in 1762 to see King George III. He was the nephew of the Chief "Old Hop" who was also know as Standing Turkey.
Standing Turkey, also known as Cunne Shote (or Kunagadoga) succeeded his uncle, Kanagatucko (or Old Hop), as First Beloved Man of the Cherokee upon the latter's death in 1760. Pro-French like his uncle, he steered the Cherokee into war with the British colonies of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia in the aftermath of the execution of several Cherokee leaders who were being held hostage at Fort Prince George. He held his title until the end of the Anglo-Cherokee War in 1761, when he was deposed in favor of Attakullakulla.
Standing Turkey was one of three Cherokee leaders to go with Henry Timberlake to London in 1762-1763, the others being Ostenaco and Pouting Pigeon. Standing Turkey was part of the Cherokee Bird Band, the wild Turkey of America.
In 1782, he was one of a party of Cherokee which joined the Delaware,Shawnee, and Chickasaw in a diplomatic visit to the Spanish at Fort St. Louis in seeking a new avenue of obtaining arms and other assistance in the prosecution of their ongoing conflict with the Americans in the Ohio Valley. The group of Cherokee sought and received permission by Standing Turkey to settle in Spanish Louisiana, in the region of the White River.
BY THE WAY - Attakullakulla was the father of Dragging Canoe and the maternal uncle of Nancy Ward or Nanyehi (an incredible woman!!!)
Researched and compiled by author.
Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.