The largest still-living tribe of Native Americans are the Cherokee, whose numbers surpassed 300,000 at last count. They are divided among three separate nations or groups – the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band and the Eastern Band. They are now settled in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, but they once lived with many other native peoples in the Great Lakes area.
The Cherokees Discover Corn
Over a thousand years ago, the Cherokee developed an early precursor to corn, or maize. They grew this crop in great quantities, which allowed their population to grow rapidly and expand over much of the Southwestern region of what is now the United States. Corn surpluses made way for new chiefdoms to be established and new villages to be built.
Before the 19th century, the Cherokee were governed by two groups of leaders. The “white” group oversaw all religious practices and represented the ancient traditions and culture of the people. The younger “red” group was in charge of warfare, creating strategies for battle and preparing the men to defend and carry out attacks.
Sequoyah Credited with Pioneering Written Cherokee Language
In the 1820’s, one of the most well-known Native Americans in history, Sequoyah, created the Cherokee syllabary. While this method of writing and communication was not initially widely adopted, that changed over the following decades, as the Cherokee people as a whole began to use the syllabary and started to write and record their own history.
The Cherokee developed a friendship with the British in the early 1700s, often helping the British fight off neighboring tribes as the Europeans expanded their reach across North America. This partnership, while sometimes shaky, remained intact for many years. They often supplied deerskins through trade to the English colonists.
A Prelude to War
After America established its independence from England in 1776, the Cherokee and Americans began a series of raids on one another that lasted for about twenty years. These became known as the Cherokee-American Wars, and they created severe tensions between the two peoples, particularly in the American Southwest. Some of the Cherokee were working with the British at this time, and only a portion of them participated in these attacks to begin with. By the latter half of the war, though, all the Cherokee nations were involved in the battles, in what was known as the Cherokee War of 1776.
The deer trade that had brought the Cherokee so much prosperity in the decades earlier was drying up by this time as well. The white-tailed deer had been hunted to the point where they were nearly extinct. The Cherokee, spurred on by an initiative from George Washington, adopted more agricultural lifestyles on stretches of farmland and made pigs and cows their primary sources of meat.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the Cherokee were trying to come together as one nation. They worked to establish formal education for their people as well as modern farming techniques that would sustain them for decades to come. They also invited Moravian missionaries to teach their children; the missionaries brought Christianity with them, which is still an integral part of the Cherokee culture.
Tensions Lead to President Jackson Forcing the Trail of Tears
The Indian Removal period of the late 1700s saw the Cherokee sign over much of their land in Georgia for a reservation in Arkansas. While many Cherokee began to migrate willingly to new lands in Mississippi and Missouri, there were many Cherokee who wanted to keep their lands. They suffered countless attacks from American settlers and government soldiers, and it was clear that tensions were about to explode into something far more severe.
Seeking to escape persecution in the Southern United States, a group of Cherokee moved to Texas and signed a treaty with the government there. But three years later, the Texas militia reneged on the treaty and drove them out of the state.
U.S. President Andrew Jackson, under the guise of preventing Cherokee extinction, worked toward their forced relocation to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The Cherokee were not in any danger of disappearing at the time, as they had established sustainable farmlands with plenty of room for white men to settle in the area as well. But in 1841, the Cherokee were taken by gunpoint from their home, under the escort of armed soldiers, across thousands of miles of rugged terrain to their new home in Oklahoma. This forcible eviction was known as the Trail of Tears, and countless Cherokee died along the journey.
During the Civil War, the Cherokee fought on both sides of the conflict, losing a huge portion of their population for the sake of unfulfilled promises by both the Confederacy and the Union. Through numerous conflicts, the Cherokee people had suffered incredible losses. Their numbers dwindled considerably and they quietly rebuilt and repopulated in the decades following the Civil War. While still split into multiple bands today, the Cherokee work to preserve their history and culture. In 2007, the Eastern Cherokee band opened the Oconaluftee Institute for Cultural Arts. Their history is preserved in the Cherokee Heritage Center, funded by multiple Cherokee bands.
In recent years, the Cherokee language has been rejuvenated, as its syllabary was adopted into Unicode, allowing it to flourish throughout the internet. The Cherokee people work hard to support each other, even across their separate nations, with homebuilding and educational efforts paving the way for a bright future for this Native American people.