A Brief History of the Cherokees

by Margie Ann (Thompson) Poncy

Knowledge about the Cherokee has evolved since Aunt Margie wrote this brief history many years ago. I leave it here, largely intact, to honor her. But please read some of the newer works if you want to truly learn about the tribal history and culture. —Duane Poncy

The origin of the Cherokees is a mystery even to themselves. Some hieroglyphics of the Delaware Indians show that prior to the coming of the white man, the Delawares aided by the Iroquois (thought to be kinsmen of a branch of the Cherokees), conquered the Cherokees and drove them from the Great Lakes region southward beyond the Ohio River. Archaeologists have discovered Indian burial mounds in Ohio, Illinois, Virginia and Tennessee, presumably built by the ancient Cherokees en route to the southern Alleghenies. Further evidence of an early habitation of the ancient Cherokees in the Great Lakes region comes from linguists who have discovered that the Cherokee and Iroquoian languages are quite similar and now classify the Cherokees as a branch of the Iroquoian family originating in the north.

At least one historian has theorized to the contrary, that the Cherokees and perhaps the Iroquois, too, originated in the Orinoco and Amazon River basins in South America, since none of the southern tribes except the Cherokees (and Possibly the Catawbas) rimmed their baskets with a thin oak loop bound by a hickory fiber, as did the natives of the Orinoco and Amazon areas. Both today’s Cherokees and South Americans use the double weave and the chain and diagonal pattern.

Assuming that the basketry pattern links the Cherokees and the South Americans, the Cherokees could have migrated to North America via Mexico. They could have traveled northward until they encountered the Iroquois on the Great Lakes and adopted their language or part of it.

Another authority also saw a similarity in the art of the Cherokees and that of the Caribbeans; in this case pottery, instead of basketry. Using primitive wooden paddles, they stamped their pottery while damp with curves and scrolls as did the Caribbeans who reportedly once had island kinsmen whose name resembled the Cherokees.

James Adair, an eighteenth century trader and historian who lived among the Cherokee Tribe for forty years, thought that the Cherokees were one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. This theory is not accepted by today’s ethnologists who state conclusively that ‘the Cherokees were once a powerful detached tribe of the Iroquoian family and that they originated in the north, but were found in the possession of the Southern Allegheny region when first encountered by DeSoto in 1540. This is when the Cherokees’ recorded history actually began in the town of Guasili (today, Murphy, NC).

A century passed, the history of the Cherokees was unrecorded by the white man and only orally recited by the Indians. They omitted De Soto’s visit and Don Pardo’s visit in 1566/1567, and recalled the memorable deeds of their chiefs and warriors, and the defeat of enemies in general. This marked the beginning of the Cherokees historical period.

On July 15, 1673, there arrived at Chota (the Cherokee capital of the day) on the Little Tennessee River, two white men, James Needham and Gabriel Arthur, who had been sent for the purpose of opening a trading path between Chota and the Virginia colony. Needham and Arthur were well received by the Cherokees. Needham left Arthur at Chota to learn the Cherokee language and himself proceeded on, intending to return with trading goods, but was killed by Indian John, his interpreter.

Some of the Indians were preparing to burn Arthur at the stake when he was rescued by the chief. He resided with the tribe at Chats for a year. Arthur’s letter book which was not made available to Cherokee historians until years later, stated that as early as 1673, the Cherokees possessed guns, which they presumably acquired when raiding Spanish settlements in Florida. His mention of such raids in Florida disputes the assumption of many historians that between Desoto’s visit and Arthur’s and Needham’s in 1673, the Cherokees’ contacts with white men were nonexistent.

The unanimous conclusion of white men who came in contact with the Cherokees was that war was their principal occupation. It might be more accurate to say that the Cherokees were unwilling to be pushed around.

In order to keep alive tribal fondness for war, Cherokees taught youths to endure hunger and pain; to witness the torture of war captives and to listen courteously to chiefs and headmen who at public gatherings, year in and year out, recited their own war deeds and war deeds of ancient forebears. Thus, the Cherokees earned the reputation of being great orators. They were also credited with having a great sense of humor.

The Cherokees of the 18th Century were described as generally taller than whites, with straight limbs, and no hair on chin or lips. “The hair of the head was shaved, except for a patch on the hinder part of the head about twice the bigness of a crown piece, which was ornamented with beads, feathers, wampum (beads cut out of clamshells), a silver breastplate and bracelets on their arms and wrists, a bit of cloth over their private parts, a shirt of English make, a sort of cloth boots and moccasins ornamented with porcupine quills; a large mantle or matchcoat thrown over all” completed their dress at home, but when they went to war, they left their trinkets at home and took the mere necessities.

The 18th Century Cherokee women wore skirts and short jackets with leggings and moccasins. They never cut their hair but braided it into wreaths which were turned up and fastened to the crown with a silver broach, forming a wreathed topknot. Another authority described the hair as being combed smooth and close then folded into a club at the back of the head and tied very tight with a piece of dried eel skin which was said to make the hair grow long.

Cherokee dress always suited the occasion. A chief, for example, wore a gold dyed buckskin and leggings with matching feather headdress when he performed a special dance for his people every seventh year. The ceremonial dress of a woman chief was a knee length skirt of woven feathers and edged at the bottom with down plucked from the breast of a white swan. When performing the friendship dance at the Town House, Cherokee girls were dressed in robes of chaste white deerskin, short skirts, buskins reaching to the midcalf of the leg, and short jackets secured with silver broaches exposing several inches of midriff.

The customs, especially concerning marriage, of the 18th Century Cherokees have long been incomprehensible and intriguing to historians. Marriage ceremonies were brief and simple. The ritual merely entailed the exchange of gifts, in lieu of vows, between a bride and her groom and lasted but half an hour. Meeting at the center of the Town House the groom gave the bride a ham of venison and received from her an ear of corn. Then the wedding party danced and feasted for hours on end. The groom’s gift of venison symbolized his intention to keep his household supplied with game from the hunt, and the bride’s gift of corn was her willingness to be a good Cherokee housewife.

The Cherokees frequently made three marriages within one year. The women, “like the Amazons… divorced bedfellows at their pleasure.” However, it was the husband’s privilege of punishing a wife for incontinency as he saw fit. The Cherokees’ practice was to admit their women to their war councils, a freedom accorded women of no other known tribe. Women chiefs (usually successors to chieftain husbands) could by the ‘wave of a swan’s wing, deliver a prisoner condemned by council and already tied to the stake. Custom dictated that an assemblage of women or “Pretty Women” as they were called, be present at every war council. Since the war women had themselves won previous honors in wars and were the mothers of warriors, they played an important part in the Cherokee war councils. Seated in the “holy area”, these women sagely counseled the chief on strategy, time of attack and other important matters related to war.

The Cherokees’ break with the colonists at Charlestown in 1715 was provoked in part by the colonists’ shipment of Cherokee war prisoners to the West Indies as slaves.

In 1721, the first land cession to white men in the history of the tribe was made to the English, near the South Carolina border.

The French were at this time making a strong play for the Cherokees’ trade but the Cherokees acknowledged their alliance to King George II of England. In 1730, to prove heir allegiance to the crown, seven Indians (2 chiefs and 5 prominent members of the tribe) were taken to visit King George II. After their royal reception at Windsor Castle, the Cherokees became the rage of London. The Articles of Agreement (or Friendship and commerce) were signed September 23, 1730. The Cherokees maintained their allegiance to England through the Revolutionary War, hoping to hold onto their lands against the white intruders.

In the following years, many treaties were signed with the colonists, with many more cessions of land, as other whites were pushing in the perimeters of the hunting grounds.

In 1791, the tribe negotiated a treaty with George Washington affirming “Perpetual peace between the United States and the Cherokee Nation” and forbidding Americans to hunt Cherokee lands; but never again did they know a President whose policy was to defend the rights of Indians. In spite of that agreement, they were shoved out of South Carolina; whites crowded into the area west of the Great Smokies and in 1794, the new state of Tennessee was established, half of it, including the town of Nashville was on former tribal lands.

As their ancestral lands diminished in size, the now more unified Cherokees came to the decision that they would adopt the white man’s ways, accept his missionaries and religion, teachers and their message, and reorganize their government, patterning it after the new United States a program which meant almost total abandonment of their ancient culture. They came to be known by other tribes as “civilized” but continued to be treated by whites as savages.

By 1820, the territorial limits of the Cherokee Nation had shrunk to an area about the size of the state of Massachusetts. It extend from the Tennessee River to the Little Tennessee, down the Appalachians to the Chattahoochee River, past the west Kenesaw Mountain, and on to the Tennessee River. They were practicing agriculture, raising crops and herds of cattle and other livestock, building homes, roads and schools. The Indians could not comprehend the attitudes reflected by one administration after another in Washington. Abiding by their treaties, which gave them permanent tenure of their lands “as long as grass shall grow and waters flow”, the Indians soon found that Presidents Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, unlike Washington, were no friends of the Cherokees, while Andrew Jackson proved to be the worst enemy of all.

Between 1794 and 1819, the United States government forced the Cherokee Nation into twenty-four treaties involving land cessions, but the worst was yet to come.

Soon the Cherokees added one more accomplishment to a list of achievements, which was indeed extraordinary: they became literate almost overnight. Some credit for this must go to the missionaries and the continuing practice of intermarriage with educated whites, but the giant step was taken after 1821, when a Cherokee named Sequoyah, (also called George Gist) whose father was a Virginia trader and friend of George Washington, devised a highly successful system of phonetics by which an intelligent Cherokee could bridge the gap between being ill informed and literate within a matter of days. He was inpressed with the white man’s system of writing and reading and after studying linguistics, finally hit on the idea of identifying all the basic syllables in the Cherokee language and adopting a symbol for each one. Then all any Cherokee had to do was to learn the characters and sounds they represented in order to write or read his native tongue. With the help of a missionary who obtained a printing press, the Indians established the first Indian newspaper, the “Cherokee Phoenix” whose first issue appeared in 1828, and continued to be printed until May 31, 1834.

Also in 1828, the Georgia legislature suddenly declared that it had jurisdiction over all Cherokee lands within the states’ boundaries, pronounced Cherokee laws null and void and conducted a statewide lottery for distributing the Indians’ lands and homes to white residents. The mood of the time was reflected ‘in a little song popular among Georgians: “All I ask in this creation, Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation, Way up yonder in the Cherokee Nation.”

These Georgians were abetted by President Andrew Jackson who, in his first message to Congress, announced plans to remove all the southeast Indians to lands west of the Mississippi River.
For the next eight years, the Cherokees along with the Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles were to experience an ever increasing pattern of oppression, brutality, double dealing and outright theft that finally culminated in their national disaster known as the great removal.

In 1833, after the homes of highly successful Cherokees were seized and occupied by Georgia lottery winners, some of the Indians decided to pull up stakes and leave while they could still take their belongings with them. But the ultimate deadline was all set by the U.S. Senate, which by a single vote, ratified a treaty on May 23, 1836, setting a date for the final removal of the Cherokees two years later. During that period, about 2,000 Cherokees made their way to the lands bordering the Arkansas River, leaving about 15,000 fellow tribesmen behind.

John Quincy Adams, then a representative from Massachusetts, declared the treaty “infamous” and said, “It brings with it eternal disgrace upon the country.”

The exodus began on May 23, 1838, according to schedule, supervised by U.S. Army regulars who treated the Indians with kindliness and respect and by Georgia volunteers whose aim was to dispatch the Cherokees as quickly and ruthlessly as possible and urged the laggards at bayonet point. As one regular recalled years afterward, “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the removal of the Cherokees was the cruelest work I have ever known.” The Indians, he said, were dragged from their homes and few were even permitted time to collect their possessions.

The summer of 1838 saw the worst heat and drought men could remember, and the Cherokees obtained permission from the army to conduct their own removal in the fall. But they could not depart until October and then 13,000 of them set out on a thousand mile trip toward an unknown land.
Those who were to travel by water went to Memphis, where they boarded barges and flat boats for the long, confining voyage down the Mississippi and up the Arkansas to Fort Smith and Fort Coffee. Others went by land northwest to Nashville, and on to the Ohio River, across the Mississippi and down through Missouri, then west through Arkansas toward Fort Gibson, where they were mustered and given rations. The flour and cornmeal were full of weevils and the meat was of very poor quality. In camps along the way most of them had only tents and blankets to protect them from the severe early winter; at toll gates they were charged outrageous prices, the farmers on the route gouged them mercilessly when they tried to buy food. Every night when they made camp, it was reported that they were burying ten or fifteen of their numbers. There were old men and women, newborn babies, pregnant women, the lame and the blind, all without shelter or privacy, suffering from dysentery, measles, whooping cough, and the earlier ones, from cholera.

Left behind, on the Trail of Tears, were the shallow graves of four thousand Cherokees, nearly one fourth of the entire nation who had perished along the way. (1837-1938) When at last this caravan of heartbreak and misery arrived in Indian Territory, it was to find that its predecessors in the removal those who had gone to Arkansas and beyond, were now firmly entrenched and regarded themselves as old settlers. They had their own farms, stores, mills, and government and were not eager to share with the newcomers. For a time the two groups came close to civil war and not until 1846, when the Cherokees were given land in what is now Eastern Oklahoma and were reimbursed to some extent for their losses in the ‘southeast, did anything like harmony prevail in the relocated nation.

Yet somehow the Cherokees survived the shattered wreckage of their past. Patiently, painstakingly, they went about the business of creating a new society, clearing and plowing the land, building schools, churches, and government buildings, and initiating diplomatic relations with other Civilized Tribes and the neighboring Plains Indians. They had no way of knowing it, of course, but their isolation from the white man was to be no more than temporary.

Although war clouds hung over the North and South of the United States in 1859, the Cherokee council did not feel that if Civil War broke out in the United States, it would touch the rim of the Cherokee Nation. But in this they were mistaken. Chief John Ross, age 70 at this time undertook to keep the Cherokees and all their territorial tribes neutral. But the southern strategists, because of the location of the Indian Territory, wanted to use the area for troops, bases for Federal raids and a highway into Texas and zealously sought to win over the territorial chiefs. They influenced the Chocktaws to support the South, and they were soon followed by most of the other tribes. Regiments of Indians were formed and fought with the South, however, they were not paid promptly or equipped as were other soldiers.

When the Civil War came to an end, the Cherokee Nation faced another era of rebuilding. Chief Ross, having been the Cherokees’ principal chief for nearly forty years, could not abandon his nation until a fair and equitable treaty had been negotiated between it and the United States. After that, he could lay his many burdens down forever.

A treaty was written that since the Indian Tribes had joined the South in the war that they had forfeited and lost all their rights to annuities and lands. “The President, however does not wish to take advantage of or enforce the penalties for the unwise actions of these Nations.” Chief Ross, refusing to agree to some stipulations in the treaty, was accused of being an enemy of the United States. His removal as chief was being demanded. In an elegant speech, he denied the charges and reminded the delegates of his many years of being elected chief by his people, and for three years during his residence in Washington, of being constantly in communication with President Lincoln. Eventually, Cherokee delegates and United States officials came to an agreement. On July 19, 1866, the Cherokees signed the treaty that has been termed by present day political analysts “a three cornered treaty between the Department of the Interior and the southern and northern Cherokees.” Chief Ross died August 1, 1866.

In the early days of reconstruction, the poverty of the Nation was somewhat alleviated by the Cherokees’ land cessions to the United States Government. As provided by the Treaty of 1866, the Cherokees ceded their “Neutral Land” in Kansas and the narrow strip of land lying along the thirty-seventh parallel, also within the state of Kansas. These lands were then held in trust by the United States until sold to white settlers for the benefit of the Cherokee Nation, one of the few beneficial transactions made by the Cherokees with the United States Government, in that it allowed the Cherokees to build public or national schools. The treaty also provided that 15 per cent of all funds due the Cherokee Nation was to be invested and the interest applied to the orphan fund. The census report showed that the population of the entire Cherokee Nation was approximately 13,566 as compared to 18,000 before the war, and that the war left one third of the Cherokee women widows and one fourth of the children in the Nation orphans. An institution was established in 1872, temporarily at the male Seminary near Park Hill, once the pride of the Cherokee Nation, in which many orphans were temporarily housed, fed, clothed and educated.

The wonder of successes obtained by the Cherokees in rebuilding their nation after the Civil War is multiplied a hundred times when the handicaps of poverty under which they labored between 1866 and 1890 is considered. This was a small burden to them, in comparison to the fear that they might be deprived of self-government by the dissolution of their constitutional nation.

In 1883, the Cherokees had disposed of all but 8,000,000 acres of Outlet lands to other tribes of Indians and leased their remaining Outlet lands for a term of five years to the Cherokee Strip Livestock Association, cattlemen from Texas who grazed their herds en route from Texas to northern markets, for $100,000 per year. The first payment of $50,000 in silver, which the Cherokees received on October 1, 1883 at Tahlequah (their capital), was long remembered by the poorer Cherokees who since the war had been drinking a parched corn brew in place of coffee and pounding corn into meal with a mortar and pestle in the manner of the ancients.

The following fall, a general council was called by the United States at Okmulgee, which was attended by delegates of all the Five Tribes. The council members adopted a constitution for a united government of their own choice based on the Government of the United States, but this proposed government was not to be approved by President Grant or the Congress unless the constitution could be amended so that Congress would have a veto over all legislation, and the executive and judicial offices … would be appointed by the President. The general council’s plan for a territorial government, after a few more meetings, was discontinued in 1875.

In 1871, the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad Company, without consent of the Cherokee council, had extended its line from Chetopa, Kansas to Choteau Station. From that point, it had built into the Creek Nation, establishing the terminal town of Muskogee and eventually, in 1873, to the Red River at Colbert’s Ferry. In 1871 the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad had entered the Nation from Seneca, Missouri and formed a junction with the “Katy’s” north south line at Vinita, where its progress was halted by order of the Cherokee council, until 1880.

The son of Chief John Ross, Will Ross, had been elected chief and wrote in protest to the Congress in 1872 that the railroads companies, as soulless corporations, hovered greedily over their territory and would incite Congress to remove all restraint and allow them to swoop down and swallow over 23,000,000 acres of the Territory, destroying the last hope of the Indians and the honor of their government.

By 1889, the prediction of Will Ross was nearing its fulfillment. On March 2, 1889, a, bill was pushed through Congress and rushed to President Cleveland authorizing him to admit white settlers to an area in the Territory of 1,887,796 acres referred to as “the unassigned lands”. Ratified by President Cleveland at the end of his administration, the opening of the Territory to white settlement was proclaimed on March 23, 1889 by President Harrison during his third week in office,. On April 22, white settlers made the first run into an area that today includes major portions of six Oklahoma counties: Payne, Logan, Kingfisher, Canadian, Oklahoma and Cleveland, A year later, on May 2, 1890, Congress passed an Organic Act for the Territory of Oklahoma as these six counties and a seventh in the Panhandle (Beaver County) were now to be known. Thus did the Indian Territory exist for over a decade side by side with the Territory of Oklahoma settled by whites.

The pressure exerted by white settlers on Congress led to admittance of white settlers to other areas in the Indian Territory. Negotiations resulted in the Cherokees’ relinquishment of the Outlet to the United States, which was opened to white settlement on September 16, 1893. The Cherokee Outlet was, according to eye witnesses, the most spectacular of all runs made in the Indian Territory. One hundred thousand people, by train, on horseback, afoot and in vehicles of every description reached the immense Outlet lands on the appointed day and staked their claims in an area which now included twelve counties and parts of counties extending across the northern part of present Oklahoma from Osage County to the one hundreth parallel.

The Congressional Act of March 3, 1893 also gave their commission the right to deal with each tribe separately to procure their allotment of lands and for the subsequent dissolution of tribal governments preparatory to Oklahoma Statehood.

The Cherokees refused to cooperate with the federal government’s proposition. They united to combat the dissolution of the cherished Cherokee government. They were being urged to enter into an enrollment so that they could receive the allotment of their remaining lands. Eventually, the Secretary of the Interior decreed that the enrolling of some 1,000 Cherokees would proceed. The majority of Cherokees, on August 7, 1902, were duly enrolled These Indians each selected an allotment of 110 acres of “average land” from the tribal domain. By the end of the summer of 1902, “nearly fifty thousand applications of Cherokees, Shawnees, and Delawares, by blood and intermarriage were entered on the Cherokee rolls.”

The dissolution of territorial tribal governments and the allotment of Indians lands to each citizen of the Five Tribes marked the most momentous milestones in the history of Oklahoma, which was officially pronounced a state of the Union on November 16, 1907 by resident Theodore Roosevelt.
As citizens of the newest state in the Union, the Cherokees, in 1907, stood at the threshold of a new era, a new beginning. And, contrary to popular expectation, a majority of Cherokees dominated a large section of the state of Oklahoma. Aware that they were by education, experience and training qualified to do so, Cherokee leaders assumed the responsibilities of citizens of the United States and Oklahoma, immediately after statehood. Cherokee educators, newspaper editors and ministers of the gospel contributed to the betterment of both whites and Indians residing in the new state o f Oklahoma, thus did the Cherokees, a race of people whose origin is shrouded in mystery, whose four century old (recorded) history is now one of repeated defeats and repeated victories, triumph, in spite of the dissolution of their tribal government.

In 1948, Cherokee lawyers and their associates began attempting to recover the real value of the 8,144,000 acres of Outlet land sold to the Federal Government. Expert government witnesses appraised the value of the land, as of 1893 at only $1.70 per acre $3,600,000 more than the tribe received for it. The courts, however, decided that the Cherokees should have been paid $14,700,000 more than was received in 1893, as the Cherokee Outlet was worth $10.01 an acre at the time the government took it. The money was appropriated by Congress for payment of the judgement, and distribution was made to members of the tribe in the years following.

Sources of Information:

  • Cherokee Indians, by Grace Steele Woodward.
  • Will Rogers The Man And His Times, by Richard M. Ketchum.
  • History Of The Cherokee Indians, by Emmett Starr.
  • Oklahoma Census Of 1860. (First census taken in Indian Territory.) (Microfilm furnished by the Orange County, California Genealogical Society)
  • The Sound Of Chariots, (John Sevier, East Tennessee), by Helen T. Miller