The origins of the Cherokee people are lost in the mists of time. Oral tradition has the ancestors of the Cherokee migrating south from the Great Lakes region. The language of the Cherokee is of the Iroquoian language family, shared with many of the Native American tribes in what is modern day New York, Michigan, Ontario, and Quebec. Pockets of other Iroquoian languages are found in Pennsylvania and Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, and with the Cherokee homelands of western North Carolian, northwestern South Carolina, northeastern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee.
The ancestors of the Cherokee are considered part of the later Pisgah Phase of the South Appalachian Mississippian culture, a period where ceremonial mounds were built in a town with numerous smaller villages around it.
As with so many of the Mississippian peoples across the southeast, the arrival of Spanish conquistadors would spread disease and chaos through their lands, beginning the process of destruction from which the Native American tribes we know today arose.
When the English arrived in North America, the Cherokee people were already established as excellent hunters, traders, and warriors. Through the late 1600's and early 1700's, the Cherokee would make both war and treaties with the English and other Native American tribes alike where it most benefitted the people. They were at times the best of trading partners and worst of enemies to the English colonists, leading the Crown to seek more permanent treaties with the brave Cherokee.
As the English expanded their territory in the colonies to the east side of the Appalachian mountains, the Cherokee fought with the Muscogee Creek over their lands to the south and west. The Cherokee quickly adapted to their new European neighbors, adopting their technologies, agricultural practices, and customs, enmeshing them with their own. And while the Cherokee enjoyed good relations with the British, their relationship with the new American nation would be full of promise, yet ultimately disrupt their very ways of life.
Continuing on the path of adopting Euro-American technologies and practices while still maintaining their soverign status, the Cherokee found allies in the American government. Federal and state laws were enacted to protect the Cherokee lands from encroachment by settlers, and the Cherokee in turn assisted the new nation by sending warriors to help in the fight against the British and the Muscogee. In fact, Cherokee warriors were instrumental in the success of General (and future president) Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, effectively ending the Creek War.
Sadly, the laws set up to prevent settler encroachment and the bravery shown on the battlefield under the American flag were not enough to save the Cherokee people from a new and growing nation. Jackson's military successes and accesion to the presidency opened the door for unfair treaties with the Cherokee ceeding large portions of land, the overturning of laws in favor of further white settler expansion, and eventually, the decision of the Cherokee people to either give up their sovereignity as an indenpendent people or give up all their lands, leading to the Trail of Tears.
The Indian Removal Act, passed by the American government in 1830, began the Trail of Tears for the Choctaws, Muscogee Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws, many of whom initially resisted the forced relocation from their homelands to the Indian Territory of what is today Oklahoma. The Cherokee were a torn people over the issue, with the majority wanted to stay on the land which was legally theirs. The minority, known as the Treaty Party, wanted to avoid bloodshed and relocate - they signed the Treaty of New Echota without, surrendering Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi for lands in the Indian Territory. This resulted the killings of many of the Treaty Party leaders but, ultimately, the Cherokee people either had to choose becoming citizens of the American state in which they lived (and losing some of their rights in the process) or packing up what they could carry and leave their ancestral homeland.
Today, the Cherokee people are the largest Native American group in the United States. You can learn more about the Cherokee people and the Trail of Tears by visiting sites along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
Last updated: June 14, 2021