A Comprehensive Cherokee History

The Cherokee Tapestry: Weaving Together History, Culture, and Sovereignty
Cherokee Woman with Smokey Mountains backdrop

The Cherokee people are an indigenous group native to the southeastern United States, with their traditional homelands spanning what is now North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. This article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Cherokee history, origins, cultural practices, and their ongoing struggle for sovereignty, incorporating both indigenous and European perspectives.

The origin and migration of the Cherokee people are topics of ongoing debate and discussion among scholars and researchers. According to Cherokee oral history, the people have always lived in the southeastern United States. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Cherokee language is part of the Iroquoian language family, indicating a likely connection with the Iroquois people of the Great Lakes region. Some theories propose that the Cherokee migrated south from the Great Lakes region around 1000-1500 CE.

Cherokee Society and Culture before European Contact

Before European contact, the Cherokee people were organized into a loose confederacy of towns, with each town governed by a local council and a chief known as a “uku”. Cherokee society was matrilineal, with clan affiliations and inheritance passed through the mother’s line. Women played crucial roles in Cherokee society, including positions of power within local councils and as key figures in agricultural practices.

The Cherokee people were primarily agriculturalists, growing crops such as corn, beans, and squash, in addition to hunting and gathering. They had a complex social and religious system, which included ceremonial dances, medicine societies, and a belief in a dualistic world of spiritual and physical realms. The Cherokee had a strong tradition of storytelling, with stories and myths passed down through generations.

The Impact of European Colonization on the Cherokee People

European colonization had a profound impact on the Cherokee people. Contact with Europeans, beginning with Spanish explorers in the 16th century and later English colonists, brought new diseases, technology, and trade goods to the Cherokee people. Epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases decimated the Cherokee population, while the introduction of guns and metal tools altered traditional ways of life.

As European settlers encroached on Cherokee lands, the Cherokee were forced into a series of treaties and land cessions, resulting in the loss of much of their ancestral homelands. The Cherokee were also influenced by European religious and political ideas, with some Cherokee leaders advocating for the adoption of European-style government and Christianity. Despite these external pressures, the Cherokee people demonstrated resilience and adaptability in maintaining their cultural practices and identity.

The Role of the Cherokee in the American Revolution

During the American Revolution (1775-1783), the Cherokee found themselves caught between the American colonists and the British Crown. While some Cherokee leaders sought neutrality, others allied with the British, hoping to stem the tide of American settlement on Cherokee lands.

The Cherokee involvement in the war led to a series of devastating raids and retaliatory campaigns by both American and British forces, resulting in significant loss of life and property for the Cherokee people. Following the war, the Cherokee were forced to cede additional lands to the United States in a series of treaties.

The Cherokee Syllabary and Sequoyah’s Contribution to Literacy

In the early 19th century, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah (c. 1770-1843) developed a written system for the Cherokee language, known as the Cherokee syllabary. The syllabary consists of 85 characters, each representing a unique syllable in the Cherokee language. Sequoyah’s invention revolutionized Cherokee communication and education, allowing for the widespread dissemination of knowledge and ideas.

The adoption of the Cherokee syllabary facilitated the establishment of the first Cherokee newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, in 1828. The syllabary remains in use today and is an important symbol of Cherokee identity and cultural preservation.

The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

The Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, authorized the forced relocation of Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to lands in the West. The Cherokee Nation, along with other tribes such as the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole, were targeted for removal.

Despite the Cherokee Nation’s legal efforts to resist removal, including the landmark Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the forced relocation known as the Trail of Tears commenced in 1838. Under the direction of U.S. military forces, approximately 16,000 Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their homelands, with an estimated 4,000 dying during the journey.

The Formation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

During the forced removal, a small group of Cherokee, led by Chief Yonaguska (Drowning Bear) and his adopted son, William Holland Thomas, managed to avoid relocation by obtaining land in North Carolina. This group, known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, negotiated with the U.S. government and North Carolina state officials to secure recognition of their land and rights.

Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a federally recognized tribe, with its headquarters in Cherokee, North Carolina. The Eastern Band operates a number of cultural and economic initiatives, including the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual.

The Cherokee Nation’s Role in the American Civil War

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Cherokee Nation found itself divided between Union and Confederate loyalties. Principal Chief John Ross initially advocated for neutrality but was later arrested by Confederate forces, leading to his support for the Union.

Cherokee troops fought on both sides of the conflict, with Stand Watie, a prominent Cherokee leader, becoming a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. The war further exacerbated existing divisions within the Cherokee Nation and led to significant losses of life and resources.

The Cherokee Nation’s Fight for Sovereignty

Following the Civil War, the Cherokee Nation faced a series of challenges to its sovereignty and land rights. The U.S. government’s policy of allotment, which aimed to break up tribal lands and encourage individual land ownership, led to the loss of much of the Cherokee Nation’s remaining lands. The Dawes Act and the Curtis Act further complicated the Cherokee Nation’s land rights and governance.

In response, Cherokee leaders worked to reestablish their sovereignty and protect their lands, using legal strategies and political advocacy. The Cherokee Nation was a key player in the development of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which aimed to reverse the allotment policy and promote tribal self-government.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, passed in 1975, marked a significant shift in U.S. federal policy towards Native American tribes. The Act provided tribes with greater autonomy in managing their own affairs, including education, health care, and law enforcement.

For the Cherokee Nation, the Act has facilitated the development of a wide range of programs and services, including educational initiatives, health care facilities, and economic development projects. The Act has also allowed the Cherokee Nation to reassert its sovereignty and work towards greater self-determination.


This comprehensive account of Cherokee history highlights the resilience, adaptability, and cultural preservation of the Cherokee people amidst significant challenges and external pressures. The Cherokee people have faced numerous obstacles, including colonization, forced relocation, and the loss of their ancestral lands. Despite these hardships, they have managed to maintain their cultural identity, language, and customs.

Today, the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continue to work towards greater self-determination, autonomy, and preservation of their culture and traditions. They serve as a powerful testament to the strength and perseverance of indigenous peoples in the face of adversity.

By examining the Cherokee people’s history through both indigenous and European perspectives, we can better understand and appreciate the complex narrative of their past, present, and future. This understanding is essential in fostering respect for indigenous cultures and supporting their ongoing struggle for sovereignty and recognition.


  1. Conley, R. J. (2005). The Cherokee Nation: A History. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
  2. Ehle, J. (1988). Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
  3. Finger, J. R. (2001). Cherokee Americans: The Eastern Band of Cherokees in the Twentieth Century. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
  4. Mooney, J. (1992). Myths of the Cherokee. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
  5. Perdue, T., & Green, M. D. (Eds.). (2005). The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
  6. Smithers, G. D. (2015). The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  7. Wilkins, D. E., & Lomawaima, K. T. (2001). Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
  8. Woodward, G. S. (1963). The Cherokees. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
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