Cherokees

Stable villages were possible because of the Cherokees’ reliance on agriculture, especially corn. Agriculture was the domain of Cherokee women, and women retained important positions in Cherokee decision-making and politics.

The Cherokees were one of the largest southeastern Native American nations with which Carolina colonists had contact. Modern descendants are in three federally recognized groups, including the Eastern Band Cherokee of western North Carolina. When combined, the Cherokees constitute one of the largest Indian nations in the United States. Cherokee tradition holds that the Creator placed the Cherokees in the southeastern mountains. Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicates that the Cherokees were at one time a people living in and around the Great Lakes region of North America. The Cherokees arrived in the southeastern United States around 1400 C.E., leaving the Great Lakes after conflicts with the Iroquois and Delawares. At the time of European contact, their sphere of influence encompassed most of northwestern South Carolina and stretched north and west to the Ohio River to include most of Kentucky and Tennessee as well as parts of West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. By the mid–seventeenth century, Cherokee settlements in South Carolina, known as the lower towns, included Seneca, Keowee, Toxaway, and Jocassee.

Stable villages were possible because of the Cherokees’ reliance on agriculture, especially corn. Agriculture was the domain of Cherokee women, and women retained important positions in Cherokee decision-making and politics. Men focused their attention on hunting and trade. The Cherokee towns scattered through the Appalachians, although politically autonomous, comprised an extensive trade network thanks in part to numerous rivers navigable by canoes.

European traders moved into Cherokee country soon after they established permanent settlements on the South Carolina coast. There they acted as both businessmen and diplomats, often working for the governors of Carolina. During the Yamassee War, the trader Eleazar Wiggan urged the Cherokees to fight in support of the Charleston settlers. Some Cherokees came to the Carolinians’ aid, but others did not feel that the Carolinians fulfilled their treaty obligations. After the Yamassee War, Carolina-Cherokee trade became easier. Although, like most southern tribes, the Cherokees supplied Charleston merchants with deerskins, the finely crafted baskets made by Cherokee women commanded the highest exchange rates.

In the spring of 1730 Sir Alexander Cuming took a small delegation of Cherokees to London to cement a recent allegiance to King George II. Presented at court on June 18, 1730, they were described as being “naked, except an Apron about their middles, and a Horse’s Tail hung down behind; their Faces, shoulders &c. were painted and spotted with red, blue, and green etc.”

By midcentury the international rivalry among Spain, France, and England was intensifying, and the Cherokees felt the impact of that struggle. When Cherokee leaders notified Governor James Glen in the fall of 1746 that outlying Cherokees near the Mississippi River were being influenced by the French and their Indian allies, Glen recommended that the English build a chain of forts through the territory of their Indian allies. Eventually the Carolina government constructed Fort Prince George and Fort Loudoun, located in modern Pickens, South Carolina, and Loudon, Tennessee, respectively. Fort Prince George became a source of confrontation in 1759, after soldiers at the fort abused Cherokees in the area and Cherokees retaliated against settlers. Tenuous peace came with a Cherokee surrender in 1761, but the Revolutionary War sparked additional border conflict.

During the Revolutionary War, British and patriot agents vied for Cherokee trade and support. Despite overtures from both groups, most Cherokees sided with the British in the Revolution. When colonists settled on Cherokee lands in the Holston River Valley of northeastern Tennessee, Cherokee forces attacked their settlements. As a result, patriot leaders throughout the Southeast called for their destruction. A multicolony army assembled in 1776 to attack Cherokee towns and food stores. At one Cherokee town in South Carolina, the army destroyed six thousand bushels of corn and the South Carolina government paid this army a bounty for Cherokee scalps. This full-scale assault effectively ended Cherokee participation in the Revolutionary War, and in 1777 the Cherokees ceded most of their South Carolina land. The Cherokees acknowledged the United States in the Treaty of Hopewell in 1785, signed near present-day Seneca. On March 22, 1816, the Cherokees ceded their last strip of land in South Carolina.

Hatley, M. Thomas. The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Era of Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kelly, James C. “Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Attakulla Kulla.” Journal of Cherokee Studies 3 (winter 1978): 2–34.

Mails, Thomas E. The Cherokee People: The Story of the Cherokees from Earliest Origins to Contemporary Times. Tulsa, Okla.: Council Oak, 1992.

Morris, Michael. The Bringing of Wonder: Trade and the Indians of the Southeast, 1700–1783. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999.

Perdue, Theda, and Michael Green. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford, 1995.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Cherokees
  • Author
  • Keywords Native American nation, three federally recognized groups, Agriculture, Governor James Glen, Revolutionary War
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date September 22, 2021
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 1, 2017
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