IIS Institute


Cherokee, North American people, of the Iroquoian linguistic family and the southeast culture area. The Cherokee played an important role in colonial America and in US history; they remain one of the largest indigenous groups in the United States.


Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicates that the Cherokee migrated in prehistoric times from present-day Texas or northern Mexico to the Great Lakes area. Wars with the Iroquois of the New York area and the Delaware peoples pushed them southeast to the regions of the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains in modern North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and northern Georgia and Alabama. There the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto encountered them in 1540. In 1715 smallpox reduced their population to about 11,000.

During the British and French struggle for control of colonial North America, the Cherokee generally sided with the British, and, during the American War of Independence, they aided Great Britain. In 1785 they negotiated a peace treaty with the United States, but Cherokee resistance continued for a decade thereafter. In 1791 a new treaty reconfirmed the earlier one; part of Cherokee territory was ceded to the United States, and the permanent rights of the Cherokee people to the remaining territory were established. Between 1790 and 1817, about 3,000 of the group migrated west of the Mississippi, becoming known as the Western Band.

In 1820 the Cherokee established a governmental system modelled on that of the United States, with an elected principal chief, a senate, and a house of representatives. Because of this system, the Cherokee were included as one of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes. In 1827 they drafted a constitution and became the Cherokee Nation.

Meanwhile, valuable gold deposits were discovered in traditional Cherokee lands, which by previous losses had been reduced to about 2,830,000 hectares (7 million acres) in northwest Georgia, eastern Tennessee, and southwest North Carolina. In 1819 Georgia appealed to the US government to remove the Cherokee from Georgia lands. When the appeal failed, attempts were made to purchase the territory. In retaliation, the Cherokee Nation enacted a law forbidding any such sale on the punishment of death. In 1828 the Georgia legislature outlawed the Cherokee government and confiscated Cherokee lands. Cherokee appeals for federal protection were rejected by President Andrew Jackson. In 1832 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Georgia legislation was unconstitutional; federal authorities, following Jackson’s policy of Native American removal, ignored the decision.

About 500 leading Cherokee agreed in 1835 to cede their territory in exchange for $5,700,000 and land in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Their action was repudiated by more than nine-tenths of the Cherokee people as a whole, however, and several of the group were later assassinated. In 1838 federal troops began forcibly evicting the Cherokee. Several hundred escaped to the North Carolina mountains, purchased land, and settled in that state; they were the ancestors of the present-day Eastern Band.

Meanwhile, most of the Cherokee, including the Western Band, were driven west in a forced march, known as the Trail of Tears. The march west included 18,000 to 20,000 people, of whom about 4,000 perished through hunger, disease, and exposure. In Indian Territory, the Cherokee reorganized their government under their chief, John Ross.


During the American Civil War, after a great internal conflict, the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy; a post-war treaty with the United States freed the black slaves of Cherokee members. Under the General Allotment Act of 1887—uncompromisingly resisted by the Cherokee—plots of traditionally Cherokee land were forcibly allotted to individual members. The government of the Cherokee Nation was dissolved, and its people became US citizens when Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907. Surplus lands were parcelled out by the federal government, and, in 1891, the people’s western land extension, the Cherokee Strip or Cherokee Outlet, was sold to the United States; in 1893 it was opened, mostly to European-American settlers, in a famous land run.


Cherokee economy, like that of the other south-eastern indigenous peoples, was based on intensive agriculture, mainly of corn, beans, and squash. Deer, bear, and elk were hunted. The Busk, or Green Corn Ceremony, was a time of thanksgiving, rekindling of sacred fires, and spiritual renewal. The Cherokee were divided into seven matrilineal clans that were dispersed in war and peace moieties (half-groups). The people lived in numerous permanent villages, some of which belonged to the war moiety, the rest to the peace moiety.

In the early 19th century, the Cherokee demonstrated unusual adaptability to Western institutions, both in their governmental changes and in their adoption of Western methods of animal husbandry and farming, including the plantation system. Public schools were established and, in the 1820s, Sequoya, a Cherokee member, invented an 85-character script for the Cherokee language. Widespread literacy followed almost immediately. In 1828 the first Native American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, began publication.


In Oklahoma, traditional Cherokee culture was severely weakened. The old ways, including traditional crafts, are most strongly preserved by the Eastern Band, some of whom continue to live on the Qualla Reservation in North Carolina. The quality of present day North Carolina Cherokee basketry is considered to be equal to or better than that of earlier times. In Oklahoma, the Cherokee live both on and off the reservation, scattered in urban centres and in isolated rural regions. Their occupations range from fishing and industrial labour through to business management. In North Carolina, farming, forestry, factory work, and tourism (about 5 million tourists annually) are sources of income. Today the Cherokee language has about 10,000 speakers.

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