The Tsalagiyi Nvdagi, under the name of Texas Cherokee, signed a treaty with the Republic of Texas on February 23, 1836. Texas violated that treaty when they drove the Texas Cherokee and their related bands from Texas by gun and knife on July 16, 1839, and Chief Diwali (principal chief at that time and known to the whites as Bowles) was killed. Those who survived the massacre either fled to other locations or hid in the deep forest of East Texas so they would not suffer a similar fate. How and why did the Cherokee reach this moment in history? We will start with a general introduction to the Cherokee.
When Europeans first arrived in North America, the Cherokees occupied a large expanse of territory in the Southeast. Their homeland included mountains and valleys in the southern part of the Appalachian chain. The Cherokees had villages in the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina and the Blue Ridge of western Virginia, as well as in the Great Valley of eastern Tennessee. They also lived in the Appalachian high country of South Carolina and Georgia, and as far south as northern Alabama.
In Native American studies, this region of North America is classified within the Southeast Culture Area. The Cherokees spoke dialects of the Iroquoian language, the southernmost people to do so. Their ancestral relatives, the Iroquois, lived in the Northeast Culture Area.
The Cherokee name for themselves in Iroquoian was Ani-yun-wiya, meaning "real people." The name Cherokee was probably given to them by their neighboring Creeks - tciloki in its original form - meaning "people of the different speech."
The Cherokees placed their villages along rivers and streams where they farmed the rich black soil. Their crops included corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, and tobacco. They grew three different kinds of corn, or maize - one to roast, one to boil, and a third to grind into flour for cornbread. The Cherokees also took advantage of the wild plant foods in their homeland, includind edible roots, crab apples, berries, persimmons, cherries, grapes, hickory nuts, walnuts, and chestnuts.
The rivers and streams also provided food for the Cherokees. They used spears, traps, and hooks and lines to catch different kinds of fish. Another method included poisoning an area of water to bring the unconscious fish to the surface.
The Cherokees were also skilled hunters. They hunted large animals, such as deer and bear, with bows and arrows. To get close to the deer, they wore entire deerskins, antlers and all, and used deer calls to lure the animals to them. The Cherokees hunted smaller game such as raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, and turkeys, with blowguns made from the hollowed-out stems of cane plants. Through these long tubes the hunters blew small wood-and-feather darts with deadly accuracy from as far away as 60 feet.
Products of their hunt were used for clothing. In warm weather, the Cherokee men dressed in buckskin breechcloths and the women in buckskin skirts. In cold weather, men wore buckskin shirts, leggings, and moccasins and the women wore buckskin capes. Other capes, made from turkey and eagle feathers along with strips of bark were used by the Cherokee headmen for ceremonial purposes. Their leaders also wore feather headdresses on special occasions.
Ceremonies took place inside circular and domed council houses or domed seven-sided temples. The temples were usually located on top of flat-topped mounds in the central village plaza, a custom interited from the earlier Temple Mound Builders of the Southeast.
Cherokee families, like other people of the southeast, usually had two houses. One was a large summer home and a smaller winter home. The summer house was rectangular in shape with a peaked roof, had pole frameworks, cane and clay walls, and bark or thatch roof. The winter houses, which doubled as sweathouses, were placed over a pit with a cone-shaped roof or poles and earth. Cherokee villages were usually surrounded with walls of vertical logs, or palisades, for protection from hostile tribes.
The Cherokees practiced a variety of crafts including plaited basketwork and stamped pottery. They also carved out of wood and gourds, Booger masks, representing evil spirits. And they shaped stone pipes into animal figures attached to wooden stems.
First Contact with Europeans
Early explorers to encounter the Cherokees were impressed by their highly advanced culture. Hernando de Soto was the first European to come into contact with them when he arrived in their territory from the south in 1540. Years later occasional French traders worked their way into Cherokee lands from the north. But the most frequent Cherokee-white contacts were with English traders from the east. The traders began appearing regularly after England permanently settled Virginia, starting with the Jamestown colony of 1607.
In the French and Indian Wars from 1689 to 1763 the Cherokees generally sided with the English against the French, providing warriors for certain engagements. In these conflicts they sometimes found themselves fighting side by side with other Native tribes who had been their tradional enemies, such as the Iroquois.
In 1760 the Cherokees revolted against their English allies in the Cherokee War. The precipitating incident involved a dispute over wild horses in what is now West Virginia. A group of Cherokees on the way home from the Ohio River where they had helped the English take Fort Duquesne captured some wild horses. Virginia frontiersmen claimed the horses as their own and attacked the Cherokees killing 12 of them. Then they sold the horses and collected bounties on the scalps.
Upon learning of the incident various Cherokee bands began a series of raids on white settlements...they also captured Fort Loudon. The war lasted almost two years before the British troops defeated the Cherokees by burning thier villages and crops. War-weary and half-starving the Cherokees surrendered. They were forced to give up a large portion of their eastern lands lying closest to British settlements.
In spite of the Cherokee War the Cherokees supported the English against the rebels in the American Revolution. Most of their support consisted of sporadic attacks on outlying American settlements.
Dispite everything, the Cherokees learned from the settlers around them adopting new methods of farming and business. Now the Cherokees were allies of the Americans, even fighting with them under Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813. A Cherokee chief named Junaluska saved Jackson's life at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. In 1827 they founded the Cherokee Nation under a constitution with an elected principal chief, a sentate, and a house of representatives.
Much of the progress among the Cherokees resulted from the work of a man named Sequoyah, also known as George Gist. In 1809 he began working on a written version of the Cherokee language so that his people could have a written constitution, official records, books and newpapers like the whites. Over a 12 year period he devised a written system that reduced the Cherokee language to 85 characters representing all the different sounds. In 1828 the first Cherokee newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix was published in their language.
The Trail Where They Cried (Nunna daul Tsuny) painted by Robert Lindneux and displayed in the Woolarco Museum.
The Trail of Tears
Even with the Cherokee's new way of life, the whites wanted the Native's lands. The discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia helped influence white officials to call for the relocation of the Cherokees along with other eastern Natives. In 1830 Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act to relocate the eastern tribes to an Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.
Despite the fact that the principal chief of the Cherokees, John Ross, passionately argued and won the case before the Supreme Court of the United States; despite the fact that Junaluska who had saved Jackson's life personally pleaded for his people's land; despite the fact that such great Americans as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Davy Crockett supported the Cherokee claims; still, President Jackson ordered the Natives's removal. And so began the Trail of Tears.
Georgia forced the Cherokees to sell the lands for next to nothing, their homes and possessions were plundered, and the whites destroyed the printing press of the Cherokee Phoenix because it published articles opposing Native removal. Soldiers began rounding up Cherokee families and taking them to internment camps in preparation for the journey westward. With little food and unsanitary conditions at these hastily built stockades, many Cherokees died. In the meantime, some Cherokees escaped to the mountains of North Carolina where they successfully hid out from the troops.
The first forced trek westward began in the spring of 1838 and lasted into the summer. On the 800 mile trip the Cherokees suffered because of the intense heat. The second mass exodus took place in the fall and winter of 1838-1839 during the rainy season; the wagons bogged down in the mud, and there were freezing temperatures and snow. On both journeys many Natives died from disease and inadequate food and blankets. The soldiers drove their prisoners on at a cruel pace, not even allowing them to properly bury their dead. Nor did the protect the Cherokees from attacks by bandits.
During the period of confinement after removal, plus the two separate trips for removal, about 4,000 Cherokees died, almost a quarter of their total. More Cherokees died after arrival in the Indian Territory because of epidemics and continuing shortages of food. During the 1830s other Southeast tribes endured similar experiences including the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles.
The Indian Territory
The Indian Territory was supposed to be a permanent homeland for various tribes. Originally, the promised region stretched from the state boundaries of Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa to the 100th meridian, about 300 miles at the widest point. With increasing white settlement west of the Mississippi in the mid-1800s the Indian Territory was reduced again and again.
In 1854, by an act of Congress, the northern part of the Indian Territory became the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which later became states. Then, in 1866 after the Civil War, tribes living in those regions were resettled on lands to the south, supposedly reserved for the Southeast tribes, now known as the Five Civilized Tribes.
During the 1880s the Boomers arrived - white homne-seekers squatting on Native reservations. Various white interest such as the railroad and bank executives, and land developers lobbied Congress for the opening of more Native lands to white settlement.
Assimilation and Allotment
In 1887 Congress passed the General Allotment Act (Dawes Severalty Act). Under this law certain reservations held by tribes were to be divided and allotted to heads of Native families. Some politicians believed that the law would help Natives by motivating individuals to develop the land. They also believed it would bring about the assimilation of Natives into the mainstream American culture, but others were just interested in obtaining the Native lands. It was much easier to take advantage of individuals than the whole tribe. Many of the people advocated stamping out Native culture and religions and sending the children to white-run boarding schools. This period in the United States Indian policy is called the Assimilation and Allotment period.
By 1889 two million acres had been bought from the Natives at usually ridiculously low prices and thrown open to white settlement. The Oklahoma Land Run took place that year with settlers lining up at a starting point to race for choic pieces. Those who cheated and entered the lands open for settlement were called "sooners." In 1890 Oklahoma Territory was formed from these lands.
Cherokee and Choctaw leaders refused allotment and took their case to federal courts, as John Ross had done years before. In reaction Congress passed the Curtis Act of 1898 which dissolved their tribal governments and extended land allotment policy to them against their wishes. Piece by piece the Naive lands were taken. Oklahoma, all of which had once been Native land, became a state in 1907.
Restoration and Reorganization
The policies of Assimilation and Allotment ended in 1934 with the Indian Reorganization Act (or the Wheeler-Howard Act). This was the start of the Tribal Restoration and Reorganization period sponsored by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Commisioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier. The Cherokees and other native peoples all over America began to rediscover their cultural heritage.
The tribes that underwent allotment never regained the lands given to whites. Remaining Native lands in Oklahoma are not called reservations as most tribally held pieces are in other states. In Oklahoma they are called Native trust areas. Some are tribally owned and some are allotted to families or individuals. By an act of Congress in 1936 the lands are protected as reservations from outside speculators.
Termination and Self-Determination
The federal Government went through other phases in it's policy toward Native Americans. In the 1950s some politicians sought to end the special protective relationship between the government and the Native American tribes. Natives in Oklahoma and elsewhere were encouraged to move to cities in order to join the economnic mainstream.
Termination as a policy failed. The Cherokees and other tribes knew that their best hope for a good life in modern times was tribal unity and cultural renewal as called for in the earlier policy of Restoration and Reorganization. Since the 1960s the federal Native American policy has been one of tribal self-determination, which means Native self-government and strong tribal identity.
Cherokee tribal headquarters in the west is located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Some of the western Cherokees have made money from oil and other minerals found on their lands. There is a pageant for tourist every summer with dancers, musicians, and actors called The Trail of Tears.
There are still Cherokees in the east too, in North Carolina. They are the descendants of those who hid out in the mountains during the relocation period.
Tah-chee or "Dutch" was a Western Cherokee chief who refused to move from Arkansas to the Indian Territory and took his group to settle in east Texas. The Texas Cherokees were forced to move to Indian Territory after a bloody battle with the army of the Republic of Texas in the 1840's.