By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Thousands of Cherokee men, women, and children were driven by armed soldiers from their home to foreign lands they had never even seen. To understand this dramatic event in American Indian history, one must know more about the Cherokee and their relationships with others.
The Trail of Tears
Between June 1838 and March 1839, the United States government forcibly removed the Cherokee from their homelands in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee to the Indian Territory—an area in the north-eastern region of present-day Oklahoma.
In an event known to the Cherokee as the Trail Where They Cried, an estimated 16,000 refugees made the exodus; at least one quarter died in the camps or perished along the way.
The Trail of Tears is, without question, one of the most dramatic events in American Indian history.
Cherokee’s Homeland: Origin and Expanse
At the time of contact with Europe, the Cherokee considered a vast expanse of land their own, some 140,000 square miles, including much of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. The heart of their homeland, however, was and is today’s Great Smokey Mountains, a region known in Cherokee as Aquoheea or the Great Place.
Cherokee stories explain how the water beetle Dayunishi dove to the bottom of endless waters to provide mud to create an island that would become the earth, and that it was the force of buzzards’ flapping wings that created the mountains and the valleys.
They tell how the Creator put them in this place; how First Man and First Woman provided for them with corn and game; and that Kituhwa Mound, the remains of which still stand, served as the Cherokee’s ancient mother town.
Learn more about Native America.
Cherokee: The Principal People
As speakers of an Iroquoian language, Cherokee called themselves the Aniyunwiya or Principal People and rooted their sense of belonging in one of seven matrilineal clans—wolf, deer, bird, paint, long hair, wild potato, and blue.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of these clans because kinship served as the basis for one’s identity. Ensuring balance or harmony, duyuktv in the Cherokee language, and working together for the common good or gadugi, were profoundly family affairs in which men and women had clearly defined but also mutually reinforcing roles.
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Kinship Ties with Europeans
After contact, the Principal People sought to weave European newcomers into the world as they understood it to be, primarily through trade, diplomacy, and the extension of kinship ties.
The extension of these kinship ties could be done literally, through marriage often between Cherokee women and non-Native men. But one could be considered kin through adoption and through one’s behavior and actions as well.
Impact of the American Revolutionary War on the Cherokee
The Cherokee reached a crucial turning point during the 1780s and 1790s, one that threatened their ability to retain their nation in their ancestral homeland.
During the American Revolutionary War, for instance, the Cherokee overwhelmingly supported the British, reasoning that it had always been the king’s unruly children—that is, the colonists—not the king himself, who encroached on their lands. Their decision was also due in no small part to the familial connections many Cherokees formed through marriages between Cherokee women and British traders.
However, the British defeat in 1783 paved the way for a series of land cessions that resulted in the loss of 20,000 square miles of Cherokee land, including rich and vital hunting grounds.
Learn more about how connections were forged between Native Americans and newcomers.
Treaties between the Cherokee and the United States
And yet, as surprising as it may seem, the Cherokee soon found in the U.S. federal government an ally against the almost immediate invasion of their lands by Georgians and North Carolinians.
During the 1780s and 1790s, the Cherokee signed treaties with the United States to deflect the threats posed by these and other states, including Tennessee. The treaties may have involved land cessions, but they also acknowledged Cherokee territorial boundaries.
In addition, the Cherokee accepted the U.S. offer to extend its civilization program to them.
Both treaty making and this civilization program were integral parts of the U.S. Indian policy known as expansion with honor. But, in time, they would also become integral parts of the Cherokee policy of resisting it.
Learn more about the ways Native Americans experienced the American Revolution.
Policies Adopted by Thomas Jefferson
As president between 1801 and 1809, Thomas Jefferson adopted policies that did not bode well for the Cherokee.
For instance, he continued the civilization program at the heart of expansion with honor, but he also revealed an ulterior motive to it. Civilization would foster assimilation, and assimilation would bring an end to tribal sovereignty and open tribal lands to non-Indians.
To accelerate the process of taking Indian land, Jefferson advocated for the use of trade as a means of fostering dependency, reasoning that it would more swiftly force tribal nations to the treaty table.
The Louisiana Purchase
Even more ominously for Native people, the Cherokee among them, Jefferson’s administration oversaw the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This dramatic move added more than 800,000 square miles to the territory claimed by the United States.
The Louisiana Purchase ignited the popular white imagination, and it fueled demands for expansion. And this, in turn, contributed to brutal violence, land cessions, and war that brought an end to effective Indian military resistance in the Ohio Country and the Southeast between 1790 and 1815.
For the Cherokee and all of the tribal nations east of the Mississippi River, this meant that beleaguered Native communities in the east were quickly becoming surrounded and perceived as anachronistic.
Common Questions about Cherokees and the Conflicts with the US Government
Between June 1838 and March 1839, the US government forcibly removed the Cherokee from their homelands in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee to the Indian Territory. At least 4000 Cherokees died in the camps or perished along the way. This event is known as ‘The Trail of Tears’.
Cherokee rooted their sense of belonging in one of seven matrilineal clans—wolf, deer, bird, paint, long hair, wild potato, and blue.
After contact, the Cherokee sought to weave European newcomers into their world through trade, diplomacy, and the extension of kinship ties.