Cherokee History

The History of “The Right Way”
“The new turtle shell rattles you made sound crisp and ready for the Green Corn Dance. But first you must greet this day as you greet every day. Your whole village gathers on the banks of the Oconaluftee. All enter the water, face east, and pray to the seven directions, the four cardinal points, the sky, the earth, and the center or spirit. You give thanks for the new day, and wash away any feelings separating you from your family, neighbors, or the Creator. This is duyuktv ‘the right way,’ the Cherokee Way.”

Visit a Piece of Cherokee History
When you visit Cherokee, North Carolina, you can almost imagine yourself living this way. Here you’ll find yourself surrounded by the same mountains where the Cherokee have maintained their traditions for generations. People who proudly preserve a culture far older than the new nation that surrounds them, welcome you.

Ancient Cherokee History Spans Thousands of Years
The Cherokee believe that they have always lived in Western North Carolina. Indeed, finely crafted stone tools and fluted spear-points confirm that ancient people lived here more than 11,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. Ancient Cherokee tales describe hunts of the mastodons that once foraged through the upland spruce and fir. By 8000 B.C., semi-permanent villages dotted this region. Over the following millennia, the people of these mountains developed settled towns, sophisticated politics and religion, thriving agriculture, stunning pottery, and tremendously effective archery.

What Europeans Encountered in Cherokee History
When the first Europeans passed through Cherokee territory in 1540, they found Cherokee hunters with great bows the Spanish soldiers were unable to pull back, propelling arrows with the power to bring down the massive elk and bear they hunted. More than a thousand years ago, Cherokee life took on the patterns that persisted through the eighteenth century. European explorers and settlers found a flourishing nation that dominated the southern Appalachians.

The Cherokees controlled some 140,000 square miles throughout eight present-day southern states. Villages governed themselves democratically, with all adults gathering to discuss import matters in each town’s council house. Each village had a peace chief, war chief, and priest. Men hunted and fished; women gathered wild food and cultivated ‘the three sisters’ corn, beans, and squash cleverly inter-planting them to minimize the need for staking and weeding. This was life that realized harmony with nature, sustainability, personal freedom, and balance between work, play, and praise. The land furnished all: food in abundance; materials for shelter, clothing and utensils; visual grandeur still vivid today, and herbs to treat every known illness – until the Europeans came.

The Cherokee History of Hospitality and Collaboration
For the first 200 years of contact, the Cherokees extended hospitality and help to the newcomers. Peaceful trade prevailed. Intermarriage was not uncommon. The Cherokees were quick to embrace useful aspects of the newcomers’ culture, from peaches and watermelons to written language. This last was single-handedly created by the Cherokee genius Sequoyah, who introduced his ‘syllabary,’ or Cherokee alphabet, to the national council in 1821. Within months, a majority of the Cherokee nation became literate.

The Trail of Tears Becomes Part of Cherokee History
At this time nearly 200 years of broken treaties had reduced the Cherokee empire to a small territory, and Andrew Jackson began to insist that all southeastern Indians be moved west of the Mississippi. The federal government no longer needed the Cherokees as strategic allies against the French and British. Land speculators wanted Cherokee land to sell for cotton plantations and for the gold that was discovered in Georgia.

Although the Cherokees resisted removal through their bilingual newspaper and through legal means, taking their case all the way the Supreme Court, Jackson’s policy prevailed. In 1838, events culminated in the tragic ‘Trail of Tears,’ the forced removal of the Cherokees in the East to Oklahoma. One quarter to half of the 16,000 Cherokees who began the long march died of exposure, disease, and the shock of separation from their home.

Cherokee History in Western North Carolina
The Cherokees in Western North Carolina today descend from those who were able to hold on to land they owned, those who hid in the hills, defying removal, and others who returned, many on foot. Gradually and with great effort, they have created a vibrant society, a sovereign nation of 100 square miles where people in touch with their past and alive to the present preserve timeless ways and wisdom.

Get a Cherokee History Lesson at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC is one of the area’s most beloved attractions. Go back and time and learn about the ancient history of the Cherokee tribe. The self guided tour includes computer animation, special effects, audio narratives and a collection of tribal artifacts you can’t find anywhere else in the United States. Learn more about Cherokee history, legends, myths, hunting practices, cultural structures during various time periods, native agriculture, herbal medicine, village life, ceremonial traditions, and the story of how European settlers changed the world of the Cherokee forever.

Come to Cherokee. You will experience our land and our people with a richness that makes your visit much more than merely a vacation. We’ll see you soon.