It has been seen that De Soto passed over a portion of the country of these Indians in the territory which embraces Northern Georgia. The name Cherokee is derived from Chera, fire; and the Prophets of this nation were called Cherataghe, men of divine fire.
The first that we hear of the Cherokees, after the Spanish invasion, is their connection with the early British settlers of Virginia. A powerful and extensive nation, they even had settlements upon the Appomattox River, and were allied by blood with the Powhattan tribe. The Virginians drove them from that place, and they retreated to the head of the Holston River. Here, making temporary settlements, the Northern Indians compelled them to retire to the Little Tennessee River, where they established themselves permanently. About the same time, a large branch of the Cherokees came from the territory of South Carolina, near Charleston, and formed towns upon the main Tennessee, extending as far as the Muscle Shoals. They found all that region unoccupied, except upon the Cumberland, where resided a roving band of Shawnees. But the whole country bore evidence of once having sustained a large Indian population.
Such is the origin of the first Cherokee settlements upon the main Tennessee, but the great body of the nation appears to have occupied Northern Georgia and Northwestern Carolina as far back as the earliest discoveries can trace them.
But very little was known of these natives until the English formed colonies in the two Carolinas. They are first mentioned when some of their Chiefs complained that the Savannas and Congerees attacked their extreme eastern settlements, captured their people and sold them as slaves in the town of Charleston. Two years afterwards, Governor Archdale, of Carolina, arrested this practice, which induced the Cherokees to become friends of the English. They joined the latter in a war against the Tuscaroras. But three years afterwards they became allies of the Northern Indians and once more fought their European friends. At length Governor Nicholson concluded a peace with them, which was confirmed by Alexander Cummings, the British General Superintendent of Indian Affairs. The Cherokees assisted the English in the capture of Fort Duquesne. When returning home, however, they committed some depredations upon the settlers of Virginia, which were resented. This, together with the influence of French emissaries, had the effect again to array them against the people of Georgia and the Carolinas. Various expeditions marched against them, and their country was finally invaded with success, by Colonel Grant. Having sued for peace, articles of amity and alliance were signed at Long Island, upon the Holston. According to the traditions preserved by Judge Haywood, who wrote the History of Tennessee, the Cherokees originally came from the territory now embraced by the Eastern States of the Union, in which they differ from the other tribes of whom it has been our province to speak, all of whom came from the west.
When they began to be visited by the Carolina traders, their nation was powerful and warlike, and was divided into two parts. The Upper Cherokees lived upon the rivers Tellico, Great and Little Tennessee, the Holston and French Broad. The Lower Cherokees inhabited the country watered by the sources of the Oconee, the Ockmulgee and the Savannah. The great Unaka or Smoky Mountain lay between and divided the two sections.1 Their whole country was the most beautiful and romantic in the known world. Their springs of delicious water gushed out of every hill and mountainside. Their lovely rivers meandered, now smoothly and gently, through the most fertile valleys, and then, with the precipitancy and fleetness of the winds, rushed over cataracts and through mountain gaps The forests were full of game, the rivers abounded with fish, the vales teemed with their various productions, and the mountains with fruit, while the pure atmosphere consummated the happiness of the blest Cherokees.
About the period of 1700, the Cherokee nation consisted of sixty-four towns. But the inhabitants of those situated in the upper district, were continually engaged in wars with the Northern Indians, while those below were harassed by the Creeks. Then again, the Cherokees had to encounter, first, the French, and then the English. From these causes, (added to which was the terrible scourge of the small pox, introduced into Charleston by a slave ship, and thence carried into their country,) the population had greatly decreased–so that, in 1740, the number of warriors were estimated at only five thousand. That year fully one thousand of these were destroyed by that disease.2
The Cherokees were so similar to the Creeks in their form, color, general habits and pursuits, that the reader is requested to refresh his recollection in relation to our description of the latter, and will not be required, tediously, to retrace the same ground. Their ball plays, green corn dances, constant habit of indulging in the purifying black drink, their manner of conducting wars and of punishing prisoners, their council-houses, their common apparel, and also their appearance during war, were all precisely like those of the Creeks. 1735: And, in addition, they played Chunke, like the Choctaws. However, a careful examination of several authorities, has unfolded a few peculiarities, which will now be introduced.
Unlike other Indian nations, who once trod our soil, the Cherokees had no laws against adultery. Both sexes were unrestrained in this particular, and marriage was usually of short duration.
On account of the pure air which they breathed, the exercise of the chase, the abundance of natural productions which the country afforded, and the delicious water which was always near, the Cherokees lived to an age much more advanced than the other tribes which have been noticed in this chapter.3
They observed some singular rules in relation to the burial of the dead. When a person was past recovery, (to prevent pollution,) they dug a grave, prepared a tomb, anointed the hair of the patient and painted his face; and when death ensued, internment was immediately performed. After the third day, the attendants at the funeral appeared at the council-house and engaged in their ordinary pursuits, but the relatives lived in retirement and moaned for some time.4 Such ceremonies practiced upon the poor fellow in his last moments, and while in his senses, was certainly a cooler and more cruel method than that of the Choctaws, who, as we have seen, suddenly jumped down upon the patient and strangled him to death, after the doctor had pronounced his recovery impossible.
It was formerly the habit of the Cherokees to shoot all the stock belonging to the deceased, and they continued to bury, with the dead, their guns, bows and household utensils. If one died upon a journey, hunt, or war expedition, his companions erected a stage, upon which was a notched log pen, in which the body was placed to secure it from wild beasts. When it was supposed that sufficient time had elapsed, so that nothing remained but the bones, they returned to the spot, collected these, carried them home and buried them with great ceremony. Sometimes heaps of stones were raised as monuments to the dead, whose bones they had not been able to “gather to their fathers,” and every one who passed by added a stone to the pile.5
Henry Timberlake, a lieutenant in the British service, was dispatched with a small command from Long Island, upon the Holston, to the Cherokee towns upon the Tellico and 1761 the Little Tennessee rivers. His object was to cultivate a good understanding with these people, who had, indeed, invited him to their country. He descended the Holston in canoes to the mouth of the Little Tennessee, and thence passed up that stream to their towns. Spending some weeks here, he returned to Charleston with three Cherokee Chiefs, and sailed for England. Three years afterwards he published a book, from which we have been enabled to gain some information respecting the Cherokees.6
The Cherokees were of middle stature, and of an olive color, but were generally painted, while their skins were stained with indelible ink, representing a variety of pretty figures. According to Bartram, the males were larger and more robust than any others of our natives, while the women were tall, slender, erect, and of delicate frame, with features of perfect symmetry. With cheerful countenances, they moved about with becoming grace and dignity. Their feet and hands were small and exquisitely shaped. The hair of the male was shaved, except a patch on the back part of the head, which was ornamented with beads and feathers, or with a colored deer’s tail. Their ears were slit and stretched to an enormous size, causing the persons who had the cutting performed to undergo incredible pain. They slit but one ear at a time, because the patient had to lay on one side forty days for it to heal. As soon as he could bear the operation, wire was wound around them to expand them, and when they were entirely well they were adorned with silver pendants and rings.
Many of them had genius, and spoke well, which paved the way to power in council. Their language was pleasant. It was very aspirited, and the accents so many and various that one would often imagine them singing in their common discourse.
They had a particular method of relieving the poor, which ought to be ranked among the most laudable of their religious ceremonies. The headmen issued orders for a war dance, at which all the fighting men of the town assembled. But here, contrary to all their other dances, only one danced at a time, who, with a tomahawk in his hand, hopped and capered for a minute, and then gave a whoop. The music thus stopped till he related the manner of his taking his first scalp. He concluded his narration, and cast a string of wampum, wire, plate, paint, lead, or anything he could spare upon a large bearskin spread for the purpose. Then the music again began, and he continued in the same manner through all his warlike actions. Then another succeeded him, and the ceremony lasted until all the warriors had related their exploits and thrown presents upon the skin. The stock thus raised, after paying the musicians, was divided among the poor. The same ceremony was used to recompense any extraordinary merit.
The Cherokees engaged oftener in dancing than any other Indian population; and when reposing in their towns, almost every night was spent in this agreeable amusement. They were likewise very dexterous at pantomimes. In one of these, two men dressed themselves in bearskins, and came among the assembly, winding and pawing about with all the motions of that animal. Two hunters next entered, who, in dumb show, acted in all respects as if they had been in the woods. After many attempts to shoot the bears, the hunters fired, and one of them was killed and the other wounded. They attempted to cut the throat of the latter. A tremendous scuffle ensued between the wounded bruin and the hunters, affording the whole company a great deal of diversion. 1761: They also had other amusing pantomimic entertainments, among which was “taking the pigeons at roost.”
They were extremely proud, despising the lower class of Europeans. Yet they were gentle and amiable to those whom they thought their friends. Implacable in their enmity, their revenge was only completed in the entire destruction of the enemy. They were hardy, and endured heat, cold and hunger in a surprising manner. But when in their power to indulge, no people on earth, except the Choctaws, carried debauchery to greater excess.7
William Bartram, who penetrated the Cherokee nation, mentions the following towns. We use his orthography:
On the Little Tennessee River, east of the Smoky Mountains.
On the branches of that river
On the Little Tennessee, north of the Smoky Mountains
Inland towns on the branches of that river, and others north of the Smoky Mountains
Overhill towns on the Tennessee or Cherokee rivers
- Big Island
Lower towns, east of the mountains.
- Estotowe, great
Gov. Blount, of the Tennessee Territory, made a report to the Indian Department of the Federal Government, in which he described the other towns of the Cherokee nation. It appears that a portion of the Cherokees established themselves upon Chicamauga Creek, one hundred miles below the mouth of the Holston, being averse to any terms of friendship with the English. 1782: But believing these new settlements to be infested with witches, they abandoned them, moved forty miles lower down the Tennessee, and there laid out the foundation of the “five towns” which they inhabited for many years afterwards, and until their final removal to Arkansas. These towns were:
- Running Water – on the south bank of the main Tennessee, three miles above Nickajack, containing one hundred huts, the inhabitants of which were a mixed population of Cherokees and Shawnees.
- Nickajack – on the south bank of the Tennessee, containing forty houses.
- Long Island Town – on the south side of the Tennessee, on an island of that name, containing several houses.
- Crow Town – on the north side of the Tennessee, half a mile from the river, up Crow creek. This was the largest of the towns.
- Lookout Mountain Town – between two mountains, on Lookout Mountain creek, fifteen miles from its confluence with the Tennessee.
The first four of these towns were considerable Indian thoroughfares for a long period, being the crossing places of the Southern and Northern Indians during their wars with the Cumberland American settlements. Of these five towns, the sites of Nickajack and Long Island only are in Alabama, situated in the northeast part of De Kalb County. But still lower down, in the present State of Alabama, were Will’s Town and Turkey Town – important Cherokee establishments. The former was named for a half-breed called Redheaded Will. At these towns lived the British Superintendent, (the celebrated Col. Campbell,) before and during the Revolutionary War.9
Haywood’s Aboriginal History of Tennessee, pp. 233-234. Transactions of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 2, pp. 89-90. Adair’s American Indians. ↩
Historical Collections of Georgia, vol. 2, p. 72. ↩
Adair, pp. 226-228. ↩
Adair, p 126 ↩
Adair — Bartram. ↩
Memoirs of Lieutenant Henry Timberlake, London: 1765. ↩
Timberlake’s Memoirs, pp. 49-80; Bartram, pp. 368-369. ↩
Bartram, 371-372. ↩
1. Indian Affairs, vol. 1, pp. 264-289. ↩