At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Cherokee people made up the largest Native American tribe on the frontier of British North America. Ethnologists consider the Cherokee to be an Iroquoian people whose ancestors had settled the southeastern highlands as early as 2000 BC. Cherokee society revolved around clan loyalty, and an individual’s descent was matrilineal, or through the mother’s family. Cherokee women generally controlled agriculture and domestic life, including child rearing, while men concerned themselves with politics, war, and hunting.
The beauty and fertility of the Cherokees’ mountain homeland has impressed visitors for centuries. One observer in the mid-1750s noted "Their Vallies are of the richest soil equal to manure itself, almost impossible in Appearance ever to wear out…Should this country once come into the hands of the Europeans, they may with Propriety call it the American Canaan…
The far-flung settlements of the Cherokee people existed in four divisions: the Lower Towns occupied the headwaters of the Savannah River in upper South Carolina and northeast Georgia; the Middle Towns stood on the upper reaches of the Little Tennessee River in present-day western North Carolina; fifty miles downstream, in what is now eastern Tennessee, lived the Overhills Cherokee; further south were the Valley Towns, located on the Hiwassee River and its tributaries.
Although contemporary European observers often spoke of the Cherokee "nation," the term was a misnomer. Cherokee government centered on individual ties of kinship and town loyalty. Tribal leaders, or "headmen," did not wield authority as Europeans understood it. Instead, their influence originated in powers of oratory, persuasion, personality, and prowess in warfare. As a result, agreements with Europeans made by a headman or even groups of headmen were not binding on the Cherokee people as a whole. While the towns of a given region could often forge political consensus, the tribe as a whole rarely achieved it.
Sporadic warfare with their Creek neighbors in the 1730s and 1740s had greatly reduced the territory of the Lower Towns. Villages along the Chatooga-Tugaloo river system and the Tamassee valley lay in ruins. The Cherokee had retreated to the more easily defended Keowee valley, but even this area did not escape Creek incursions.
Cherokee Lower Towns, 1750-1777
The Cherokee first made contact with European explorers at the time of the de Soto Expedition in 1540. Although the Cherokee, along with other Native American peoples, suffered severely from newly introduced European diseases such as smallpox, they could still muster upwards of 2000 fighting men in 1750. His Majesty’s Council. Indian Books, 1750-1760. Vol. 6, February 21, 1757, p.88. S171001
Cherokee diplomatic intervention in 1715 had helped save the young South Carolina colony in its war with the Yamasee. For nearly fifty years afterwards, South Carolina regarded the Cherokee as its most reliable western ally. For the Cherokee people, however, the alliance with Charles Town had a steep price. Increasing contact with the Anglo-Carolinians meant that war and hunting became dominant concerns in Cherokee life. The need for European trade goods also took a heavy toll on Cherokee independence, as illustrated by the statement of Lower Towns headman Skiagunsta below:
"I… have always told my People to be well with the English for they cannot expect any Supply from any where else, nor can they live independent of the English. What are we Red People? The Cloaths we wear, we cannot make ourselves, they are made for us. We use their Amunition with which we kill Dear. We cannot make our Guns, they are made for us. Every necessary Thing in Life we must have from the white People." His Majesty’s Council. Indian Books, 1750-1760. Vol. 3, July 6, 1753, p.321. S171001
Home || Next -->