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The Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Indians had a major impact on the North Georgia Mountains. They were, after all, here long before the first white settlers. Historians and archaeologists have theorized that the Cherokee started out in the Great Lakes region as part of a giant Iroquois tribe. Sometime in the distant past—between 1500 and 1800 BC—there was a split and a group that became the Cherokee migrated south to live in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. An ancient settlement near Bryson City, NC, is considered to be the original Cherokee City.

The first known encounter between the Cherokee and the white man occurred in 1540 when DeSoto and his Spanish Conquistadors passed through the area searching for gold. Other European explorers and settlers gradually arrived and by 1700 a written history of the Indians came to be. Prior to that time, the Cherokee history was passed down orally from generation to generation.

The Cherokee were a Civilized Nation. They were very progressive. They were farming people who lived in log houses with thatched roofs and they had permanent villages near rivers. Each village had a large ceremonial hall and a ball field with benches for spectators. Playing games and making music was important to them. The men hunted and fished. The women farmed and raised their children. Men made the political decisions in the tribe while the women made the social decisions. The men were chiefs and the women were landowners. Both genders took part in storytelling, artwork, music and medicine. They used long dug-out canoes for transportation. Dogs were used as pack animals over land. (There were no horses until the colonists brought them from Europe.) Hunters used bows and arrows or blowguns to shoot game. They fished with spears and bamboo poles. Warriors used arrows, tomahawks, spears and knives and painted their faces and bodies with war paint. Traditional arts and crafts included pipe carving, river cane baskets, gourd art and pottery. The women farmed beans, squash, corn, sunflowers, melons and pumpkins. They also gathered nuts, roots, berries and fruit. Brunswick stew was made, containing squirrel, rabbit, turkey, tomatoes, corn and beans. The men hunted bear, turkey and rabbits with blowguns. They killed deer with arrows and used the hides for clothing. The women wore sleeveless dresses, belted at the waist. The men wore breechcloths and the children ran around naked in the warmer months. They all wore moccasins. They used bear hides for warmth in the winter. They were a peaceful group who accepted the settlers as they moved into their territory and the Indians took on many of their ways and laws. As the two cultures slowly mixed, however, the Indians were introduced to guns, whiskey and disease. The Cherokee traded regularly with other southeastern Native Americans, their neighbors—the Creeks, Chickasaws and Shawnees. Sometimes there were disputes and they fought.

In 1808, the Cherokee were well organized and well-governed. They even had laws which protected the rights of widows and orphans. An 1809 census of the Cherokee Nation counted 12,395 Cherokee, 583 Negro slaves and 314 Europeans. The Cherokee owned 19,165 cattle, 19,778 pigs, 6,519 horses and 1,037 sheep. In an 1824 census, it was discovered that the Cherokee population had increased by 30%. They now had accumulated many wagons and plows. There were spinning wheels in almost all their homes. The Indians were becoming more Anglo all the time. And, they were doing okay until gold was discovered in Georgia in 1828 and The Big Gold Rush began in 1829.

In 1820, the Cherokee reorganized their government by dividing the nation into eight districts. Their legislature had an upper house and a lower house (similar to the American governmental system.) Sequoyah founded a system of writing in 1821, making the Cherokee the first Indians to have a written language. It was created to help them deal with the white government. The continuation of self government was the major concern of the Cherokee people. From 1721 to 1828, they signed 37 treaties—losing more of their land and rights with each new treaty. Every October the Cherokee held a meeting in Newtown, or New Echota as they called it-- the newly created Cherokee capital. It was located in what is now the city of Calhoun, in Gordon County, Georgia, on three good water sources. It also sat in the middle of the hunting grounds. New Echota was a planned community laid out by Cherokee surveyors. By 1830, the town had 50 residents, a main street 60 feet wide and a two acre town square. There were government buildings, a printing office, private homes, stores, a ferry and a missionary station. The town was normally quiet, but during Council meetings it was a raucous event. Several hundred Cherokee arrived on foot, by horse, by boat and in stylish carriages. Unfortunately, the town only lived for ten years. By 1835, the Cherokee had fled from the Georgia Guard—a prelude to their forced removal in the Trail of Tears.

As the Georgia Gold Rush drew more and more settlers to the area, problems arose. The Government set up a lottery and gave away the Indian land. Even though the Cherokee Nation wanted to be peaceful allies to the Americans, the US Government claimed that they were savages, not suitable for decent society. It was ironic that these “savages” were more literate in their own language than the people who were stealing their land. During the 1800’s, the Government created an “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma, and sent all the eastern Native American tribes to live there. Some tribes went willingly. Other tribes did not want to leave and the Army forced them. The Cherokee was one of the largest eastern tribes that did not want to leave their land, which they’d owned for over a thousand years. The Cherokee had adapted to the white man’s ways, adopted parts of the American Constitution, learned to communicate with them and how to fight in the American courts system. The Cherokee took their case to the Supreme Court and even though the judges decided the Cherokee could keep their land, President Andrew Jackson overrided that decision and sent the Army to march the Cherokee to Oklahoma. The Indians were not prepared for the journey and had to leave everything behind. It was the dead of winter and thousands of Cherokee died on what was to become known as The Trail of Tears. It was a terrible time in our history.

A few Cherokee chose to hideout in the North Georgia Mountains and gradually assimilated into the community. They were used to adapting to the white men, they shared Indian farming secrets and many inter-married. To this day, the Cherokee have a strong influence on Fannin County. To learn more about the Cherokee Nation, you can visit the New Echota State Park located near Calhoun, Georgia—just east of I-75 on GA 225 (the James Vann Highway.) There you will find a Trail of Tears monument, a Visitors Center and a Native American Museum. Today the city of New Echota stands as a silent testimony to Georgia’s Cherokee people.