Part Thirteen of the Native American history of the Southern Appalachians
Between 1794 and 1832 the Cherokee People accomplished one of the most remarkable feats of revitalization in human history. In 1793, they were a beaten, demoralized, economically bankrupt, minority being overwhelmed by a tide of European settlers. Wars and plagues had reduced their population by around 75%. They had lost, often catastrophically, every war they fought from 1738 onward.
In 1754, the army of one Creek town, Koweta, had burned many Cherokee villages and executed 32 of their chiefs. A group of Creek teenage girls, following their boyfriends through North Carolina, had single handedly captured the important Cherokee town of Quanasee, which is now Hayesville, NC. After this war, the Valley Cherokees virtually ceased to exist as an ethnic group. Their language disappeared.
In 1760 and 1761 joint armies composed of British Redcoats and colonial militia destroyed most of Lower and Middle Cherokee towns. Afterward, the total number of males of military age dropped to around 2,300. The Lower Cherokees and their language ceased to exist. In 1763, the Cherokees were forced to sign a treaty relinquishing all of their lands in North Carolina, east of the 84th meridian. Only present day Cherokee and Graham Counties still remained in Cherokee Territory
After becoming allies of the British in 1776, the Cherokees unleashed bands of warriors, who attacked the Southern Frontier. Most settlers were not even aware that the Cherokees were now hostile. Patriot, neutral, Loyalist and Native American farmsteads were massacred indiscriminately. The ferocious counterattack on Cherokee villages by combined Patriot-Native American forces gave no quarter to the elderly, women and children. It was war at its worse. Desperate, hungry bands of Cherokee families fled westward into regions where the Cherokees had never lived before.
After a peace treaty between the Cherokee leadership and Continental Congress in 1777, renegade Cherokees continued a guerilla war until 1793. During that horrific time, peaceful Cherokees were killed almost as often as the hostile faction. Most white victims were families traveling alone on isolated roads. Tennessee militiamen often killed the elderly, women and children when attacking the transient Renegade Cherokee villages. Most of the Cherokee renegades were killed in the Battle of Etowah Cliffs in 1793.
Seeing their people sunk down as low as they could go, a clique of the renegade survivors, based in Pine Log, GA, took control of the distraught Cherokee People. After fighting the Americans for 17 years, they decided to adopt Southeastern American culture “whole hog.” They developed plantations, worked by African-American slaves. They invited Protestant missionaries to establish mission stations and schools. They planned and built a capital on the site of the original village of their arch-enemies the Coosa Creeks.
One of the renegades, Sequoya, developed a Cherokee syllabary. By the late 1820s, the Cherokees were the most literate people in the world. While only about 20% of Americans could read and write at that time, 80% of the Georgia Cherokees could read and write with the new syllabary. North Carolina Cherokees generally refused to learn the syllabary and in fact, almost succeeded in torturing Sequoya to death.
A hierarchal society was created by the new clique in which mixed bloods and or non-ethnic Cherokees were the elite. Principal Chief Charles Hicks was ¾ Scottish and 1/4th Tamatli, a Creek people based on the Altamaha River in SE Georgia. Principal Chief John Ross was 7/8 Scottish. The ancestors of Major Ridge were Natchez, who took refuge in the mountains in 1730. The Adairs were ½ Irish and ½ Chickasaw. The Vanns were more Scottish than American Indian. All the other leading Cherokees, such as the Thompson, Saunders, Rogers, Smith and Hughes families were the product of white fathers and mixed-blood Cherokee mothers. Darker skinned, ethnic Cherokees were typically the hired help, second or third wives of wealthy Cherokees, or else lived in impoverished, remote farmsteads. Two of the most important Cherokee leaders were married to white women, with no Native ancestry.
Out of this remarkable renaissance and the incredibly tragic Trail of Tears Period that ended it, came a series of myths, which have been replicated so long that both Cherokees and non-Native American scholars believe them to be facts.
The primary blame for misrepresentation of Cherokee history is the lazy scholarship of 20th century academicians, who regurgitated each other’s speculations, rather than systematically going through Colonial Era archives and maps. The inaccurate speculations were then used as facts to interpolate new facts by more recent scholars. The result is an academic stack of cards.
It was recently discovered by DNA Consultants, Inc. that the Cherokees living on and near their North Carolina Reservation are a predominantly Middle Eastern and North African population, mixed with much European and a trace of Native American DNA. This discovery significantly complicates the research into Cherokee’s origin and completely invalidates the claim by local leaders that the Cherokees originated in North Carolina 10,000 years ago.
In 2012 this Examiner column solicited DNA studies of Eastern Cherokees, living in other areas of North Carolina and Georgia. The results of the Examiner survey were certainly not a statistically reliable sample, but strongly suggested that communities of “self-described” Cherokees living in the vicinity of Brasstown Bald Mountain, GA are genetically unrelated to those Cherokees living 50-75 miles away on the reservation. The non-reservation genetic profiles were either typical of Creek Indians, or else showed a mixed Maya-South American heritage.
The Overhill Cherokees of Tennessee were different than the Middle Cherokees, but still a mixed-heritage people, originally dominated by Rickohockens from Virginia. They evolved into an egalitarian, multi-ethnic society. During the 1700s Native refugees from throughout the Midwest and Upper South were constantly streaming into the region. It was not unusual for men born in foreign tribes to become important leaders.
The true ethnic identity of the Overhill Cherokees is also confusing. Seven out of eight of the original Overhill Cherokee towns had Creek names. The eighth, Setikoa (Citigo) apparently had an Arawak name. As late as 1763 Lt. Henry Timberlake reported that most Overhill chiefs still carried the Maya/Itstate-Creek title of “mako” or the Muskogee-Creek title of “mikko.”
The origins of the Cherokees are obviously so complex that they will require in the future a full book to describe. Nevertheless, some of the more recent myths about the Cherokees can be easily exploded
Myth 1: the name, Cherokee
Cherokee is not derived from the Creek word for a foreign speaker. That word is chiliya. The Chiloki (Chiloque in Spanish) mentioned by Hernando de Soto’s chroniclers, were not the same people as the Cherokees. Chiloki is the Totonac (Mexico) and Creek Indian word for a non-agricultural tribe. It originally only applied to the Chichimec barbarians of northern Mexico. The Chiloki mentioned by the Spanish later showed up on maps as having moved to southern Georgia, where they joined the Creek Confederacy. The word, Charaqui, was first printed on a European map in 1717. In 1725, the word, Cherokee first appeared on an English map. That same map showed all lands previously occupied by the Rickohocken Indians in SW Virginia and NE Tennessee as being now Cherokee. At that point in time, the word, Rickohocken, was no longer mentioned in British Colonial documents.
Myth 2: the Shawnee
Defeated, Late Eighteenth Century Cherokees created a myth that the Shawnees temporarily lived in the Southeast as their guests, but were driven out by the Cherokees. Without looking at European Colonial Era maps of North America or consulting the Shawnee, many historians have bought this malarkey . . . hook, line and sinker. It permeates Wikipedia articles on American history.
Until 1717, European maps show a substantial presence of the Shawnee in the North Carolina Mountains and the Savannah River, but no Rickohockens or Cherokees. The word “Savannah” comes from the name of the branch of the Shawnee living along its banks. The Shawnee word for themselves means “southerners.” The Shawnee have always maintained that they have lived in the Southeast for thousands of years, but apparently few, if any, non-Native American historians ask the Shawnee about their history.
Myth 3: the Lower Cherokees
The first mention of an alliance that became Lower Cherokees was by Dr. Henry Woodward in 1674, who reported to British authorities that an alliance of eight villages living near the headwaters of the Savannah River, called the “Chorake” were enemies of the Westo Indians.
Operating in an anthropological vacuum, 20th century historians and anthropologists assumed that “Chorake” was the original word for Cherokee. It is the origin of the coined tribal name, Cherokee, but had another meaning. Chorake is the Muskogee-Creek word for “splinter people.” The people living at the headwaters of the Savannah River in the late 1600s were composed of villages that had moved away from major Creek provinces in Georgia, plus the remnants of Creek provinces on the coast of South Carolina.
The Chorake were lately arrived squatters, who occupied marginal lands depopulated by plagues. At their maximum size, the Lower Cherokees had a population of about 1200 people, with about 200 men of military age. Their villages were confined to an area not much bigger than a county in the extreme northwestern tip of South Carolina.
All of the original “Lower Cherokee” villages had Creek Indian names. All of their leaders had either English or Creek Indian names. For example, the war chief of the Cherokees during the First Anglo-Cherokee War was a Lower Cherokee, named Wauhausi (Wahautchee in English.) That is a pure Creek name, which means that his heritage was from southeast Georgia.
After an alliance was formed between the Rickohockens and Middle Cherokees, there was much intermarriage between the chiefs of the three divisions, so probably Algonquian words entered the Lower Cherokee’s conversations, but their language remained a Creek dialect. That is why Cherokees say that Lower Cherokee is an extinct language, while Creek Indians have no trouble translating surviving words.
Myth 4: the Georgia Mountains
Some officials of the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina and a few vocal archaeologists claim that the Cherokees built the Indian mounds in northern Georgia and the Track Rock Terrace Complex. This belief is impossible. The Sephardic Jewish and North African ancestors of the North Carolina Cherokees did not arrive in the mountains until the late 1500s or early 1600s . . . about the time that these mounds and Track Rock Terrace Complex were abandoned. In fact, the Cherokee name for the region in the Georgia Mountains from Coosa Creek (Creek Indian Creek) near Track Rock Gap, eastward to the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River is Itsayi, which means “Place of the Itza (Maya) People.”
Seventeenth century European maps show the Georgia Mountains occupied by ethnic groups later associated with the Creek Indian Confederacy; the Itsate (Itza People,) the Koweta, the Kusa (Upper Creeks,) the Apalache and the Conchakee (Apalachicola). None of these maps list either the Rickohocken Indians or the Cherokees as living in the region.
Beginning in the 1730s European maps showed three or four small Cherokee villages in the extreme northeastern Georgia Mountains. Between 1754 and 1776, European maps show this same region to be recaptured by the Koweta Creeks. A British Army map, printed in 1776 stated that there were 25 Cherokee men of military age in the entire Province of Georgia, which then included what is now Alabama and Mississippi. A British Army map printed in 1780 showed three Cherokee hamlets and marked the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River as the western boundary of the Cherokee Nation. Brasstown Bald Mountain and Track Rock Gap were still within the boundaries of the Upper Creeks.
In 1785, the United States government gave the north central mountains of Georgia to the Cherokees for hunting grounds, while taking away their territory in the northeast tip of Georgia and giving most of present day Alabama to the Creeks. In 1794, over the objections of the State of Georgia, the newly constituted Federal government gave the Cherokees much of the north-central Georgia Mountains and northwest Georgia as what was supposed to be, a permanent home. However, almost simultaneously federal officials promised Georgia’s elected leaders that ALL Indians would soon be removed from the state in return for Georgia ceding the land that is now Alabama and Mississippi.
There are several state historical markers in northern Georgia, which described “a great battle” in which the Cherokees won all of northern Georgia either in 1754 or 1755. If the battles occurred at all, the Cherokees lost badly. In 1754 the Koweta Creeks took back all territory in Georgia and North Carolina lost since 1715. In 1755, the Upper Creeks took back all territory lost in Tennessee since 1720. Afterward, the Overhill Cherokees sent a delegation to Charleston begging the British government to build a fort on the Little Tennessee River and send troops to protect their remaining towns. The British agreed to do this, but Fort Loudon was massacred by the Cherokees in 1757.
At the present time, the history prior to about 1690 of the peoples, who were to become the Cherokee Indians, is almost impossible to unravel. Extensive archaeological work in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and the Southern Highlands, plus comprehensive DNA studies of all Cherokee divisions, not just those on the North Carolina Reservation, will be required before there is any possibility of finding their origins.