As I have been writing about various locations, cities, restaurants and other touristy concepts in the Smoky Mountains area, one thing that I have realized that I have not focused on is the people that inhabited the area before the European settlers moved in. To that end, let’s talk about the Native Americans that dominated both sides of the mountains in the pre-pioneer days: the Cherokee Indians. I will attempt to build a very brief history of the people. Obviously, in the space of this article I am not going to touch on everything that is interesting, remarkable and culturally relevant about the Cherokee people but I hope that it spurs you on to go read more about them.
Before the English settlers first made their appearance on the scene, the people known as the Cherokee, or the Tsalagi as they call themselves, had an established culture and society. They were hunter gathers but they also had a very advanced economic and political structure. At their height, they took in parts of 7 southern states and they numbered over 150,000 people. Their economy included trade routes that reached out to Native American tribes on the coast of North Carolina and even included reaching out to the first Europeans in the area, which came with DeSoto.
With the incursion of European people into the area, whether they were traders, trappers, explorers or settlers, the Cherokee way of life began to change. The Cherokee lifestyle was governed by everyone, the women of the tribes appointed the leaders who ran the seven clans. The women also controlled marriage and property while the men were in charge of educating the children. The Cherokee chose to change their society and adapt some of the European ways as a chance to coexist with the new people that were moving to the area. This was the Cherokee means of survival. During this time of acculturation, the Cherokee adopted a very English way of educating their young and they taught their people English so that they could further their contact and interactions with their new neighbors. By the time that the 1800s rolled around, the Cherokee had adopted a written constitution and they had establish boundaries to their lands, schools and they had even accepted the Christian missionaries into their communities.
The start of the downfall of the Cherokee people was the passing of the Removal Act of 1830. When President Andrew Jackson signed the Removal Act, the Cherokee people, 20,000 of them were forced to leave their tribal lands in North Carolina and walk, along the Trail of Tears, to reservation land in Oklahoma. Only 16,000 of those 20,000 that started the walk, survived the journey westward. You would think that this would have been the end to the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, but a small group stayed behind, defying the US Government.
The Reservation Act of 1819 and the fact that some of the Cherokee evaded the army, left this small group landless but looking for a way to stay on their lands. Will Thomas, an adopted Cherokee, started buying land using these displaced people money, seeing as the Cherokee could not buy land. Over time, the Cherokee formed a corporation to own the land and they became a thriving community. Fast forward to now and the Qualla Boundary or the reservation that is home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians is a destination in the Smokies and the heart of gaming in the Southern Appalachians.
Again, this is not a complete or even concise history of this amazing group of people. If you want to have a much better understanding of the Cherokee and their history in the Smokies, then you might want to visit Cherokee, NC and experience many of the historical and cultural legacies of the Cherokee.