Black: Century of Change for The Cherokees 1728-1828

Black: Century of Change for The Cherokees 1728-1828

February 2nd, 2014 by By Dr. Daryl Black in Opinion Columns

During the early decades of the 18th century, Cherokee life moved in its traditional patterns - men and women tilled the soil, groups of men hunted deer to supply meat for their villages, women tended the gardens. Politics remained focused on the relations with the surrounding Indian people. By mid-century, however, as the population of English colonists grew, and as the French and English struggled with each other to lay claim to North America, the lives of the Cherokee began to change.

Those who moved into Cherokee territory from the coastal colonies hailed from England, Scotland, and Germany. Traders made the first contact followed by the longhunters -- men such as Daniel Boone -- who traveled from their homes in coastal colonies to seek game in the mountains and beyond. Land speculators soon followed. These men surveyed and claimed large tracts of land for resale to settlers who wanted to establish farms.

Their advance and the seeming permanence of their settlements alarmed the Cherokee. They saw the American frontiersman as their worst enemy. When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, the Cherokee allied with the British, hoping a British victory would finally stop American settlers from encroaching on their land.

At the beginning of the American Revolution, the Cherokee and the Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo, Ottawa, and Mohawk formed an alliance with the British to fight the Americans. But the war went badly for the Indians, who lost many towns to colonial militias. By 1777, the Upper Town Cherokee made peace by ceding more land to the Americans.

But many vowed to fight on. Led by Dragging Canoe, they moved south and set up towns around the point of Lookout Mountain: Tuskegee (near Williams Island), Sawtee (along North Chickamauga Creek), Chatanuga (St. Elmo), Citico (near Bluff View), Chickamauga (on Chickamauga Creek where the Brainerd Mission was later located), Opelika (near East Ridge) and Buffalo (near Ringgold). Supplied by the British, Dragging Canoe's raiding parties burned homes and towns as far away as Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Ohio through the 1780s and into the early 1790s. Whites retaliated, and violence swept the frontier.

Convinced that the constant state of war had to end, President George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox developed in the late 1780s a new plan to guide white-Indian relations. The plan encouraged Indians to adopt American-style farming practices. When the fighting stopped in 1794, the American government committed to distributing farm equipment and spinning wheels and taught basic trades -- blacksmithing, carpentry and weaving. Washington and Knox hoped that Native Americans, in time, would merge into "the advancing white frontier as equal citizens."

While most Cherokee continued to live lives defined by tradition, others adopted American business practices and ideas of private property. James Vann, for example, built ferries and taverns to serve travelers on the Federal Road. Joe Vann bought steamboats that carried trade on the Tennessee River. And John Ross established trading stations at important river landings.

Many of those who practiced Americanized commerce, also purchased African descended slaves. By the early 1830s, about 8 percent of Cherokee households owned slaves, usually less than 10 each. A few, such as the Vann family, owned large plantations and more than 100 slaves.

Cherokee politics also were remade. The decentralized system that they had practiced for generations proved un-workable in relations with the United States. By 1810, the trend toward centralizing the political nation was well underway with the organization of a national council. In 1828, they established the Cherokee Nation governed by a Constitution that looked quite similar to the United States Constitution.

A written language invented by Sequoyah and introduced to the Cherokee people in 1821 helped forge a sense of national unity. This easy-to-master writing system spread quickly, and within a few years, most Cherokees could read and write in their own -- now standardized -- language. In 1828, the Cherokee Nation began publishing its own bi-lingual newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix.

At the same time, American attitudes began to shift. The first American Presidents believed Indian people should remain sovereign. By the 1810s, however, many believed that U.S. expansion required the elimination of any other sovereign power within its national boundaries. Georgia and Tennessee settlers -- looking to claim land for themselves -- increasingly called for removal. By 1830, the stage was set for a final struggle for the Cherokee homeland.

Dr. Daryl Black is a social and cultural historian of the 18th and 19th century United States. He is executive director of the Chattanooga History Center. For more visit or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.