Disease and Genocide

From the "Declaration of Designed Purpose" by Chadwick "Corntassel" Smith - Cherokee Nation Principal Chief and Hastings Shade - Cherokee Nation Deputy Chief

Alliances, Disease, and Genocide
Although De Soto's march through the southeast probably brought the first news of European explorers to the Cherokees, intensive contact with Europeans did not come until almost 150 years later. By the late 1600s, the Cherokees were entering more extensively into trading relationships, primarily with the English in Virginia and South Carolina.

An old Cherokee story prophesied the impact of the deer trade on the Cherokees. From the beginning, there had been an agreement between the Cherokees and the animals that the animals would sacrifice some of their own to sustain the Cherokee people, provided the people took no more than they needed to live, and provided they showed the proper honor and respect to the animal at the time of the kill. For many generations, the Cherokees had abided by this agreement as they hunted the animals, and the animals had given their lives without remonstrance.

But a time came when the Cherokees began to be greedy, and started to take more of the lives of the animals than they needed. At last the situation became intolerable, and the animals called a council to discuss their situation. They decided that since the Cherokees were killing them so indiscriminately, they would do the same to the Cherokees to teach them a lesson. At that council, each animal invented a new disease, and when they left the council, they unleashed these new diseases on the outside world, the world of the Cherokees.

Just as prophesied, the Cherokees began to hunt more of the deer that had always been a staple of their existence as the trade goods of Europeans became more enticing to the Cherokees. Now they traded these deerskins to the English for cloth, blankets, brass kettles and pots, and, most especially, guns. And as their contact with Europeans increased, so did their exposure to new diseases to which they had no immunity. Finally, in 1738, disaster struck as the most terrible smallpox epidemic they had ever known spread throughout the Cherokee towns. For eighteen months the Cherokees battled the scourge and as many as half of the 20,000 people of the tribe perished.

The decentralized government of the Cherokees was not as effective in dealing with the colonial situation as it had been throughout earlier generations. Because each town was autonomous in its leadership, and there was no national structure of leadership, the British were often able to manipulate the towns against each other. This created a situation of competition between various Cherokee towns for the positions of privilege and favor from the British.

Finally, by the 1750s, the Cherokee chiefs and headmen designated Chota, an overhill town in what is now north-central Tennessee, as the primary town of the Cherokees. The headman of Chota, a man named Old Hop, was selected as the principal chief, or spokesperson, of the Cherokees. At the same time, the Cherokees began meeting regularly in councils to communicate more closely with each other and to better resist the divide-and-conquer tactics of the British.

This more centralized structure of chief and councils also gave itself some measure of coercive authority over Cherokees who were skirmishing with colonists on the borders of the Cherokee territory. For the first time, this began to establish a level of law beyond that of the clans and blood law.

The 1700s were also characterized by repeated periods of warfare. The presence of encroaching settlers, especially near the regions of the Lower Towns of present day western South Carolina, led to many border skirmishes between the English and Cherokees. The Cherokees as a whole were severely penalized for these skirmishes. Although the Cherokees entered into a treaty alliance with the British in 1755 at the outbreak of the French and Indian Wars, the sympathies of most Cherokees began to sway toward the French.

Their British allies actually began to attack Cherokee towns by 1759, and within two years, most of the Lower and Middle Towns of the Cherokees, in present day western South and North Carolina, were raided and the structures, dwellings, cornfields, and orchards were burned. Livestock was run off or confiscated; men, women, and children were killed, and perhaps 5000 Cherokees had been run into the mountains as refugees. By 1761, the Cherokees were forced to enter into a peace agreement with the British, which effectively removed them from the duration of the War.

In the following decade, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, the Cherokees were again sought as an ally. Once again the Cherokees allied with the British, despite the tense relationship between them. In response, the Americans launched a concerted genocidal campaign against the Cherokees in an attempt to eradicate the Cherokees from the face of the earth. In a strategic effort, the Americans in Virginia attacked the Upper Towns of the Cherokees, the militias in the Carolinas attacked the Middle and Valley Towns, and South Carolina attacked the Lower Towns. In rapid succession, over two-thirds of the Cherokee towns were wiped out in the early 1780s. Yet again, dwellings, fields, and orchards were burned, stores of food were plundered and burned, stock was driven off or killed, and thousands of Cherokees fled into the mountains where starvation and exposure were commonplace. Others were held as prisoners of war, and still others were sold into slavery by the Americans.

Lacking any support from their British allies, the Cherokees were brought to their knees by 1782 and were forced to sue for peace. In 1783, disaster struck again as smallpox returned to sweep through the Cherokees. One-third of the remaining people died in the epidemic, bringing the Cherokees to their lowest population ever, about 9000 people.

The 1700s mark the first century of intensive contact between Europeans/Americans and Cherokees. On the whole, it was absolutely disastrous for the Cherokees. As they faced wave after wave of adversity, disease, warfare and the decimation of their populations and their towns, the Cherokees struggled valiantly to survive and even began making some governmental adaptations to that end. But the prosperity that had once belonged to the Cherokees was crushed. The balance of their world was gone.

Information provided by the Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center. For information regarding culture and language, please contact: culture@cherokee.org.