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History

According to tribal history, Cherokee people have existed since time immemorial. Our oral history extends back through the millennia. It’s recorded that our first European contact came in 1540 with Hernando DeSoto’s exploration of the southeastern portion of our continent. Trade and intermarriage with various European immigrants soon followed, most notably with the English, Scots and Irish. Treaties were made between the British and the Cherokee Nation as early as 1725, with Cherokee Nation being recognized as inherently sovereign through those nation-to-nation agreements. Cherokees took up arms in various sides of conflicts between the European factions, in hopes of staving off further predations of Cherokee land and sovereign rights.

In time, missionaries and European influences created a strong educational and spiritual framework, with many Cherokees becoming Christians and sending their children to missionary schools to be educated in English. By the time gold was discovered in the Cherokee Nation in 1828 near Dahlonega, Georgia, the Cherokee Nation had a written language, a newspaper that published in both Cherokee and English and a Constitutional government. A few Cherokees had even emulated their southern U.S. counterparts by building plantations worked by slaves.

Despite this assimilation, by 1835 a number of treaties with the U.S. had ceded away all but a small area of Cherokee Nation’s once vast lands. Under mounting pressure to give up what land remained, a small group of Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota that year, agreeing to relocate the entire Cherokee Nation to western lands where some of the tribe (who became known as Old Settlers) had already moved. Principal Chief John Ross refused to sign the Treaty of New Echota and urged the Cherokee people to stay in their homelands, in hopes he could get the treaty rescinded.

Despite many efforts to defeat the New Echota Treaty, measures to remove Cherokees from their homes and farms got underway in 1838. Cherokees, intermarried whites and even slaves were summarily rounded up and placed into more than a dozen stockades to await their departure. It’s estimated that 16,000 Cherokees eventually were forced to undertake the six to seven month journey to “Indian Territory” in the land beyond Arkansas. Between the stockades, starvation and sickness, and the harsh winter conditions, some 4,000 Cherokees perished, never reaching their new land.

Ever resilient, the Cherokee people rebuilt their lives in Indian Territory, along with other tribes who had also been similarly driven away from the southeast. Cherokee Nation’s government unified the Old Settlers with the Cherokees recently immigrated from the east, ratifying a new Cherokee Nation Constitution on September 6, 1839. A new Supreme Court building quickly followed in 1844, along with the resurgence of the tribe’s newspaper, schools, businesses and other entities. The Cherokee people thrived until the advent of the Civil War once again pulled the tribe apart.

 

Although Cherokee Nation was not technically part of the U.S., it was forced to take sides in the War Between the States. While two-thirds of Cherokee men fought on the side of the Union, another third was actively part of the Confederate effort. When the Union abandoned nearby Ft. Gibson, which had up to then provided some measure of protection from southern troops, Principal Chief Ross felt he had no choice but to sign in support of the Confederacy. Upon the Union victory, Cherokee Nation signed its last treaty with the U.S., the somewhat punitive Treaty of 1866.

Cherokee Nation barely had time to rebuild after the war before another threat loomed—allotment. Cherokees owned their land collectively and the concept of individual land ownership was foreign. By the late 1800s, sentiment in the U.S. turned towards moving Indians to reservations and opening their lands for occupation and westward expansion. The Cherokee Nation had been promised by treaty they would not be bothered in their new home and would never be removed again. Instead, the U.S. chose to create a new state and allot tribes’ land out to individual owners. With Oklahoma statehood in 1907, Cherokees suddenly became land owners and state citizens. Much of the Cherokee Nation’s infrastructure was dissolved, including schools, courts and most of its government.

A dark period of great poverty ensued for many Cherokees, who suddenly had a new government and laws to navigate, as non-Indians quickly acquired former tribal lands. Tribal government trickled but never halted entirely. With the 1960s civil rights movement, a resurgence in tribal efforts took hold. The Principal Chief’s Act of 1970 paved the way for certain tribes including the Cherokee Nation to take back their government and popularly elect tribal officials once again. In 1971, the first Cherokee Nation election in nearly 70 years was held and a new Constitution ratified in 1975.

We have never looked back.