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Cherokee Indians

Read about the history of the Cherokee Indians in America.

The Cherokee Indians have a difficult history to say the least. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
The Cherokee Indians have a difficult history to say the least.

In 1540 Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto made the first documented European contact with the Cherokee Indians. At the time of the Europeans' arrival, the Cherokee Indians had lived on territory that covered parts of at least five states for generations.

A History of Broken Treaties

In 1750, the Cherokee allied with British forces against the French and their Iroquois allies. Around this same period, they survived a smallpox epidemic that almost wiped out the entire tribe.

In 1827, the Cherokee Nation was established with headquarters in northern Georgia. Their government in New Echota, Ga., was modeled after the United States government. They had an elected chief, a judiciary system and a bicameral government with a senate and a house of representatives.

In 1830, when gold was discovered in Cherokee territory, a small fraction of the tribe was pressured to sign a treaty that would push the entire tribe beyond the Mississippi and away from the gold fields. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the treaty, the state of Georgia ordered the tribe's removal. President Andrew Jackson not only refused to intervene, but fully supported the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Approximately 15,000 Cherokees were forcibly removed to the Indian Territory that Congress established in 1838. The Indian Territory included parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died of hunger, starvation and disease on the long march from Georgia and North Carolina to the Indian Territory. This event became known as "The Trail of Tears."

Cherokees joined the Seminoles, Choctaws, Creeks and Chickasaws in Indian Territory. These tribes were called the "Five Civilized Tribes" because they had adopted many of the European settlers' customs and government, and had lived peacefully with their neighbors.

There were Cherokees, however, who had escaped the Trail of Tears by hiding in the hills of North Carolina. This group became known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina.

During the Civil War, most of the Five Civilized Tribes aided the Confederacy. Seventy percent of the Cherokees, however, fought for the Union even though some Cherokees owned black slaves. Note that the Cherokee Nation voluntarily freed slaves in 1863, before the Emancipation Proclamation.

After the war, the Five Civilized Tribes were moved to the Oklahoma Strip, a narrow piece of land in northern Oklahoma on the Kansas border. The Cherokees' slaves were admitted into tribal citizenship. In 1893, the Oklahoma Strip was sold to the U.S. government for non-Native American settlement. This triggered the Oklahoma land rush with more than 50,000 people clamoring for 12,000 available tracts of land.

Cherokee Ancestry

Many Americans have DNA from Native American tribes. It is believed that more Americans have Cherokee ancestry in their genetic makeup than from any other tribe. Cherokees began genetically mixing with European settlers in the 18th century. In particular, families from the mountains of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and west Arkansas have Cherokee blood.

Persons who can prove at least 1/16th Cherokee blood can qualify for membership in the Cherokee tribe. Cherokee ancestry is usually verified by at least one ancestor entered into the Dawes Roll, a Federal census of Native Americans conducted from 1898 to 1907. This census also included the ancestors of 2,867 freed non-Indian African-American slaves. In all, more than 101,000 names from the Five Civilized Tribes were entered into the Dawes Rolls.

In a controversial decision made in 2007, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma voted to remove descendants of the black "freedmen" from official tribal membership unless they could prove Cherokee ancestry.

The Cherokee Indians Today

The Cherokee Nation is the second largest Native American tribe in the United States. Their tribal population numbers about 270,000. Most Cherokees reside in Oklahoma with a much smaller number residing on reservation land in western North Carolina.

Today the Cherokees are split into three federally recognized tribes that include the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the United Keetoowah Band (also of Oklahoma) and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina. Cherokee tribes that aren't federally recognized include the Cherokees of California and the Cherokee Nation of Mexico.

The capital for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the largest of the three recognized tribes, is in Tahlequa, Okla.

Humorist Will Rogers is probably the most famous member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Twelve thousand members of the United Keetoowah Band, also of Tahlequa, broke off from the main Cherokee Nation tribe for reasons of tribal tradition. Keetoowah membership is limited to those who can prove one-quarter or more Cherokee blood. Prior to World War I, the Keetoowah became the first and only official federally recognized Cherokee tribe. After World War II, President Harry Truman recognized the then-leader of the Cherokee Nation as the recognized leader of the Cherokee people. This had caused a division so deep that Oklahoma tribe members aren't allowed to carry dual citizenship in the United Keetoowah Band and the Cherokee Nation.

Approximately 7,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina live on 56,000 acres of reservation in the Smoky Mountains now known as the Qualla Boundary.

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