A History Measured in Eons
No one knows exactly how long the Cherokee have lived in Western North Carolina. Artifacts that have been found indicate people lived here more than 11,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, and ancient Cherokee tales describe hunts of the mastodon that once foraged here.
At the time the first Europeans came in the 1500s, the Cherokee were a settled, agricultural people living in villages consisting of 30 to 60 houses and a large council house. Homes were usually made interweaving river cane in a circular framework and plastered with mud. In later periods, log cabins became the general rule. The large council houses were frequently located on mounds and were also the site of the sacred fire, which the Cherokee had kept burning from time immemorial.
By the beginning of the 18th century, the Cherokee territory had expanded to include part of southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, northwestern South Carolina, eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia and Alabama. Abundant in natural resources, this area provided hundreds of species of plants used for food, medicines, and crafts. A wide variety of trees provided fuel, weaving fibers, twine, medicinal barks and the framework and covering of dwellings, while plentiful animals provided food, clothing, shelter, and medicine.
Cherokee women did most of the farm work, harvesting crops of corn, beans, squash (the three sisters), and sunflowers. Cherokee men did most of the hunting, using bows and arrows and blowguns to shoot deer, wild turkeys, and small game; and using fishing poles and spears to fish. Cherokee dishes included cornbread, soups, and stews cooked on stone hearths. They made their own pots, utensils and baskets.
During the early 1800s, the Cherokee adopted their government to a written constitution and established their own courts and schools. Particularly noteworthy was the invention of written language by the Cherokee scholar Sequoyah in 1821. Utilizing an ingenious alphabet of 86 characters, almost the entire Cherokee Nation became literate within a few years. A Cherokee newspaper, the Phoenix, began publication in the native language in 1828.
By the 1830s, the federal government no longer needed the Cherokees as strategic allies and land speculators wanted this land for plantations and for the gold that was discovered in North Georgia. In 1838, the government forced the removal of the Cherokees in the East to Oklahoma. Over 16,000 Cherokee began the long march, with one quarter to half dying along the way of the "Trail of Tears."
The Cherokees in Western North Carolina today are the descendants from those Cherokees who were able to hold on to land they owned, or hid out in the hills, or were able to return. Today, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians is a sovereign nation of 100 square miles, with more than 13,000 enrolled members — a place where modern people respect and preserve the history of their people.