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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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by William L. Anderson and Ruth Y. Wetmore, 2006.
Additional research provided by John L. Bell.

Part i: Overview; Part ii: Cherokee origins and first European contact; Part iii: Disease, destruction, and the loss of Cherokee land; Part iv: Revolutionary War, Cherokee defeat and additional land cessions; Part v: Trail of Tears and the creation of the Eastern Band of Cherokees; Part vi: Federal recognition and the fight for Cherokee rights; Part vii: Modern-day Cherokee life and culture; Part viii: References and additional resources

Part iii: Disease, Destruction, and the Loss of Cherokee Land

Cherokee medicine pouchSmallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans and enslaved Africans were more devastating to the Cherokee and other southeastern Indians than war. Since the Indians did not have the immune system the Europeans had built up after centuries of contact with these diseases, simple contact could set off an epidemic. Cherokee people were exposed to smallpox for a period spanning over three centuries. Probably their first exposure was in 1698, when a smallpox epidemic decreased their population measurably. In 1738-39 the tribe experienced its worst epidemic from smallpox, when the disease was brought by traders or was brought back from an expedition in which the Cherokee aided the British against the Spanish in Florida. Between 7,000 and 10,000 Cherokees died, representing about one-half of the tribe's population. Since medicine men were unable to provide a cure, the Cherokee tried a traditional method of purification—sweat houses followed by plunging into icy streams. This practice only added to the number who died. Others who survived the disease were horror stricken by their disfigurement and killed themselves rather than live in disgrace.

In addition to population losses, the 1738-39 epidemic had other consequences for the Cherokee. Towns were relocated, Cherokee distrust of the English increased, and the French gained a foothold among the tribe. The epidemic also brought a deterioration of Cherokee culture by challenging religious beliefs, almost destroying the medicine man's perceived power. Smallpox struck the Cherokee people again in 1759-60 during the French and Indian War.

Although the Cherokee first made land cessions to Europeans in 1721 and 1755, British victory in the French and Indian War in 1763 ended the need for the tribe as a buffer and brought increasing pressure of colonial expansion. Although the Proclamation Line of 1763 officially prohibited white settlers from entering Indian territory, white encroachment on Cherokee lands continued after the establishment of the line. The years 1768, 1770, 1773, and 1775 saw a series of "voluntary" land cessions made by the Cherokee. The 1775 cession, led by land speculator Judge Richard Henderson, involved most of the upper half of Cherokee hunting grounds and included most of what is modern-day Kentucky. In all during this period, the Cherokee people ceded almost 50,000 square miles of land.

Map of the Cherokee nation, 1760

Keep reading > Part iv: Revolutionary War, Cherokee defeat and additional land cessions right arrow

Image credits:

"Medicine pouch," 1700-1850. Accn no. H.19XX.377.1. Online collections. From the North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, NC, USA.

Kitchin, Thomas. "A New Map of the Cherokee Nation," c. 1760. Call no. Cm9121760k. North Carolina Maps. Online at:




There were a variety of diseases that the Cherokee would have faced on the Trail of Tears. The diseases like smallpox that the Europeans brought over had mostly run their course through the tribe by this time, but some small number may still have been affected by them. However, they also faced diseases that were common to all people at the time, especially those traveling, like diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, typhoid, and influenza.

You can visit our page on infectious diseases the were common in North Carolina in the Nineteenth Century: These diseases would have been more prevalent and harder to treat while the Cherokee were traveling because of the unsanitary conditions and lack of medical treatment available on the forced march.

I hope this helps, if you need more information please feel free to respond to this post.

Best Wishes,

Christopher Luettger - NC Government and Heritage Library


I am studying European diseases effects on native Americans (east coast vs. west) and was wondering what a good primary source would be for this topic?


Hi i am studying Cherokee Indians i wonder how many people die from the disease on the trail of tears. we 7th graders are studying about you and other tribes. please email back soon like today or tomorrow thank you.


Hi Jeris,

The exact number of deaths is unknown.  However, it has been estimated that approximately 4,000 of the 15,000 removed died on the Trail of Tears, from disease, cold, and starvation. 

I hope this helps!  Please let me know if you have more questions.

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library


Hey dad


Hi son


Hi Jeris,

Thanks for visiting NCpedia and taking time to share your project and question.

Here is another NCpedia article on the Cherokee that is specifically about the Trail of Tears.  While it doesn't indicate specifically the number who perished from disease, it does indicate and estimate of the total death toll --

Here some additional resources that you may be interested in:

National Park Service site for the Trail of Tears --

Website of the Cherokee Nation --

Books:  numerous books have been written about the Trail of Tears. You may want to visit your school's or local public library to see what resources are available.

Let us know if you have any additional questions or need more help.

I hope this helps!  And good luck with your project!

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library

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