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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.


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 ii: Cherokee Origins and First European Contact

Greenfield LakeThe Cherokee, members of the Iroquoian language group, are descended from the native peoples who occupied the southern Appalachian Mountains beginning in approximately 8000 b.c. By 1500 b.c., a distinct Cherokee language had developed, and by 1000 a.d. the Cherokee were living a Woodland lifestyle with unique cultural characteristics influenced by Mississippian religious traditions. The growing and harvesting of corn, or selu, beans, and squash—the Cherokee "three sisters"—were ascribed deep spiritual significance, as were other occupations, including hunting, the care and cleaning of homes, the gathering of other essential foods, games, dances, and religious ceremonies. The central philosophy of duyuktv, meaning "the right way," prescribed that the Cherokee attempt to obtain harmony and balance in every aspect of their lives, particularly with respect to the natural world. Communal responsibility and sacrifice were essential to the Cherokee vision of life, as symbolized by the central plaza—used for public ceremonies—and the council house, or town house, which held the "sacred fire," embodying the spiritual essence of the town. Besides food, the environment provided all that the people needed, including medicine, clothing, weapons, shelter, musical instruments, and personal adornments. The governing of Cherokee towns was through democratic consensus as well as the leadership of priests, war chiefs, and peace chiefs. Familial ties and clan affiliations came through Cherokee women, who owned the houses and fields and passed them on to their daughters.

Although initial contact took place during Hernando De Soto's expedition in 1540, sustained relations between Europeans and the Cherokee were not established until the late seventeenth century by traders from Virginia and South Carolina. During the seventeenth century, Cherokees living in what became North Carolina were distributed among the "Middle Towns" along the Little Tennessee River, the "Valley Towns" along the Hiwassee and Valley Rivers, and the "Out Towns" on the Tuckasegee and Oconaluftee Rivers. As British and French colonial aspirations began to clash, the Cherokee became increasingly important as a buffer and continued to alternate alliances between the two nations. In 1730 Alexander Cuming took seven Cherokees to England, reinforcing Cherokee alliances with the English that had been established through a treaty signed at the Town of Neguassee. The increasing pressure of European expansion, and the subsequent loss of much of their territory, led the Cherokee to initiate hostilities as the French and Indian War (1754-63) progressed. Virginian hostility toward the Cherokee led to the Cherokee War of 1760-61, a war in which the tribe suffered extensive losses.

Keep reading > Part iii: Disease, destruction, and the loss of Cherokee land  keep reading

Image credits:

Sommer. "Greenfield Lake, Wilmington," 1950. Photograph no. ConDev8276A. Views from Variety Vacationland. From the North Carolina Conservation and Development Department, Travel and Tourism Division Photo Files, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC, USA. Online at:,1879



This is helpful. Thanks.


All my life I have been told that I have Indian ancestors. Now that I am almost 70, my daughter would like more info on this connection. Unfortunately my parents, grandparents and great grandparents are all deceased, and I can't find any written records. My only clue is something my grandmother told me, that a generation before my great grand parents, an Irish ancestor married a Native American in North Carolina, so we all have Indian and Irish ancestors. How do I start a search to verify this information? I do have the names of my grandfather and his sister, and they were from the RaleighN area.


Hello James!
You can email professional Indian Genealogist that specializes in Cherokee/Five Civilized Tribes research that has been doing Indian research for over 30 years and can tell you anything you need to know. Email


Dear James,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and taking time to share your family history and questions.

By email, I am connecting you with Reference Services at the N.C. Government & Heritage Library.  A librarian will contact you shortly to assist you with your questions and provide some resources. In the meantime, you may wish to visit the Genealogy research page on the library's website.  It will provide you will information about the library's collections and services for family history research.  Here is the link:

Good luck in your research!

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library


Good info although it needs a little more information about before the Europeans came.

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