Cherokee Indians

By: Carol A. Lipscomb

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: October 20, 2020

The Cherokees call themselves Ani-Yunwiya, the "Principal People." They were indeed one of the principal Indian nations of the southeastern United States until pressure from advancing Europeans forced their westward migration. They were a settled agricultural people whose ancestral lands covered much of the southern Appalachian highlands, an area that included parts of Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. The Cherokees' Iroquoian language and migration legends suggest that the tribe originated to the north of their traditional homeland. Cherokee society reflected an elaborate social, political, and ceremonial structure. Their basic political unit was the town, which consisted of all the people who used a single ceremonial center. Within each town, a council, dominated by older men, handled political affairs. Individual towns sent representatives to regional councils to discuss policy for the corporate group, especially issues of diplomacy or warfare. Towns typically included thirty to forty households clustered around a central townhouse that was used as a meeting place. Houses were square or rectangular huts constructed of locked poles, weatherproofed with wattle and daub plaster, and roofed with bark. Cherokee society was organized into clans, or kin groups. The clans were matrilineal, and marriage within the clan was prohibited. There were seven major Cherokee clans, each identified by a particular animal totem. A variety of clans was represented in each community and performed significant social, legal, and political functions.

The Cherokees' first contact with Europeans came in 1540, when members of a Spanish expedition led by Hernando De Soto (see MOSCOSO EXPEDITION) passed through Cherokee territory. After that brief encounter, more than a hundred years passed before the Cherokees had significant association with Europeans. The 1670s marked the beginning of sustained contact between the two cultures, and that contact influenced Cherokee lives in many ways. The Cherokees were quick to adapt many material elements of European culture to their own society, a characteristic that led to their designation as one of the "Five Civilized Tribes." They established a constitutional government with a senate, a house of representatives, and an elected chief. The Cherokees had a written language devised by the tribe's syllabary genius, Sequoyah. They valued education and often maintained schools for their children. The dress of the Cherokees also reflected their acculturative tendencies. Women wove cotton cloth and adopted a European style of dress. Men traditionally wore a turban, cloth tunic, or coat bound at the waist by a sash, skin leggings with garters below the knees, and moccasins. Although the Cherokees derived some advantages from interaction with European cultures, those were far outweighed by the negative effects of that contact. Throughout the eighteenth century the process of European empire building subjected the Cherokees to calamitous wars, epidemics, and food shortages, all of which resulted in declining population, shrinking territory, and weakening group identity. Between 1790 and 1820, many Cherokees, hoping to preserve what remained of their traditional culture, voluntarily migrated west of the Mississippi River and settled in the future Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. Those who chose to remain on their ancestral land in the Southeast were ultimately forced to move west by the United States Indian removal policy, which was initiated in 1830. Between 1838 and 1839, 16,000 to 18,000 Cherokees were forcibly marched to their new home in northeastern Indian Territory. An estimated 4,000 died on the march, which has come to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Cherokees were first reported in Texas in 1807, when a small band, probably an offshoot of the Arkansas settlements, established a village on the Red River. In the summer of that year, a delegation of Cherokees, Pascagoulas, Chickasaws, and Shawnees sought permission from Spanish officials in Nacogdoches, the easternmost town in Texas, to settle members of their tribes in that province. The request was approved by Spanish authorities, who intended to use the immigrant Indians as a buffer against American expansion. For several years a small number of Cherokees drifted in and out of Texas. Subsequently, between 1812 and 1819, increasing population pressure in Arkansas compelled more Cherokees to migrate south. In the spring of 1819, Cherokees began settling in Lost Prairie, an area between the Sulphur Fork and the Red River in what is now Miller County, Arkansas, and within a year some 200 Cherokees had settled there. But they could not escape American competition for the land. By 1820 Anglo-Americans had established seven settlements in the valley of the Red River, and the Cherokees began to consider moving further south. In early 1820, Chief Bowl, also known as Duwali, led some sixty Cherokee families into Texas. They settled first on the Three Forks of the Trinity River (at the site of present Dallas), but pressure from prairie tribes forced them to move eastward into a virtually uninhabited region north of Nacogdoches now in Rusk County. They carved out farms on land that belonged to their friends, the Caddoes, a once powerful Indian confederacy that had been greatly reduced by warfare and epidemic diseases. By 1822 the Texas Cherokee population had grown to nearly three hundred.

While the Cherokees were establishing their homes in East Texas, the government of Texas passed from Spain to Mexico. Mexican officials, like their Spanish predecessors, welcomed the presence of Cherokees in Texas. Cherokee headmen, having learned the importance of holding legal title to real property, repeatedly petitioned Mexican authorities for a permanent land grant. Richard Fields, a Cherokee diplomat, conducted negotiations with the Mexican government in the early 1820s, and although Fields claimed that his tribe had been granted land north of the Old San Antonio Road between the Trinity and Sabine rivers, the Mexican government denied the claim. While the government delayed granting the Cherokees clear title to the land, the population of East Texas swelled. By the mid-1820s, Americans were drifting into the region south and east of the Cherokee settlement. Distrust developed between the two peoples as each felt its security threatened by the other. By the late 1820s the rapid influx of American settlers to Texas alarmed Mexican officials, who feared losing the province to the growing United States. The Law of April 6, 1830, prohibited further American immigration to Texas. At the same time, Mexican authorities resurrected their policy of using the Cherokees as a buffer against immigrant Americans. By 1830 the Cherokee population of Texas was approaching 400. The tribe was congregated in at least three but possibly as many as seven towns north of Nacogdoches along the Sabine River and its tributaries, including a stream now known as Cherokee Creek. In order to secure Cherokee aid, Mexican officials proposed giving the Cherokees the long-sought title to their land, but the Indians lacked the money and legal expertise to complete the complicated procedure. However, lingering hopes of securing legal rights to their land kept the Cherokees loyal to the Mexican government when Anglo-Texans began to protest Mexican rule in 1832. When the Texas Revolution erupted in 1835, the Cherokees still had not obtained title to their land, and their loyalty to Mexico placed them in a doubtful position with the revolutionary government in Texas. The Cherokees addressed the problem by declaring themselves neutral in the conflict between Texas and Mexico.

The Texas revolutionary government, anxious to ensure Cherokee neutrality, sent Sam Houston to counsel with the tribe in the fall of 1835. Houston, the newly elected commander of the Texan forces, was an adopted member of the Cherokee tribe and became an influential advocate of the Cherokee people. In November 1835 the Consultation, acting on Houston's recommendation, pledged to recognize Cherokee claims to the land north of the Old San Antonio Road and the Neches River and west of the Angelina and Sabine Rivers. The government also appointed John Forbes, John Cameron, and General Houston as commissioners and empowered them to negotiate a treaty with the tribe. The resulting agreement established a reservation for the Cherokees in East Texas, and although it considerably reduced their landholdings, the Cherokees agreed to the accord because they believed it finally gave them a permanent home. The reservation included the future Smith and Cherokee counties as well as parts of Van Zandt, Rusk, and Gregg counties. Eight Cherokee leaders, including Duwali and Big Mush, signed the agreement in 1836. But the treaty was never ratified by the Texas government. Although a majority of the Cherokees had agreed to peace with the Texans, a militant faction of the tribe remained pro-Mexican, a fact that greatly complicated Texan-Cherokee relations.

After the battle of San Jacinto in 1836, Sam Houston was elected president of the new Republic of Texas. He advocated peace with all Texas Indians and worked diligently to enlist the Cherokees as allies in his attempts to negotiate with the warring western tribes. In the fall of 1836 the Cherokees agreed to provide a company of twenty-five rangers to patrol the frontier that lay west of their settlements. The following year the aging Cherokee leader Duwali consented to serve as the republic's emissary to the Comanches. Texas-Cherokee relations deteriorated again in 1838, however, when attacks on settlers in East Texas were blamed on a combined Cherokee-Mexican force. Before leaving office, Houston attempted to preserve peace between Texans and Cherokees by establishing a boundary line separating their territory, but the line only angered Anglo-Texans who were clamoring for land and saw the Cherokees as allies of their enemies, the Mexicans. Houston's successor as president, Mirabeau B. Lamar, wanted the Cherokees removed from Texas. He sent troops to occupy the Neches Saline (see NECHES SALINE, TEXAS) in Cherokee country, and when Duwali blocked the advance of the Texans, Lamar notified the old chief that his people would be moved beyond the Red River, "peaceably if they would; forcibly if they must." The president then appointed commissioners who were authorized to compensate the Cherokees for land and property they would leave behind. The Cherokees decided to fight for their land, and the resulting conflict came to be known as the Cherokee War. In the summer of 1839, a force of several hundred warriors led by Duwali met Texas forces in the battle of the Neches near the site of present Tyler. More than 100 Indians, including Duwali, were killed, and the remaining Cherokees were driven across the Red River into Indian Territory. Some Cherokees continued to live a fugitive existence in Texas, while others took up residence in Mexico. A few even continued the fight against the Texans but with little success. When Houston was elected to a second presidential term in 1841, he inaugurated an Indian policy calculated to forestall future hostilities with immigrant tribes. As a result of his peace policy, treaties were concluded with the remaining Texas Cherokees in 1843 and 1844.

The Cherokees forced north of the Red River were reunited with some 6,000 Cherokees already settled in the northeastern corner of Indian Territory. The arrival of the destitute newcomers naturally caused problems for longtime residents, but in 1846, the same year that Texas formally joined the Union, representatives of all the Cherokee factions met in Washington, D.C., and signed an agreement specifying that the lands belonging to the Cherokee nation were for common use.

The Civil War, however, divided the Cherokee Nation once again. John Ross, chief officer of the tribe, favored neutrality, but the Southern Rights party, led by Stand Watie, was determined to fight for the South. In late 1861, Ross, fearing Confederate invasion, allied the nation with the South. When Union troops took control of Cherokee territory in 1863, many "Southern" Cherokees fled to Texas, but after the war, most of them returned to their homes in Indian Territory. In the decades after the war, the Cherokees endured a succession of federal efforts to reduce their landholdings. According to terms of an 1866 treaty with the federal government, the tribe agreed to cede the Cherokee Outlet, an eight-million-acre tract extending westward from the edge of the Cherokee Nation into the Plains. The land had been set aside to guarantee that the Cherokees would have unobstructed access to buffalo. The terms of the cession were not concluded until 1893, when the land was purchased by the federal government for roughly $1.40 an acre and opened to White homesteaders, who became known as "Sooners." The Cherokees were exempted from the provisions of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, which required tribal land to be broken up into individual allotments, but the exemption was short-lived. The Curtis Act, passed in 1898, required the Cherokees to establish tribal rolls and allot land to individual members on the basis of those rolls. By 1907, when Oklahoma became a state, the Cherokee lands had been severely reduced.

From the 1840s until the 1960s, Cherokees sought compensation from Texas for lands lost in 1839. In the mid-1850s the tribe had sent William P. Adair to Washington, D.C., to petition Congress for permission to sue the state of Texas for the return of 1.5 million acres in East Texas. The state offered the Cherokees fourteen million acres in the Panhandle as compensation, but the tribe declined the offer. For the next hundred years, the Cherokees periodically renewed their claims against the state of Texas, but without success. The most recent case, filed in 1963 by Earl Boyd Pearce, chief counsel for the Cherokees, petitioned the state of Texas for redress of the 1839 grievances. In an ingenious plan, Pearce asked for compensation in the form of free education for a thousand Cherokees in state-supported Texas universities. In an opinion handed down in March 1964, Texas attorney general Waggoner Carr denied the validity of the Cherokee claim on the grounds that the state of Texas is not liable for claims against the Republic of Texas.

In the 1970s the Cherokee Nation once again became a federally recognized "sovereign" nation, just as it had been for much of the nineteenth century. The nation, with its capital at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, has a population of 165,000 spread over fourteen counties in the northeastern corner of the state. Another 10,500 Cherokees, known as the Eastern Band, occupy the 56,000-acre Qualla Boundary Reservation in North Carolina. The town of Cherokee, located fifty miles west of Asheville, is the hub of that reservation. In the 1980 federal census, a total of 1,366,676 people across the United States identified themselves as Cherokees. The Cherokee Nation preserves tribal culture and seeks economic opportunities to provide a better future for its members.

Mary Whatley Clarke, Chief Bowles and the Texas Cherokees (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). Dianna Everett, The Texas Cherokees: A People between Two Fires, 1819–1840 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990). Grant Foreman, Sequoyah (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938). Duane M. King, The Cherokee Indian Nation: A Troubled History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979). James G. Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, 1900). Geoffrey Norman, "The Cherokee: Two Nations, One People," National Geographic, May 1995. E. W. Winkler, "The Cherokee Indians in Texas," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 7 (October 1903). Dorman H. Winfrey and James M. Day, eds., Texas Indian Papers (4 vols., Austin: Texas State Library, 1959–61; rpt., 5 vols., Austin: Pemberton Press, 1966). Grace Steele Woodward, The Cherokees (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Tribes (Major)
Time Periods:
  • Republic of Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Carol A. Lipscomb, “Cherokee Indians,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 20, 2020