Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Cherokee in Tennessee

From Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories

Cherokee Map.jpg

The Cherokees were the “mountaineers” of the southeastern Indian tribes.  Their nation extended from Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina northward through the eastern part of Tennessee, western North Carolina, and Virginia as far northward as West Virginia.  The boundaries of their nation were vague, and this was one difficulty in the Cherokees’ attempts to oppose white settlement in their territory.

This tribe’s subsistence involved hunting, gathering, and farming.  The dietary mainstay was corn.  Cherokees lived mainly in small huts and tents.  In a manner that is still difficult for many white people to understand, the Indians lived with a reverence for nature and had established a more viable, conservationist-type of existence, perhaps, than the civilization which replaced them.

The name “Cherokee”, interestingly, is not a word in the Cherokee language.  The English explorers of the early 1700’s began the use of the word, it seems.  The name the Cherokees gave themselves was Ani-Yunwiya, that is, “principal people.”  This they believed themselves to be, as the largest tribe in the southeastern portion of this country.  The Cherokees had four major groups of towns, of which one – the Upper of Overhill (i.e. located across the mountains from the Caroline settlements) towns – were in Tennessee exclusively.  These towns were primarily along the Little Tennessee, Tellico, and Hiwassee Rivers.  There seems to be some confusion about the ”Lower” Towns, however – some sources indicating South Carolina – Georgia location, others signifying Tennessee – Georgia – Alabama – South Carolina positions.  The map at the right indicates the Lower Towns in the arrangement portrayed in Alderman’s and Andrews’ The Overmountain Men.  The towns shown were attacked by white militiamen in 1794, in the “Nickajack Expedition” following a series of Indian troubles.   The result was a considerable reduction in Cherokee hostilities.

Conflicts between whites and Cherokees had begun almost as soon as Europeans had pushed across the mountains from the east.  The Indians naturally opposed white claims to lands that had been used as Cherokee hunting grounds for generations, and the troubles were intensified by Spanish, French and last British agitation of the Indians – Creeks and Shawnees as well as Cherokees.

The siege of Fort Loudoun in 1760 was the first large-scale engagement in Tennessee between Cherokees and whites.  This fort was situated on the Little Tennessee River.  It was built by the British in their effort to gain control of the area – not to offer protection to settlers, for at that time, no serious settlement by whites had begun.  In fact, William Bean is usually stated to be the first permanent white settler of Tennessee in 1769.  A British garrison of Fort Loudoun was starved into submission by a Cherokee siege in 1760, and the troops were attacked, with many killed, as they were marched away from the fort following surrender.  This seems to have been a retaliatory act by the Cherokees for an earlier execution of Cherokee hostages by British soldiers.  In any case, the result was the so-called “Cherokee War,” in which a number of Cherokee towns were destroyed and about half of all their warriors were lost.

Bloody conflicts between white settlers and the Cherokees continued in Tennessee until the end of the eighteenth century.  General John Sevier, who became the first governor of Tennessee, gained fame in his contests against the Cherokees; in some 35 battles, Sevier never lost.  He was a hero in the King’s Mountain battle against the British.