Cherokee Indian Reservation historical marker

Cherokee Indian Reservation (Q-14)

Established by United States for Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians after removal of 1838. (Reverse) (LEAVING) Established by United States for Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians after removal of 1838.

Location: US 19 west of Cherokee
County: Swain
Original Date Cast: 1939

“The more things change, the more they stay the same” is a summation of the history of the Cherokee Indian Reservation, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As descendants of the first inhabitants in North America, the Cherokee have created an environment that enables members to live, work, and enjoy life in the twenty-first century while remaining close to their heritage. Theirs is a history of perseverance—enduring wars, widespread disease epidemics, and government-sponsored relocation initiatives, the Cherokee have preserved a distinctive culture in western North Carolina. The modern town of Cherokee showcases those traditions and is a place where the nation can appreciate a civilization that has survived thousands of years.

The ancestors of the Cherokee sparsely occupied an area of 140,000 square miles across the southeastern United States. With a culture dating back 10,000 years, the Cherokee had developed linguistics shortly before the first millennium of the Common Era. Along with other tribes in present day North Carolina such as the Tuscarora, Pee Dee, Saura, Catawba and Meherrin, the Cherokee developed agricultural techniques for corn, beans, and squash, three vegetables that formed a triad of sustenance for the villages. Trade routes through the mountains, such as the Cataloochee Trail, allowed interaction and trade with other tribes that proved beneficial, although war among tribes was not uncommon. Contact with Europeans, however, would prove to be less benevolent, and led to a succession of hardships lasting well into the middle of the nineteenth century.

Spaniard Hernando De Soto, seeking both riches and Christian converts, visited the Cherokee during his two-year expedition, beginning in 1540. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Cherokee saw increased interaction as more European settlers arrived in the New World. South Carolinians executed one of the first campaigns against the Cherokee for land, known as the Cherokee War of 1715. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the Cherokee inhabited three distinct areas in what is now North Carolina, and benefited from animosity between the French and the British through alliances with whatever side offered the most lucrative pact. Alliances with the French, however, led to tensions among the English colonists, and events such as the Cherokee defeat at Fort Dobbs as well as the Battle of Echoe, set the stage for the settlers’ encroachment on Cherokee land. During the Revolutionary War, campaigns against the Cherokee continued. Expeditions against the Cherokee, led by Colonel Andrew Williamson and General Griffith Rutherford during the 1770s, diminished the tribe’s population and influence in western North Carolina. Disease was also a crucial factor in the decline of Cherokee power, as a smallpox epidemic, claiming as many as 10,000, nearly halved the tribe after warriors returned from a British expedition into Florida in 1739.

While disease and war took their toll on the Cherokee, the land, which they at one time roamed freely, was fast disappearing. The first land cessions occurred in the eighteenth century, when the tribe found itself on the losing end of the French and Indian War. Starting in 1770, the Cherokee agreed to cede vast amounts of land, a process that culminated in the 1775 transfer of half of the tribe’s hunting grounds, bringing the total land lost in some five years to approximately 55,000 square miles.

The United States government played a significant role in acquiring Cherokee land. The Andrew Jackson administration supported the 1830 Indian Removal Act, a government gesture intended to remove Cherokee and other tribes from land in the Southeast. While a meeting between government and Cherokee officials occurred in 1835, the Cherokee claim their representatives were not authorized, rendering the subsequent agreement, which exchanged the Cherokee’s southeastern land for tracts in what is now Oklahoma, invalid. Thus began the “Trail of Tears,” where in 1838, almost 15,000 Indians from Tennessee, Georgia, North and South Carolina were marched to Oklahoma, a journey that claimed the lives of an estimated 4,000 participants. Some Indians held claim to residence in North Carolina, however, and others who chose to return later setting the stage for the establishment of the Indian Reservation in Cherokee, North Carolina, after the Eastern Band of the Cherokee received federal recognition in 1868.

In 1870, the Eastern Band created a constitutional government that has been sovereign ever since, providing all services to members that the federal government extends to U. S. citizens. The terrestrial limit of the reservation is known as the Qualla Boundary. Now serving about 13,000 members, the Eastern Band has blended the conveniences of modern life with the rich heritage of their Cherokee ancestors throughout the reservation. The Oconaluftee Indian Village has a traditional motif, where crafts, pottery, and weapons are made and sold. An outdoor theatrical performance, Unto These Hills, dramatizes the Trail of Tears. Since 1988, the reservation has operated casinos, a controversial yet lucrative industry that supports, in part, reservation expenses. While the Cherokee—like everyone else—have found change a necessity, they refuse to embrace progress at the expense of their past, making the reservation an excellent example of the cultural diversity found in the Old North State.

William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)—sketch by William L. Anderson, Ruth Y. Wetmore, and John L. Bell
John R. Finger, The Eastern Band of Cherokees, 1819-1900 (1984)
John Ehle, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (1988)
Eastern Band of the Cherokee website:

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