The area that now comprises the ten counties of southeastern Tennessee has been continuously inhabited for millennia. By the time of the first European contact in 1540, area residents had developed sophisticated political and religious organizations. The chiefdoms of the Tennessee River Valley controlled large expanses of agricultural land with population centers. For more than 150 years after contact, trade with the Europeans was limited and insignificant. It is unlikely that the Cherokees or neighboring Muskogean groups had any contact with English speakers until the late 17th century.
In 1693, a delegation of seven Cherokees traveled to Charleston to sign a treaty of friendship with the South Carolina colonists and asked for firearms to protect themselves against other Indians who were already well-armed. The necessity of European technology for self-defense brought about a new economic reality that would forever change native culture and political alliances. The southeastern Indians were able to supply only one commodity, deerskins, for which the Europeans would trade manufactured goods.
By the first decade of the 18th century the deerskin economy was fully established with more than 50,000 deerskins exported from Charleston annually. In exchange, the Cherokees received an array of manufactured items including metal tools and firearms. During this period, Cherokee population expanded and so did the amount of land they controlled.
Firearms proved essential in an economy based on the deerskin trade and were also necessary for national security. Consequently, the Cherokees successfully competed for previously shared or contested hunting grounds. In the second decade of the 18th century the Cherokees fought wars with most of their neighbors including the Shawnees, the Tuscaroras, the Catawbas and the Creeks. During this period, the Cherokees expanded their holdings in present-day east Tennessee, acquiring control of lands formerly occupied by Muskogean speakers.
In 1721, the Cherokees made the first land cession to the whites, a strip of land between the Saluda and Edisto rivers in South Carolina. This treaty would be followed by three dozen others over the next century. By 1819, the once vast Cherokee territory comprising 40,000 square miles in eight states would be reduced to the adjacent mountainous sections of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.
For years, the Cherokees attempted to compete with their white neighbors by adapting to the political and economic systems comparable to those established by the United States. The Cherokees developed legislative, judicial, and executive branches of governments with a written constitution. Schools and missions were built in various parts of the Nation and a national bilingual newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix was established. The Cherokee writing system, the Sequoyan syllabary, introduced in 1821, resulted in a literacy rate higher than their white neighbors.
In 1819, eight judicial districts were established: Amohee, Aquohee, Taquohee, Chickamauga, Chatooga, Coosawatee, Etowah, and Hickory Log. Of these, only Amohee was exclusively in Tennessee and parts of Aquohee, Taquohee and Chickamauga were also in Tennessee.
Numerous ferries, mills, inns or taverns, mercantile businesses, tanneries, and other industries existed throughout the Cherokee Nation. The northernmost Ferries on the Tennessee River within the Cherokee Nation included Blythe’s Ferry, Ross’s Ferry, Brown’s Ferry and Kelly’s Ferry. On the Hiwassee River were Walker’s Ferry near the Cherokee Agency and Ross’s Ferry upstream from Fort Cass. The portage between Hildebrand’s Boatyard on the Ocoee River and McNair’s Boatyard on the Conasauga River created a commercial bridge connecting the streams fl owing into the Mississippi River with those flowing south directly to the Gulf of Mexico.
Mills and industries in Tennessee includes Brainerd’s Mill on the Chickamauga Creek, Glass’s Mill on the Tennessee-Georgia border east of Lookout Mountain, Field’s Mill downstream from Brown’s Ferry, and Hick’s Mill near Red Clay. A commercial tannery at Ross’s Landing was owned by John Ross.
Missions and schools located in the Cherokee Nation in Tennessee included Gideon Blackburn’s School near the Cherokee Agency on the Hiwassee, Chatata Mission near Fort Cass, Candy’s Creek Mission, Red Clay Mission, Brainerd Mission, and Amohee Mission between Ducktown and Turtletown. Stores and taverns included Five Killer’s Tavern on the Ocoee River just south of Hiwassee, McNair’s Store near Red Clay, Field’s Store south of the Hiwassee, and McIntosh’s Tavern at the Hiwassee Garrison, Ross’s Store and Brown’s Tavern opposite Moccasin Bend on the Tennessee River.
Although the Cherokee Nation controlled almost two-thirds of the present State of Tennessee during the early historic period, a series of land sessions reduced the Cherokee holdings in Tennessee to the southeastern corner of the state by 1819. Bordered on the north by the Hiwassee River and the west by the Tennessee River, the last vestige of the once vast Cherokee Territory in Tennessee was ceded by the Treaty of New Echota signed in 1835. The Treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate on May 23, 1836 and the Cherokee people were given two years to voluntarily remove. When the time had elapsed in May 1838, only 2,000 Cherokee had immigrated to the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, and the remainder clung tenaciously to their homes in southeast Tennessee, northwest Georgia, western North Carolina and northeast Alabama.
Between June 6 and December 5, 1838, almost 15,000 Cherokees were forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland in the southern Appalachians to the Indian Territory on a journey that would later become known as the “Trail of Tears.” It was a tragedy for a progressive and independent people whose population was diminished by the hardships associated with lengthy confinement, and an arduous journey.
In 1987, the Cherokee Trail of Tears was designated by Congress as a National Historic Trail. At the time, however, the emigration routes and the historic sites associated with them were not well documented. Now, after years of systematic study by numerous researchers, a critical mass of data has been accumulated that has made it possible to ascertain, with a high degree of confidence, most of the routes used by 17 Cherokee detachments during the period of Forced Removal in 1838-1839.
The designation and interpretation of the sites and trails associated with the Cherokee removal have and will continue to enhance the public understanding of American history. It is important that we examine history objectively and in proper perspective, ever mindful of the fact that we must learn from the errors of the past in order not to be condemned to repeat them.