When the Europeans first encountered them, the Cherokees had been farming in the Southeast for many centuries and lived in permanent villages. The Cherokees, at the time of European contact, were not a single governmental nation, but were divided into three broad groups: (1) the Lower Towns along the rivers in South Carolina, (2) the Upper or Overhill Towns in eastern Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina, (3) the Middle Towns which included the Valley Towns in southwestern North Carolina and northeastern Georgia and the Out Towns. There were some cultural and linguistic differences between these groups.
In dealing with the United States, the diverse Cherokee village came together in the nineteenth century to form a national council. By 1821, there were really two Cherokee nations: the Eastern Cherokees who continued to occupy their traditional homelands, and the Western Cherokees who had moved west of the Mississippi River into what is now Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Briefly described below are two of the major Cherokee events of 1821.
In 1821, the Cherokees were at the beginning of an educational renaissance due to the work of one man: Sequoya. According to Marion Starkey, in The Cherokee Nation:
“It was the work of a stubborn Cherokee who couldn’t even speak the white man’s language, much less spell out his letters. An illiterate taught his nation how to read and write.”
Anthropologist Williard Walker, in his chapter on native writing systems in Handbook of North American Indians, notes:
“Sequoya was in no sense literate in any European language when he devised the syllabary.”
Anthropologist Charles Hudson, in his book The Southeastern Indians, writes:
“With great wisdom, Sequoyah realized that one of the most important advantages of the whites over the Indians was their ability to put their words down on paper.”
While there was some initial skepticism among Cherokee leaders, the people were soon learning to read and write in their own language. According to Marion Starkey:
“The really remarkable thing about this event was that no principal chief, no government agent, no Great White Father preached at the Cherokees from aloft urging them so to apply themselves.”
Sequoya had begun working on a method for Cherokee writing in 1809. In 1821 he abandoned his original approach to make a character for each word and developed a symbol for each syllable. In took him about a month to develop the 86-symbol syllabary. Historian Theda Perdue, in her chapter on the Sequoyah syllabary in Perspectives on the Southeast: Linguistics, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory, notes:
“Learning to read and write did not transform a Cherokee into a white man. New forms of discourse and the extension of abstraction did not necessarily compromise traditional Cherokee values and beliefs; in some cases the syllabary actually enhanced them.”
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, a number of Cherokee groups had begun emigrating west of the Mississippi River to escape the oppression and racism of the United States. This western area, however, was occupied by other Indian nations and the Cherokee intrusion created some conflicts. Their escape from the Americans was, however, short lived and by the early nineteenth century the Western Cherokees were living in territories claimed by the United States.
In 1810 Cherokee leaders Duwali (The Bowl), Tsulawi (Fox, also spelled Saulowee), and Talontuskee moved their villages west of the Mississippi. These groups settled in northeastern Arkansas and Talontuskee was the nominal leader of the Western Cherokee. The Cherokee National Council condemned those who had moved west and stripped them of their citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.
In 1813, the Western Cherokees formally established their capital in the village of Chief Takatoka who was serving as principal chief. In 1815, Western Cherokee leader Tahlonteskee met with Governor William Clark. The Cherokees ask for help in stopping the conflict with the Osage. They asked for U.S. troops to provide protection from both the Osage and from non-Indian settlers. Of particular concern to the Cherokees were the Osage under the leadership of Clermont.
By 1816, there were an estimated 6,000 Cherokees living west of the Mississippi River in the traditional hunting area of the Osage. According to historian Willard Rollings, in his book The Osage: An Ethnohistorical Study of Hegemony on the Prairie-Plains:
“These Cherokee invaders of Osage country were well armed and skilled hunters. When Cherokee and Osage met on hunting expeditions, violence ensues as both groups struggled for control of the territory.”
In 1818, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun ordered the Osage to cede part of their land to the Cherokees. Several Osage bands negotiated with the government in St. Louis. While Clermont, the recognized leader of several Arkansas Osage bands, did not sign the treaty, several other band leaders did sign it. In the treaty, the Osage made peace with the Cherokees and signed away part of their land in Arkansas and Oklahoma. In an article in the Chronicles of Oklahoma, Tom Holm reports:
“The agreements stimulated a new Cherokee migration into Arkansas Territory.”
Approximately 1,000 Cherokees from the lower towns migrated to Arkansas. They settled on former Osage lands. Among those who moved was Sequoya who was trying to develop a system for Cherokee writing.
In 1821, the Cherokees announced that they were at war with the Osage. A war-party of 400 Osage under the leadership of Skitok began a march downstream to attack the Cherokees. The war-party killed three Quapaws and three Delawares, broke into several American cabins, and returned home without attacking the Cherokees. When Skitok retureds home, Osage Chief Clermont II sent a message to the Cherokees calling for a three-month cease-fire.
In actuality, Skitok’s raid was a bluff to intimidate the Cherokees and to prevent them from attacking during the summer hunt. As soon as the warriors returned from the raid, they traveled to the plains hoping for a safe buffalo hunt. The Cherokees, however, were not bluffed, but Cherokee warriors failed to find an Osage village to attack since all of the Osage were on the summer hunt.
The United States assured the Osage that they would enforce the armistice with the Cherokees and that they would be safe for their fall hunt. However, a band of 250 Cherokee warriors, together with some Choctaws, Creeks, Delawares, and Shawnees, followed the Osage onto the plains. The United States provided the war-party with a barrel of gunpowder. The war-party breaks into two groups. One group found and attacked the Osage hunting camp, killing 12 men, 29 women and children, and capturing 90 Osage. The second group finds the Osage hunting party but were driven off.
Twice each week this series looks at American Indian topics. More about the Cherokees from this series:
Indians 101: The Republic of Texas & the Cherokee
Indians 101: Georgia, the Cherokee, and the Execution of Corn Tassel
Indians 101: Writing in Cherokee
Indians 101: Some Cherokee Visions
Indians 101: The Cherokee and the United States, the First Decade
Indians 101: Cherokee Government and the English
Indians 101: The Cherokees 300 years ago, 1721
Indians 101: The Eastern Cherokee and the Right to Vote
Indians 101: Dissolving Cherokee Government
Indians 101: John Payne and the Cherokee
Indians 101: Interference with Cherokee Government
Indians 101: A Cherokee Murder
Indians 101: Cherokee Treaty Claims