Cherokee (chĕr´əkē), largest Native American group in the United States. Formerly the largest and most important tribe in the Southeast, they occupied mountain areas of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. The Cherokee language belongs to the Iroquoian branch of the Hokan-Siouan linguistic stock (see Native American languages).
By the 16th cent., the Cherokee had a settled, advanced culture based on agriculture. Hernando De Soto visited them in 1540. They were frequently at war with the Iroquois tribes of New York but proved generally valuable allies for the British against the French. Soon after 1750, smallpox destroyed almost half the tribe. Formerly friendly with Carolina settlers, they were provoked into war with the colonists in 1760, and two years followed before the Cherokee sued for peace.
In 1820 they adopted a republican form of government, and in 1827 they established themselves as the Cherokee Nation, with their capital at New Echota, in N Georgia, under a constitution providing for an elective principal chief, a senate, and a house of representatives. Literacy was aided by the invention of a Cherokee syllabic alphabet by Sequoyah. Its 85 characters, representing the syllables of the Cherokee language, permitted the keeping of tribal records and, later, the publication of newspapers.
The 1830s discovery of gold in Cherokee territory resulted in pressure by whites to obtain their lands. A treaty was extracted from a small part of the tribe, binding the whole people to move beyond the Mississippi River within three years. Although the Cherokee overwhelmingly repudiated this document and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the nation's autonomy, the state of Georgia secured an order for their removal, which was accomplished by military force. President Andrew Jackson refused to intervene, and in 1838 the tribe was deported to the Indian Territory (now in Oklahoma). Thousands died on the march, known as the
"Trail of Tears,"
or from subsequent hardships. Their leader at this time and until 1866 was Chief John Ross.
The Cherokee made their new capital at Tahlequah (Okla.), instituted a public school system, published newspapers, and were the most important of the Five Civilized Tribes. In the U.S. Civil War their allegiance was divided between North and South, with large contingents serving on each side. By a new treaty at the close of the war they freed their black slaves and admitted them to tribal citizenship, but in 2007 the Cherokee voted to strip the descendants of those slaves of their citizenship; the change took effect in 2011 after it was upheld by the tribal supreme court.
In 1891 the Cherokee sold their western territorial extension, known as the Cherokee Strip; in 1902 they approved the division of the reservation into allotments; and in 1906 tribal sovereignty was abolished. Tribal entities still exist, however, and many Oklahoma Cherokee live on tribal landholdings. With a 1990 population of about 370,000, the Cherokee, while scattered, are by far the largest Native American group in the United States. Close to 6,000, the descendants of the few who successfully resisted removal or returned after the removal, live on the Eastern Cherokee (Qualla) reservation in W North Carolina.
See M. L. Starkey, The Cherokee Nation (1946, repr. 1972); H. T. Malone, Cherokees of the Old South (1956); J. Gulick, Cherokees at the Crossroads (1960); D. H. Corkran, The Cherokee Frontier: Conflict and Survival, 1740–1762 (1962); G. S. Woodward, The Cherokee (1963); I. Peithmann, Red Men of Fire (1964); T. Wilkins, Cherokee Tragedy (1970); J. Ehle, Trail of Tears (1988); L. B. Filler, The Removal of the Cherokee Nation (1988).