The Other Side of the Frontier: Economic Explorations into Native American History

By Linda Barrington | Go to book overview

6
Could the Cherokee Have Survived in the Southeast?

DAVID M. WISHART


Transformations in Cherokee Social, Political, and Economic Systems Before 1835

Regular contacts between Europeans and the Cherokee began after 1650. Until that time, the Cherokee population totaled about 20,000 and occupied some sixty independent towns located in five regions. These were the Lower Towns set in South Carolina's western foothills along the Keowee River, the Valley Towns across the first range of the Appalachians on the upper part of the Hiwassee River, the Middle Settlements situated due east of the Valley Towns along the Little Tennessee River, the Out Towns northeast of the Valley Towns, and seven Overhill Towns along the upper branches of the Little Tennessee. Although the total area occupied by the Cherokee in the mid-seventeenth century was only about 150 miles long and 40 to 50 miles wide, a sense of cohesiveness was absent. Cherokee life was town centered and in fact three dialects were spoken in these regions, suggesting little interaction among the groups of towns. 1

The civil structure in these towns was based upon kinship ties that enforced a blood law via a matrilineal clan structure. The Cherokee law of blood meant that the death of a clan member at the hands of another clan had to be paid for in blood, and not necessarily that of the perpetrator of the original offense. 2 The matrilineal clan structure meant that children belonged to their mother's clan. In fact, the matrilineal uncle was more important as a mentor and protector to his sister's children than was the children's father. 3

The Cherokee economic base consisted of subsistence agriculture supplemented by fishing and hunting in the Appalachians. Agricultural plots were

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