The First Settlements
With the issue of French possession resolved, settlers began to filter into the Overhill country. Early settlers included William Bean on the Holston River; Evan Shelby at Sapling Grove (later Bristol); John Carter in the Carter Valley; and Jacob Brown on the Nolichucky River. By 1771 the settlers at Wataugua and Nolichucky won a lease from the Cherokee, and the next year, they formed the Watauga Association, a quasi-government and the first such in Tennessee territory.
The settlers’ success in obtaining land concessions from the Indians was eclipsed in 1775, when the Transylvania Company, led by Richard Henderson of North Carolina, traded £10,000 of goods for 20 million acres of land in Kentucky and Tennessee. The agreement, negotiated at a treaty conference at Sycamore Shoals, was opposed by the Cherokee Indian chief Dragging Canoe, who warned that the Cherokee were paving the way for their own extinction. Despite his warning, the treaty was signed.
Dragging Canoe remained the leader of the Cherokee’s resistance to European settlement. In 1776 he orchestrated assaults on the white settlements of Watauga, Nolichucky, Long Island, and Carter’s Valley. The offensive, called by some the Cherokee War, had limited success at first, but ended in defeat for the natives. In 1777 the Cherokee signed a peace treaty with the settlers that ceded more land to the Europeans.
Dragging Canoe and others did not accept the treaty, and left the Cherokee as a result. He and his followers moved south, near Chickamauga Creek, where they became known as the Chickamauga tribe. Over time, this tribe attracted other Indians whose common purpose was opposition to white settlement.
The Indians could not, however, overpower the increasing tide of European settlers, who brought superior firepower and greater numbers. Pressure on political leaders to free up more and more land for settlement made relations with the Indians and land agreements with them one of the most important features of political life on the frontier.
In the end, these leaders delivered. Europeans obtained Indian land in Tennessee through a series of treaties and purchases, beginning with the Sycamore Shoals purchase in 1775 and continuing until 1818 when the Chickasaw ceded all control to land west of the Mississippi. Negotiating on behalf of the settlers were leaders including William Blount, the territorial governor, and Andrew Jackson, the first U.S. president from Tennessee.
Contact with Europeans had a significant impact on the Cherokee’s way of life. Christian missionaries introduced education, and in the 1820s Sequoyah developed a Cherokee alphabet, allowing the Indians to read and write in their own language. The Cherokee adopted some of the European’s farming practices, as well as some of their social practices, including slavery. Adoption of the European lifestyle was most common among the significant number of mixed-race Cherokee. In 1827 the Cherokee Nation was established, complete with a constitutional system of government and a capital in New Echota, Georgia. From 1828 until 1832, its newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, was published in both English and Cherokee.
The census of 1828 counted 15,000 Cherokee remaining in Tennessee. They owned 1,000 slaves, 22,400 head of cattle, 7,600 horses, 1,800 spinning wheels, 700 looms, 12 sawmills, 55 blacksmith shops, and 6 cotton gins.
Despite these beginnings of assimilation, or because of them, the Cherokee were not welcome to remain in the new territory. Settlers pushed for a strong policy that would lead to the Cherokee’s removal, and they looked over the border to Georgia to see that it could be done. There, in 1832, authorities surveyed lands owned by Cherokees and disposed of them by lottery. Laws were passed to prohibit Indian assemblies and bar Indians from bringing suit in the state. The majority of Tennessee settlers, as well as Georgia officials, pushed for similar measures to be adopted in Tennessee.
The Cherokee were divided in their response: Some felt that moving west represented the best future for their tribe, others wanted to stay and fight for their land and the Cherokee Nation. In the end, the Cherokee leaders lost hope of remaining and on December 29, 1835, they signed the removal treaty. Under the agreement, the Cherokee were paid $5 million for all their lands east of the Mississippi and they were required to move west within two years. When that time expired in 1838 and only a small number of the Cherokee had moved, the U.S. army evicted the rest by force.
Thousands of Cherokee died along the ensuing Trail of Tears, which followed four different routes through Tennessee and eventually into Oklahoma. A southern route extended from Chattanooga to Memphis; two northern routes headed into Kentucky and Missouri before turning southward into Oklahoma; the fourth was a water route along the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. Harsh weather, food shortages, and the brutality of the journey cost thousands of Cherokee lives. In the end, out of the estimated 14,000 Cherokee who began the journey, more than 4,000 are believed to have died along the way.
Some Cherokee remained by hiding deep in the Great Smoky Mountains. Later, they were given land which became the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition