The Tsalagi (Cherokee) are a nation of North American Indians that formerly inhabited the mountainous region of the western Carolinas, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. An Iroquoian-speaking people, they originally lived near the Great Lakes they migrated to the Southeast, eventually becoming the largest and most powerful group in that region. Their traditional culture included maize agriculture, settled villages, and well-developed ceremonialism. In 1827 the Tsalagi (Cherokee) established a constitutional form of government.
The first explorers of the Southeast discovered the most talented Indians north of Mexico. Builders, agriculturists, artisans, fishermen, and hunters epitomized especially the Tsalagi (Cherokees)' varied skills. Knowledgeable in herb culture, they developed useful medicines from them that are still used today. They also developed environmental concepts about ecological thought and survival. We are blessed by the legacies of Tsalagi (Cherokee) oral traditions, providing ethnologists with opportunities for cultural interpretations: legends about man, animals, supernatural deities, witches, and other evil influences. Their most famous leader, Sequoya, believing literacy provided power to the white man, alone developed the Tsalagi (Cherokee) alphabet (c.1820), and became immortalized when his name was given to Sequoia National Park in California.
A series of fraudulent, land-acquiring treaties were imposed on the Tsalagi (Cherokee) in the 1830s. The Treaty of New Echota (1835), in which a small tribal faction sold 2.83 million ha (7 million acres) of Tsalagi (Cherokee) land, required their removal westward within 3 years. The vast majority of the Tsalagi (Cherokee) Nation repudiated this document, but under Gen. Winfield SCOTT, most remaining Tsalagi (Cherokee) were driven from their land and forcibly marched to Arkansas and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1838-39. About 4,000 of the more than 15,000 Tsalagi (Cherokee) who made the journey died of disease and exposure.
In Indian Territory, they joined the CHICKASAW, CHOCTAW, CREEK, and SEMINOLE to form the so-called FIVE CIVILIZED TRIBES. Tribal lands were lost in the 1860s, after the Five Tribes sided with the South during the Civil War, and again in the early 1880s, when the federal government abolished tribal ownership of lands. When Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma in 1907, all tribal lands were opened for white settlement.
In the 1980s, 43,000 persons of Tsalagi (Cherokee) descent lived in eastern Oklahoma; about 15,000 of these are considered full-blooded. The Tsalagi (Cherokee) who avoided the forced removal of 1838 escaped into the Great Smoky Mountains and resettled in North Carolina, where they formed a tribal corporation in 1889. Tsalagi (Cherokee) on or near the reservation in North Carolina numbered 6,110 in 1987.