The Cherokee Indians: Tennessee’s First Citizens

June 29, 1996–December 31, 1996

Winter and Summer Houses at Chota, Circa 1760, Artist's rendering by Thomas R. Whyte.
Cunne Shote, Portrait by Francis Parsons, 1762. Courtesy Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK.
Sequoyah, Oil on canvas by Henry Inman; in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Cherokee Veterans of Colonel William Thomas’ Confederate Legion in 1903, courtesy of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

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The McClung Museum is proud to recognize the Cherokee Indians during the Bicentennial Year of the state of Tennessee. The museum invites the people of Tennessee to learn more about the First Tennesseans.

The Cherokee Indians called themselves “The Principal People.” They, and those before them, were Tennessee’s original citizens. Tennessee has a long and rich Native American heritage.

Archaeologists have determined that Tennessee was first occupied by the Indians during the last Ice Age around 15,000 years ago. Over the millennia, occupation focused on the rich valleys of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and their tributaries. The first European to encounter the Indians of the interior Southeast was Hernando deSoto in 1540. He described large villages and towns based on farming with powerful chiefs controlling large areas through series of alliances.

One of these tribes was the Cherokee, who by 1700 claimed the lands north to the Ohio River, west to the western Tennessee River valley, south to include the northern portions of the present states of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, and, to the east, present-day western North Carolina.

The history and culture of the Cherokees is an important part of the heritage of Tennessee. They were players in the struggle between the English, French, and Spanish for control of eastern North America, and then between the English and the American Colonists for a nation. Much of their land ultimately became the state of Tennessee.

Individuals such as Little Carpenter, Oconostota, Atakulakula, Dragging Canoe, Nancy Ward, and Sequoyah (pictured above) stand out in any list of Tennessee’s prominent leaders

In the early nineteenth century, the Cherokee were the first and only literate American Indian tribe. Their story is one of survival, perseverance, and adaptability against many forces of change. Their deplorable treatment, and particularly their forced removal from the state in 1838 (see the Trail of Tears map below) is a low point in American history.

The Cherokee people did not, however, disappear. They are today a proud and productive people to be found in the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina. Many Tennesseans have Cherokees in their ancestry.

Southeastern Native American Documents, 1730–1842

Southeastern Native American Documents, 1730–1842 is a full-text database containing over 1,000 documents and images relating to the Native American population of the southeastern United States from the collections of the University of Georgia Libraries, the UT Libraries, the McClung Museum, and the Tennessee State Library and Archives. The documents are comprised of letters, legal proceedings, military orders, financial papers, and archaeological images relating to Native Americans in the Southeast.