The History of the Cherokee Nation


European Contact, Settlement, and Land Cessions

The first contact between Cherokees and Europeans was in 1540, when Hernando de Soto and several hundred of his conquistadors traveled through Cherokee territory during their expedition in what is now the southeastern United States.  At that time the Nation held dominion over a sprawling territory comprised of much or most of the modern states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.  Historically, the Nation was led by a principal chief, regularly elected by chiefs from Cherokee towns within the Nation’s domain. 

Successive treaties with the British Crown and the United States reduced the Cherokee Nation’s original territory until, by 1817, the remaining Cherokee lands covered an area consisting of southwestern North Carolina, southeastern Tennessee, northeastern Alabama and northern Georgia.  Pressure to relinquish even more land within the Nation’s diminished territory was unrelenting.  In 1817, enticed by agents of the United States, some residents of Cherokee towns in what is now far northwestern South Carolina and northern Georgia abandoned what remained of the Cherokee homelands and voluntarily opted to migrate west of the Mississippi.  These Cherokees migrated first to lands located in what is now Arkansas and then, in 1828, farther west to a reservation established by treaty for the Cherokee Nation in what is today eastern Oklahoma. 

Conflicts with the State of Georgia

The great majority of the Nation’s members remained in the east, refusing to abandon their ancestral homelands despite the best efforts of the United States lure them to the Arkansas Territory.  By 1827, as a result of further cessions confirmed in a 1819 treaty, most of the Nation’s remaining lands were located in Georgia.  Starting in this year, the part of the Nation which remained in the east, led by Principal Chief John Ross, entered into a multi-year struggle with the state of Georgia to remain in and protect their aboriginal homelands from Georgia’s efforts to take over Cherokee country in that state.  In 1827, the Cherokee Nation adopted a written Constitution modeled on that of the United States, to which Georgia responded the following year by declaring the Cherokee government abolished and its citizens subject to the laws of Georgia.  The Cherokees replied by filing suit in the Supreme Court of the United States challenging these actions.

This case, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), ended with a majority of the Court deciding that the Court had no original jurisdiction under Article III of the U.S. Constitution to hear the suit because the Nation was not a foreign State, a requirement for such original jurisdiction cases in the Supreme Court, but was instead a “domestic dependent nation.”  The Court therefore dismissed the case without considering whether Georgia’s actions were lawful.  The following year, the Cherokee Nation supported a case filed in the Supreme Court by Samuel Worcester, a missionary and U.S. Postmaster residing in the Cherokee Nation who had been imprisoned under Georgia law for residing in the Nation’s limits without a state license.  That case, Worcester v. Georgia (1832), was a victory for the Cherokee Nation.  The Court held that Georgia had no power to impose its laws in the Cherokee Nation.  Nevertheless, the determination of then-President Andrew Jackson to remove the Cherokees and other southeastern Indian nations from their aboriginal territories resulted in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota.  The Cherokees who signed that treaty lacked authority to do so under Cherokee Nation law, but nevertheless purported to agree, on behalf of the Nation, to relinquish the Cherokee Nation’s lands east of the Mississippi and to remove to the Reservation west of the Mississippi, where the Nation could exercise the right to govern itself, among other rights, privileges, and assurances.

Forced Removal, Internal Conflict, and Reunification

Because the vast majority of Cherokee people refused to voluntarily abandon their ancestral homelands despite the Treaty of New Echota, the United States, in 1838, deployed troops under General Winfield Scott to forcibly round up the Cherokee people into relocation camps and from there remove them overland to the Reservation west of the Mississippi on what would come to be known as the Trail of Tears.  Some 4,000 Cherokees who were forcibly removed from their homes (about one-fourth of the population) perished in camps or along the Trail of Tears.  

When the survivors arrived at the Cherokee Reservation in the Indian Territory (present-day eastern Oklahoma), they were reunited with the Cherokees who had voluntarily migrated there earlier.  After a period of internal disputes, violence, and political conflict over the signing of the 1835 Treaty and how to organize the Cherokee Nation government on the Reservation, in 1839 the Nation came together under a new Constitution, modeled on the 1827 Constitution.  However, ongoing conflict persisted between the pre-removal immigrants, Cherokees who had favored removal and voluntarily removed after the New Echota Treaty, and the Cherokees who had opposed removal until being forced by the Army.  The persistent internal struggle eventually led to the signing of a new treaty among the various factions within the Nation and the United States in 1846.  This treaty made clear that the Cherokee Nation was one nation with the entirety of the lands it now occupied “secured to the whole Cherokee people for their common use and benefit” and that the whole Nation accepted that the Reservation would be their new homeland, to be governed on the terms promised by the Treaty of New Echota.

In its new capital of Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation built government buildings, schools, businesses, and homes and, in 1844, established the Cherokee Advocate newspaper, which was published in both English and Cherokee (using the syllabary invented by the great Cherokee scholar and educator, Sequoyah).  The Cherokee National Council—the Nation’s legislature—enjoyed broad popular support, John Ross continued to serve as Principal Chief under the new Constitution, and the Nation was regarded as a testament to the power of Cherokee resiliency and continuity.

The Civil War Comes to the Indian Territory

Unfortunately, the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 revived old divisions within the Nation.  As Union forces abandoned forts adjoining the Cherokee Nation for bases in Kansas, and Confederate forces in Texas threatened to invade, the Cherokee and other Indian nations which had been relocated to the Indian Territory agreed to sign treaties of alliance with the Confederacy.  Some Cherokees took up arms in support of the Confederacy, while others fought for the Union.  Two years into the war, Principal Chief Ross left for the east to rebuild relations with Washington.  Shortly thereafter the Cherokee National Council repudiated the Confederate treaty and, in February of 1863, voluntarily abolished slavery in the Cherokee Nation as a matter of tribal law.  At the war’s end, the United States and the Cherokee Nation signed a new treaty, the Treaty of Washington of 1866, in which the Nation agreed to a process that would allow the United States to settle other tribes on some of its lands under certain terms and conditions and agreed that the Nation’s Freedmen and their descendants “shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.”  As a result of this provision and provision of Nation law, the descendants of Cherokee Freedmen have full citizenship in the Nation, including the right to hold office.

Allotment, Statehood, Survival, and Continuity

In the late nineteenth century, the United States embarked on a national policy of tribal land allotment, in which collectively owned tribal reservation lands would be broken up into parcels and distributed in severalty to individual tribal citizens.  Consistent with this national policy, Congress sought to compel the Nation to allot its lands.  As part of this coercive effort, Congress passed a series of laws that restricted the authority of the tribal government and provided for the appointment of the Nation’s Principal Chiefs by the President of the United States.  Congress passed the Cherokee Nation’s allotment act in 1902. Five years later, the new state of Oklahoma was admitted into the Union, including within its limits the Cherokee Nation Reservation.  These actions, and the subsequent refusal of some local federal officials to support tribal self-government, impeded the Nation’s government for many years in the first part of the twentieth century.  But Cherokee leaders continued meeting through the decades of the mid-century and began taking steps to protect and advance the rights and interests of the Nation’s citizens.  In 1970, these activities led to Congress passing the Principal Chiefs Act, which provided for the popular election of the Principal Chiefs of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations, and then, in 1976, the Cherokee Nation adopting a new Constitution which by its express terms superseded the Nation’s 1839 Constitution. 

The 1976 Constitution was replaced by the current Constitution of Cherokee Nation in 2003.  Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s July 2020 decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, in 2021 the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in Hogner v. State that the Cherokee Nation Reservation had never been disestablished and remains intact to this day.  Today, under the leadership of the Principal Chief, the Cherokee Nation continues to exercise its treaty rights, sovereign authority, and jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation Reservation and to strengthen its institutions of tribal governance for the benefit of the Nation’s greatest resource—its citizens, their children, and the future generations of Cherokees.