In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cherokee

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals

Atlantic History Cherokee
Gregory D. Smithers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0264


The Cherokee are an Iroquois-speaking people who at the time of contact with Europeans in the 16th century occupied a sizeable homeland that extended over parts of modern-day Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and southwestern Virginia. Archeological evidence suggests that the Cherokee (or Tsa-la-gi)—who referred to themselves as the Aniyaunwiya (“The Principal People”)—occupied a mountainous region of southeastern North America, or the Mississippian culture area, from c. 1000 CE The Mississippian cultural area that the Cherokees became part of after their ancestors migrated southward from the Great Lakes region stretched from western Oklahoma, into southern Illinois, across to the Ohio River Valley, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and east to the Atlantic Ocean. The social and political structures that shaped proto-Cherokee and Cherokee life from c. 1000 CE underwent numerous historical changes. Prior to the 17th century, the Cherokee people’s ancestors lived in mound-building societies known as chiefdoms. Chiefdoms flourished until the 15th and early 16th centuries. A combination of factors—rapid environmental change, encounters with Europeans, and disease transfer—precipitated changes in the social and political fabric of Native American life in the Southeast. The Cherokees were part of these changes, forming decentralized forms of governance in towns and villages alongside rivers and streams. Cherokee towns therefore departed from the relatively rigid hierarchies of the chiefdoms and became politically autonomous, with matrilineal kinship ties connecting Cherokee people in Overhill Cherokees territory, the Middle Towns, and the Lower (or Valley) towns. These regional divisions often correlated to differences in dialect. What connected Cherokees from towns in these separate regions was membership in one of seven matrilineal clan groups. Clan identity was characterized by a totemic system that included the following matrilineal clans: Aniwahya (Wolf Clan); Ani Tsiskwa (Small Bird Clan); Anikawi (Deer Clan); Anigilohi (Twister Clan); Anisahoni (Blue Clan); Anigatogewi (Wild Potato Clan); and Aniwodi (Red Paint Clan). Prior to the United States government forcibly removing the vast majority of Cherokee people from their southeastern homelands in the late 1830s, the Cherokees were one of the largest, most influential, and culturally sophisticated Native American societies in eastern North America. Cherokee chiefs and traders figure prominently in trade and diplomacy with their European and Euroamerican counterparts throughout eastern North America and the broader Atlantic world during the 18th century, and in the wake of the American Revolution, Cherokees moved aggressively toward the creation of a centralized form of government that blended Cherokee traditions with the nascent American republic’s system of government. These changes provided the backdrop for the removal era. The Cherokees used their system of government and knowledge of the American legal system to fight growing calls for removal on a diplomatic and legal front. Their efforts eventually failed, and during the final two years of the 1830s approximately 17,000 Cherokees were forcibly removed from their southeastern homeland to Indian Territory, located in present-day eastern Oklahoma.

Reference Works

A number of excellent reference works provide students with useful guides to the arc of Cherokee history from the era of chiefdoms to their nation (Conley 2007, Littlefield and Parins 2011). These works define key terms, events, and ceremonies, and identify important figures in Cherokee history.

  • Conley, Robert J. A Cherokee Encyclopedia. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007.

    Conley provides students of Cherokee history and culture with an invaluable overview of Cherokee history from pre-contact to the end of the 20th century. Conley covers major historical events, key individuals, and religious and ceremonial traditions.

  • Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr., and James W. Parins, eds. Encyclopedia of American Indian Removal. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

    An invaluable resource for the study of removal history; a thoroughly researched encyclopedia that touches on every facet of the removal era in the early 19th century.

  • Riggs, Brett H. Removal Period Cherokee Households and Communities in Southwestern North Carolina, 1835–1838. PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 1999.

    In this accessibly written and nicely illustrated volume, Riggs takes students inside the homes of Cherokee people on the eve of removal.

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