Research: Cherokee History

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Written by: Julie Farrow
Date: 1998


No one, not even the Cherokee, know of their true origin. But, as in their ancient myths, we know they didn’t fall from the clouds nor spring from the earth.

The Cherokee relies on tradition, archaeology and linguistic data in tracing their roots. Unlike the white man, who pictured their history on sticks, wove it into wampum or imbedded it deeply into the memories of descendants, the Cherokee did not. Modern day, college-educated Cherokees believe their roots to go back to prehistoric man. A migration period has been referred to and supported by myths passed down through the centuries throughout various tribes.

In their petition to the Supreme Court of the United States in January, 1830, the Cherokee Nation asserted: That the Cherokees were the occupants and owners of the territory in which they now reside before the first approach of the white men of Europe to the western continent; deriving their title from the Great Spirit [Asga-ya-Galun-lati] who is the father of the human family, and to whom the whole earth belongs. composing the Cherokee Nation, they and their ancestors have been and are the sole and exclusive masters of this territory, governed by their own laws, usage, and customs.

The land they referred to was approximately forty thousand square miles of the vast Alleghenies in what today is southwest Virginia, western North and South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northern Georgia and the northeastern tip of Alabama.

Delaware tradition mentions a prehistoric migration of Cherokees. In their history is mentioned fights between the Delaware and the Tallegwis or Cherokees when they occupied the Eastern seaboard. The Tallegwis were defeated and driven south beyond the Ohio River. This tradition is reinforced by archaeological and linguistic data. Burial mounds have been discovered in Ohio, Illinois, Virginia and Tennessee that contain ancient artifacts similar to those used by the southern Allegheny Cherokee — these include pipes and crematory posts.

Many theories exist to explain the name Cherokee. Among the theories is Tsalagi or Tsaragi, Tsalagi a mnemonic meaning “Ancient Tobacco People” — tsalu being the Cherokee name for tobacco and agaawli, “old or ancient.” By some it is thought that the name Tsalagi is a derivative of A-tsila-gi-ga-i meaning “People of a Different Speech.” Early day Cherokees referred to themselves as Ani Kitu Hwagi or “People of Kituhwa” which was their mother city and located near Bryson City, North Carolina. Another Cherokee name was Ani-yun-Wiya, “Real or Principal People.”

Recorded history dates to 1540 and the arrival of Hernando DeSoto in the Cherokee country on the Tennessee River.

Suspected by Benjamin S. Barton over a century ago is that, at least linguistically, the Cherokee belong to Iroquoian stock. This was definitely established by J.N.B. Dewitt in 1887., Since there is a marked difference both lexically and grammatically it indicates that the separation came at an early period.

By region, the dialect of the Cherokee differs. The Lower Cherokee dialect or Eastern dialect has a rolling r, which takes the place of the l in other dialects. In this dialect, the tribal name is Tsaragi, which was corrupted by English settlers to Cherokee. The Eastern dialect was spoken in the towns along the Keowee and Tugaloo, the head streams of the Savannah River in North Carolina and the adjacent portion of Georgia.

The Middle dialect or Kituhwa dialect resembles the Eastern dialect except it has the l sound. It was spoken along the Tuckasegee and the headwaters of the Little Tennessee in the very heart of Cherokee country. it is still spoken on the Qualla reservation.

The Western dialect, the softest and most musical language, has a liquid l. It is spoken in most of the towns of east Tennessee and upper Georgia and along the Hiwassee and Cheowa rivers in North Carolina.

There is, too, among other Cherokees, indication of a fourth and fifth dialogue,

Many traditions exist as to the origin of the Cherokee. The most ancient is the one held by the Delaware expulsion of the Talligewi {Cherokee} from the north. As the Delawares moved from the west, their progress was impeded by the powerful Alligewi or Talligewi who occupied the country on what is thought to be the upper Ohio. These people built and occupied earthen fortifications so strong and secure that the Delaware were forced to seek assistance from the Iroquois or Mengwe. The ensuing warfare lasted many years until the Allegewi were defeated. The surviving Allegewi fled down the river. This river, still called by the Delaware the Alligewi Sipu or river of the Alligewi supports that this is the true river of the tradition. The Alligewi were said to have been of giant stature and far exceeded their conquerors in size.

In the Walam Olum, a metrical translation of an ancient hieroglyphic bark record discovered in 1820, the main tradition is given in much the same way as the Delaware tradition.

The Wyandot also confirm the story and fix the identification of the expelled tribe. Their tradition, narrated in 1802, states that “ancient fortifications in the Ohio valley had been erected in the course of a long war between themselves and the Cherokee which finally resulted in defeat of the latter.”

The Cherokees final settlement was upon the headwaters of the Tennessee in the rich valleys of the Alleghenies.

Lori Soard started Word Museum in 1997. She’s a published author and has written thousands of articles over the years for newspapers, magazines and online. She has a PhD in Journalism and lives in Southern Indiana with her husband. They have two grown daughters, both animal lovers their house is always filled with pets.

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