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Cherokees in Kansas

The Cherokee Nation

The Cherokees are an American Indian group that originally lived in the Appalachian region of the southeastern United States. The area they called home now lies within the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, and Georgia. The Cherokees made their livings from horticulture and hunting, and they followed a strict division of labor by gender. Women tended the gardens where they grew crops such as corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers. Men hunted in surrounding forests where deer was the principal game. It, along with bear and wild turkey, provided the Cherokees with a major part of their diets.

As was the case with many American Indian groups, the Cherokees were not politically unified. Rather, they recognized themselves as a single people because of a common language and culture. This shared identity allowed them to find unity when threatened from the outside. All Cherokees belonged to one of seven clans. These clans were matrilineal, which means that membership was traced through the mother's side. Since the clans could be found throughout the Cherokee territory, they served to bind the Cherokee people together with ties of mutual kinship.

Clans served other important functions, one of which was the transfer of rights to use property. In a matrilineal system, one is only related to the relatives of one's mother. Thus, a woman's possessions went to her own children, while the man's property was inherited by his sister's children. The mother's brother was the main authority figure in the family and was responsible for disciplining his sister's children.

The village was the focus of Cherokee life. Each village had a council house and a plaza where the people met for social, political, and religious purposes. Most political decisions were reached in the individual village councils as each village was largely autonomous. When decisions had to be made, the village would meet in an assembly and debate the issue until a consensus was reached. many of these group decisions concerned the planning of raiding parties. The Cherokees were in a constant state of war with their neighbors, the most notable being the Creeks and the Shawnees. The Cherokees believed that the soul of very person killed in war had to be avenged. This belief led to a state of war that never could be ended.

The Cherokees' way of life began to change in response to their first contract with Europeans. The first European to pass through Cherokee territory was probably the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. In 1540 he entered Cherokee territory in his search for gold. His stay was short and he found no gold, but his and other Spanish expeditions left a legacy of disease in the form of measles and smallpox. Having never had contact with these diseases, the native populations had no resistance and lost large sections of their populations to new illnesses.

Fortunately, their location farther inland reduced contact with Europeans until the beginning of the 18th century. At this time European traders established outposts in Cherokee territory to gain access to the lucrative deerskin trade, which was a major source of leather in the colonies. As time went by, many traders married into the Cherokee tribe.

The trade with people from the English colonies had a major impact on the Cherokee culture. They slowly abandoned producing their own tools in favor of metal products, and the gun replaced the bow and arrow for hunting. Eventually the Cherokees became dependent on outside trade as many of their old skills were lost. The status of men also increased since their activities produced the largest proportion of valuable trade goods.

Sadly, increasing contact with the colonies caused the Cherokees to become entangled in European political struggles. The Seven Years' War (1756-1763), also known as the French and Indian War, devastated many villages as the tribes became caught in the conflict involving two great European powers and their Indian allies. The war, along with the famine and disease that were its aftermath, eliminated as much as half of the Cherokee population. The Cherokees also lost their primary hunting grounds in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. More destruction befell them during the American Revolution when they sided with the British, fearing an American victory would lead to white expansion into their territory.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Cherokees attempted to find their place in the new American republic by actively participating in the "civilizing" programs of the United States government. The Cherokees organized an official government with a charter in 1827. This new government invited missionaries to come and teach the ways of the whites to Indian children. This created many changes in tribal culture. The great Cherokee Sequoyah created a writing system for the native language. Soon Cherokee publications and newspapers were produced.

In the end these efforts were not successful. Settlers from the eastern seaboard continued their westward movement and began to see the Cherokees' presence as an obstacle to progress. At first the U.S. government offered land to entice the natives to move into territory west of the Mississippi River. In 1827 the Georgia government declared the Cherokee state to be illegal and passed a series of discriminatory laws against the people. President Andrew Jackson's unwillingness to aid the native peoples only worsened their plight. The final blow came when a minority of Cherokees, who were actively opposed by the vast majority of the Cherokee people, negotiated a treaty for the removal of all members of their tribe to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). In 1838 most Cherokees were forcibly removed from their homes. In the winter of 1838-1839 they were compelled to embark on what has been called the Trail of Tears. lacking food, water, and warm clothing, fully one-fourth to one-third of the Cherokee evacuees died of pneumonia, famine, and exposure. Although most were moved to Oklahoma, some were able to remain in their homeland. This led to the division of the Cherokee nation into the eastern and western bands.

The Cherokees in Kansas

The state of Kansas is closely tied to the period of American history in which American Indians were relocated from the East to land west of the Mississippi. It was believed that native peoples should be moved west to make room for European American settlement. between 1829 and 1854 almost 30 tribes were assigned reservations in what would become Kansas Territory. The Cherokees were given 800,000 acres in what is now southeast Kansas, but very few of their members actually lived on the land. The land designated as the Cherokee reservation was known as the Cherokee Neutral Tract. Its use and ownership was later disputed by European American settlers and railroad promoters who struggled to attain the land by any means possible. Through a treaty, the Cherokees ceded the land to the United States in 1866.

Today people of Cherokee ancestry continue to live in Kansas. The state's close proximity to Oklahoma, which claims a sizable Cherokee population, encourages many Cherokees to maintain residences in Kansas.

Cherokee Basketmaking

Traditions  1993 © KSHS

Entry: Cherokees in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: August 2012

Date Modified: November 2022

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.