Cherokee in the American Revolution

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The Cherokee tribe inhabited what is present day Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Being located in what would become the Southeastern part of the United States meant their inevitability in getting involved in the revolutionary war. The Cherokee tribe’s involvement in the American Revolution was both important to the course of the war and resulted in devastation to the tribe.

The Cherokee way of life, like all Native American tribes, was very different from that of the colonists. These conflicting lifestyles were one of the reasons why the Cherokee involvement in the American Revolution was so detrimental to their tribe. Like most southeastern tribes, the Cherokee economy was based primarily on agriculture. They grew squash, beans, corn, tobacco, and sunflowers. With bows and arrows, they hunted elk, deer, and bear. It is important to note the different family structures of the Cherokee tribe and the colonists. The Cherokee “were divided into seven matrilineal clans who lived in numerous permanent villages, typically placed along rivers and streams. Cherokee families typically had two dwellings: rectangular summer houses with cane and clay walls and bark or thatch roofs, and cone-shaped winter houses with pole frames and brushwork covered by mud or clay” (Weiser). The matrilineal clans meant that familial relationships were linked through the mother’s side. A child lived with their mother, their mother’s mother, their mother’s brothers, and so on. Also, a child had no direct relationship to their father. Women also had a very important role in politics and the economy. During this time among the colonists, women had much fewer rights than men and matrilineal lineage was unheard of. These differences among the Cherokee tribe and the colonists proved to be a big problem. It resulted in the failure for the two groups to cohabitate without conflict and the ultimate involvement of the Cherokee tribe in the Revolutionary war. In a talk by Congress in 1775, congressman asserted that the Revolutionary war “is a family quarrel between us and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it. We don't wish you to take up the hatchet against the king's troops. We desire you to remain at home, and not join either side, but keep the hatchet buried deep.” However, both sides in the Revolutionary War, the British and the Colonists, used Native Americans to aid in their war effort. At the start of the Revolutionary War, “John Stuart, British superintendent of the South, planned to use Indian tribes in conjunction with English troops against the colonists” (Wetmore). Northern Indian tribes, such as the Shawnee, urged the Cherokee tribe to fight against the Americans which is what “inspired their decision to aid the British” (Wetmore). The Cherokee designed an attack against the colonists in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The Cherokee “were met with limited success” and “in reaction to these attacks, Gen. Charles Lee, commander of the southern Continental forces, urged a joint punitive expedition, known as the Cherokee Campaign of 1776” (Wetmore). The Cherokee Campaign in 1776 resulted in over fifty Cherokee towns being destroyed leaving its survivors without food and shelter. The treaties that were signed afterwards “marked the first forced land cessions by the Cherokee, and for the first time the land ceded was not unsettled hunting grounds but the sites of some of the tribe's oldest towns, in which the Cherokee people had lived for centuries”(Wetmore). This devastating defeat was the first of many.

In April 1776, there was a conference held by the patriots in an attempt to convince the Cherokees to remain neutral in the war and not to aid the British troops. However, they were not persuaded and “in May 1776, a delegation from the north composed of Shawnees, Delawares, and Mohawks, arrived among the Cherokees and convinced them to take up the tomahawk against the...
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