History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

Many Campbell Countians are direct descendants of the Cherokee Indian tribe. These Native Americans were among the first to inhabit the lands of East Tennessee. By the 1600's they had built in the Southern Appalachians a Nation hundreds of years old, which incorporated a way of life with the surrounding natural world, a culture considerably varied and rewarding.

However, scarcely just two centuries later, the newly formed government of the United States was driving the Cherokee on every occasion further west. This predicament to the Cherokees, in their gallant struggle for their homeland, was totally ignored by the pioneer settlers from Europe. These violators had staked claims to what seemed to them mere wilderness. But to the Cherokees this was a violation of their physical and spiritual being.

Most historians agree that during the last ice age the Indians crossed from Asia to this continent across Alaska's Bering Strait. (This vast glacier, the Wisconsin Glacier, drew vast amounts of water from the oceans, which in turn exposed huge amounts of land on the continents, thus, the appearance of the Bering Strait.) This ancient people separated into various regions of North America, both tribal and linguistic stocks. The Iroquois, which are now inhabitants of what are now the North Central and Atlantic states, became one of the most distinctive of these stocks.

The Cherokees, a tribe of Iroquoian origin, by the year 1000, had broken off from the main tribe and headed south. They slowly, by choice or not, followed the mountain leads of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies until they reached what was called "the security and peace of the mist-shrouded Southern Mountains." These "Mountaineers," as other Iroquois called them, claimed an empire of roughly 40,000 square miles. Their lands were bounded on the north by the Ohio River and stretched southward in a great circle through eight states. This included half of South Carolina and almost all of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Cherokee settlements were dotted throughout eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and northern Georgia. These state regions are the rough outlines of what came to be the three main divisions of the Cherokee Nation. The Were settlements were on the headwaters of the Savannah River in Georgia and South Carolina, the Middle Towns were located on the Tuckasegee River in North Carolina, and the Overhill towns with its capital situated on the Tellico River in Tennessee.

The Cherokees, for the most part, settled only in the foothills of the Smokies. They were content with their surroundings, which included the fertile lands along the rivers and creeks. The stood in awe and they viewed the tangled wilderness. They looked upon the heights of the Smokies as something both consecrated and hazardous.

A Cherokee myth tells of a race of spirits living there in mountain caves. These handsome "little people" were usually helpful and kind, but they could make the intruder lose his way.

The Spanish explorer, Hernando DeSoto, traveled through Cherokee territory in 1540 and recorded generally primitive conditions. However, 17 years later, a Spanish missionary noted that the Cherokees appeared "sedate and thoughtful, dwelling in peace in their native mountains where they cultivated their fields and lived in prosperity and plenty."

The physique of the male Cherokees was that they were moderately tall and rather slender with long black hair and sometimes very light complexions. They wore animal skin loincloths and robes, moccasins and a knee-length buckskin shirt. A Cherokee man might dress more flamboyantly than a woman, but both enjoyed decorating their bodies excessively, covering themselves with paint and, as trade with the white man increased, and jewelry.

The Cherokee house was a rough log structure with one door and no windows. A small hole in the bark roof allowed smoke from a central fire to escape. Furniture and decorations included cane seats and painted hemp rugs. A good-sized village might number 40 or 50 houses. Chota, in the Overhill country on the Little Tennessee River, was a place of civil and religious influence. It was also known as a "Town of Refuge," a place of asylum for Indian criminals, especially murderers. The Smokies settlement of Kituwah served as a "Mother Town," or a headquarters for one of the seven Cherokee clans.

These clans--Wolf, Blue, Paint, Bird, Deer, Long Hair, and Wild Potato--were essential to the social structure of the tribe. The Cherokees traced their kinship by clan; marriage within clans was prohibited. And while the broad divisions of the Lower, Middle, and Overhill followed natural diversity in geography and dialect, the clans assumed great political implication. Each clan selected its own chiefs and its own "Mother Town."

Each village, whether built along or near a stream or surrounded by defensive log palisades, would have as its center a Town House and Square. The Square, a level field in front, was used for celebrations and dancing. The Town House itself sheltered the town council, plus the entire village, during their many meetings. When decision time came about, as many as 500 people crowded into the smoky, earth-domed building where they sat in elevated rows around the council and heard debates on issues from war to the public demands.

Democracy was the defining status of the Cherokee Nation. "White" chiefs served on the council during peacetime while "Red" chiefs served in time of war.

Women participated as an equal in Cherokee society in conjunction with the men. Clan membership, which included land, followed the mother's side of the family. The tribal men hunted much of the time, and also helped in some household chores such as sewing. Marriages were seriously collaborated. Women sat in council as equals to men.

Priests once formed a special class, but after an episode in which one of the priests attempted to take the wife of the leading chief's brother, all such privileged persons were made to take their place alongside--not in front of-- the other members of the community.

Time Line

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