The men of Hernando de Soto plunged through the southern woods on ancient hunting trails. They marched in a formation of seven hundred soldiers, all of them holding swords and protected by steel plates and armor. Besides their armor, they wore garments of silk and velvet. Behind them came the bloodhounds and behind them the slaves, carrying provisions.
The slaves they had taken almost as soon as they stepped off of their ship, near Tampa Bay. The Tamucan, Muskogean, Siouan slaves were loaded down with provisions and many of them dropped from the arduous march, but any attempt to escape was handicapped by the chains and iron collars that the Spaniards draped them in, and by the ever-present threat of being torn to bits by the dogs.
For their part the Spaniards killed for food, gold, and entertainment and not necessarily in that order. The dogs had to be kept sharp as well, and they were turned on the populations of many villages as the party made its way north out of Florida.
Perhaps the Cherokee heard these stories, for when the expedition arrived in one of their mountain towns, generous gifts were provided. De Soto remained for one night and moved on without incident. The group itself was a fantastic sight for the Cherokee to behold, with their dress, appearance, brutality, and power.
The date in which the Spaniards stayed was May 25, 1540. It was the first contact between Cherokees and Europeans, and it would be the last for many decades.
The first English traders meet the Cherokee
The next white men the Cherokee saw did not come in groups of seven hundred or a thousand. They came as individuals or partnerships, and they came to trade. It was through this process that the Cherokee first acquired the goods of the white men, which would come to change their culture so drastically.
Two of the earliest visitors were James Needham and Gabriel Arthur. They arrived in 1673 with hopes of acquiring skins and beeswax for the colony in Virginia. In this they were successful, and they were invited to stay for a time.
Their occupation was not a safe one, however. One one of the trails, Needham got into an argument with a Cherokee known only as “Indian John” which led to his grisly demise. As their debate reached a climax, Indian John pulled a knife, stabbed Needham in the chest, ripped it open, and tore his heart out. Holding the still beating heart into the air with one hand, Indian John announced his contempt for the poor man to all of the surrounding witnesses.
Indeed among the English, the hills west of Virginia and Carolina became known as not the safest place to wander into.
Changes to Cherokee culture from trading
There were those who braved the dangers of trading with the Cherokee, and when successful it was a very profitable enterprise. There was soon a sizable trade in animal skins, which were used in the colonies and even shipped to England. By one estimate, production of skins increased from 50,000 in 1708 to 1,000,000 in 1735.
The trading of animal skins with the English greatly commercialized the society of the Cherokees. Before they had hunted on a subsistence level, merely to feed their own tribe. But now in the early 1700s, the attention devoted to this task was immense. Women who had formerly tended to agriculture and childrearing now devoted more time to preparing these skins in the village.
And what were the goods that the Cherokees so fanatically sought with this trade? Horses for one. While the ownership of horses had been non-existent, it soon came about that every warrior had two or even five of them. The tools and fabric of the English were highly prized as well. Iron and steel pots became common, and the skills of pottery and basketmaking were in less demand. Copper and stone tools became obsolete.
Another substance that changed things for the Cherokee was the whiskey and rum. Having had little exposure to intoxicating beverages before this point, they seized upon them now. The consequence was a change in recreation towards drinking, and away from the dance and sport that had been their ritual for many centuries.
The English also provided the Cherokee with black slaves in their trading. These slaves helped the women farm and maintain the villages. Other tribes had slaves as well, and the Cherokee in their raids would try to take these slaves as well. They were valuable for their work, and they could also be sold back to the English and even French traders who could be found in the area.
Last but not least, there were firearms.
Firearms and the early Cherokee
In 1711, the colonists of South Carolina found themselves in a little bit of trouble with the Tuscarora tribe. Fearing that they would be driven out of Charleston if things did not change, they enlisted the help of the Cherokee in return for a shipment of guns. Under these conditions, the Cherokee were more than happy to accept.
The guns served two purposes very well. They helped the Cherokee hunt more effectively, which increased the number of skins that they could sell. They also enabled the Cherokee to fight more effectively against their traditional enemies — the Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Tuscaroras, and others.
It was the guns that really tied the Cherokee to the English, in a dependent way. Not only would a loss of these guns harm their economic standing, to the extent that it affected their hunting, but the English were also in a position to give and withhold guns to different tribes, in proportion to their cooperation. Thus, the gun trade gave the English a fantastic means of keeping the Indian tribes divided and of controlling their actions.
The first cession of land to the English settlers
Another important moment for the Cherokee was 1721, for it was in this year that the first land was ceded to the colony of South Carolina. As the population of that colony grew, the inexorable pressure and logic of expansion pushed them away from the coastline and further into the central lowlands, where they began to run against the boundaries of the Cherokee.
The Cherokee really had three distinct regions, each with their own distinct dialect and minor differences to their culture. These regions have been called the Overhills, Middle Towns, and Lower Towns. The Lower Towns Cherokee lived on the flattest land, nearest to the coast, and they were first to deal with white encroachment.
From the beginning, there was controversy about the treaties. Because the Cherokee were not organized at anything above the level of the town, there was really no central figure who was authorized to make these arrangements. Undeterred, the English usually signed them with anyone they could find, and held the entire tribe to the letter of the treaty and then some. The arrangement worked well for the English colonies, but it led to mutual distrust, anger, and recrimination among the Cherokee, who were constantly left to wonder at who was signing these “agreements”.
The smallpox epidemic amongst the Cherokee
Like most tribes the Cherokee underwent the horrific tragedy of smallpox, and the year of their epidemic was 1738.
While they had perhaps suffered isolated cases before, in this year the scars swept across their tribe, striking and disfiguring, and killing. Some saw it as a punishment for their commercialized, dissolute ways. Others killed themselves out of pride when, upon surviving the initial disease, they caught a glance of their disfigured visage.
Immunity was non-existent. The very success of their old way of life now doomed them. Millennia of living spread out, spared from epidemics, had ensured that they would have no antibodies to the diseases of Europe.
In one year, half of the Cherokee died. Their numbers now reduced, they became even more tied to and dependent upon the Europeans.