Cherokee Archaeology, by David G. Moore,Western Office,NC Division of Archives and History,Asheville, NC
The history of the Cherokee Indians abounds with tales of military prowess and political intrigue in the 18th and 19th centuries, by which time their culture had been irreversibly altered by the advancing Anglo-American frontier. But the written history of the Cherokees actually begins with the 16th century accounts of the Spanish explorers Hernando DeSoto and Juan Pardo and the story of Cherokee prehistory is the subject of ongoing archaeological investigations.
Archaeologists have traced Cherokee culture back to nearly 500 years before DeSoto first met them in the southern mountains. The Pisgah phase, generally dated to between AD 1000 and AD 1500, is the name assigned by archaeologists to prehistoric Cherokee culture in western North Carolina. (A phase consists of a pattern of sites which exhibit close similarities in site structure and artifactual remains). Pisgah sites are located throughout the southern Appalachian region but are most common in western North Carolina, especially along the French Broad and Pigeon rivers and their tributaries.
Excavations at the Warren Wilson site (3lBn29) and the Garden Creek site (3lHwl) by the Research Laboratories of Anthropology, UNC-Chapel Hill, provide much of the evidence for our understanding of Pisgah culture. The Warren Wilson site is located on the Warren Wilson College campus, east of Asheville. The site is situated adjacent to the Swannanoa River and consists of a small palisaded village covering about three acres. The Garden Creek site is located on the Pigeon River west of Canton, and consists of two distinct village areas of about five acres each and three earthen mounds.
Pisgah villages ranged in size from about one acre to more than five acres and typically included houses situated around an open plaza and encircled by a palisade (stockade). Houses were constructed with upright wooden posts. They were generally square or slightly rectangular in shape and usually about 20 feet on a side. Wall coverings included bark and, perhaps, daub. House plans are determined by the identification of posthole patterns in the soil. Each posthole indicates the location of a single wooden post and patterns become discernible as each excavation unit is cleaned and mapped. The multiple palisades may represent the growth of the village over a period of time.
Although Pisgah sites have been found in many different settings the villages are most often located on the larger alluvial valleys where soils were most suitable for horticultural practices. The Pisgah folk grew maize, beans, squash, and gourds but their diet was by no means limited to these domesticated crops. Studies of carbonized plant remains from hearths, trash pits, and other village features show that wild plant foods including nuts, fruits, seeds, and greens were important components of the Pisgah diet. These studies, combined with the analysis of animal bone from the same features, indicate that the Pisgah people practiced a generalized subsistence pattern. While cultigens (domesticated plants) were important, wild plant foods and animals probably contributed equally to the overall diet.
Investigations at the Garden Creek site have provided additional evidence for the social, ceremonial, and political aspects of Pisgah culture. The two village areas are larger than the Warren Wilson site and both have associated earthen mounds which served as platforms on which civic/ceremonial structures were built. Two of the three mounds were apparently constructed prior to the Pisgah phase, though one of these was probably utilized during that time. Construction for the third mound was initiated during the Pisgah phase; however, its original form was that of a semisubterranean (partially below ground), earth-covered structure called an earth lodge. At a later date a second earth lodge was constructed adjoining the first and eventually both were covered with earth and capped with a clay mantle.
Not all Pisgah sites included mounds and it is likely that their presence at Garden Creek indicates it may have served as a central town with respect to social and political alliances and ceremonial activity.
The material culture of the Pisgah folk is represented by wide variety of artifacts fashioned from clay and stone, as well as bone, shell, and wood. Pisgah ceramics included jars and bowls, many with distinctive collared rims, that were usually decorated with stamped patterns impressed by carved wooden paddles. Other clay artifacts included pipes, small gaming discs, and beads. A variety of stone was used to make tools. Chert and quartz provided raw material for chipped tools like small triangular arrow points, drills, and scrapers while granite and gneiss were ground smooth and polished to make celts (axes) and chisels. Other stone artifacts included pipes, gorgets, hammerstones, mortars, and gaming stones. Mica was quarried and cut for ornaments. Beads and gorgets were also made from animal bone and marine shell. The walls of the conch shell were cut to form circular gorgets, often incised with a stylized snake design. The conch was also used to make ear pins, beads, and ceremonial bowls. The shell artifacts were normally associated with human burials.
Following the Pisgah is the Qualla phase (AD 1500 - AD 1850). Qualla is identified with the historic period Cherokee Indians. Because of similarities of artifact styles, house and village structure and burial patterns it is quite clear that the Pisgah folk were direct ancestors of the Cherokee people. However, it is also likely that other peoples (from east Tennessee and north Georgia) also contributed to the historic period Cherokee culture.
The first written record of the Cherokee comes from the accounts of Spanish explorers Hernando DeSoto and Juan Pardo who met the Cherokee in 1540 and 1567, respectively. Though the accounts provide little information on Cherokee culture they are valuable for understanding the political geography of the Cherokee and their neighbors. It is not until the mid-17th century that the historic records begin to record the Cherokees in any detail. By 1690 numerous records describe the activities of travellers and traders among the Cherokee.
In the early 1700's the British (South Carolina) government defined five Cherokee groups. In east Tennessee, the Cherokee lived along the Tellico and Little Tennessee rivers, in what were called the Overhill Towns. The Lower Towns were found in north Georgia, on the Tugalo, Keowee and upper Savannah rivers. Three divisions were present in North Carolina, including the Middle Towns, located on the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River; the Valley Towns, on the Hiwassee and Valley rivers; and the Out Towns on the Tuckaseegee and Occonoluftee rivers. The 18th century saw the Cherokees continually embroiled with their Indian neighbors and the governments of the frontier populations, first with the British Colonial and French governments and ultimately with the United States government. It was a period of shifting alliances formed to protect their lands and preserve trading relations. The Cherokees were often more favorably disposed towards the French, who were less interested in land than in trade; however, the Cherokee often found themselves allied with the English against their traditional enemies such as the Tuscarora and Creek Indians in the early 1700's.
In 1730 Sir Alexander Cuming embarked on a mission to secure Cherokee allegiance to the British. Cuming met with several Cherokee chiefs at the Town of Nequassee where he convinced them to submit to English rule. This first official treaty also established Chief Moytoy of Tellico (Overhill) as emperor and leader of the Cherokee Nation. (Today all that remains of the town of Nequassee is the large earthen mound preserved next to the Little Tennessee River within the city limits of Franklin in Macon County). By mid-century the Cherokee were drawn inexorably into regular and necessary trade with the British. However, the Cherokee continued to suffer the encroachment of the colonial frontier, leading to intermittent but sustained hostilities, particularly during the French and Indian War. The war had disastrous consequences for the Cherokee. In 1769 a large English force under Colonel Archibald Montgomery marched on and destroyed all 15 of the Middle Towns.
The wars' end served only to increase the numbers of settlers coming into Cherokee territory and by the time of the Revolution the Cherokee were rather easily persuaded to assist the English by attacking American frontier settlers. The Americans answered with armies directed at the Cherokees. In 1776 General Griffith Rutherford led a North Carolina militia against the Middle, Valley, and Out Towns while South Carolina forces attacked Lower Towns. Finally, a Virginia force destroyed the Overhill Towns. Sporadic actions occurred for the duration of the war and the end of the war saw additional land lost and the further disintegration of Cherokee political and social boundaries. In less than 60 years most of the Cherokees were forcibly removed from what remained of their homelands on the infamous Trail of Tears.
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