The Cherokee tribe descended from the Iroquois and migrated from the Great Lakes to settle parts of Georgia, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina. The tribe’s initial contacts with Europeans proved disastrous when smallpox wiped out a large portion of its population.
The Cherokee allied themselves with the British during the French and Indian War and were rewarded with the Proclamation of 1763, which forbade English colonists from settling west of the Alleghenies on Cherokee land. The Cherokee Nation was recognized as one of the Five Civilized Tribes when it developed its own alphabet and system of writing and reading. The Cherokee had adopted European dress, religion and language, but the newly formed government was determined to move them westward. Washington tried unsuccessfully to convince them to abandon their tribal system and accept individual ownership of farms that were available after the war. An early treaty even offered U.S. citizenship to Cherokees, but their fate was sealed with the discovery of gold on their land in Georgia and the election of Andrew Jackson as President. Jackson’s mother had been killed in an Indian raid and he wasted little time sending federal troops to relocate them forcibly. Despite a U.S. Supreme Court order to the contrary, the entire population was herded into unsanitary carts and marched from their homes into what is now Oklahoma. Approximately 4,000 of the 20,000 relocated Cherokees died along the route from disease, exposure and starvation, a tragedy known as the Trail of Tears.