Historical Traditions


There are a few stories concerning the first contact of the Cherokee with whites
and negroes. They are very modern and have little value as myths, but throw
some light upon the Indian estimate of the different races.
One story relates how the first whites came from the east and tried to enter into
friendly relations, but the Indians would have nothing to do with them for a long
time. At last the whites left a jug of whisky and a dipper near a spring frequented
the Indians. The Indians came along, tasted the liquor, which they had never
known before, and liked it so well that they ended all getting comfortably
drunk. While they were in this happy frame of mind some white men came up,
and this time the Indians shook hands with them and they have been friends after
a fashion ever since. This may possibly be a Cherokee adaptation of the story of
Hudson’s first landing on the island of Manhattan.
At the creation an ulûñsû′tĭ was given to the white man, and a piece of silver to
the Indian. But the white man despised the stone and threw it away, while the
Indian did the same with the silver. In going about the white man afterward
found the silver piece and put it into his pocket and has prized it ever since. The
Indian, in like manner, found the ulûñsû′tĭ where the white man had thrown it.
He picked it up and has kept it since as his talisman, as money is the talismanic power of the white man. This story is quite general and is probably older than
others of its class.
When Sequoya, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, was trying to introduce it
among his people, about 1822, some of them opposed it upon the ground that
Indians had no business with reading. They said that when the Indian and the
white man were created, the Indian, being the elder, was given a book, while the
white man received a bow and arrows. Each was instructed to take good care of
his gift and make the best use of it, but the Indian was so neglectful of his book
that the white man soon stole it from him, leaving the bow in its place, so that
books and reading now belong of right to the white man, while the Indian ought
to be satisfied to hunt for a living.—Cherokee Advocate, October 26, 1844.
The negro made the first locomotive for a toy and put it on a wooden track and
was having great fun with it when a white man came along, watched until he saw
how to run it, and then killed the negro and took the locomotive for himself.
This, also, although plainly of very recent origin, was heard from several
Long wars were waged between the Cherokee and their remote northern
relatives, the Iroquois, with both of whom the recollection, now nearly faded,
was a vivid tradition fifty years ago. The (Seneca) Iroquois know the Cherokee
as Oyadaʼgeʻoñnoñ, a name rather freely rendered “cave people.” The latter call
the Iroquois, or rather their largest and most aggressive tribe, the Seneca,
Nûndăwe′gĭ, Ani′-Nûn-dăwe′gĭ, or Ani′-Sĕ′nikă, the first forms being derived
from Nûndawa′ga or Nûndawa′-ono, “people of the great hills,” the name
which the Seneca know themselves. According to authorities quoted
Schoolcraft, the Seneca claim to have at one time had a settlement, from whichthey were afterward driven, at Seneca, South Carolina, known in history as one
of the principal towns of the Lower Cherokee.
The league of the Iroquois was probably founded about the middle of the
sixteenth century. Before 1680 they had conquered or exterminated all the tribes
upon their immediate borders and had turned their arms against the more distant
Illinois, Catawba, and Cherokee. According to Iroquois tradition, the Cherokee
were the aggressors, having attacked and plundered a Seneca hunting party
somewhere in the west, while in another story they are represented as having
violated a peace treaty the murder of the Iroquois delegates. Whatever the
cause, the war was taken up all the tribes of the league.
From the Iroquois country to the Cherokee frontier was considered a five days’
journey for a rapidly traveling war party. As the distance was too great for large
expeditions, the war consisted chiefly of a series of individual exploits, a single
Cherokee often going hundreds of miles to strike a blow, which was sure to be
promptly retaliated the warriors from the north, the great object of every
Iroquois boy being to go against the Cherokee as soon as he was old enough to
take the war path. Captives were made on both sides, and probably in about
equal numbers, the two parties being too evenly matched for either to gain any
permanent advantage, and a compromise was finally made which the
Tennessee river came to be regarded as the boundary between their rival claims,
all south of that stream being claimed the Cherokee, and being acknowledged
the Iroquois, as the limit of their own conquests in that direction. This Indian
boundary was recognized the British government up to the time of the
Morgan states that a curious agreement was once made between the two tribes,
which this river was also made the limit of pursuit. If a returning war party of
the Cherokee could recross the Tennessee before they were overtaken the
pursuing Iroquois they were as safe from attack as though entrenched behind a
stockade. The pursuers, if they chose, might still invade the territory of the
enemy, but they passed the camp of the retreating Cherokee without offering
to attack them. A similar agreement existed for a time between the Seneca and
the Erie.
The Buffalo dance of the Iroquois is traditionally said to have had its origin in an
expedition against the Cherokee. When the warriors on their way to the south
reached the Kentucky salt lick they found there a herd of buffalo, and heardreached the Kentucky salt lick they found there a herd of buffalo, and heard
them, for the first time, “singing their favorite songs,” i. e., bellowing and
snorting. From the bellowing and the movements of the animals were derived
the music and action of the dance.
According to Cherokee tradition, as given the chief Stand Watie, the war was
finally brought to an end the Iroquois, who sent a delegation to the Cherokee
to propose a general alliance of the southern and western tribes. The Cherokee
accepted the proposition, and in turn sent out invitations to the other tribes, all of
which entered into the peace excepting the Osage, of whom it was therefore said
that they should be henceforth like a wild fruit on the prairie, at which every bird
should pick, and so the Osage have remained ever a predatory tribe without
friends or allies. This may be the same treaty described in the story of “The
Seneca Peacemakers.” A formal and final peace between the two tribes was
arranged through the efforts of the British agent, Sir William Johnson, in 1768.
In 1847 there were still living among the Seneca the grandchildren of Cherokee
captives taken in these wars. In 1794 the Seneca pointed out to Colonel
Pickering a chief who was a native Cherokee, having been taken when a boy and
adopted among the Seneca, who afterward made him chief. This was probably
the same man of whom they told Schoolcraft fifty years later. He was a full-
blood Cherokee, but had been captured when too young to have any memory of
the event. Years afterward, when he had grown to manhood and had become a
chief in the tribe, he learned of his foreign origin, and was filled at once with an
overpowering longing to go back to the south to find his people and live and die
among them. He journeyed to the Cherokee country, but on arriving there found
to his great disappointment that the story of his capture had been forgotten in the
tribe, and that his relatives, if any were left, failed to recognize him. Being
unable to find his kindred, he made only a short visit and returned again to the
From James Wafford, of Indian Territory, the author obtained a detailed account
of the Iroquois peace embassy referred to Stand Watie, and of the wampum
belt that accompanied it. Wafford’s information concerning the proceedings at
Echota was obtained directly from two eyewitnesses—Sequoya, the inventor of
the alphabet, and Gatûñ′waʻlĭ, “Hard-mush,” who afterward explained the belt at
the great council near Tahlequah seventy years later. Sequoya, at the time of the
Echota conference, was a boy living with his mother at Taskigi town a few milesaway, while Gatûñ′waʻlĭ was already a young man.
The treaty of peace between the Cherokee and Iroquois, made at Johnson Hall in
New York in 1768, appears from the record to have been brought about the
Cherokee, who sent for the purpose a delegation of chiefs, headed Âgănstâ′ta,
“Groundhog-sausage,” of Echota, their great leader in the war of 1760–61
against the English. After the treaty had been concluded the Cherokee delegates
invited some of the Iroquois chiefs to go home with them for a visit, but the
latter declined on the ground that it was not yet safe, and in fact some of their
warriors were at that very time out against the Cherokee, not yet being aware of
the peace negotiations. It is probable, therefore, that the Iroquois delegates did
not arrive at Echota until some considerable time, perhaps three years, after the
formal preliminaries had been concluded in the north.
According to Sequoya’s account, as given to Wafford, there had been a long war
between the Cherokee and the northern Indians, who were never able to conquer
the Cherokee or break their spirit, until at last the Iroquois were tired of fighting
and sent a delegation to make peace. The messengers set out for the south with
their wampum belts and peace emblems, but lost their way after passing
Tennessee river, perhaps from the necessity of avoiding the main trail, and
instead of arriving at Itsâ′tĭ or Echota, the ancient peace town and capital of the
Cherokee Nation—situated on Little Tennessee river below Citico creek, in the
present Monroe county, Tennessee—they found themselves on the outskirts of
Tă′likwă′ or Tellico, on Tellico river, some 10 or 15 miles to the southward.

Ancient Iroquois wampum belts
Ancient Iroquois wampum belts

Concealing themselves in the neighborhood, they sent one of their number into
the town to announce their coming. As it happened the chief and his family were
at work in their cornfield, and his daughter had just gone up to the house for
some reason when the Iroquois entered and asked for something to eat. Seeing
that he was a stranger, she set out food for him according to the old custom of
hospitality. While he was eating her father, the chief, came in to see what was
delaying her, and was surprised to find there one of the hereditary enemies of his
tribe. By this time the word had gone out that an Iroquois was in the chief’s
house, and the men of the town had left their work and seized their guns to kill
him, but the chief heard them coming and standing in the doorway kept them off,
saying: “This man has come here on a peace mission, and before you kill him
you must first kill me.” They finally listened to him, and allowed the messenger
to go out and bring his companions to the chief’s house, where they were all
taken care of.
When they were well rested after their long journey the chief of Tă′likwă himself
went with them to Itsâ′tĭ, the capital, where lived the great chief Âgănstâ′ta, who
was now the civil ruler of the Nation. The chiefs of the various towns were
summoned and a council was held, at which the speaker for the Iroquoissummoned and a council was held, at which the speaker for the Iroquois
delegation delivered his message and produced the wampum belts and pipes,
which they brought as proofs of their mission and had carried all the way in
packs upon their backs.
He said that for three years his people had been wanting to make peace. There
was a spring of dark, cloudy water in their country, and they had covered it over
for one year and then looked, but the water was still cloudy. Again they had
covered it over, but when they looked at the end of another year it was still dark
and troubled. For another year they had covered the spring, and this time when
they looked the water was clear and sparkling. Then they knew the time had
come, and they left home with their wampum belts to make peace with their
The friendly message was accepted the Cherokee, and the belts and other
symbolic peace tokens were delivered over to their keeping. Other belts in turn
were probably given to the Iroquois, and after the usual round of feasting and
dancing the messengers returned to their people in the north and the long war
was at an end.
For nearly a century these symbolic records of the peace with the Iroquois were
preserved the Cherokee, and were carried with them to the western territory
when the tribe was finally driven from its old home in 1838. They were then in
the keeping of John Ross, principal chief at the time of the removal, and were
solemnly produced at a great intertribal council held near Tahlequah, in the
Indian Territory, in June, 1843, when they were interpreted the Cherokee
speaker, Gatûñ′waʻlĭ, “Hard-mush,” who had seen them delivered to the chiefs
of his tribe at old Itsâ′tĭ seventy years before. Wafford was present on this
occasion and describes it.
Holding the belts over his arm while speaking, Hard-mush told of the original
treaty with the Iroquois, and explained the meaning of each belt in turn.
According to the best of Wafford’s recollection, there was one large belt, to
which the smaller belts were fitted. The beads did not seem to be of shell, and
may have been of porcelain. There were also red pipes for the warriors, grayish-
white pipes for the chiefs who were foremost in making the peace, and some
fans or other ornaments of feathers. There were several of the red pipes,
resembling the red-stone pipes of the Sioux, but only one, or perhaps two, of the
white peace pipes, which may have been only painted, and were much largerwhite peace pipes, which may have been only painted, and were much larger
than the others. The pipes were passed around the circle at the council, so that
each delegate might take a whiff. The objects altogether made a considerable
package, which was carefully guarded the Cherokee keeper. It is thought that
they were destroyed in the War of the Rebellion when the house of John Ross, a
few miles south of Tahlequah, was burned the Confederate Cherokee under
their general, Stand Watie.

James Mooney