At the beginning of European contact, there were approximately 27 Indian tribes in North Carolina.
Only three were in the mountain region: Cheraw (NW), Catawba and Cherokee
Language families: Iroquoian (Cherokee), Siouan (Catawba and Cheraw)
The following information is a brief synopsis. The information was taken from a variety of sources in books, other literature, and on the Web. For more information, refer to the list of books found under “resources” and visit:
Special thanks to T.J. Holland, director of the Junaluska Memorial and Museum in Robbinsville, for his knowledge and assistance in the compilation of the timeline and history.
The Cherokee people say that the first man and first woman, Kanati and Selu, lived at Shining Rock, near present-day Waynesville. The old people also say that the first Cherokee village was Kituwah, located around the Kituwah Mound, near present-day Bryson City. The land was purchased in 1997 by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to become once again part of tribal lands.
The central philosophy of duyuktv, meaning “the right way,” prescribed that the Cherokee attempt to obtain harmony and balance in every aspect of their lives, particularly with respect to the natural world.
Communal responsibility was essential to the Cherokee vision of life, as symbolized by the central plaza, used for public ceremonies, and the council house, or town house, which held the “sacred fire,” embodying the spiritual essence of the town. Besides food, the environment provided all that the people needed, including medicine, clothing, weapons, shelter, musical instruments, and personal adornments.
Familial ties and clan affiliations came through Cherokee women, who owned the houses and fields and passed them on to their daughters.
The women wore dresses made of deerskin that typically reached mid thigh. They were belted at the waist with hand-woven belts and pinned at the breast with bone pins or carved broaches. A deer-hide scarf was worn around the neck and tucked into the top of the dress. A knitted or woven under-skirt, made of wild hemp, went from the waist to the knees, and had long fringes that went to the ankles.
The women’s moccasins were made of soft leather and were laced up to the knee. Women of status had colored beads or feathers arranged in patterns in the under-skirt fringe. Colored seed-beads were used to decorate the moccasins.
Hair was combed with bear grease to give it a deep shine. Cherokee women always wore their hair long, cutting it only in mourning for a family member.
They wore multiple necklaces made of shell, bone or horn that hung in successive layers to nearly cover their chest.
Possum hair was spun into thread and dyed yellow, black or red. The dyed thread was used to weave belts, anklets and garters for the men. Each woman developed her own special pattern for her husband to wear, which served as a ‘wedding ring.’
Cherokee men usually shaved their heads except for a single scalplock. Sometimes they would also wear a porcupine roach.
Cherokee never wore feather head-dresses as did the Woodland or Plains people. The only time a Cherokee would wear a feather was in time of war or during a ball game similar to lacrosse. In preparation for war, the priest from the Paint Clan (Ani Wodi) would prepare the feathers for the warriors to wear into battle. This consisted of a single Eagle or Hawk feather, with a small feather, dyed blood red, tied to the top. The feathers would then be tied into the Cherokee warrior’s hair, on the top of his head.
Men’s moccasins were short with flaps on either side to help protect the ankles from brush.
Cherokee men wore breechcloths and leggings. For hunting or warfare, men wore leather ‘chaps’ or leggings that went from the ankle to mid-thigh, and were fastened to the belt with thongs. A knife made of flint, obsidian, or copper, with a wooden or bone handle, was worn on the right side of the belt.
Men’s decoration consisted of woven belts, anklets and wrist bands made by their wives. Thong necklaces consisted of bone, claw, teeth, shells, copper plates, hammered lead, and large carved shell plates called ‘gorgets.’
After colonization, Cherokee Indians adapted European clothes into a characteristic style, including long braided or beaded jackets, cotton blouses and full skirts decorated with ribbon applique, and feathered turbans.
The Cherokee lived in settled villages, usually located near a river.
The village was surrounded by a “stockade” constructed similar to a fort, but without a gate. These were built for protection. They had overlapping fences at the entrance, forming a colonnade.
A large seven-sided building was built for ceremonial purposes and meetings. The building was on a raised earth platform near the center of the village.
Each village usually had a ball field with benches for spectators.
The Cherokee settlements were like a town with houses, small gardens and fruit trees.
Cherokee houses (wattle and daub) were made of river cane and plaster, with thatched roofs. Much in the same way that they made their baskets, the Cherokee built their houses by weaving limber twigs and cane through firm upright posts. Over these surfaces, the builders plastered a mixture of grass and weeds folded into smooth clay.
Their roofs were similar woven constructions, covered with bark and thatch.
Circular stones for baking bread lay next to fire basins scooped out of the center of the floor for preparing meals.
After the colonists began to build log houses, the Cherokee became expert in borrowing the designs of these structures and using native timber.
The individual families had homes made of logs, roofed with split cedar planks, the walls were sealed against the weather with grass and mud. Most of the homes were single level, but the larger families had two-story houses.
The door opened into the hearth, or cooking area, and there was a hole in the roof to allow smoke to escape. This room served as the kitchen and family room.
The bedroom was adjacent to the main room and was equipped with “bunk-beds.” The frames were made of poles tied together with raw-hide strips. The frames for the lower beds were elevated a foot or so from the dirt floor, and laced with a type of rope made from woven grass or reeds. The mattresses consisted of bundles of soft river reeds, and blankets were made of soft fur.
The furniture consisted of poplar wood stools and storage chests (clapboards sewn to crossbars with wet stripes of deerhide). Women crafted carpets of hemp and they were painted with colored figures.
The kitchen and bedroom were separated with a large animal skin flap, or a curtain made from woven plant fibers. The windows were covered with the same material, to keep out rain and cold. Some houses had skin or woven cloth over the main door, others had a solid wooden door made of split cedar planks, hinged with leather.
The main difference between the Cherokee houses and the settlers’ log cabins was the settlers had fireplaces for cooking, with stone chimneys, and the Cherokee preferred to build a fire directly in the middle of the dirt floor.
Catawba (Issa, Esaw)
Research on the culture of the Catawba is ongoing. The tribe was decimated by smallpox and some remaining members assimilated with other tribes for periods of time. The culture and beliefs of the Catawba are similar to the Cherokee.
Fragmentary evidence hints that Catawba religion had a supreme being that was associated with the sun. In addition, there were numerous spirits—personal, animal, and elemental—whose powers could be used for good or ill. Today vestiges of these spirits remain in the stories of yehasuri, or “wild Indians,” (little people) who are said to live in the woods.
They lived in villages of circular, bark-covered houses, and dedicated temple structures were used for public gatherings and religious ceremonies.
Agriculture, for which men and women both shared responsibility, provided at least two crops each year and was heavily supplemented by hunting and fishing.
The Iroquois called the Catawba “flatheads” because they, as well as many of the other Siouan-speaking tribes of the area, practiced forehead flattening of male infants.
Catawba warriors had a fearsome reputation and an appearance to match: ponytail hairstyle with a distinctive war paint pattern of one eye in a black circle, the other in a white circle and remainder of the face painted black.
The Catawba are “famous” for their pottery. Catawba cooking pottery was highly desired among colonial settlers in South Carolina.
John Lawson, who passed through their territory in 1701, speaks of the Catawba as a “powerful nation” and states that their villages were very thick. He calls the two divisions, which were living a short distance apart, by different names, one the Kadapau and the other the Esaw, unaware that the two were the same tribe.
The Catawba were second to the Cherokee as the most populous and important tribe in the Carolinas.
James Adair said that one of the ancient cleared fields of the tribe extended 7 miles. In 1728, they still had six villages, all on the Catawba River, within a stretch of 20 miles, the most northern being named Nauvasa. Their principal village was formerly on the west side of the river, in what is now York County, S.C., opposite the mouth of Sugar Creek.
Cheraw villages ranged from about Danville, Va., southward to Cheraw, S.C., which takes its name from them. The tribe was almost decimated before any European settlements were located in their territory.
They are mentioned first in the De Soto narrative for 1540, under the name Xuala, a corruption of Suali, the name by which they are traditionally known to the Cherokee, who remember them as having anciently lived beyond the Blue Ridge southward from Asheville.
In the earlier Carolina and Virginia records they are commonly known as Saraw, and at a later period as Cheraw.
In 1672, John Lederer located them in the same general region, or possibly somewhat farther northeast, “where the mountains bend to the west,” and says that this portion of the main ridge was called “Sualy mountain” from the tribe. This agrees with Cherokee tradition.
Between 1726 and 1739 the few remaining Cheraw joined with the Catawba. They are mentioned as with the Catawba but speaking their own distinct dialect as late as 1743 (Adair). In 1759 a party of 45 “Charraws” joined the English in the French and Indian War. The last notice of them is in 1768, when their remnant, reduced by war and disease to 50 or 60, were still living with the Catawba.
Click on the links below for more information on the Cherokee and Indians in Henderson County.