Long before white settlers chose to call this land home, the sweeping plains, soaring mountains and flowing rivers of beautiful Tennessee countryside were a haven for Native American tribes that lived and hunted here.
However, with Hernando De Soto’s first steps on Tennessee soil, the lives of these native people were changed forever. In the years to follow, Tennessee’s native tribes met with disease, weapons, rum and greed. During these turbulent times, courageous war heroes emerged to lead their people in the fight for their homes and way of life; brave leaders rose in efforts to make peace with these new white settlers. These pioneers forged a permanent mark in history. Their stories would be told for years to come.
This tribe, primarily located in East Tennessee, was called by white settlers of the 19th century as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” because they assimilated numerous cultural and technological practices of European-American settlers. Today, the Cherokee are the largest of the 563 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States.
Centuries ago, the Chickasaw claimed the greater part of western Tennessee. They had a large settlement on the Mississippi at Chickasaw Bluffs, now the site of Memphis. The warlike Chickasaw fought consistently with neighboring tribes and were noted for their bravery, independence and warlike disposition.
Close relatives to the Fox, Sauk and Kickapoo, the Shawnee were a very difficult tribe to trace due to their wandering habits, their connection with other tribes and the indefinite nature of their name. Eventually, the Shawnee were pushed out of the Tennessee area by the Chickasaw and the Cherokee.
The Yuchi lived near the mountains of eastern Tennessee, on the Tennessee River and in the Hiwassee Valley. They lived in permanent villages, surrounded by cultivated fields and were very good potters. Each town had a sacred public square where social and religious meetings were held, and the Sun was recognized as the source of life and mystery.
Tsiyu Gansini, or Dragging Canoe, was a brave war leader responsible for leading a band of Cherokee, as well as other tribes that joined along the way, against the United States in the American Revolutionary War. As an ally to the British during the war, Dragging Canoe resisted American imperialism. In the years following, Dragging Canoe would lead as principal chief in a series of conflicts known as the Chickamauga Wars.
Chief John Ross
Ross, the first elected chief of the Eastern Cherokee, was highly regarded for his work as an intermediary between Native Americans and white settlers, as well as his efforts to negotiate treaties with Washington. Ross fought, but eventually failed, to prevent the Cherokee Removal.
Beginning life with humble means and possibly lame, the Cherokee silversmith is the only known person in history to singlehandedly develop an alphabet. Born in the Cherokee village of Tuskegee, Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee is the first written language for a Native American people. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore tells his story and is dedicated to the history and culture of Native Americans.
At the age of 18, Nancy Ward, or Nanye-hi, led the Cherokee to victory after her husband, Kingfisher, was killed. Later, she became the unofficial ambassador to the white settlers. She is responsible for warning the settlers of an impending attack by Dragging Canoe, an act that made her a Patriot for the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.