History Rewritten on Cherokee Collapse

A slow, lethal combination of external pressures including warfare, rather than a lack of natural resources, led to the demise of the Cherokee Indians, two new studies suggest.

The date of the Cherokee society's collapse is often cited as 1785, when several tribes signed the Treaty of Hopewell and came under the jurisdiction of the new United States of America. Resource scarcity was the major factor in the dissolution, many historians have thought, based on an eyewitness narrative of sparse settlement patterns.

But the Cherokee of the Southeastern United States actually had plenty of land, crops and animals to go around, the new land-usage research indicates. The collapse was more likely instigated by a series of events that occurred over a period of a few decades, said University of Georgia anthropologist Ted Gragson.

"We can't talk about the collapse as something that just happens," said Gragson, who co-authored the studies. "We talk about Indians as if they're timeless and anything bad that happened was instantaneous with the influx of Europeans , but this is not the case."

One of the studies is detailed in the journal Social Science History, and the second will be published soon in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences. Easy explanation

When good historical accounts about the Cherokee first appeared in the early part of the 18th century, their territory had reached nearly 125,000 square miles and was made up of some 60 small towns spread out across the Appalachians.

In his 1775 book History of the American Indians, British writer James Adair made one comment about the tribes that ultimately shaped interpretations about their troubles at the end of the century: "Their towns are still scattered wide of each other, because the land will not admit any other settlement," Adair wrote of the Cherokee.

Historians latched onto this statement because it made sense in the context of what happened later, Gragson said. When Cherokee towns began to unravel in the late 18th century, resource scarcity was an easy explanation.

"But Adair's research doesn't give clues regarding the time he's talking about," said Gragson, who noted that Adair lived with the Cherokee for more than four decades. "It is imperative in any analysis about Native Americans and the relation to land and resources to anchor the discussion within the moment it takes place."

No time for farming

To investigate the likelihood of the resource-scarcity explanation, Gragson's team looked at maps and historical data from the year 1721 only, a pivotal point before Cherokee society was grossly affected by the newcomers from Europe.

It was a time of abundance, the researchers found, with more than enough viable land for everyone.

"The resource density and potential of this area far exceeded their needs," Gragson told LiveScience. The relatively small Cherokee eco-footprint on the landscape could not have led directly to an all-out collapse, the research indicated.

Deer were the only thing waning by 1721 because of the European demand for skins, and things really only started to go downhill as this trend progressed, Gragson said.

"At the point that the Cherokee were unable to harvest deer in sufficient quantity to obtain western goods … they were vulnerable since they no longer were bargaining with the British and French, but asking for handouts," Gragson said.

The deer trade collapsed in 1750 and was followed quickly by the French-Indian wars. Cherokee tribes still had plenty of natural resources to sustain agriculture, just no time to farm, Gragson speculated. By the time the Colonies were doing battle with the British, the once-powerful tribes were foundering.

"The Cherokee suffered mightily during this period," Gragson said. "By the end of the American Revolution, the Cherokee were really decimated. They'd lost a lot of people, crops and their society. They were trying to salvage enough just to not die when they signed the Hopewell Treaty."

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.