Native Americans

Cherokee Transportation

by Brandon Smith



Transportation had never been a major issue within the Lower Cherokee society before European interaction. The only need for transportation was to travel to hunting grounds or to invade enemy territories. After the white man began trading with the Cherokee, they began to recognize superior methods of travel. Walking and canoes had long been the main sources of transportation for Cherokee society. Walking trails usually supplemented waterways, except in high mountain areas where Indian trails were the only paths.1 Many Indian paths throughout the land were the basis for white settlers' roads, which subsequently were the basis for many of today's roads and even Interstates.2

A light bark dugout model was an earlier type of canoe utilized by the Lower Cherokees. An early description by a European trader noted that at the Cherokee "capital," Chota, harbored "one hundred and fifty canoes under ye command of theire forte… ye least of them will carry twenty men, and [each one is] made sharpe at both ends like a wherry for swiftness." During the 1700s, the use of the canoe declined somewhat and the model differed slightly. This latter canoe was described as being made of "a large pine or poplar, from thirty to forty feet long, and about two broad, with flat bottoms and sides, and both ends alike. At first, these boats, which could carry about fifteen men, were hollowed out by fire."3

It is presumed that sometime during the 1740s, the Cherokees accepted the use of horses on a permanent basis. Before the 1740s, the Cherokees had condemned the use of horses as transportation. It was not until 1740 that the "great horse path" from Augusta, GA into Cherokee country was established, this greatly increasing horse usage. While Cherokee myths eventually developed explaining the origins of horses, the actual date of introduction is inconclusive. Between 1746-1755, the use of horses dramatically increased in Indian territory, with the French even giving the Cherokee nation one hundred and twenty horses as a gift to try to win favoritism from the British. By the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1760, many Indians had been compelled to steal horses from white settlers, and many Cherokees acquired large numbers. One disturbing effect of the French and Indian War was that many Cherokees were forced to "eat the greatest part of them (horses)," although by the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the Cherokees were actively involved in replenishing the supply.4 One contemporary observation of the Indians use of horses was rather comical:

"The most uncommon Circumstance in this Indian visit Was, that they all came on Horse-back, which was certainly intended for a Piece of State, because the Distance was but three miles, and 'tis likely they hadn't walk't a foot twice as far to catch their Horses. The Men rode more awkwardly than any Dutch Sailor, and the Ladies bestrode their Palfreys a la mode de France, but were so bashful about it, that there was no persuading them to Mount till they were quite out of our Sight."5


1Thompson Malone, Cherokees of the Old South: A People in Transition (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1952), 23.
2A.V. Huff, Jr, Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), 43.
3 Malone, Cherokees of the Old South, 23.
4Gary Goodwin, Cherokees in Transition: A Study of Changing Culture and Environment Prior to 1775 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Department of Geography. 1977), 133.
5Douglas Rights, The American Indian in North Carolina (Winston-Salem, NC: John Blair Publishing, 1957), 106.


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