Native Americans

Cherokee Warfare

by Brandon Smith



Warfare was the "beloved occupation" of Lower Cherokee men, and almost all encountered war sometime during their lives. The Cherokee, like many other cultures, were very proud, and defeat would result in humiliation upon their return. The Cherokee society consisted of two types of clans—the white organizational council clans and the red war clans. The red clans organized wars and voted on "Great Warriors" who would lead them into war.1 The Lower Cherokees were hostile with many culturally different Indians throughout their history in the southeast as well as the Europeans. They were infamous for their conflicts with the Catawba that occupied nearby regions. They also used several distinctive weapons in their campaigns and practiced pre-war rituals that they believed gave them special powers and invulnerability.

James Mooney, a Cherokee expert in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, wrote extensively on the subject of Cherokee warfare and their opponents. He researched the occupation of northwestern South Carolina, southeastern Tennessee and western North Carolina in his studies on the Cherokees. The following excerpts regarding the Lower Cherokees are from his report, "Myth of the Cherokee," included in the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1897-1898.

"on the east and southeast the Tuscarora and Catawba were their inveterate enemies, with hardly even a momentary truce within the historic period; and evidence goes to show that the Sara and Cheraw were fully as hostile. On the south there was hereditary war with the Creeks, who claimed nearly the whole of upper Georgia as theirs by original possession… by their defeat of the Creeks and expulsion of the shawano, the Cherokee made good the claim they asserted to all the lands from upper Georgia to the Ohio river."2

"In 1693 some Cherokee chiefs went to Charleston with presents for the governor and offers of friendship, to ask the protection of South Carolina against their enemies, the Esaw (Catawbas), Savanna (Shawano), and Congaree, all of that colony, who had made war upon them and sold a number of their tribesmen into slavery."3

"The war with the Tuscarora continued until the outbreak of the latter tribe against Carolina in 1711 gave the opportunity to the Cherokee to cooperate in striking the blow which drove the Tuscarora from their ancient homes to seek refuge in the north. The Cherokee then turned their attention to the Shawano on the Cumberland, and with the aid of the Chicasaw finally expelled them from the region about the year 1715… The former friendship with the Chicasaw was at last broken through the overbearing conduct of the Cherokee, and a war followed of which we find incidental notice in 1757, and which terminated in a decisive victory for the Chicasaw about 1768."4

"In 1718, we find notice of a large Cherokee war party moving against the Creek town of Coweta, on the lower Chattahoochee . . ."5

The Suwali were allies with the Sara and Cheraw and were known to cooperate with these tribes against the Cherokee.6 The Lower Cherokee were also known to be belligerent with the Chicamaugas after they peaceably invited unarmed Cherokee leaders into their territory and slaughtered them in 1788.7

The rituals the Cherokees undertook before an important battle were deemed as critical to their victory. Three days of fasting by the warriors and the shaman always preceded the battle. A dance designed to stimulate confidence and courage also took place during this time period. Taboos were especially not practiced during these days. Priests recited war prayer formulas for the different companies for four consecutive nights before setting out for battle. Warriors would gather at the edge of a stream and watch while the priest repeated his formula.8 If there were ample time remaining on the fourth and final night, the priest would give each man a small root that had been given invulnerability powers through ritual. According to James Mooney, "on the eve of battle, the warrior after bathing in the running stream chews a portion of this and spits the juice upon his body in order that the bullets of the enemy may pass him by or slide from his skin like drops of water."9 The Cherokees then marched into battle in small groups of twenty to forty, as opposed to larger groups and were ready to unite at any time.10

The Cherokees carried both armor and weaponry into their battles. The armor consisted of a club and a shield and was only used for defensive purposes. The weapons they used were clubs, knives, axes and bows and arrows.11 Thomas Males described the Cherokee weaponry as:

"The Cherokee men made perhaps the finest war bows and smoothest barbed arrows of all Indians. Oak, ash, and hickory wood were used for the bows. For flexibility, the bows were coated with bear oil, then warmed by a fire to cause the oil to sink in. War bows averaged five feet in length and had a flat, rectangular cross section. The handle section was one and three quarters of an inch wide, and the limb width tapered to three quarters of an inch at the necks. The draw was more than fifty pounds. Strings were fashioned from twisted bear gut and were fletched with two split turkey feathers. Designed for forest use, the arrows were excellent for close fighting but tended to plane on longer flights. The release was a secondary, or pinch, grip. Quivers were either made in basketry fashion or of rushes laid side by side. Color was added with dyes and feathers, and they were slung over the shoulder on a buckskin loop. The quiver proper was for arrows only, and the bow was either carried in the hand or slipped through buckskin bands on the side of the quiver."12


1Thomas E. Males, The Cherokee People: The Story of the Cherokees from Earliest Origins to Contemporary Times (Tulsa, OK: Council Oak Books, 1992), 99.
2Chapman Milling, Red Carolinians (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 196), 14.
3Ibid., 31-32.
4Ibid., 38.
5Ibid., 38.
6Ibid., 25.
7W.R.L. Smith, The Story of the Cherokees (Cleveland, TN: Church of God Publishing, 1928), 65.
8Males, The Cherokee People, 101.
9George Ellison ed., James Mooney's History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (Asheville, NC: Bright Mountain Books, 1992), 389.
10Smith, The Story of the Cherokees, 22.
11Males, The Cherokee People, 102.
12Ibid., 102.


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