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Fernando De Soto's Expedition

The Cherokee Nation has probably occupied a more prominent place in the affairs and history of what is now the United States of America, since the date of the early European settlements, than any other tribe, nation, or confederacy of Indians, unless it be possible to except the powerful and warlike league of the Iroquois or Six Nations of New York.

It is almost certain that they were visited at a very early period following the discovery of the American continent by that daring and enthusiastic Spaniard, Fernando De Soto.

In determining the exact route pursued by him from his landing in Florida to his death beyond the Mississippi, many insuperable difficulties present themselves, arising not only from an inadequate description on the part of the historian of the courses and distances pursued, but from many statements made by him that are irreconcilable with an accurate knowledge of the topographic detail of the country traversed.

A narrative of the expedition, " by a gentleman of Elvas," was published at Evora in 1557, and translated from the Portuguese by Richard Hakluyt, of London, in 1609. From this narrative it appears that after traveling a long distance in a northeasterly direction from his point of landing on the west coast of Florida, De Soto reached, in the spring of 1540, an Indian town called by the narrator "Cutifachiqui.'" From the early American maps of De L'Isle and others, upon which is delineated the supposed route of De Soto, this town appears to be located on the Santee River, and, as alleged by the "gentleman of Elvas," on the authority of the inhabitants, was two days' journey from the sea-coast.

The expedition left Cutifachiqui on the 3d of May, 1540, and pursued a northward course for the period of seven days, when it came to a province called Chelaque, "the poorest country of maize that was seen in Florida." It is recorded that the Indians of this province " feed upon roots and herbs, which they seek in the fields, and upon wild beasts, which they kill with their bows and arrows, and are a very gentle people. All of them go naked and are very lean."

That this word "Chelaque" is identical with our modern Cherokee would appear to be almost an assured fact. The distance and route pursued by the expedition are both strongly corroborative of this assumption. The orthography bf the name was probably taken by the Spaniards from the Muscogee pronunciation, heard by them among the Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws. It is asserted by William Bar-tram, in his travels through that region in the eighteenth century, that in the "Museogulge" language the letter "r" is not sounded in a single word, but that on the contrary it occurs very frequently in the Cherokee tongue.1

Through this province of Chalaque De Soto passed, still pursuing his northward course for five days until he reached the province of Xualla," a name much resembling the modern Cherokee word Qualla. The route from Cutifachiqui to Xualla lay, for the most part, through a hilly country. From the latter province the expedition changed its course to the west, trending a little to the south, and over "very rough and high hills," reaching at the end of five days a town or province which was called "Guaxule," and two days later a town called "Canasagua," an orthography almost identical with the modern Cherokee name of Canasauga, as applied to both a stream and a town within their Georgia limits.

Assuming that these people, whose territory De Soto thus traversed, were the ancestors of the modern Cherokees, it is the first mention made of them by European discoverers and more than a century anterior to the period when they first became known to the pioneers of permanent European occupation and settlement.

Earliest map. The earliest map upon which I have found Chalaqua" located is that of "Florida et Apalche" by Comely Wytfiiet, published in 1597.2 This location is based upon the narrative of De Soto's expedition, and is fixed a short distance east of the Savannah River and immediately south of the Appalachian Mountains. "Xualla" is placed to the west of and near the headwaters of the " Secco" or Savannah River.

Early Traditions

Haywood, in his Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee, records many of the traditions concerning the origin and the primal habitat of the Cherokees. He notes the fact that they were firmly established on the Tennessee or Hogohege River before the year 1650, and exercised dominion over all the country on the east side of the Alleghany Mountains, including the headwaters of the Yadkin, Catawba, Broad, and Savannah Rivers, and that from thence westward they claimed the country as far as the Ohio, and thence to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee and Alabama. One tradition which he alleges existed among them asserts their migration from the west to the upper waters of the Ohio, where they erected the mounds on Grave Creek, gradually working eastward across the Alleghany Mountains to the neighborhood of Monticello, Va., and along the Appomattox River.

From this point, it is alleged, they removed to the Tennessee country about 1623, when the Virginians suddenly and unexpectedly fell upon and massacred the Indians throughout the colony. After this massacre, the story goes, they came to New River and made a temporary settlement there as well as one on the head of the Holston; bat, owing to the enmity of the northern Indians, they removed in a short time to the Little Tennessee and founded what were known as "Middle Settlements." Another tribe, he alleges, came from the neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina, and settled lower down the Tennessee. This branch called . themselves "Ketawanga," and came last into the country. The tradition as to those who came from Virginia seeks also to establish the idea that the Powhatan Indians were Cherokees. The whole story is of the vaguest character, and if the remainder has no stronger claims to credibility than their alleged identity with the Powhatans, it is scarcely worthy of record except as a matter of curiosity.

In fact the explorations of De Soto leave almost convincing proof that the Cherokees were occupying a large proportion of their more modern territory nearly a century prior to their supposed removal from the Appomattox.

Pickett, in his History of Alabama, improves upon the legend of Haywood by asserting as a well established fact what the latter only presumes to offer as a tradition.

However, as affording a possible confirmation of the legend related by Haywood concerning their early location in Eastern Virginia, it may be worth while to allude to a tradition preserved among the Mohican or Stockbridge tribe. It appears that in 1818 the Delaware, who were then residing on White River, in Indiana, ceded their claim to lands in that region to the United States. This land had been conditionally given by the Miami many years before to the Delaware, in conjunction with the" Moheokunnuk" (or Stockbridge) and Munsee. Many of the latter two tribes or bands, including a remnant of the Nanticokes, had not yet removed to their western possessions, though they were preparing to remove. When they ascertained that the Delaware had ceded the lands to the United States without their consent, they objected and sought to have the cession annulled.

In connection with a petition presented to Congress by them on the subject in the year 1819, they set forth in detail the tradition alluded to. The story had been handed down to them from their ancestors that u many thousand moons ago " before the white men came over the " great water," the Delaware dwelt along the banks of the river that bears their name. They had enjoyed a long era of peace and prosperity when the Cherokees, Nanticokes, and some other nation whose name had been forgotten, envying their condition, came from the south with a great army and made war upon them. They vanquished the Delaware and drove them to an island in the river. The latter sent for assistance to the Mohicans, who promptly came to their relief, and the invaders were in turn defeated with great slaughter and pat to flight. They sued for peace, and it was granted on condition that they should return home and never again make war on the Delaware or their allies. These terms were agreed to and the Cherokees and Nanticokes ever remained faithful to the conditions of the treaty.

The inference to be drawn from this legend, if it can be given any credit whatever, would lead to the belief that the Cherokees and the Nanticokes were at that time neighbors and allies. The original home of the Nanticokes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is well known, and if the Cherokees (or at least this portion of them) were then resident beyond the Alleghanies, with sundry other powerful tribes occupying the territory between them and the Nanticokes, it is unlikely that any such alliance for offensive operations would have existed between them. Either the tradition is fabulous or at least a portion of the Cherokees were probably at one time residents of the Eastern slope of Virginia.

The Delaware also have a tradition that they came originally from the west, and found a tribe called by them Allegewi or Allegans occupying the eastern portion of the Ohio Valley. With the aid of the Iroquois, with whom they came in contact about the same time, the Delaware succeeded in driving the Allegans out of the Ohio Valley to the southward.

Schoolcraft suggests the identity of the Allegans with the Cherokees,. an idea that would seem to be confirmatory of the tradition given by Haywood, in so far as it relates to an early Cherokee occupancy of Ohio.

1 I am informed by Colonel Bushyhead, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, that Bartram is mistaken in his latter assumption. The letter "r" was never used except among the Overhill Cherokee, and occurred very infrequently with them

2 The full title of this work is "Descriptions Ptolemaien Augmentum; sive Occidentis Notitia, brevi commentario illustrata, studio et opera, Cornely W'Pytfliet,. Lonaniensis. Lovanii, Typis Iohannis Bogardi, anno Domini MDXCVII."

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Bureau of Ethnology, Volume 5, Cherokee Nation of Indians, 1883-84

Cherokee Nation of Indians


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