Cherokee Indians, one of the Five Civilized Tribes. The Cherokee, although of the Iroquoian language family, are culturally related to the Muskhogean-speaking Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes. At the time of contact with European explorers in the 16th century, the Cherokee were living mainly in what are now North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. They were the largest tribe in the southeast, numbering about 29,000 in the 17th century. They engaged primarily in hunting and agriculture.

Cherokee menCherokee men playing lacrosse.

The Cherokee constantly struggled against encroachment by settlers. Beginning in the late 18th century, small bands started moving westward. In 1820 the Cherokee organized themselves into a nation and were guaranteed the remainder of their land (principally in Georgia) by the United States. After adoption of a syllabary (a system of writing in which characters represent the sounds of syllables), devised by Sequoya (1821), a constitution and code of laws were written. In the late 1820's, the federal government, to encourage Cherokee migration to the West, set aside land for the tribe in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). After gold was discovered on Cherokee land in Georgia, pressure increased to remove the Cherokee.

Soon after the election of Andrew Jackson, it became the official policy of the federal government to remove all Indian tribes to lands west of the Mississippi. The Cherokee were forced to cede their eastern lands (1835) and were removed (183839) to Indian Territory. On their journey, known as the Trail of Tears, more than one-fourth perished. About 1,400 hid in the Smoky Mountains, and later were allowed to remain in North Carolina. Today, there are about 280,000 Cherokee living in the United States.