Although somewhat insulated by geography against the initial intrusions by Europeans the Cherokee did have contact with Europeans, sporadically at first but later living among them. After De Soto's expedition in 1540, Spaniards begin mining and smelting operations within the Cherokee country which were reportedly still in operation as late as 1690. By the 1670's, all the tribes in the region were in possession of firearms.

The first reported contact of the Cherokee with the English colonists came in 1654. The Virginia colony was alarmed to find that a large group of Rickahockans (as the Cherokee were known by the Powhatan tribes) had settled at the falls of the James River - the present site of Richmond VA. The Virginians, having just fought an exterminating war with the Powhatans, resolved "that these new come Indians be in no sort suffered to seat themselves there, or any place near us, it having cost so much blood to expel and extirpate those perfidious and treacherous Indians which were there formerly." The Virginians, with their Pumunkey Indian allies, attacked the Cherokees but were soundly defeated in a bloody battle and forced to sue for peace.

In 1673, Abraham Wood, a Virginia trader, sent two men, James Needham and Gabriel Arthur, to the Cherokees' Overhills capital of Chota for the purpose of establishing trade. Needham's letter book gives a description of Chota:

The town of Chote is seated on ye river side, having ye clifts on ye river side on ye one side being very high for its defence, the other three sides trees of two foot or over, pitched on end, twelve foot high, and on ye topps scaffolds placed with parrapets to defend the walls and offend theire enemies which men stand on to fight, many nations of Indians inhabit downe this river . . . which they the Cherokees are at warre with and to that end keepe one hundred and fifty canoes under ye command of theire forts. ye leaste of them will carry twenty men, and made sharpe at both ends like a wherry for swiftness, this forte is four square; 300: paces over and ye houses sett in streets.

Needham went back to Virginia to procure trade goods, leaving Arthur behind to learn the Cherokee language. On the return trip, Needham was killed after an argument with his guide, "Indian John". Indian John then encouraged the Cherokees at Chota to kill Arthur but the chief prevented it.

Arthur, disguised as a Cherokee, accompanied the chief of Chota on raids of Spanish settlements in Florida, Indian communities on the east coast, and Shawnee towns on the Ohio River. In 1674, he was captured by the Shawnee who discovered that under his coating of clay and ashes he was a white man. Surprisingly, the Shawnee did not kill Arthur but allowed him to return to Chota. In June of 1674, the chief escorted Arthur back to Virginia.

Contacts by explorers and traders with the Cherokee continued in the subsequent years. Early manuscripts make reference to a treaty between the Cherokees and the South Carolina colony made in 1684. In 1690, the secretary of the colony, James Moore, ventured into the Cherokee country looking for gold. Some Cherokee chiefs visited Charleston in 1693 demanding firearms for their wars against neighboring tribes.

By all reports of the colonists, war was the "principal occupation" of the Cherokee. This was apparently a matter of necessity. Colonel George Chicken, sent by the crown in 1725 to regulate Cherokee-British trade and alienate the Cherokee from the French, reported heavily fortified towns -- as Needham described Chota in 1673 -- and stated that "Otherwise ...[the residents] would be cut off by the enemy who are continually within a mile of the town lurking about the skirts thereof."

Copyright 1996 Ken Martin