There are two prevailing views about Cherokee origins.
Migration from the North:
One view is that the Cherokees are relative latecomers to Southern Appalachia, who likely migrated in late prehistoric times from northern areas, the traditional territory of the Iroquois and other Iroquoian-language people. Researchers in the 19th century talked to elders who recounted an oral tradition of the people's migrating south from the Great Lakes region in ancient times.
Some historians and archaeologists believe evidence supports the view that Cherokees did not come to Appalachia until as late as the 13th -16th centuries. The scholars believe they originated near the Great Lakes, where they had been part of other Iroquoian-speaking peoples. The period of differentiation is when the Iroquois nations formed of the Haudenosaunee, as well as the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, for instance. Over time, the Cherokee moved into Muscogee Creek territory and settled at the sites of mounds built by Muscogee ancestors.
The other possibility is that Cherokee people have lived in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee for a far longer period of time. During the late Archaic and Woodland Period, Indians in the region began to cultivate plants such as marsh elder, lambsquarters, pigweed, sunflowers and some native squash. People began building mounds, created new art forms like shell gorgets, adopted new technologies, and followed an elaborate cycle of religious ceremonies.
The first known European-Native American contact was in 1540, when a Spanish expedition led by Hernando de Soto passed through Cherokee country. De Soto's expedition visited many inland Georgia and Tennessee villages which they recorded as ruled by the Coosa chiefdom, of the Mississippian culture. The Cherokee did not settle in this area until the early 1700s. The Spanish noted the Chalaque nation as living around the Keowee River where North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia meet. European diseases, introduced to natives by contact with the Spaniards and their animals, decimated many Eastern tribes because of their lack of immunity to the new diseases.
In 1654, there was a disturbance in Virginia Colony as the Rechahecrians or Rickahockans, as well as the Siouan Manahoac and Nahyssan, broke through the frontier and settled near the Falls of the James, near present-day Richmond, Virginia. The following year, a combined force of English and Pamunkey drove the newcomers away. The identity of the Rechahecrians has been much debated. Historians noted the name closely resembled that recorded for the Eriechronon or Erielhonan, commonly known as the Erie tribe. They had been driven away from the southern shore of Lake Erie by the powerful Iroquois Five Nations in 1654. The anthropologist Martin Smith theorized some remnants of the tribe migrated to Virginia after the wars. Fewer historians suggest this tribe were Cherokee.
George Washington sought to 'civilize' friendly Southeastern American Indians, through programs overseen by Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins. U.S. agents convinced them to abandon their communal land-tenure and settle on isolated farmsteads, facilitated by the destruction of many American Indian towns during the American Revolutionary War. The deerskin trade brought white-tailed deer to the brink of extinction, and as pigs and cattle were introduced, they became the principal sources of meat. The tribes were supplied with spinning wheels and cotton-seed, men were taught to fence and plow the land, in contrast with traditional division where farming was woman's labor, women were instructed in weaving; blacksmiths, gristmills and eventually cotton plantations were established.
The Cherokees organized a national government under Principal Chiefs Little Turkey (1788-1801), Black Fox (1801-1811), Pathkiller (1811-1827), all former warriors of Dragging Canoe. The 'Cherokee triumvirate' of James Vann and his protégés The Ridge and Charles R. Hicks advocated acculturation, formal education, and modern methods of farming. In 1801 they invited Moravian missionaries from North Carolina to teach Christianity and the 'arts of civilized life.' The Moravians and later Congregationalist missionaries ran boarding schools, and a select few students were educated at the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions school in Connecticut.
Before the final removal to present day Oklahoma many Cherokees relocated to present-day Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. Between 1775 and 1786 the Cherokee, along with people of other nations such as the Choctaws and Chickasaws, began voluntarily settling along the Arkansas and Red Rivers.
In 1802, the federal government promised to extinguish Indian titles to lands claimed by Georgia in return for Georgia's cession of the western lands that became Alabama and Mississippi. To convince the Cherokee to move voluntarily in 1815, the US government established a Cherokee Reservation in Arkansas. The reservation boundaries extended from north of the Arkansas River to the southern bank of the White River. Di'wali (The Bowl), Sequoyah, Spring Frog and Tatsi (Dutch) and their bands settled there. These Cherokees became known as "Old Settlers."
During the first decades of the 19th century, Georgia was focused on removing the Cherokee's neighbors, the Lower Creeks. After first cousins Georgia Governor George Troup and Lower Creek Chief William McIntosh signed the Treaty of Indian Springs (1825), ceding the last Muscogee (Creek) lands claimed by Georgia, the state's northwestern border reached the Chattahoochee, the border of the Cherokee Nation. In 1829, gold was discovered at Dahlonega, on Cherokee land claimed by Georgia. The Georgia Gold Rush was the first in U.S. history, and state officials demanded that the federal government expel the Cherokee. When Andrew Jackson was inaugurated as President in 1829, Georgia's position gained the upper-hand in Washington. In 1830 the Indian Removal Act authorized the forcible relocation of American Indians east of the Missisippi to a new Indian Territory.
Andrew Jackson said removal policy was an effort to prevent the Cherokee from facing the fate of "the Mohegan, the Narragansett, and the Delaware". However there is ample evidence that the Cherokee were adapting modern farming techniques, and a modern analysis shows that the area was in general in a state of economic surplus.
The Cherokee brought their grievances to US judicial review that set a precedent in Indian Country. John Ross traveled to Washington, D.C. and won support from National Republican Party leaders Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Samuel Worcester campaigned on the Cherokee's behalf in New England, where their cause was taken up by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In June 1830, a delegation led by Chief Ross defended Cherokee rights before the U.S. Supreme Court in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. In 1831 Georgia militia arrested Samuel Worcester for residing on Indian lands without a state permit, imprisoning him in Milledgeville. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832) Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that American Indian nations were 'distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights,' entitled to federal protection from the actions of state governments that infringed on their sovereignty. Worcester v. Georgia is considered one of the most important decisions in law dealing with Native Americans.
Jackson ignored the Supreme Court's ruling, needing to conciliate Southern sectionalism during the era of the Nullification Crisis. His landslide reelection in 1832 emboldened calls for Cherokee removal. Georgia sold Cherokee lands to its citizens in a Land Lottery, and state militia occupied New Echota. The Cherokee National Council, led by John Ross, fled to Red Clay, a remote valley north of Georgia's land claim. Ross had the support of Cherokee traditionalists, who could not imagine removal from their ancestral lands, but a small group known as the "Ridge Party" or the "Treaty Party" saw relocation as inevitable. Led by Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, they represented the Cherokee elite, whose homes, plantations and businesses were confiscated, or under threat of being taken by white squatters with Georgia land-titles. With capital to acquire new lands, they were more inclined to accept relocation. On December 29, 1835, the "Ridge Party" signed the Treaty of New Echota, stipulating terms and conditions for the removal of the Cherokee Nation. In return for their lands, the Cherokee were promised a large tract in the Indian Territory, $5 million, and $300,000 for improvements on their new lands. John Ross gathered over 15,000 signatures for a petition to the U.S. Senate insisting that the treaty was invalid because it did not have the support of the majority of the Cherokee people, but the Treaty of New Echota passed by a one-vote margin, and was enacted into law in May 1836.
Two years later President Martin Van Buren ordered 7,000 Federal troops and state militia under General Winfield Scott into Cherokee lands to evict the tribe. Over 16,000 Cherokee were forcibly relocated westward to Indian Territory in 1838-1839, a migration known as the Trail of Tears or in Cherokee Nvna Daula Tsvyi (Cherokee: The Trail Where They Cried), although it is described by another word Tlo-va-sa (Cherokee: The Removal). Marched over 800 miles, across Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas, as many as 4,000 died of disease, exposure and starvation. As some Cherokees were slaveholders, they took enslaved African-Americans with them west of the Mississippi. Intermarried European-Americans and missionaries also walked the Trail of Tears. John Ross preserved a vestige of independence by negotiating for the Cherokee to conduct their own removal under U.S. supervision. In keeping with the 'blood law' that prescribed the death penalty for Cherokee who sold lands, his son arranged the murder of the leaders of the "Treaty Party". On June 22, 1839, Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot were assassinated by a party of twenty-five Ross supporters that included Daniel Colston, John Vann, Archibald, James and Joseph Spear. Elias Boudinot's brother Stand Watie fought off the attempt on his life that day and escaped to Arkansas.
In 1827, Sequoyah led a delegation of Old Settlers to Washington, D.C. to negotiate for the exchange of Arkansas land for land in Indian Territory. After the Trail of Tears, he helped mediate divisions between the Old Settlers and the rival factions of the more recent arrivals. In 1839, as President of the Western Cherokee, he and John Ross signed an Act of Union that reunited the two groups of the Cherokee Nation.