Cherokee Ecology and the Buffalo Culture

The Historical Ecology of the Cherokee Territorial Claim Circa 1700

by Lamar Marshall


At the dawn of the historical era, perhaps between 1400 to near 1800, several ecological events coalesced to change the way of life for native peoples living east of the Mississippi River.  The Pre-Columbian native population east of the Mississippi River crashed by 90% from an estimated 1.7 million people to about 170,000.  For centuries, native people modified the land by using fire to clear and maintain fields, grasslands, savannas and canebrakes. Open woodlands and park-like savannas were common.  Large savannas along the Mississippi River were maintained by systematic, annual burning. Canebrakes were burned every 7 to 10 years.  Rivercane was a foundation species which provided the highest-yielding native pasture in the East. Importantly, as an evergreen, it provided winter forage after the grasses had long disappeared. It is believed to have invaded abandoned croplands along river bottoms.

The abandoned towns, fields, grasslands in the East were perfect habitat for migrating western buffalo (Bison bison bison) whose herds were peaking from conservative estimates of 30 million to more popular estimates of between 45 and 60 million.  It is very likely that they invaded these vacant territories east of the Mississippi after the native population collapse.  The arrival of the buffalo along with the phenomena of the passenger pigeon created an ecological niche that spanned about four hundred years.  Records tell that these wild Buffalo were shy and advanced away from human settlements.  Several crossing places on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers allowed for Eastward expansion through Louisiana, Mississippi to the Gulf States as well as the Great Lake region and northern states. Biologists agree that the Eastern Buffalo was the same as the Plains buffalo Bison bison bison and crossed the Mississippi several hundred years ago.

Territorial Claim

Well before 1700, the Cherokee claimed and hunted a landscape that spanned four broad ecosystems and included portions of eight modern states. Four big game species served as the foundation of the hunting economy and lifestyle. These were the buffalo, elk, bear and deer that inhabited Kentucky grasslands, Piedmont prairies, the Appalachian Mountains and lowland swamps, canebrakes and savannas. The American chestnut was the foundation species that supported a great abundance across the primary forests. Keystone species passenger pigeons, beaver, buffalo and elk played dual roles as food/commodity sources and ecological engineers. Although archaeological evidence is scant regarding buffalo material remains, there is overwhelming recorded testimony to substantiate its presence across all regions of the territorial claim.


The traditional Cherokee homeland included familiar geographic places, ancestral remains, resources, cultural heritage, language, art, religion, trade networks, and vast hunting grounds across four interconnected ecosystem types. Before 1700, the buffalo was a keystone species in the Cherokee cultural web of life and economy. Dragging Canoe angrily charged that the whites had stolen his “buffalo grounds and salt springs.” European encroachment and settlement in a hunting reserve that spanned parts of eight states extirpated first the buffalo and elk and eventually caused the American chestnut and passenger pigeon to disappear from the historical Cherokee territorial claim. An overwhelming body of historical testimony in both Cherokee and European records attest to a lost Cherokee buffalo culture.


This territorial claim was actually a “National Reserve of Natural Resources” owned, defended, managed and harvested by the Cherokee. Not unlike a modern Western rancher who has ten thousand acres of pasture with herds of longhorns that roam and graze all year until the rancher rounds them up.  Within this “great reserve” (see Old Tassel) were “buffalo grounds” (Dragging Canoe), “salt springs,” chestnut reserves, elk herds, small buffalo herds from AL to KY, passenger pigeons, deer, bear and turkey, rivercane reserves, strawberry plains, local agriscapes of walnuts, persimmons, hickories, mulberries and countless other utilitarian as well as foodstuffs.

The natural forces that supported included ecological engineers that altered ecosystems such as beaver, buffalo and passenger pigeons. The great management tool of the Cherokee was fire. The Cherokee territorial claim was an ecological paradise where cherished annual hunting and gathering safaris were the traditional lifestyle. Buffalo were a keystone of the Cherokee economy and martial warfare against competing and trespassing tribes was an honorable sport.


Passenger Pigeons

Passenger Pigeon populations reached a billion birds. The pigeon was meat, cooking oil and triple 13  fertilizer all in one.  Their ecological impact was immense.  The migrating millions of Passenger Pigeons which broke limbs from trees and laid down sometimes several inches of the equivalent of chicken manure onto the forest floor which resulted in an explosion of delayed vegetative growth.

The sky could be darkened by millions of pigeons as they migrated annually.  They were a foundation specie that opened forests by breaking off limbs and leaving several inches of pigeon dung on the soils. This produced an explosive growth of herbs, grasses and forbs for animals.  Indians ate the meat and put up hundreds of gallons of oil.  Of all the birds of the East, the Passenger was one of the most important. All the tribes utilized the bird for meat and oil.


The Grand Cycle of the Seasons

Cherokee life seems to have been connected to fire and the sacred number four.  According to James Adair, the Cherokee were the People of the Sacred Fire the nation as a unified people were known as the People of One Fire.  There was an annual ceremonial renewal of their home fire.  But Fire was more than just warmth and comfort, light and cooking, it was essential to landscape management and hunting. Their natural world contained four cardinal directions, four seasons, and four winds.  Life itself was cyclic or circular as all activities followed the grand cycle of the seasons.  All things were connected, unending and circular.

Spring represented a renewal or resurrection of life and birth; Summer was associated with youth; Fall  was maturity of life and crops, ripening and harvest; Winter equated with old age and the cold grip of death.  Even the full winter moon left long, black shadows on snowy forest floors.


The American Chestnut

The American chestnut was the foundation species that supported a great abundance across the primary forests of the East. Four billion trees dropped about six thousand nuts each regularly each summer.   The trees habit of blooming in June insures that late frosts do not damage the mast whereas animals that depend on acorns are prone to periodic food shortages.  When the chestnut disappeared from the East, the average mast production dropped by about 35%.  Chestnut composition within the forest varied from 20% to 30% plus or minus. Being allelopathic, other species are limited in competing with it.


Above: The American Chestnut Foundation.   Join this group and help re-establish our most noble tree.


Many centuries of land-use and modification of ecosystems by the use of fire and other tools created and maintained grasslands, sometimes called barrens or deserts, savannas which resembled open, woodland parks, canebrakes.  This habitat constituted the Northern Cherokee Buffalo Grounds in TN and KY and the Southern Buffalo Grounds south and east of the Appalachian Mountains.  The most pristine or least managed within this assemblage of provinces was the high elevation temperate rain forests of the Appalachian/Blue Ridge. Exceptions were the broad riparian basins which were prime agricultural lands. Early journals describe grassy plains, savannas, strawberry plains along the Little Tennessee River in Macon and Swain Counties. Whether Indians or animals maintained grassy balds is unclear but certainly elk and buffalo were associated with them in the past.


The Beaver

High elevation beaver ponds killed trees and created meadows which might explain the “buffalo pastures” referred to on the headwaters of Catawba in 1755 by Bishop Spangenberg.


Fire: The Tool of Choice – (After all, there were no tractors, bush hogs, chainsaws, herbicides)

There are extensive historical records documenting that Indians and their successors, white settlers setting fire to grasslands in order to enrich the next season’s grass. Cherokees and adjacent tribes who annually used fire to burn buffalo prairies, strawberry plains, Piedmont and low-elevation forests; and natural lightning strikes. Fire was not a significant disturbance event in the Appalachian Mountains as they were much too moist.

Francois Michaux 1802 travelling through Big Barrens KY:

“a beautiful meadow, where the grass was from two to three feet high…”  “The Barrens are circumscribed by a wood about three miles broad, which in some parts joins to surrounding forests.

“Every year, in the course of the months of March or April, the inhabitants set fire to the grass, which at that time is dried up, and through its extreme length, would conceal from the cattle a fortnight or three weeks longer the new grass, which then begins to spring up. This custom is nevertheless generally censured; as being set on fire too early, the new grass is stripped of the covering that ought to shelter it from the spring and frosts, and in consequence of which its vegetation is retarded.

The custom of burning the meadows was formerly practiced by the natives, who came in this part of the country to hunt; in fact, they do it now in the other parts of North America, where are savannas of an immense extent. Their aim in setting fire to it is to allure the stags, bisons, &c into the parts which are burnt, where they can discern them at a greater distance.

Unless a person has seen these dreadful conflagrations, it is impossible to form the least idea of them. The flames that occupy generally an extent of several miles, are sometimes driven by the wind with such rapidity, that the inhabitants, even on horseback, have become a prey to them.

The American sportsman and the savages preserve themselves from this danger by a very ingenious method; they immediately set fire to the part of the meadow where they are, and then retire into the space that is burnt, where the flame that threatened them stops for want of nourishment.”