Lesson Five: Historical Ecology


The Cherokee Claim was an Ecological Paradise –A Vast Reserve of Resources

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 mountains were laced with spring-fed, clean waters that grew larger and larger as they flowed down to lower elevations where they flattened into rich bottoms that made rich gardens and farms. These bottoms were the sites for most Cherokee towns. Historical survey records note natural meadows, abundance of grass in Cherokee fields, and extensive canebrakes along many rivers and streams. Cherokee trails existed for many reasons and not all were strictly utilitarian. Some trails close to Cherokee towns were used as “Booger” trails, others led to sacred places and others to places where medicinal plants and wild foods could be harvested. These travelways radiated out of Cherokee country into every direction fitting into the continental-wide network that connected the Atlantic to the Pacific, Hudson’s Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.

Game was hunted throughout the Cherokee country and extended fall and winter hunts took the hunters into Kentucky, Tennessee and Carolinas for buffalo and throughout the high mountains where established hunting camps were found. Two are noted near Highlands, NC, one being Black Fox’s Camp and another described by Andre Michaux in his journal. When whites began to press into the Cherokee country, they took over camps as bases of operations and killed game which they transported and sold in settlements.

Canebrakes were used for baskets and dozens of other products. Unfortunately, they were also favorite grazing places for horses and cattle. Early settlers turned large herds of cattle into the canebrakes. Eventually, this damaged and contributed to the extirpation of the rivercane. Some canebrakes were so vast in the southeast that some Indians stated they would much rather have a canebrake nearby rather than a fort. Land conversion and the free-ranging cattle and swine of the settlers devastated the rivercane ecosystems and today they are but a shadow of their former dominance on the land.

Beaver were trapped by settlers and whites alike and their disappearance from the mountains contributed to more change. The unregulated denuding of the mountains by early logging companies, the death of the American chestnut and dozens of other trees have continued the degradation of the Cherokee country to this day. The loss of the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, the wolf, cougar, Ivory-billed woodpecker, bison, the regional increase of human beings, highways, mountain developments, pollution is a formula and history of tragedy. The carrying capacity of the land has been exceeded and the future of the ancient Cherokee country seems bleak. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park serves as an island and natural reserve of wild nature.

The loss of nature was summed up by Ted Franklin Belue in his book The Long Hunt:

“Up to about 1700, except in the extreme southeast of Natchez territory, buffalo herds increased, stretching their traces across eastern America. Indians continued their practices of burning and farming, managing the land, their resources, and game herds. But the coming Anglo horde irrevocably altered native life and the indigenous flora and fauna. ‘Europeans,’ declares Francis Jennings, ‘did not conquer wilderness; they conquered Indians. They did not discover America; they invaded it.’[1]


To the Cherokee, the forest was a pharmacy, hardware and grocery store. The Cherokee country of the Eighteenth Century was a magnificent mosaic of fully-functioning ecosystems. Forest communities, plant species, temperatures and humidity changed with the altitude and aspect of the land. From the coastal longleaf pine savannas of eastern South Carolina, a traveler could be in a few days in an alpine Spruce-fir forest found only on a few high Appalachian mountains or in Canada, hundreds of miles to the north. These diverse ecosystems with their thousands of various plants, animals and birds were veined with trails that were used not only for general travel, but for hunting, gathering, fishing and warring. Medicines were gathered from river bottoms to high elevation spruce fir forests above 6000 ft. For example, Red spruce needles and sap were used for medicines while the roots were woven into baskets and used for lacing. The sap was coveted for chewing gum.

Hunting and Gathering

Wild game was plentiful and bear, turkey and deer were the big three most common meat sources. Fish were harvested in woven traps placed at the end of V-shaped rock weirs in the rivers. Eastern bison and elk were plentiful before they were hunted out by European settlers, traders and long hunters. Before Native Americans became dependent on manufactured trade goods, they hunted, gathered, and grew everything they needed to provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, weapons, recreational and ceremonial goods. They followed the natural cycles of the seasons to procure berries, nuts, prime furs and spawning fish. They became acclimated to the seasonal temperatures and lived in harmony with nature by necessity. In our work to preserve the cultural heritage of the Southeast, we honor this ancient connection to the land.


[1] Ted Franklin Belue,  The Long Hunt (Stackpole Books, 1996) 21