Cherokee is located in North Carolina south of the Great Smoky Mountains in the Oconcluftee River Valley and is the gateway to both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is the headquarters for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The town is tourist-oriented due to its close proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the casino- Harrah’s Cherokee Casino which opened in 1995.
The first inhabitants of the mountains were the Cherokee Indians. The Cherokee used the word Shacorage meaning “blue, like smoke” to describe the mountain region. The “smoky”mountains were bountiful for providing the Cherokee with natural resources. The area provided hundreds of species of plants used for food, medicines, and crafts. The wide variety of trees provided fuel, weaving fibers, twine, medicinal barks and the framework and covering of dwellings.
The Cherokee Indians used the Great Smoky Mountains as hunting grounds. The area of Gatlinburg was once hunting grounds to the early Native Americans and Cherokee Indian Tribe. The region was teaming with wildlife which provided hunting of animals that were then used for food, clothing, shelter, and medicine to the Cherokee. A footpath thru the mountains called Indian Gap Trail was the way to reach the bountiful hunting grounds the Native Indians hunted for food. US 441 almost follows the same route today.
It is unknown exactly how long the Cherokee have lived in Western North Carolina. Found artifacts indicate people lived here more than 11,000 years ago. Ancient Cherokee tales describe hunts of the long ago tribes that once foraged here.
By the 1500’s, the Cherokee were a settled, agricultural people living in villages consisting of 30 to 60 houses and a large council house. In the early 1800’s, the Cherokee adopted their government to a written constitution and established their own courts and schools. In the 1830’s, the federal government no longer needed the Cherokees as strategic allies. The land was for plantations and especially for the gold that had been discovered in nearby North Georgia. In 1838, the government forced the removal of the Cherokees in the East to Oklahoma. Over 16,000 Cherokee began the long march, with one quarter to half dying along the way of the “Trail of Tears.”
The Cherokees in Western North Carolina today are the descendants from those Cherokees: those who were able to hold on to land they owned; those that hid out in the mountains; or those that were able to return to the land. Today, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians is a sovereign nation of 100 square miles, with more than 13,000 enrolled members. Cherokee is a place where modern people respect and preserve the history of their people.
Once a town with manufacturing and textile plants providing jobs to the local people along with the tourism to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, now Harrah’s Cherokee Casino attracts close to 4 million tourist annually generating money for the locals.