Overhill Cherokees

The term Overhill Cherokee refers to the settlements of the eighteenth-century Cherokee people found in eastern Tennessee. The name Overhill is generally derived from the geographic location of the Cherokees and the need to travel over the mountains from South Carolina to reach them. Early historic sources also often refer to these as the upper settlements in contrast to the lower and middle settlements found east of the Appalachians.

The Overhill towns were found primarily in the lower Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River valleys and those of their tributaries, although some less well-known towns were located in upper East Tennessee. Scholars disagree concerning the establishment of the Overhill towns. Some believe that Overhill Cherokee settlements date as early as the sixteenth century while other researchers argue that the Cherokees came into the area in the late seventeenth century. The most frequently identified towns on the Little Tennessee are Chilhowee, Tallassee, Citico, Chota, Tanasi, Toqua, Tomotley, Tuskeegee, and Mialoquo, and on the Tellico River, Great Tellico and Chatuga. Chestue and Hiwassee Old Town were located on the Hiwassee River. Other divisions of the Cherokees included the Lower towns in northern Georgia and northwestern South Carolina and the Middle, Valley and Out towns in western North Carolina.

Towns within each group had close linguistic, political, economic, and religious ties and shared similar architecture and material culture but were largely politically autonomous. Individual residents were members of one of seven Cherokee clans. Clan membership and kinship relations were established through an individual’s mother. Cherokees could be virtually certain that a fellow clan member resided in any Cherokee town they visited regardless of the region. Clan membership provided a rich network of social and economic alliances that could be called upon at all times. Social and linguistic differences among the regional town clusters were recognized by the Cherokees and clearly identified by English traders and settlers.

Overhill people, for example, spoke a distinctive dialect, which they shared with the Valley towns. One settlement in each region was considered a mother town. By the mid-eighteenth century Chota was considered the mother town, although early in the century its neighbor Tanasi had filled this role, and still earlier Great Tellico may have been the mother town.

Village populations numbered about one hundred to four hundred people. Each village had an octagonal council house or town house measuring up to sixty feet in diameter and a rectangular summer council house measuring about fifteen by forty feet. Both buildings were located at one end of a village plaza that covered an acre or more. The council houses and plaza were the site for all public meetings, including religious festivals, social gatherings, political debates, and military planning. Lieutenant Henry Timberlake in 1760 and Duke Louis Phillipe in 1797 provide particularly vivid descriptions of these buildings. The townhouse and plaza were surrounded by associated households, which were scattered along a river for as far as a mile. Each household included a circular winter house and a rectangular summer house built to the same plan as the council houses, only smaller. In and around these structures, Cherokee families stored and prepared plant and animal foods, processed hides, and manufactured pottery and other household and personal items. Scattered among the houses were small family gardens. At greater distances were agricultural fields where native crops of corn, beans, and squash, as well as plants introduced by Europeans such as potatoes, cabbage, melons, and field peas, were grown, and apple and peach trees were cultivated.

The Overhill towns were the homes of a number of prominent Cherokee leaders well known in American history. These include, for example, Oconastota, the Great Warrior, and Attakullakulla or Little Carpenter, the great diplomat, both of whom resided at Chota. Ostenaco, the warrior and political leader who hosted Henry Timberlake during his well-known diplomatic mission following the Cherokee war of 1760, was from Tomotley. Dragging Canoe, from Chota, was famous for his resistance to American Revolutionary War forces. He established the town of Mialoqua and led the establishment of the Chickamauga towns in the vicinity of Chattanooga. Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, came from Tuskegee, which was located near Fort Loudoun.

British traders and colonial officials were well aware of the Overhill settlements by the 1690s, and sustained contact by traders began in the early 1700s. The first official diplomatic mission was attempted in 1715 but failed to reach the primary settlements on the Little Tennessee River. In 1725 this goal was achieved when Colonel George Chicken met with Cherokee headmen at the Tanasi townhouse. Thereafter, a steady stream of diplomatic, economic, and military missions flowed into the area as the British came to depend on the Overhills to provide deer hides and as they recognized the importance of the Cherokees as a military buffer against the French and their Indian allies to the west. Among early missions to the Overhills were the visit of Alexander Cummings in 1730 and the expeditions led by Raymond Demere and William Gerard De Brahm in connection with the construction of Fort Loudoun near Tomotley and Tuskeegee in 1756.

During the Cherokee War of the 1760s many refugees moved to the Overhills when the British destroyed the Lower and Middle towns in North and South Carolina. During the American Revolution and the hostilities that continued into the 1790s, colonial and later territorial militia repeatedly destroyed Overhill towns. People escaping these deprivations and continuing their resistance to American encroachment moved south to form the Chickamauga towns in the vicinity of present-day Chattanooga. The population of the Overhill towns was so greatly reduced that some towns were completely abandoned. At other towns council houses were maintained to serve the political, social, and religious needs of households in the vicinity, and some towns retained small resident populations.

In the Treaty of 1819 the Cherokees ceded land from the Little Tennessee River south to the Hiwassee River and in so doing transferred the sites of the Overhill settlements to the United States. The treaty of 1819 also provided for Cherokees to retain residence in this area on 640- or 160-acre reservations. Some individuals reestablished households at former village locations, while other families resided along smaller streams and uplands throughout the region. This effort to sustain a cultural identity and physical connection with the Overhill settlements lasted until 1838, when the Cherokees were removed to Oklahoma by the United States government.

In the 1960s and 1970s extensive archaeological studies of the Overhill villages on the Little Tennessee River in Monroe and Loudon counties were undertaken because of their inclusion in the Tellico Dam Reservoir. In the late 1970s the village sites were inundated. A small area of the Chota townhouse and plaza were covered with fill, and two monuments, one at the site and another overlooking the site, honoring the Cherokee people were erected. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, located near Vonore, is dedicated to the public presentation of Cherokee history, especially the Overhill towns.

Suggested Reading

John P. Brown, Old Frontiers, The Story of the Cherokee Indians from Earliest Times to the Removal to the West, 1838 (1938); David Cockran, The Cherokee Frontier: Conflict and Survival, 1740-1762 (1962); Verner Crane, The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732 (1929); Charles M. Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (1976); James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (1900); Samuel Cole Williams, Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History (1937)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Overhill Cherokees
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 19, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018