Members of the Cherokee tribe began to immigrate to areas of current-day
Arkansas in the mid- to late 1700s, as Euro-American settlers began occupying
their homeland in the areas comprising current-day western North and
South Carolina, northern Georgia, northeastern Alabama, and northeastern
Tennessee. This brought them into conflict with the Osages, who were already
established there, but the Osage treaty of 1808 with the United States (in the
aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase) ceded lands that would eventually be
settled by the Cherokees. The founding of Fort Smith primarily arose as a way
for the government to manage attacks on the Cherokees by the Osages.
Historians estimate that by the early 1800s, as many as 3,000 Cherokees
were living in the area along the St. Francis River in northeast Arkansas (and
southeast Missouri), and along Illinois Bayou and the Arkansas River in Pope
County. By that time, because of interaction with Europeans over the previous
centuries, the Cherokees had adapted many of the practices of the white settlers,
including subsistence farming, animal husbandry, and dress and shelter
resembling American frontier life. Native customs, however, were still very
important to the Cherokees, including the Green Corn ceremony, which united
the sometime distant homesteads and villages. One famous Cherokee resident
of Arkansas during this time was Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee syllabry.
The founding of Dwight Mission on Illinois Bayou demonstrated the Cherokees’
thirst for knowledge. John Jolly, a Cherokee leader and an advocate for
education among the tribe, welcomed and facilitated the building of the mission
community that grew to include some 36 structures, including mills, barns and
residences, and served some 60 children by the time it closed in 1829. At that
time, the mission moved to present day Oklahoma
tribe ceded land under a treaty in 1828.
The site is marked now by a sign on Highway
64 at a boat ramp to Lake Dardandelle, which
covered the site when it was created. A previous treaty between the Cherokees
and Acting Governor Crittenden near what is known as Council Oak in
Dardanelle had resulted in the surrender of all Cherokee lands south of the
That treaty ended significant occupation of the Cherokees in Arkansas, but
their imprint on the state remains through the land’s place on the Trail of
Tears, as well as their participation in the Civil War. The National Park Service’s
site at Pea Ridge tells the story of Stand Watie, who led the Confederate 2nd
Cherokee Mounted Rifles and commanded the regiment at the battle there.
The park also has one of the best-preserved routes of the Trail of Tears, where
Elkhorn Tavern stands.
That tragic forced removal of the Eastern Cherokees to the west in 1838-39
brought many of the tribe to northeastern Oklahoma and the town of
Tahlequah, where the tribal headquarters stands today. Subsequent
allotment policies ended the practice of holding land in common and the
operation of the Cherokee Republic. Tribal leaders have sought to preserve
and reinvigorate some of the traditions of the tribe lost or neglected during
assimilation with Euro-American culture.