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 as the 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 Arkansas River.

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.