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Principal Chiefs of the Cherokee

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Title: Principal Chiefs of the Cherokee  
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Subject: Cherokee Nation (1794–1907), Timeline of Cherokee history, Tsali, Cherokee treaties, Cherokee military history
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Principal Chiefs of the Cherokee

Principal Chief is today the title of the chief executives of the Cherokee Nation, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, the three federally recognized tribes of Cherokee. In the eighteenth century, when the people were organized by clans and towns, they would appoint a leader for negotiations with the Europeans. They called him Uku, or First Beloved Man.

The title of "Principal Chief" was created in 1794 when the Cherokee began to formalize a centralized political structure, forming the original Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation–East adopted a written constitution in 1827, creating a government with three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The Principal Chief was elected by the National Council, which was the legislature of the Nation. The Cherokee Nation–West adopted a similar constitution in 1833. The reunited nation adopted one constitution in 1839. In 1868, the Eastern Band created a separate and distinct constitution and formalized the position of Principal Chief. The position had existed in the east since the time of Yonaguska.

In 1906, the US government dismantled the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved their constitution in 1940.

The president began appointing a Principal Chief for the non-UKB Cherokee in 1941. In 1975, these Cherokee drafted their constitution as the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which was ratified on June 26, 1976.[2] In 1999, they approved several changes to the constitution, including the removal of the qualifying phrase "of Oklahoma" from their name, leaving it simply "Cherokee Nation".

Early leaders

Cunne Shote, Cherokee Chief, by Francis Parsons (English), 1762, oil on canvas, Gilcrease Museum[3]

Before 1794, the Cherokee had no standing national government. Their structure was based on clans and towns, which had various leaders. The clans had functions within each town and the tribe. The towns appointed some leaders to represent the tribe to British, French, and (later) American authorities. The range of aboriginal titles were usually translated into English as "chief." The term "emperor" is placed in quotes, since this title was created by Sir Alexander Cuming and was not accepted by the tribe as a whole.[4]

Chickamauga/Lower Cherokee (1777–1809)

In 1777, Dragging Canoe and a large body of Cherokee separated themselves from the tribes which had signed treaties of peace with the Americans during the American Revolution. They migrated first to the Chickamauga (now Chattanooga, Tennessee) region, then to the "Five Lower Towns" area —further west and southwest of there —in order to continue fighting (see Chickamauga Wars). In time, these Chickamauga Cherokee became a majority of the nation, due to both sympathy with their cause and the destruction of the homes of the other Cherokee who later joined them. The separation ended at a reunification council with the Cherokee Nation in 1809.


Cherokee Nation East (1794–1839)

John Ross, c. 1866

Little Turkey was elected First Beloved Man of the Cherokee (the council seat of which was shifted south to Ustanali near what is now Chickamauga Wars when the Cherokee established their first nominal national government.

Cherokee Nation West (1810–1839)

Originally along the St. Francis and White Rivers in what was first Spanish Louisiana and later Arkansas Territory, the Western Cherokee eventually migrated to Indian Territory after the Treaty of Washington in 1828. They named their capital there Tahlontiskee. John Jolly died while the Latecomers were arriving and John Looney succeeded automatically. Looney was deposed by the council and replaced with Brown with a view toward putting the Cherokee Nation West in a better position vis-a-vis the Ross party. After the murders of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot (Treaty party members who supported the Old Settlers) in June 1839, the council had a change of heart about resisting Ross' autocratic demands and deposed Brown, replacing him with Looney. A sizable faction of the Old Settlers refused to recognize Looney and elected Rogers in his stead, but their efforts to maintain autonomy petered out the next year.

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (1824–present)

Nimrod Jarret Smith (1837–1893). Smith was 5th Principal Chief of the Eastern Band and a Confederate Civil War veteran of the Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders.

Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory (1839–1907)

Lewis Downing

After removal to the Indian Territory, on the Trail of Tears, a new constitution was put into place, unifying the former Eastern Cherokee with the Western Cherokee, which allowed for direct election of the Principal Chief. Though a holdout minority of the Old Settlers elected John Rogers as their principal chief, his government never gained any further support and soon faded away. The Ross faction also abandoned the established capital of Tahlontiskee and built Tahlequah instead. During the Civil War, the Nation voted to support the Confederacy, and Ross acquiesced for a time. In 1862, however, he and many of his supporters fled to Washington, upon which Stand Watie was elected Principal Chief by a majority of the Nation. The remaining Ross group never supported Watie's election, though, and lived apart under their own officials.

United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (1939–present)

Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma/Cherokee Nation (1907–Present)

Chad "Corntassel" Smith, Former Principal Chief (1999–2011)
Bill John Baker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, taken at the Cherokee Leaders Conference in 2013.

In preparation for Oklahoma statehood, the original Cherokee Nation's governmental authority was dismantled by the United States in 1906, except for limited authority to deal with land issues until 1914,[1] and the office of Principal Chief was appointed by the US federal government. In 1971 an election was held. Principal Chief and incumbent, W.W. Keeler, who had been appointed by President Harry Truman in 1949, was elected. The constitution of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma was drafted in 1975 and ratified on 26 June 1976.[2] A new constitution was ratified in 2003 with the name of the tribe changed to simply "Cherokee Nation".[17]


Appointed "Principal Chiefs", many holding the title for only a single day, signed documents and performed other pro forma duties as required by the federal government.

With the admission of Oklahoma to the Union as the forty-sixth state and to terminate any unfinished business of the tribe, an Act of April 26, 1906 (34 Statutes at Large, 148) continued the tribal governments and retained the principal chiefs and governors then in office. Under provisions of this act Rogers continued in office to sign the deeds transferring the lands of the Cherokee Nation to the individual allottees. Upon his death on November 8, 1917 the President of the United States was authorized by this act to appoint Rogers' successor.
  • Charles J. Hunt (December 27, 1928)
  • Oliver P. Brewer (May 26, 1931)
  • William W. Hastings (January 22, 1936)
  • J.B. Milam (1941–1949)
  • W.W. Keeler (1949–1971)


See also


  1. ^ a b Conley, p. 198
  2. ^ a b "Constitution of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma." University of Oklahoma Law Center. (retrieved 16 Jan 2010)
  3. ^ a b Morand et al 28
  4. ^ a b c Conley 16
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Brown, John P. "Eastern Cherokee Chiefs." Chronicles of Oklahoma. Vol. 16, No. 1. March 1938. Retrieved 1 Jan 2013.
  6. ^ a b Conley 17
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Conley 57
  8. ^ a b c Conley 18
  9. ^ a b Timberlake and King xvii
  10. ^ Fowler xiii
  11. ^ a b c d e Conley 168
  12. ^ Conley 222
  13. ^ Conley 172
  14. ^ Conley 171
  15. ^ Morand et al 29
  16. ^ Conley, "Encyclopedia," 168-9
  17. ^ The 1999 Constitution Cherokee Nation. Cherokee Nation. . Retrieved 21 September 2009.
  18. ^ Jouzapavicius, Justin. "Cherokee Nation: Challenger wins chief election." Associated Press. 11 Oct 2011 (retrieved 12 Oct 2011)


  • Brown, John P. Old Frontiers. Kingsport: Southern Publishers, 1938.
  • Conley, Robert J. The Cherokee Nation: A History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.
  • Conley, Robert J. A Cherokee Encyclopedia. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0826339515.
  • Hoig, Stanley. The Cherokees and Their Chiefs: In the Wake of Empire. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
  • McLoughlin, William G. Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee. Nashville: Charles and Randy Elder-Booksellers, 1982.
  • Moore, John Trotwood and Austin P. Foster. Tennessee, The Volunteer State, 1769–1923, Vol. 1. Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1923.
  • Morand, Anne, Kevin Smith, Daniel C. Swan, Sarah Erwin. Treasures of Gilcrease: Selections from the Permanent Collection. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8061-9956-6.
  • Timberlake, Henry and Duane King. The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake: The Story of a Soldier, Adventurer, and Emissary to the Cherokees, 1756-1765. University of North Carolina Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0807831267.
  • Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People. New York: Macmillan Company, 1970.
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