The Deerskin Wars
During the slave raiding era, isolated villages and small provinces voluntarily joined various alliances to avoid becoming slaves themselves. The major alliances included the Apike (Upper Creeks), Yamasee, the People of One Fire (Creeks) and the Catawba. The Cherokee Alliance also constantly took in refugees from small tribes in the Carolina Piedmont that were being pushed aside by colonial settlers. Muskogean tribes in South Carolina either joined with the Catawbas, or relocated westward to align with the emerging Creek Confederacy.
A major factor in the early success of the Cherokee Alliance was its egalitarian politics. Unlike the old hierarchal, mound-building societies they replaced, any man could rise to leadership based on his achievements and leadership skills. Cherokee towns were relatively small and did not build mounds or fortifications. Therefore, there were minimal demands on residents to contribute time to public works.
However, as stated in Part Two, the Cherokees’ treachery in killing all of the Muskogean chiefs at a diplomatic conference in 1715 endeared them to the British, but ignited a 50 year long war which effectively stopped the expansion of Cherokee territory. Cherokee warriors had gained their reputation for invincibility by carrying out lightning attacks at long distances against villages that were at peace or groups of travelers. The goal of these raids was obtaining slaves to trade for pots, muskets, gunpowder, cloth and tools. It is documented that Cherokee slave raiders traveled as far as Lake Okeechobee, Florida to capture slaves.
With the shift to trading skins and furs rather than humans, all the rules of warfare changed. The deerskin fad in Europe quickly caused the deer population in the Southeast to plummet. Native men were no longer hunting for food, but having to travel increasingly long distances to kill deer in order to trade for manufactured European goods. The long distances meant that their families seldom got to eat the venison. The various Native alliances needed enormous tracts of unoccupied land to assure finding deer to skin. The only way to obtain these immense hunting lands was to eliminate their enemies. The goal of combat shifted from ambushes to capture slaves or avenge past wrongs, to wars of extinction between ethnic groups.
The Cherokees excelled at small unit guerilla warfare, but going against the highly disciplined Kusa, Apike and Koasati warriors in Alabama was another matter. THEY were now armed with French muskets, were usually taller than the Cherokees. They also they had a 1000 year tradition of formal tribal governments and fighting in large scale combat. Furthermore, the Muskogean towns were much larger, better planned and fortified. Cherokees almost never considered defensive attributes when locating new villages.
The Cherokee warriors greatly outnumbered the allies of the French at first. Their superior numbers made it possible to keep Upper Creek hunting parties out of the lands the Cherokees claimed in North Carolina. However, the Cherokees had made many enemies during the slave raiding era. From the north, the Shawnees challenged the Cherokees’ claim on Kentucky and eventually made it suicidal for Cherokees to hunt there. The Chickasaws (Chiska) had been pushed out of eastern Tennessee by the Cherokees and therefore, made periodic raids back into the old homeland and ambushed hunting parties. The Upper Creeks would periodically send large armies into eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina to destroy Cherokee villages, but the Cherokees were never able to capture Upper Creek towns in Alabama.
Over the decades the chronic warfare made life miserable for Native American societies involved. Agriculture, the arts and social cohesion declined because so much energy was put into hunting of animals for skins and killing ones enemies. A band of no-mans land evolved across what is now northern Georgia, northeastern Alabama and southeastern Tennessee. The British pretended to be neutral in the Upper Creek-Cherokee War, but English traders would warn the Cherokees when Upper Creek armies were approaching the Carolina Mountains. On several occasions these warnings prevented the Cherokees from probably being completely annihilated.
The Cherokees would periodically grow weary of the war and send peace feelers to their enemies. British envoys would rush up to the mountains and make promises to keep them fighting. In 1725 Colonel George Chicken made a grand tour of the region for this purpose.
On top of all the suffering created by constant warfare, plagues periodically swept across the Cherokee lands. Several of the smallpox plagues killed off over a third of their population at each passing. The land area actually occupied by Cherokee villages shrank. The new villages tended to locate in the more remote mountain valleys that were less vulnerable to attacks by the Upper Creeks and the Shawnee, and less exposed to European germs. The most southern and western villages were either temporarily or permanently abandoned.
By the 1750s very few deer remained in the Southeast. Meanwhile, deerskin garments had gone out of style in Europe. The Native allies of the French and English were left with little to trade to their European allies. They increasingly sought direct payment for their military services with European goods, for they had forgotten how to survive in traditional ways.