Native Ground:
Southwest Virginia Museum


This region of Southwest Virginia was called "Paradise" by early Native Americans. Its rich abundance of game, plant life, and flowing rivers made this native ground important for hunting. Parts of the "Wilderness Road," in which thousands of settlers passed over, began as buffalo traces and the "Warriors Path" used by Native Americans.

Our museum exhibit (July 1 - October 15, 2001) featured items that the Cherokee might have used, as well as some of the influences that first settlers brought to the region. As one viewed the exhibit, it was evident that these Native Americans used stone, not metal for their tools. All of their technology came from the working of stone, wood, leather and clay. Native Americans were highly skilled at using materials from the natural environment to make items for both work and play.

We hope you enjoy learning more about the Cherokee culture and how early European settlers and Native Americans affected each other.


A branch of the Iroquois Nation, the Cherokee can trace their history back more than a thousand years. Originally their society was based on hunting, trading and agriculture. By the time European explorers and traders arrives, Cherokee lands covered a large part of what is now the southeastern United States. They lived and hunted in the Southern Appalachian mountains, including southwestern Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and part of the Cumberland Basin. One explanation of the meaning of the word, "Cherokee" is from the word, "Cheera" which means "fire" in Cherokee. They called their warriors, "Sons of Fire." Another suggested origin for Cherokee is from the word, Tsa-ra-gi, which means cave people.



The Cherokee lived in small communities, usually located in fertile river bottoms. Homes were wooden frames covered with woven vines and saplings plastered with mud. These were replaced in later years with log structures. Each village had a council house where ceremonies and tribal meetings were held. The council house was seven-sided to represent the seven clans of the Cherokee: Bird, Paint, Deer, Wolf, Blue, Long Hair and Wild Potato.



The Cherokee Nation was established in the early 1700s, with a democratic government composed of a Chief, Vice-Chief, and 32 council members who were elected by the members of the tribe. A constitution and code of law were drawn up for the nation. Each tribe elected two chiefs, a peace chief who counseled during peaceful times, and a war chief who made decisions during times of war. However, the chiefs did not rule absolutely.

Decision-making was a more democratic process, with all tribal members having the opportunity to voice concerns. Cherokee society was a matriarchy. The children took the clan of the mother, and kinship was traced through the mother's family. Property was passed on according to clan alliance.



The actual military defense of Virginia's extreme western frontier did not begin, on a large scale, until the spring prior to the outbreak of Dunmore's War in the fall of 1774, more commonly referred to as the Point Pleasant Campaign.

There were seven of the original forts erected in compliance with Lord Dunmore's order, four on the lower Clinch River under Captain William Russell's militia command, and three on the upper Clinch River under the militia command of Captain Daniel Smith. These forts were erected by the settlers as a means of protection for the locals living in the area. The seven original forts were: Fort Preston in Upper Castlewood, Russell County, Fort Christian, between Dickensonville and Lebanon, Russell County, Moore's Fort in Castlewood, Blackmore's Fort, at the mouth of Stoney Creek in Scott County. Elk Garden Fort in Scott County, Witten's Fort near Tazewell, and Maiden Springs Station, located on the branch of the Clinch River near Tazewell. There were other forts built a few years later in the southwestern part of Virginia. They included: Daniel Smith's Fort in Lebanon, New Garden Station, in Russell County, Tate's Fort, on Moccasin Creek in Russell County, Rye Cove Fort, in Rye Cove. Carter's Fort, also in Rye Cove, Houston's Fort and the Kilgore Fort in Scott County.



With the discovery of gold on Cherokee lands in Georgia, political pressure was exerted on President Andrew Jackson to confiscate their lands and move the Cherokees to the west. Numerous injustices against the Cherokee nation started with the signing of the Treaty of New Echota. Those who signed the treaty did not have the authority to represent the entire Cherokee Nations. The Cherokee were taken from their homes, held in stockades and forced to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas. Almost 14,000 Cherokee began the trek westward in October 1838. More than 4,000 died from cold, hunger and disease during the six-month journey that came to be known as the "Trail of Tears."



After the Trail of Tears, there were both eastern and western groups of Cherokees. Even though they were thousands of miles apart, many ties remain, through family, friends, and a shared culture.

Today, numerous people in Southwest Virginia can trace their ancestry to early native people. As doctors, teachers, lawyers, farmers and businessmen, they continue to shape the destiny of Southwest Virginia.




The Southwest Virginia Museum is a member of the American
Association of Museums, the American Association of State and Local History, and the Virginia Association of Museums.



A famous Cherokee, Sequoyah, invented a system for writing the Cherokee language. There are 86 characters in Sequoyah's alphabet, and each was based on individual syllables in Cherokee words. Any person who could speak Cherokee could also read and write it after learning the symbols. The Cherokee council passed a resolution to establish a newspaper for the nation. A printing press was ordered, the type case for the Cherokee alphabet, and the "Cherokee Phoenix" was in business.



As tribes acquired firearms from Europeans and used them against neighboring tribes, a "weaponry race" began. Tribes traded to acquire firearms for military purposes. Initially the guns were purchased with furs and skins. Several tribes, including the Cherokee, assisted colonist in driving out their mutual enemy, the Native American tribes of the Tuscarora, in a war that lasted from 1711 - 1713. However, with the Tuscarora out of the way, the tribes began to address their grievances with the colonist.  

The result was a war in 1715. Ultimately, the colonist were able to mass their forces and after achieving several victories, the tribes began to pursue peace. Peace was made with the Cherokee who were given a large quantity of guns and ammunition in exchange for their alliance with the colony. About 1738, smallpox broke out among Cherokee with such terrible effect that nearly half the tribe died from the disease within a year. These Native Americans had not been exposed to European diseases and had no immunity to them. When the Seven Years War, (French and Indian War) began, the Cherokee would have sided with the French except for their dependence on trade with the English. A treaty was signed in 11754 reaffirming the Cherokee alliance with the English, and the usual stipulation of land cessions, provided for British forts in the Cherokee country.

Painting by Robert Lindneux


Robert Benge was born in 1760 in the Cherokee Village Toquo, which is in Eastern Tennessee. Robert's father was John Benge, an Indian trader who lived among the Cherokee and his mother was Wurteh who was part of an influential Cherokee family. Robert grew up to be the most notorious Cherokee in history.  

Robert grew up as a Cherokee, but with his red hair, European look, and his good command of English, he could also pass as a Euro-American. He used this double identity to aid him in his raids against the settlers. He was also known as Bob Benge, Captain Benge, Chief Benge, or just the Bench. If he had a Cherokee name, it is not known.

Chief Benge led numerous raids on the settlers in the region. He became a major target of the militia, but evaded capture and death on many occasions. However, on April 28, 1794, Senior Militia Officer, Col. Arthur Campbell, sent Benge's scalp to Virginia's Governor, along with a letter stating that he was sending the scalp as proof of the killing of Benge by Vincent Hobbs of Lee County and countless other militia members.