Cherokee Burial Customs

Far to the southward, occupying the beautiful hills and valleys of eastern Tennessee and the adjoining parts of Georgia and Carolina, lived that great detached Iroquoian tribe, the Cherokee. Here they lived when the country was traversed by the Spaniards in 1540, and here they continued for three centuries. But although so frequently mentioned by early writers, and so often visited by traders, very little can be learned regarding their burial customs. Nevertheless it is evident they often placed the body on the exposed surface, on some high, prominent point, and then covered it with many stones gathered from the surface. Such stone mounds are quite numerous, not only on the hills once occupied by the Cherokee, but far northward. Many of the western towns of the Cherokee, often termed the Overhill Towns, were in the vicinity of Blount County, Tennessee. Many stone mounds were there on the hilltops. and these may justly be attributed to the Cherokee, but all may not have covered the remains of the dead. ” Leaving Chilhowee Valley and crossing the Alleghany range toward North Carolina, in a southeast course, having Little Tennessee River on my right, and occasionally in sight from the cliffs, my attention was called along the road, to stone heaps. After an examination of the objects and a talk with Indians and the oldest inhabitants, I came to the conclusion that there were two kinds of these remains in this part of Tennessee, which are sometimes confounded, viz, landmarks, or stone piles, thrown together by the Indians at certain points in their journeys, and those which marked a place of burial. At a pass called Indian Grave Gap, I noticed the pile which has given its name to the mountain gorge. The monument is composed simply of round stones raised three feet above the soil, and is six feet long and three wide. As the grave had been disturbed I could make no satisfactory examination of its contents. On the opposite side of the Gap, a stone heap of another description was observed, which had been thrown together in accordance with Cherokee superstition, that assigns some good fortune to the accumulation of those piles. They had the custom, in their journeys and war-like expeditions, at certain known points, before marked out, of casting down a stone and upon their return another. Four miles from Indian Grave Gap, on the west side of my path, on a ridge destitute of vegetation, I observed twenty-five of these stone heaps which covered human remains. I examined a number of them, which were four or five feet high and eight in diameter, and shaped like a hay-cock. In one I found pieces of rotten wood that had been deposited there, fragments of bones, and animal mold. The deposit had been made on the surface of the earth, covered with wood and bark, and crowned with a cone of round stones. From the center of one heap three small bells were extracted, having the letters J R engraved on them. They much resemble sleigh bells. The Cherokee custom of burying the dead under heaps of stone, it is well known, was practiced as late as 1730. This should probably be accepted its the characteristic custom of the early Cherokee before coming under the influence of the whites. As already mentioned, the western towns of the Cherokee were in eastern Tennessee, and of these many were in the valley of the Little Tennessee. Here stood ” Chote the Metropolis,” the scene of many important gatherings during the eighteenth century. The great town house stood on the summit of an artificial mound. undoubtedly one of those described by Thomas, and may have been the large mound on the south side of the river, in Mouroe County, designated the ” McGee Mound, No, 2,” The diameters of the mound were 70 and 55 feet; its height when examined, 5 feet, which was probably much less than its original height. The excavation of the work revealed burials as indicated on the plan (fig. 12). Thirteen entire skeletons were found, and ” at c lay 12 skulls on the same level, three feet below the surface of the mound, touching each other, with no other bones in connection with or immediately about them. At b, a little west of the center, and resting on the original surface, was a -rough wall, about two feet high, built of slate stones; circular in form, inclosing a space about nine feet in diameter. The dirt inside being cleared away, twelve skulls and a large number of long and other bones were discovered. Eleven of the skulls were lying close together on one side, as shown in the figure, the other lying alone on the opposite side, but each entirely disconnected from the other parts of the skeleton to which it belonged. The other bones were much broken and mingled together in a promiscuous mass. West of the wall and near the west end of the mound were five more skulls lying together, and amid other bones, marked a in the figure. The bottom of the inclosure, which corresponded with the original surface of the ground, was covered for an inch or two with coals and ashes, on which the skulls and other bones rested. But neither coal nor ashes were found outside of the wall. All the skeletons and other remainds outside of the wall lay a foot or more above the original surface of the ground.” A few objects of stone and shell and some copper beads were associated with the various burials, but apparently nothing bf European origin was encountered. Other mounds of equal interest marking the positions of the same period were examined and described by the same writer. The interior arrangement of the mound just mentioned, the mound upon which the great rotunda, of Chote may have stood for many years, is quite suggestive of the traditional account of such a mound as related to Mooney by one of his most conservative informants. The circle of stones, with a mass of ashes and charcoal within the inclosure, seems to be explained by this tradition. ” Some say that the mounds were built by another people. Others say they were built by the ancestors of the old Aní Kitúhwagi for townhouse foundations, so that the townhouses would be safe when freshets came. The townhouse was always built on the level bottom lands by the river in order that the people might have smooth ground for their dances and ballplays and might be able to go down to water during the dance. When they were ready to build the mound they began by laying a circle of stones on the surface of the ground. Next they made a fire in the center of the circle and put near it the body of some prominent chief or priest who had lately died-some say seven chief men from the different clans. The mound was then built up with earth, which the women brought in baskets.” And so the tradition continues, relating the various ceremonies which attended the construction of the work. This was not-the account of the building of any particular mound, but merely the description, in general, of the construction of an elevated site upon which the town house would later be reared. Of what great interest would be a detailed account of the various rites which were enacted at the time the fire was kindled within the circle of stones; at the time the bodies of the great men were placed on the surface, later to be covered by the mound of earth. The remains were probably wrapped and decorated with the richest possessions of the living, with ornaments and objects of a perishable nature, all of which, unfortunately, soon crumbled away and so disappeared, leaving only scant traces of what had once been covered by the earth, ” which the women brought in baskets.”

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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