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Top: Michael Araiza, and daughter, Annabelle. Michael is dressed in traditional Creek style, similar to that described in these accounts.
Bottom: Deb Jenkins, in traditional Creek attire, similar to that described for the Cherokee women in these 1760’s accounts, and I, in the village at Ft. Toulouse.

In this article, I take a departure from my usual research into foodways of various cultures and time periods to discuss what the Cherokees were wearing during the mid-18th century. My great great grandfather was taken on the Trail of Tears at a tender age and made his way to North Alabama by the 1850’s. He fought in the Civil War and afterward drew a pension from Morgan County.

On a recent motorcycle ride from Alabama to the California coast and back I visited the area where the Cherokee settled after the removal. I was disappointed in the museum exhibits and decided I needed a refresher on Cherokee dress from the period of 1760 through 1830. I have not changed the spelling from the way it was found in the original sources.

In 1762, The Scots Magazine, Vol. 24, by James Boswell noted the presence of three Cherokee chiefs in London and the following comments were made as to dress. “They were dressed in their own country habit, with only a shirt, trowsers, and mantle round them, their heads adorned with shells, feathers, ear-rings and other trifling ornaments. None of them can speak to be understood, and very unfortunately their interpreter died on the passage. A house was taken for them in Suffolk street, and cloaths in the English fashion were given them. On the 8th of July they were introduced to the King. The head chief’s dress was a rich blue mantle covered with lace; his head richly ornamented, and on his breast a silver gorget, with his Majesty’s arms engraved. The other two chiefs were in scarlet, richly adorned with lace, and gorgets of plate on their breasts…The chiefs are men of middling stature, seem to have no hair upon their heads, and wear a kind of skullcap. Their faces and necks are so besmeared with a coarse sort of paint, of a brick-dust colour, that it is impossible to say of what complexion they are. Their necks are streaked with blue paint, something resembling blue veins in a fine skin.” July 1762.

Next, we’ll look at what Bartram saw as he passed through their midst.

“The youth of both sexes are fond of decorating themselves with external ornaments. The men shave their head, leaving only a narrow crest or comb, beginning at the crown of the head, where it is about two inches broad and about the same height, and stands frizzed upright; but this crest tending backwards, gradually widens, covering the hinder part of the head and back of the neck: the lank hair behind is ornamented with pendant silver quills, and then jointed or articulated silver plates; and usually the middle sascicle of hair being by far the longest, is wrapped in a large quill of silver, or the joint of a small reed, curiously sculptured and painted, the hair continuing through it terminates in a tail or tassel.

Their ears are lacerated, separating the border or cartilaginous limb, which at first is bound round very close and tight with leather strings or thongs, and anointed with fresh bear’s oil, until healed: a piece of lead being fastened to it, by its weight extends this cartilage an incredible length, which afterwards being craped, or bound round in brass or silver wire, extends semicircularly like a bow or crescent; and it is then very elastic, even so as to spring and bound about with the least motion or flexure of the body: this is decorated with soft white plumes of heron feathers.

A very curious diadem or band, about four inches broad, and ingeniously wrought or woven, and curiously decorated with stones, beads, wampum, porcupine quills, &c., encircles their temples; the front peak of it being embellished with a high waving plume, of crane or heron feathers.

The clothing of their body is very simple and frugal. Sometimes a ruffled shirt of fine linen, next to the skin, and a flap, which covers their lower parts; this garment somewhat resembles the ancient Roman breeches, or the kilt of the Highlanders; it usually consists of a piece of blue cloth, about eighteen inches wide; this they pass between their thighs, and both ends being taken up and drawn through a belt round their waist, the ends fall down, one before, and the other behind, not quite to the knee; this flap is usually plaited and indented at the ends, and ornamented with beads, tinsel lace, &c.

The leg is furnished with cloth boots; they reach from the ancle to the calf, and are ornamented with lace, beads, silver bells, &c.

The stillepica or moccasin defends and adorns the feet; it seems to be an imitation of the ancient buskin or sandal, very ingeniously made of deer skins, dressed very soft, and curiously ornamented according to fancy.

Beside this attire, they have a large mantle of the finest cloth they are able to purchase, always either of a scarlet or blue colour; this mantle is fancifully decorated with rich lace or fringe round the border, and often with little round silver or brass bells. Some have a short cloak, just large enough to cover the shoulders and breast; this is most ingeniously constructed, of feathers woven or placed in a natural imbricated manner, usually of the scarlet feathers of the flamingo, or others of the gayest colour.

They have large silver crescents, or gorgets, which being suspended by a ribband round the neck, lie upon the breast; and the arms are ornamented with silver bands, or bracelets, and silver and gold chains, &c. a collar invests the neck.”

He went on to discuss the painting on the bodies and of tattooing although he does not use the word “tattoo”. The breast and muscular parts of the body, “were very curiously inscribed, or adorned, with hieroglyphick scrolls, flowers, figures of animals, stars, crescents, and the sun in the centre of the breast. This painting of the flesh, I understand, is performed in their youth, by pricking the skin with a needle, until the blood starts, and rubbing in a blueish tinct, which is as permanent as their life. The shirt hangs loose about the waist, like a frock, or split down before, resembling a gown, and is sometimes wrapped close, and the waist encircled by a curious belt or sash”.

The dress of the Cherokee women was a, “flap or petticoat is made after a different manner, is larger and longer, reaching almost to the middle of the leg, and is put on differently; they have no shirt or shift, but a little short waistcoat, usually made of calico, printed linen, or fine cloth, decorated with lace, beads, &c. They never wear boots or stockings, but their buskins reach to the middle of the leg. They never cut their hair, but plait it in wreaths, which are turned up, and fastened on the crown, with a silver broach, forming a wreathed top-knot, decorated with an incredible quantity of silk ribbands, of various colours, which stream down on every side, almost to the ground.” – William Bartram, 1762. Travels Through North and South Carolina: Georgia, East and West Florida the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws.

John Walker’s description of Cherokee dress was similar to Bartrams, saying they had, “a bit of cloth about the middle, a shirt of the English make, on which the bestow innumerable broaches to adorn it, a sort of cloth boot and mockasoons, which are shoes of a make peculiar to the Indians, ornamented with porcupine quills, with a blanket or match-coat thrown over all complete their dress at home”. They were noted with only “necessaries” when on expeditions.

“There is little difference between the dress of the men and women, excepting that [with the women] a short petticoat, and the hair, which is exceeding black and long, clubbed behind…”. – Walker, John. The Universal Gazetteer.

In 1816, an Indian agent working with the Cherokee in Tennessee was in Washington with a group of Cherokee chiefs to settle a boundary dispute between the Cherokees and the Creeks, the lands acquired by Jackson’s, “so-called”, treaty. He sent an informative letter to the Niles Weekly Register, Vol. 10 from which I will quote some of the more interesting passages on Cherokee dress and craft.

Some who had immigrated to Arkansas raised their own cotton and indigo and were good weavers of cotton and wool. There were among them some 500 looms of their own manufacture.

“A great part of the men have adopted our modes of dress; and the females without exception dress in the habits of the white people. Some of them, who are wealthy, are richly dressed. They are remarkably clean and neat in their persons; this may be accounted for by their universal practice of bathing in their numerous transparent streams of water which in almost every direction run through their country…It is unfortunate for these people that they should be held in contempt by people who in no one respect are better than they, and have no advantage of them except in the color of the skin; and whether this ought to be so considered is problematical—for we have seen savages with white skins.”

The writer went on to discuss the discrimination against the Cherokee, most of whom were of, “decent handsome manners and deportment”.

“About one half of the Cherokee nation are of mixed blood by intermarriages with the white people. Many of these are as white as any of our citizens. There are some of the aboriginal Cherokees who have never used any particular care to guard their faces from the action of the sun and have good complexions…”

“The Cherokees universally believe in the being of God; they call him the Great Spirit; they mention him with reverence—with them, his attributes are power and goodness. They never profane the name of God in their own language. They have no size of words that they can combine to profane the name of God.” The letter was signed Return J. Meigs, dated May 4, 1816, and published July 6, 1816.

In closing, while we have not discussed food at all in this piece, I will wish you my usual Blissful Meals anyway. Thank you for your interest and for allowing me to depart from our usual discourse.

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