Early explorers to encounter the Cherokee were impressed by their highly advanced culture. Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer who traveled throughout much of the Southeast, was the first European to come into contact with the Cherokee, when he arrived in their territory from the south in 1540. In later years, occasional French traders worked their way into Cherokee territory from the north. But English traders from the east began appearing regularly after England permanently settled Virginia, starting with the Jamestown colony of 1607 and then, before long, the Carolina colonies.
In the French and Indian wars, lasting from 1689 to 1763, the Cherokee generally sided with the British against the French, providing warriors for certain engagements. In these conflicts, they sometimes found themselves fighting side by side with other Indian tribes that had been their traditional enemies, such as the Iroquois.
In 1760, however, the Cherokee revolted against their British allies in the Cherokee War. The precipitating incident involved a dispute over wild horses in what is now West Virginia. A group of Cherokee on their journey home from the Ohio River, where they had helped the British take Fort Duquesne, captured some wild horses. Some Virginia frontiersmen claimed the horses as their own and attacked the Cherokee, killing 12. Then they sold the horses and collected bounties on the Cherokee scalps, which they claimed they had taken from Indians allied with the French.
On learning of this incident, various Cherokee bands, led by Chief Oconostota, began a series of raids on nonIndian settlements. The Cherokee warriors managed to capture Fort Loudon in the Great Valley of the Appalachians. The war lasted two years, before the British troops defeated the militant bands by burning their villages and crops. Even then, many insurgents continued to fight from their mountain hideouts for a period of time. Eventually, war-weary and half-starving, the holdouts surrendered. In the peace pact, the Cherokee were forced to give up a large portion of their eastern lands lying closest to British settlements.
In spite of the Cherokee War, the Cherokee supported the British against the rebels in the American Revolution of 1775—83. Most of their support consisted of sporadic attacks on outlying American settlements. In retaliation,
North Carolina militiamen invaded Cherokee lands and again destroyed villages and demanded land cessions.
During the colonial years, the Cherokee also suffered from a number of epidemics of diseases passed to them by non-Indians. The worst outbreaks—from the dreaded smallpox that killed so many Native peoples—occurred in 1738 and 1750.