CHEROKEE HARDINESS – EXERCISE, BATHING AND ACCLIMATION
A lifestyle so connected with the outdoors over thousands of years produced a hardy, athletic race of people, adapted to weather and subsistence. Relatively small tribal populations in relation to vast expanses of lands kept human impact well within the carrying capacity of the land. Communications were carried across the mountains by Indian runners whose endurance was renowned.
1773, William Gerard DeBrahm, an important British surveyor:
“. . . . Knavery and Drunkenness were not known to them, before the European’s Arrival in America.”
“The first and principal Exercise of the Indians is bathing and swimming, in which they are very dexterous. Every Morning, immediately after rising, both in Summer and NB in Winter, coming out of their hot Houses, they take their Babes under their Arms, and lead their Children to the River, in which they enter be it ever so cold. The Mothers learn their Babes swimming before they can walk, which greatly increases their Strength, and of Course their Growth.
They all walk very straight, upright, and rather with stiff Knees, which they scarcely bend. They are very dexterous and nimble in their next Exercises, which is wrestling, jumping, throwing and running; as also in their third Exercise, hunting and shooting, both with arrow and Guns. An Indian once kept up, running afoot, for three hours, with the Author, who kept his Horse in a constant Gallop, from Keowe to Estetowe, and never left him.”
“The Indians are
Strangers to epidemical and contagious Disorders, they never remember such Incident. They are skilful in dressing and curing of Wounds, Bites of Rattle and other snakes; they preserve themselves against Fevers, nervous and rheumatical Disorders by a regular and moderate Diet, bodily Exercise, by bathing both Winters and Summer.” (Editor’s note: This is with the exception Small Pox brought by Europeans, for which they had no experience with and no cure.)
It is said that food, clothing and shelter are considered the three basic necessities in life. Whoever originated that axiom likely did it from their London parlor chair as they left out water which makes the absolute necessities of living at least four. We could keep adding other essentials like fire.
Sources of water constituted a primary layer in the mental geographical map mind of natural peoples living in a vast natural world. To the Cherokee and other tribes, water was life and health. It was not only the essential internal liquid for the physical body, but the sources of cleansing, purification and even religious beliefs. I am not qualified to go beyond the mechanics of simple history.
I cannot imagine getting up on a cold day in the Appalachian Mountains at daybreak and “going to water,” that is, plunging into the river or creek or deep spring always located near towns and camps. Luke-warm showers take my breath away. But consider what James Adair wrote concerning the Cherokee and this tradition or practice:
“. . . but those towns that lie among the Apalahche mountains are very pinching to such who are unaccustomed to a savage life. The ice and snow continue on the north-side, till late in the spring of the year: however, the natives are well provided for it, by their bathing and anointing themselves. This regimen shuts up the pores of the body, and by that means prevents too great a perspiration; and an accustomed exercise of hunting, joined with the former, puts them far above their climate: there are almost as impenetrable to cold, as a bar of steel, and the severest cold is no detriment to their hunting.” (History of the American Indians, James Adair, p. 238
He reported that just after 1700, there were 64 towns and villages with upwards of 6000 fighting men. If families consisted of as few as four, this would top 24,000 Cherokees.
The Indians bathed daily in the rivers and streams where their towns and farms were almost always located. White people were amazed at their immunity against cold and rain. They were acclimated because they were hardened against the elements by living with the elements. Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins traveled through the north Georgia Cherokee country using Cherokee guides to take him to the Coosa River of Alabama to Creek Country. He recorded in his detailed journal, “My guides spoke their native tongue only. I gave them directions when I set off, and had the aid of an interpreter, which they follow with great exactness.”
On December 5th, 1796, he recorded: “My guide in the evening told me we had traveled 34 miles–here I saw a Creek Indian, near his hunting camp, he at first was a great distance from me and walked hastily on till he came up with me, gave me his hand, told me who he was and conversed for some time with my guide, who had been instructed to inform every one he saw on the path who I was. In the course if the evening it rained. I had prepared for a shelter in time which was covered with a blanket, bear skins and oilcloth cloak. I was surprised at the little effect the rain had on my two Indians, the old man had a leather shirt and legings, the young one leather legings and an old shirt, they had each a small halfworn blanket, the young man every evening pulled off his shirt and spread it under him.
They both slept soundly the whole time it rained, got up once and ordered my attendants up twice to endeavor to preserve our fire by the addition of wood, but they never stired till daybreak; they are small eaters, use no salt, and but little bread. They carry their parched corn meal, Wissoetaw, and mix a hand full in a pint of water which they drink. Although they had plenty of corn and fowls they made no other provision than a small bag of this for the path. I have plenty of provisions, and give them some at every meal. I have several times drank of the Wissoetaw and am fond of it with the addition of some sugar. To make of the best quality I am told the corn should be first boiled, then parched in hot ashes, sifted, pounded and made into flour.”
Around 1819, Return Jonathan Meigs, a U.S. Indian Agent, “asked a Cherokee girl why she did not marry a white man who paid his addresses to her. She replied, that she could not endure white men, they were so dirty, never, as she understood, bathing in creeks as red people did.” One cannot help but picture an old farmer who hadn’t peeled his “long johns” off all winter.
The Indians wore moccasins, a footwear that has never been equaled by modern tennis shoes or hiking boots. Horace Kephart was an expert woodsman who recorded the fading truth about moccasins. Sometime before 1908, he described how moccasins in conjunction with use and conditioning, would allow a person to experience a new way of walking cross country. Deerskin, he wrote, was too thin and that elk skin was preferred when moose or caribou was not available. No doubt the Cherokees used buffalo and elk as preferred moccasin material as moose and caribou hide could only be traded for from the northern tribes.
Once a person’s feet became toughened and conditioned to wearing moccasins, nothing could compare with them. One could travel much farther in a days’ walk than in much heavier boots.
“After ones feet have become accustomed to this most rational of all covering they become almost like hands, feeling their way, and avoiding obstacles as though gifted with a special sense. They can bend freely. Once can climb in moccasins as in nothing else. So long as they are dry, they can cross narrow logs like a cat, and pass in safety along treacherous slopes where thick-soled shoes might bring him swiftly to grief. Moccasined feet feel the dry sticks underneath, and glide softly over the telltales without cracking them. They do not stick fast in mud. One can swim with them as if he were barefoot. It is rarely indeed that one hears of a man spraining his ankle when wearing the Indian footgear.”
In the 1776 Christian Campaign against the Cherokees, William Christian wrote:
“Harlin, the man who met me with the Flag at Broad river, says that every party he delivered my answer to, Turned about and run home as quick as possible; that he rode fast from Broad river to the Towns, and that some of them kept up with him on foot. That the next day after, all the people in the Towns packed up and Fled; those that did not go down the river went to the Highwassey river, where there is a Town, on the path to the Creeks;”
 Letter: Colonel William Christian to Patrick Henry.The Island Town, October 23rd, 1776.
Pure springs and salt springs followed the downhill path of east resistance becoming small branches, then creeks which were tributaries of rivers that moved slowly to fall lines and into the coastal plains, deltas and oceans.
While water was an abundant and ready to use, food, clothing and shelter had to be produced and production depended on natural technologies (earth skills) and crafted tools from technology. Where possible, authentic drawings or historic photographs of Cherokees to illustrate native lifestyle will be used. Where no representations can be found, we will use examples from other native peoples who still practice the old ways and skills. (
About 1700, the time our historical series begins, the Cherokee were self-sufficient and their dwellings probably changed very little for hundreds if not thousands of years. We know that palisades were constructed around towns for defense purposes. Examples of these were found in Macon County, North Carolina where the airport runways were constructed.
For the sake of comfort summer houses and winter houses were built. Family winter houses had a fireplace in the center of the circular structure with a smoke hole in the roof. (central heating!) Only one small entrance allowed entry. Summer houses were little more than a shed roof over a living area to provide shelter from rain.
Other amenities included corn and bean houses for dried foods and buried storage pits for items like bear oil that would turn rancid quicker in heat.
Summer houses. The house on the right is located at Hayesville, NC at the Clay County Museum Cherokee Exhibit.
Winter houses: At left is an enhanced setting of the winter house also from the Clay County Museum exhibit.
Example of a Nineteenth Century house in Siberia that is very similar to native styles in North America. At right, from a painting of an Overhills Cherokee town. (attribution forthcoming)