Where Is Cherokee Speedway? [Fact Checked!]

If you’re from the United States, you might know that Cherokee is a brand of cigarettes, but did you know they also make a radio station there? Or that the famous Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant is named after the town’s most famous native son, Herschel Puckett?

Although it’s only about two and a half hours by car from Atlanta, you might not want to visit Cherokee without a guide. The town doesn’t really have an identity beyond being the home of the Cherokee tribe, and its inhabitants aren’t exactly welcoming of tourists. The biggest attractions in town are the museums, historical societies, and community centers, which are dedicated to preserving the town’s rich culture. But even those aren’t exactly family-friendly.

A Brief History Of Cherokee

The state of Georgia was actually created based on a treaty between the American Revolutionary War veterans and the Cherokee people. It was officially founded in 1788, and was named after the tribe. However, the United States wasn’t the only country vying for territory. The land originally belonged to the Creek people, and they weren’t exactly welcoming of the new countrymen. In fact, the conflict is what led to the Trail of Tears, in which the Cherokee were forced to sell their land and move to Oklahoma. (They rebelled against the US government several times, and were eventually granted federal citizenship in 1883.)

While most people think that the Trail of Tears was caused by a long and arduous journey to a new land, in reality the Cherokee were suffering from European-introduced diseases, starvation, and domestic violence. (The so-called ‘humane’ approach of removing Native Americans from their lands was actually spurred on by the Gold Rushers, who thought the Native Americans were standing in the way of their newfound fortune.)

Things started improving for the Cherokee after the forced relocation, and many headed to Oklahoma, where the reservation system was set up. Life on the rez wasn’t easy, but it was stable. The economy relied on logging, and the bickering between the Native Americans and the American newcomers kept everyone busy. (It wasn’t until 1935 that Oklahoma began giving its Native Americans citizenship, and even then it was deferred until 1975 because of mass protests and demonstrations.)

By the time the Dust Bowl struck, the Cherokee were already used to hardship. (A drought and other environmental factors led to the Dust Bowl, which was caused by excessive fertilizing of the soil and over-grazing. It was one of the biggest and most devastating natural disasters of the 20th century, and it still has echoes in the town today.) The dust storms were so bad that they’d blot out the sun and create a terrifying twilight. But for the most part, the Cherokee were able to rely on their land for food and shelter. (In 1936, the Indian Reorganization Act was passed, which provided for the government to purchase land and distribute it to Native Americans.)

How To Get To And From Cherokee

If you’re wondering how to get to and from Cherokee, there are two major exits off of Interstate 75, one north and one south. Exit 289 will take you into town, and the other one is a little further south, closer to Clayton. (Clayton is the county seat, and the southernmost city in Cherokee County.) At least, that’s what the signs say. Most people confuse the two exits and wind up in Clayton, which is a pretty common mistake. (There’s actually no 289 exit in town.)

To get to I-75 from the north, take the exit marked ‘Clayton’ and head west. After about 20 miles, you’ll reach the center of town. From there, it’s only a few blocks to the north to the interstate.

To get to I-75 from the south, take the exit marked ‘Ellijay’ and head south for about 18 miles. Once you’ve reached the center of town, turn east and follow the signs to the interstate. Traffic will likely be heavy as there is no direct route from the south to the north, hence the reason for those two separate exits on the highway.

The Main Street Is History

Main Street in downtown is full of diners and other store visitors, but it’s not unusual for some of the buildings on this street to be closed. It’s not just about the historical value of the buildings here, but the atmosphere generated by the area’s history as well. (The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and the City of Cherokee make up the Historic Main Street Partnership, whose mission is to promote and protect the history of Cherokee.)

One of the first structures built on Main Street was The General Jackson Hotel, established in 1886. It was originally built as a private residence and quickly became a hub for important political and social events. (The hotel was later renamed The Jackson Hotel, in honor of the Civil War hero.) The building is now a museum dedicated to the life and career of General Jackson. The adjacent building, The Walker-Jones Building, was built around the same time as the main hotel. It was originally owned by a coal magnate, and is now an office building housing several law firms. (Another museum here, the North Georgia History Museum, shares the same mission as the Jackson Hotel Museum, but it focuses on the area’s history from the 1800s to the present.)

The Jackson Street Bridge, which spans the Oconaluftee River, was originally constructed in 1909, and was named after the previous president, William Howard Taft. The nearby Riverside Hotel is another historical landmark that dates back to 1892 and whose former patrons included William Jennings Bryan and John D. Rockefeller. It was originally built as a luxury resort for the wealthiest tourists, but its rich heritage makes it interesting to anyone.

The Reservation System

While most people think that Native Americans suffered during the Dust Bowl, that couldn’t be further from the truth. (There were actually no native deaths during the drought.) However, the reservation system was used to its full extent, and some Native Americans were even relocated to the town from the Oklahoma reservation. The Indian Reorganization Act allowed tribal governments to determine their own membership criteria and to regulate marriage and divorce. The system was eventually found to be unconstitutional, and some tribes still suffer from the adverse effects. (A large portion of the reservations in Oklahoma are also affected.)

During the relocation, members of various tribes were put in a predicament; many of their own people as well as those of other tribes were being held in detention camps. Reservation life was considered safer than that in town, and the children were kept separate from their parents in order to keep the tribe from splintering. That meant there was a lot of loneliness in these camps, and abuse was common, especially if the inmates were resisting the move or arguing with Bureau of Indian Affairs officials. (One of the worst incidents was the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which FBI and BIA agents were surrounded by armed Native Americans and attacked. Eleven people were killed, including five law enforcement officers. Those responsible for the massacre were never tried or convicted.)

Whether or not you agree with the policies of the time, Native Americans were a relatively prosperous group within the United States at the time of the Indian Reorganization Act. After the act was passed, life on the rez wasn’t easy, but it was stable. (The economy relied on logging, and the bickering between the Native Americans and the American newcomers kept everyone busy. It wasn’t until 1935 that Oklahoma began giving its Native Americans citizenship, and even then it was deferred until 1975 because of mass protests and demonstrations.)

Museums And Attractions

If you’re looking for places to visit in and around Cherokee, there are several museums, several historical societies, and community centers worth your time. You could start by visiting the following locations:

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