Cossack settlers (see Cossacks) who in the XVIth century founded the virtually independent republic of the Don Cossacks on the fertile steppes along the lower course of the Don River. Novocherkassk was their chief town.
The host of the Don Cossacks was governed by a popular council, the Rada, and by an elected chief, called ataman. Their daring raids and exploits attained legendary proportions under Stepan Razin.
Although the Don Cossacks gave allegiance to the tsar of Russia in 1614, their self-government was recognised by the tsar in 1623 and they continued to govern themselves throughout the 17th century. Frequent rebellions, however, culminating in that of Pugachev, resulted in the loss of many of their privileges. After the suppression of a revolt (1707-1708), the Don Cossacks lost the right to elect their ataman.
The decree of 1835 made them into a military caste with special privileges in return for military service. After 1886 the tsarist government often used the Don Cossacks to suppress revolutionary movements throughout Russia.
Following the October Revolution of 1917, the Don Cossacks sought to regain their political autonomy and even strove for independence. They established the Don Military Government and fought the Bolsheviks. Later the Don Cossacks aided the White armies. The Soviet regime abolished Don Cossack army units until World War II, when they were reactivated to fight the Germans. Among prominent Don Cossacks in modern times is Mikhail Sholokhov, author of several novels about the Don Cossacks.