The Cherokees, whose ancestral tribal lands overlapped the boundaries of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama, declined to move. They established a capital in 1825 at New Echota (near present-day Calhoun, Georgia). Furthermore, led by principal Chief John Ross and Major Ridge, the speaker of the Cherokee National Council, the Cherokees adopted a written constitution on 26 July 1827, declaring the Cherokee Nation to be a sovereign and independent nation.
The Cherokee land that was lost proved to be extremely valuable. Upon these lands were the alignments for the future rights-of-way for rail and road communications between the eastern Piedmont slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, the Ohio river in Kentucky and the Tennessee river valley at Chattanooga. This location is still a strategic economic asset and is the basis for the tremendous success of Atlanta, Georgia, as a regional transportation and logistics center.
Georgia’s appropriation of these lands from the Cherokee kept the wealth out of the hands of the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee lands in Georgia were settled upon by the Cherokee for the simple reason that they were and still are the shortest and most easily traversed route between the only fresh water sourced settlement location at the southeastern tip of the Appalachian range (the Chattahoochee River), and the natural passes, ridges, and valleys which lead to the Tennessee river at what is today, Chattanooga. From Chattanooga there was and is the potential for a year-round water transport to St. Louis and the west (via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers), or to as far east as Pittsburgh, PA.
Treaty of New Echota
reelection of Andrew Jackson in 1832, some of the most strident Cherokee opponents of removal began to rethink their positions. Led by Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and nephews Elias Boudinot and Stand Watie, they became known as the “Ridge Party”, or the “Treaty Party”. The Ridge Party believed that it was in the best interest of the Cherokees to get favorable terms from the U.S. government, before white squatters, state governments, and violence made matters worse. John Ridge began unauthorized talks with the Jackson administration in the late 1820s. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the Cherokee removal, the state of Georgia began holding lotteries in order to divide up the Cherokee tribal lands among white Georgians.
However, Principal Chief John Ross and the majority of the Cherokee people remained adamantly opposed to removal. Political maneuvering began: Chief Ross canceled the tribal elections in 1832, the Council threatened to impeach the Ridges, and a prominent member of the Treaty Party (John Walker, Jr.) was murdered. The Ridges responded by eventually forming their own council, representing only a fraction of the Cherokee people. This split the Cherokee Nation into two factions: those following Ross, known as the National Party, and those of the Treaty Party, who elected William A. Hicks, who had briefly succeeded his brother Charles R. Hicks as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation to act as titular leader of the pro-Treaty faction, with former National Council clerk Alexander McCoy as his assistant.
In 1835, Jackson appointed Reverend John F. Schermerhorn as a treaty commissioner. The U.S. government proposed to pay the Cherokee Nation US$4.5 million (among other considerations) to remove themselves. These terms were rejected in October 1835 by the Cherokee Nation Council meeting at Red Clay. Chief Ross, attempting to bridge the gap between his administration and the Ridge Party, traveled to Washington with a party that included John Ridge and Stand Watie to open new negotiations, but they were turned away and told to deal with Schermerhoerne.
Three charges of fraud and
Reverend John F. Schermerhorn
Meanwhile, Schermerhorn organized a meeting with the pro-removal council members at New Echota, Georgia. Only five hundred Cherokees (out of thousands) responded to the summons, and, on December 30, 1835, twenty-one proponents of Cherokee removal (Major Ridge, Elias Boudinot, James Foster, Testaesky, Charles Moore, George Chambers, Tahyeske, Archilla Smith, Andrew Ross (younger brother of Chief John Ross), William Lassley, Caetehee, Tegaheske, Robert Rogers, John Gunter, John A. Bell, Charles Foreman, William Rogers, George W. Adair, James Starr, and Jesse Halfbreed), signed or left “X” marks on the Treaty of New Echota after those present voted unanimously for its approval. John Ridge and Stand Watie signed the treaty when it was brought to Washington. Chief Ross, as expected, refused.
This treaty gave up all the Cherokee land east of the Mississippi in return for five million dollars to be disbursed on a per capita basis, an additional half-million dollars for educational funds, title in perpetuity to an amount of land in Indian Territory equal to that given up, and full compensation for all property left in the East. There was also a clause in the treaty as signed allowing Cherokee who so desired to remain and become citizens of the states in which they resided on 160 acres (0.65 km2) of land, but that was later stricken out by President Jackson.
Despite the protests by the Cherokee National Council and principal Chief Ross that the document was a fraud, Congress ratified the treaty on May 23, 1836, by just one vote.
As the head of the largest branch of the Cherokee nation from 1828 to 1866, John Ross led the Cherokee through a period of profound cultural change. Under Ross's leadership, the Cherokee nation engaged in a historic and controversial legal battle to preserve their sovereignty and underwent a disastrous forced march from Georgia to Oklahoma.
Ross was born near Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, on October 3, 1790. Although he was only one-eighth Cherokee by blood, Cherokee cultural identity in the early 1800s was as much a matter of upbringing and choice as genetics, and Ross was raised and considered himself a Cherokee.
In 1809 at age nineteen, Ross was sent, at the behest of both U.S. officials and Cherokee leaders, to confer with the western Cherokee, who had accepted payments from the United States
in exchange for an agreement to relocate to Oklahoma. Ross's quiet and reserved manner inspired confidence among both whites and Indians, and his skill at easing the tensions with the western Cherokee greatly increased his influence within the Cherokee nation.
Ross served as President of the National Council of the Cherokee from 1819 to 1826 and became principal chief of the eastern Cherokee in 1828. He thought the Cherokee could benefit from adopting certain aspects of European-American culture. Accordingly, with the help of two other Cherokee leaders, Major Ridge and Charles Hicks, Ross convinced many Cherokee to convert from an economy based on hunting and the fur trade to one of agriculture. Some Cherokee adopted the Southern tradition of
slave-holding. By the 1830s many members of the Cherokee nation were among the wealthiest individuals in what is now north Georgia. Ross himself was a slaveholder with a two hundred–acre farm.
A well-educated man, Ross promoted literacy and education, advocating that all Cherokee utilize the achievement of Sequoia, the Cherokee who had created a written lexicography for the Cherokee language. Ross's efforts brought the Cherokee from near illiteracy to over 90 percent literacy in less than three years. Ross also supported the efforts of Christian Congregationalist missionaries who wished to set up schools in Cherokee territory. When it became apparent that the missionaries' primary objective was religious conversion rather than education, however, Ross informed them that they could stay only if they focused on education. The missionaries complied.
In addition to his emphasis on literacy and education, Ross encouraged the Cherokee to adopt a written system of laws, a bicameral legislative body, and a government with legislative, judicial, and executive branches. In 1827 the Cherokee nation adopted a republican constitution, written by Ross and modeled after the U.S. Constitution.
Under Ross's leadership the Cherokee eliminated the blood feud as a primary means of settling criminal homicides. Under the customs of the blood feud, when a person was killed, the victim's clan was obligated to kill a member of the murderer's clan. This often resulted in years of feuding between clans. Through Ross's influence the blood feud was replaced with a court system, trial by jury, and a written criminal code.
Despite their embrace of many aspects of U.S. society, Ross and his people wished to preserve Cherokee sovereignty—a goal the U.S. and Georgia governments would not accept. Beginning in 1828, Georgia passed a series of laws declaring the invalidity of Cherokee sovereignty. Meanwhile, the U.S. government, under President Andrew Jackson, was advocating removal of the Cherokee to the lands west of the Mississippi, even though treaties such as the Treaty of Hopewell (1785) recognized the Cherokee's sovereign right to their lands.
Ross refused to advocate violence as a means for the Cherokee to retain their land. Having grown up with warfare, ethnic violence, and Genocide between various Indian tribes and the Cherokee and between European-Americans and the Cherokee, Ross had witnessed the destructive effects of violence on the Cherokee nation and had also seen the disastrous results of the armed struggles of other Indian tribes against the European-Americans. Putting his faith in the U.S. legal system, he believed that the U.S. Supreme Court would recognize the Cherokee's right to their land and sovereignty. In two historic cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. 1, 8 L. Ed. 25 (1831), and Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, 8 L. Ed. 483 (1832), Ross and the Cherokee fought for legal recognition of their sovereignty. The Cherokee lost in Cherokee Nation. Then, in a stunning reversal, the Supreme Court recognized Cherokee sovereignty in Worcester and ruled that the Georgia laws claiming jurisdiction in Indian Territory were void. Both Georgia and Jackson refused to abide by the Court's decision, however. Instead, the U.S. government stepped up its efforts to relocate the Cherokee.
The Reverend John F. Schermerhorn, who was appointed by Jackson as commissioner in charge of convincing the Cherokee to leave Georgia, met with the Cherokee leaders and offered to pay them for ceding their lands. The Cherokee were split between the treaty party, led by Major Ridge, who were willing to accept the government's offer, and those like Ross, who were against the offer. When the ruling body of the Cherokee, led by Ross, refused to sign the agreement, Schermerhorn ordered Ross to be arrested.
On December 29, 1835, while Ross was being held without charge, Major Ridge and seventy-four others out of a tribe of seventeen thousand signed a treaty in what is now New Echota, Georgia, by which the Cherokee ceded all lands east of the Mississippi River in return for western lands and other considerations. All who signed received payment and land. In protest, Ross went to Washington carrying a petition with fifteen thousand signatures, 90 percent of all Cherokee. The treaty passed the U.S. Senate by one vote. David ("Davy") Crockett lost his seat in Congress for opposing Jackson's policy on Indian removal.
"If it has been our misfortune to suffer wrongs from the hands of our white brethren, we should not despair of having justice still extended by the United States."
When Ross returned home, he found that the Georgia government had granted his property to a Georgian. In the summer of 1838, Jackson, who had refused to send U.S. troops to enforce the Supreme Court's Worcester decision, (The court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a "distinct community" with self-government "in which the laws of Georgia can have no force." It established the doctrine that the national government of the United States, and not individual states, had authority in American Indian affairs.) now sent seven thousand soldiers to remove the Cherokee. Rather than leave their homeland, more than a thousand Cherokee fled to the Great Smoky Mountains, where their descendants still live.
( see: William Holland Thomas
During the winter of 1838–39, the remaining Cherokee were forced to march from Rattlesnake Springs, Tennessee, to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in what became known as the "Trail of Tears." Four thousand Cherokee, including Ross's wife, Quatie, died on the march.
Once in Oklahoma, Ross was reelected principal chief. Major Ridge was killed the same day for his part in the signing of the Treaty of New Echota. In Tahlequah, land was set aside for schools, a newspaper, and a new Cherokee capital. During the Civil War, the Cherokee aligned themselves with the Confederacy, believing the U.S. government untrustworthy. They also ratified a declaration repudiating all treaties with the federal government, a move that led to bad relations with the U.S. government in the first months after the defeat of the Confederacy. In September 1865, however, Ross attended the Grand Council of Southern Indians at Fort Smith, where a new treaty between the Cherokee and the federal government was prepared. This treaty declared that it rejuvenated all prior, valid treaties between the Cherokee and the government. Despite his failing health, Ross accompanied the delegation to Washington, where the treaty was signed on July 19, 1866. Less than two weeks later, on August 1, 1866, Ross died in Washington, D.C.
Many white Americans were outraged by the dubious legality of the treaty and called on the government not to force the Cherokees to move. For example, on April 23, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a letter to Jackson’s successor, President Martin Van Buren, urging him not to inflict “so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation.”
Nevertheless, as the May 23, 1838, deadline for voluntary removal approached, President Van Buren assigned General Winfield Scott to head the forcible removal operation. He arrived at New Echota on May 17, 1838, in command of U.S. Army and state militia totalling about 7,000 soldiers. They began rounding up Cherokees in Georgia on May 26, 1838; ten days later, operations began in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. Men, women, and children were removed at gunpoint from their homes over three weeks and gathered together in concentration camps, often with very few of their possessions. Another soldier, Private John G. Burnett later wrote "Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter."
Transcript of President Andrew Jackson's Message to Congress 'On Indian Removal' (1830)Andrew Jackson's Annual Message
It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted the provision made for their removal at the last session of Congress, and it is believed that their example will induce the remaining tribes also to seek the same obvious advantages.
The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves. The pecuniary advantages which it promises to the Government are the least of its recommendations. It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters. By opening the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of the whites it will incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier and render the adjacent States strong enough to repel future invasions without remote aid. It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.
What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?
The present policy of the Government is but a continuation of the same progressive change by a milder process. The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward, and we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West by a fair exchange, and, at the expense of the United States, to send them to land where their existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual. Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers; but what do they more than our ancestors did or than our children are now doing? To better their condition in an unknown land our forefathers left all that was dear in earthly objects.
Our children by thousands yearly leave the land of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions. Does Humanity weep at these painful separations from everything, animate and inanimate, with which the young heart has become entwined? Far from it. It is rather a source of joy that our country affords scope where our young population may range unconstrained in body or in mind, developing the power and facilities of man in their highest perfection. These remove hundreds and almost thousands of miles at their own expense, purchase the lands they occupy, and support themselves at their new homes from the moment of their arrival. Can it be cruel in this Government when, by events which it can not control, the Indian is made discontented in his ancient home to purchase his lands, to give him a new and extensive territory, to pay the expense of his removal, and support him a year in his new abode? How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace the opportunity of removing to the West on such conditions! If the offers made to the Indians were extended to them, they would be hailed with gratitude and joy.
And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children? Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.
Samuel Carter, author of Cherokee Sunset, writes: "Then… there came the reign of terror. From the jagged-walled stockades the troops fanned out across the Nation, invading every hamlet, every cabin, rooting out the inhabitants at bayonet point. The Cherokees hardly had time to realize what was happening as they were prodded like so many sheep toward the concentration camps, threatened with knives and pistols, beaten with rifle butts if they resisted."
Another Cherokee, this time a child called Samuel Cloud turned 9 years old on the Trail of Tears. Samuel's written memory is retold by his great-great grandson, Micheal Rutledge, in his paper Forgiveness in the Age of Forgetfulness. Micheal, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a law student at Arizona State University:
I know what it is to hate. I hate those white soldiers who took us from our home. I hate the soldiers who make us keep walking through the snow and ice toward this new home that none of us ever wanted. I hate the people who killed my father and mother. I hate the white people who lined the roads in their woollen clothes that kept them warm, watching us pass. None of those white people are here to say they are sorry that I am alone. None of them care about me or my people. All they ever saw was the colour of our skin. All I see is the colour of theirs and I hate them.Ethics are always a subjective thing, but the sheer cruelty exhibited toward the Indian people seems hard to deny. However, not all Americans of 1838 closed their eyes to this sort of brutality. There were those Americans who were morally distraught at what they saw. Some spoke up publicly. One was Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his Letter To Martin Van Buren, President of the United States, April 23, 1838, he wrote:
In the name of God, sir, we ask you if this be so. Do the newspapers rightly inform us?... The piety, the principle that is left in the United States, if only in its coarsest form, a regard to the speech of men, – forbid us to entertain it as a fact. Such a dereliction of all faith and virtue, such a denial of justice, and such deafness to screams for mercy were never heard of in times of peace and in the dealing of a nation with its own allies and wards, since the earth was made. Sir, does this government think that the people of the United States are become savage and mad? From their mind are the sentiments of love and a good nature wiped clean out? The soul of man, the justice, the mercy that is the heart's heart in all men, from Maine to Georgia, does abhor this business. In speaking thus the sentiments of my neighbors and my own, perhaps I overstep the bounds of decorum. But would it not be a higher indecorum coldly to argue a matter like this? We only state the fact that a crime is projected that confounds our understandings by its magnitude, -a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country, for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country, any more? You, sir, will bring down that renowned chair in which you sit into infamy if your seal is set to this instrument of perfidy ; and the name of this nation, hitherto the sweet omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world. You will not do us the injustice of connecting this remonstrance with any sectional and party feeling. It is in our hearts the simplest commandment of brotherly love. We will not have this great and solemn claim upon national and human justice huddled aside under the flimsy plea of its being a party act. Sir, to us the questions upon which the government and the people have been agitated during the past year*, touching the prostration of the currency and of trade, seem but motes in comparison. These hard times, it is true, have brought the discussion home to every farmhouse and poor man's house in this town; but it is the chirping of grasshoppers beside the immortal question whether justice shall be done by the race of civilized to the race of savage man, – whether all the attributes of reason, of civility, of justice, and even of mercy, shall be put off by the American people, and so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation and upon human nature shall be consummated.Another was John G Burnett, whose memories of what he had witnessed both haunted and enraged him till his last days. His own words explain best.
This is my birthday, December 11, 1890, I am eighty years old today…in May 1838, an army of 4000 regulars, and 3000 volunteer soldiers under command of General Winfield Scott, marched into the Indian country and wrote the blackest chapter on the pages of American history…The removal of Cherokee Indians from their life long homes in the year of 1838 found me a young man in the prime of life and a Private soldier in the American Army…I was sent as interpreter into the Smoky Mountain Country in May, 1838, and witnessed the execution of the most brutal order in the History of American Warfare. I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades…Children were often separated from their parents….And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west….On the morning of November the 17th we encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures and from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey on March the 26th, 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire…The long painful journey to the west ended March 26th, 1839, with four-thousand silent graves reaching from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains to what is known as Indian territory in the West…At this time, 1890, we are too near the removal of the Cherokees for our young people to fully understand the enormity of the crime that was committed against a helpless race…School children of today do not know that we are living on lands that were taken from a helpless race at the bayonet point to satisfy the white man’s greed. Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. …However, murder is murder whether committed by the villain skulking in the dark or by uniformed men stepping to the strains of martial music. Murder is murder, and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory.
Burnett's story of the removal can not be validated. The documents show that he fabricated a large part of his claimed experiences. He did participate in the initial round up of the Cherokees as a Tennessee Volunteer and not as a U.S. military person. He claims to have seen the 645 wagons used by the tribe in the removal. Considering that there were ca 14 detachments, leaving from various places and at various times, never would there have been 645 wagons in one spot. Further he claims to have witnessed Mrs. Ross, on horseback, surrendering her blanket during a snow storm to protect a child, and subsequently dying as a result of her generosity. Burnett says Mrs. Ross was buried in an unmarked grave. At the time of Mrs. Ross death she was on the ship Victoria with her husband, John Ross and some 225 other people. She was not buried in an unmarked grave. Quatie Ross is buried in Little Rock in one of the town's early cemeteries. A picture of her grave marker can be seen on the web. (see 'John G. Burnett's Account' pp. 337–341 in "Cherokee Emigration: Reconstructing Reality", The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. LXXX, No. 3, Fall, 2002.
Further readingsBlair, Jack. 1995–96. "Demanding a Voice in Our Own Best Interest: A Call for a Delegate of the Cherokee Nation to the U.S. House of Representatives." American Indian Law 20.
Ehle, John. 1988. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday.
Moulton, Gary E. 1978. John Ross, Cherokee Chief. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press.
Moulton, Gary E., ed. 1985. The Papers of Chief John Ross. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.
Norgren, Jill. 1996. The Cherokee Cases: The Confrontation of Law and Politics. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: McGraw-Hill.
Cross-referencesCherokee Cases; Native American Rights; Worcester v. Georgia (Appendix, Primary Document).