The Cherokees succeeded probably more than any other tribe in adapting to the white man's world. In 1801 they invited missionaries into their domain to build schools. In 1808 they wrote a legal code, and in 1828 a constitution. By then they were living on farms much like their white neighbors.
In 1821 a young Cherokee man named Sequoyia, who could neither speak nor write English, created an alphabet for the Cherokee language. Sequoyia's alphabet represented the sounds of the language so completely that soon a large portion of the tribe became literate just by memorizing its characters. By 1828 the Cherokees were printing their own newspaper.
Two more events occurred in 1828, however, that doomed to failure all the efforts the Cherokees had made to fit into the white world. First gold was discovered in the Cherokee domain, and gold prospectors flocked in to claim it, disregarding the Cherokees' sovereignty. Secondly, and perhaps more ominous was the election of Andrew Jackson as President of the United States. Jackson, who in 1814 had massacred almost 1000 Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend and rendered thousands more homeless by destroying their villages, who had entered Florida illegally in 1817 to attack the Seminoles, and who as a government commissioner had threatened and bribed Indians to sign away millions of acres, all the while pretending to be their friend and protector.
Andrew Jackson, the Great Father
The election of Jackson gave the southern states all the encouragement they needed to proceed with ridding themselves of the "Indian problem." In 1830 the Georgia legislature passed laws forbidding the Cherokee courts to function, and the council to meet, except to consider treaties. The Cherokees were forbidden to mine their own gold, and Georgia began to survey the Cherokee land to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. As they had done with the Creeks, Georgia land speculators brought fraudulent claims against the Cherokees to cheat them out of their land. The Cherokees were thrown into jail and beaten, and were not allowed to bring suit or even testify in court.
Instead of upholding the treaties which guaranteed the Indians protection against the whites, President Jackson informed the Indians he was powerless to counteract the state laws. He even stopped the Cherokee annuity, saying that the tribal government was extinct.
At the time the Cherokees adopted their constitution, they had elected John Ross as chief. John Ross was only an eighth Cherokee by blood, "but all Cherokee in feeling," as historian Angie Debo put it. He was educated; he knew influential people, and he knew how the system worked, so he got a lawyer and sued the state of Georgia. Without an annuity the tribe had no funds, but Ross' friends donated money. The lawsuit, Cherokee Nation vs Georgia, went to the Supreme Court in 1831. The case was intended to establish property rights for Cherokee citizens, but the Supreme Court refused to hear it, saying they did not have jurisdiction because the Cherokee Nation was a dependant nation of the United States government and could not sue in a state court.
The arrogant Georgians then passed another law which gave the Cherokees another opportunity. This law required any white man working among the Cherokees to take an oath of allegiance to the state of Georgia. Two missionaries, Samuel Worchester and Elizur Butler, refused to take the oath and were sent to prison. The Cherokees then sued on behalf of Reverend Worchester. This time the Supreme Court heard the case, and they ruled in favor of the Cherokees! It was February 1832. John Marshall, the Chief Justice, wrote the opinion for the majority:
The Cherokee Nation, then, is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties and with the acts of Congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.
The law under which Worcester and Butler were convicted:
… is consequently void, and the judgment is a nullity.
Meanwhile, as the Cherokees rejoiced, President Jackson reassured Georgia that in spite of the court's ruling, the Cherokees would get no support from him. Jackson was reported to have said, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it." Worcester and Butler were soon given pardons, but Georgia went ahead with its land lottery. The Cherokees' homes, their government buildings at the capital of New Echota, their churches and schools, were all auctioned off. Chief Ross' family was evicted and forced to move across the Georgia state line where they were taken in by relatives. The Cherokees' printing press was confiscated.
Many gave up hope of remaining in their ancient homeland. Some of the more militant Cherokees had already migrated west. As time passed they were joined by more of their western brothers. Of those who stayed, a few began to negotiate with the government commissioners. Among them were chiefs Major Ridge, his son, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and Stand Watie. These men presented their treaty to the Cherokee Council, but it was unanimously rejected. The Council voted instead to send John Ross to Washington to negotiate another treaty. As Ross prepared to go, a contingent of the Georgia guard arrested him and threw him into jail. Hanging from the beams in his cell was the body of a Cherokee brave who had been hanged. Chief Ross however was released after 13 days. He proceeded to Washington and attempted to deal with the commissioners but was ignored. In his absence, on December 29, 1835, the Ridge party signed the original treaty, agreeing to sell the vast Cherokee domain for a mere $5 million, about 50₵ per acre. Afterward, John Ross presented a petition to Congress renouncing the treaty. The petition contained 16,000 names, virtually the entire Cherokee population, but Congress ratified the treaty anyway.
After the Treaty of New Echota, as it was called, the Cherokees stubbornly refused to leave their land. Many thought that the new President Martin Van Buren would be more sympathetic to their plight. In 1837 Major Ridge, one of the signers of the hated treaty, wrote a letter to the President, pleading for support:
They have got our lands and now they are preparing to fleece us of the money accruing from the treaty. We found our plantations taken either in whole or in part by the Georgians - suits instituted against us for back rents for our own farms. Thus our funds will be filched from our people, and we shall be compelled to leave our country as beggars and in want. Even the Georgian laws, which deny us our oaths, are thrown aside and notwithstanding the cries of our people, and protestation or our innocence and peace, the lowest classes of the white people are flogging the Cherokees with cowhides, hickories, and clubs. We are not safe in our houses - our people are assailed by day and night by the rabble. Even justices of the peace and constables are concerned in this business. This barbarous treatment is not confined to men, but the women are stripped also and whipped without law or mercy…Send regular troops to protect us from these lawless assaults, and to protect our people as they depart for the West. If it is not done, we shall carry off nothing but the scars of the lash on our backs, and our oppressors will get all the money.
We talk plainly, as chiefs having property and life in danger, and we appeal to you for protection.
We talk plainly, as chiefs having property and life in danger, and we appeal to you for protection.
General Ellis Wool, in charge of the federal troops sent to the Cherokee Nation to prevent opposition to removal, was appalled when he became aware of the Indians' situation. In February, 1837, he reported on the Cherokees' unity in opposing removal:
It is, however, vain to talk to a people almost universally opposed to the treaty and who maintain that they never made such a treaty. So determined are they in their opposition that not one … however poor or destitute, would receive either rations or clothing from the United States lest they might compromise themselves in regard to the treaty. These same people … during the summer past, preferred living upon the roots and sap of trees rather than receive provisions from the United States, and thousands, as I have been informed have had no other food for weeks. Many have said they will die before they will leave the country.
While in command, Wool did what he could to protect the Cherokees from squatters. In July 1837, Wool was brought before an army court of inquiry at the request of the governor and legislature of Alabama, on the charge that he had "trampled upon the rights of the citizens." (by evicting them from Cherokee land) The court ruled that Wool had performed his duties in strict accord with the provisions of the treaty. Wool was not the only army officer who sympathized with the Indians. General Dunlap of Tennessee refused to move his troops into Georgia, declaring "that he would never dishonor the Tennessee arms by aiding to carry into execution at the point of a bayonet a treaty by a lean minority against the will and authority of the Cherokee people."
The Cherokees waited. Not only were they getting some support from the military, there had been much public outcry against their mistreatment, and perhaps most importantly, they had faith in their chief, John Ross, who continued to stand fast, from his little cabin in Tennessee, where he had lived since being evicted from his farm n Georgia.
But the Cherokees' battle, fought peacefully in the press and in the courts, was no more successful than the bloody rebellions of the Seminoles and the Creeks. Finally, in May 1838, after being threatened with a military confrontation by the governor of Georgia, President Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott into Georgia with 7000 troops to remove the Cherokees by force.
General Scott set up stockades at the Cherokee capital of New Echota. The Cherokees were defenseless. They had already been disarmed during General Wool's occupation. Troops surrounded the Cherokee communities and then went house to house rounding them up.
Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows an oaths along the weary miles of trail that led to the stockade. Men were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their wheels and children from their play. In many cases on turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, they saw their homes in flames, fired by the lawless rabble that followed on the heels of the soldiers to loot and pillage … A Georgia volunteer, afterward a colonel in the Confederate service, said: "I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew."
By the end of June most of the 16,500 Cherokees remaining in the east had been captured. Several parties were started on the 800 mile journey west, and soon they were dying by the hundreds. Citizens of Tennessee and Kentucky, observing the emigrants as they passed by, protested the treatment of the Indians. Finally General Scott announced that the removal of the remaining Cherokees would be delayed until after the "sick season" as the summer months were known. In the interim, Chief Ross pled with General Scott for the tribe to be allowed to organize their own removal. The general agreed, but the remaining 13000 Cherokees spent the rest of the summer crowded together in stockades.
The final march began in October and went overland through Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas. A few of the more well to do Cherokees rode in wagons but most of the 13000 walked. They were separated into groups of about 1000. Ross and others stayed behind to coordinate the provision of food and equipment. They provided warm clothing for the winter. The men were provided with a few rifles so they could hunt along the way. Still many families were forced to go without even cooking utensils. The older women made pots of clay and fired them, using skills the young people had never witnessed.
The Cherokee people suffered from disease along the way: malaria, flux, measles, whooping cough, as well as malnutrition and exposure. The parties stopped on Sundays to pray, some to the Great Spirit of their ancestors, and some to the Christian God.
It was estimated that 4000 died on the march. Chief Ross' wife Quatie was among those who didn't survive the journey. One night the Ross party was camped in a storm of sleet and snow, and Quatie gave her blanket to a sick child. The child recovered, but Quatie came down with pneumonia. An army private wrote in his journal: "I was on guard duty the night Mrs. Ross died," he reported. "When relieved at midnight I did not retire, but remained around the wagon out of sympathy for Chief Ross and at daylight was detailed … to assist in the burial. … Her uncoffined body was buried in a shallow grave … and the sorrowing cavalcade moved on."
The Cherokee Council had met August 1,1838, before leaving Georgia. They reaffirmed the "Inherent sovereignty of their nation" and declared their constitution and laws to be in full force and effect, including the law imposing the death penalty on anyone agreeing to sell or exchange tribal lands. The "pretended treaty" under which they were expelled from their homelands was renounced.
Soon after their arrival in Indian Territory the Cherokee Council met again. Three days later, on the morning of June 22, 1839, the signers of the hated Treaty of New Echota: John Ridge, Major Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, were assassinated. Only Stand Watie escaped.