Black: Uncertain future: Cherokee Nation 1802-38

Black: Uncertain future: Cherokee Nation 1802-38

February 9th, 2014 by Dr. Daryl Black in Opinion Columns

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Cherokee's future looked uncertain. Southern politicians began to challenge the civilization program of the Washington administration. They saw no place for distinct sovereign nations within the borders of the United States. Some of the most aggressive supporters of this view lived in Georgia.

The root of the issue was land. Georgia claimed a huge domain that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. But the federal government challenged this claim. It wanted jurisdiction over this territory to organize new states -- as it had done with the northwestern territory in the Northwest Ordinance (1787-89). After years of squabbling, Georgia and the Jefferson Administration agreed that, in exchange for the western land, title to Creek and Cherokee country, within state's borders, would be transferred to Georgia.

The state's economic elite saw the Tennessee River valley as a new market. The Federal Road, finished in 1805, cut through the middle of the Cherokee Nation and connected the river to the port of Savannah on the Atlantic coast. By the 1820s, business interests sought a faster and cheaper alternative to the wagons that rumbled across the road. They first proposed a canal that would cut across the Cherokee lands. Later, when technology allowed, they promoted the construction of a rail line that would link the Tennessee River to a point in north-central Georgia later called Atlanta.

At the same time, thousands of white Georgians who had suffered economic setbacks during the 1810s clamored for the Cherokee's land with hopes that opening the territory to white Georgians would give them an opportunity to start over. Land hunger reached a fever pitch in 1829, when gold was discovered in the eastern section of the Cherokee Nation (at present day Dahlonega).

Together, these pressures led the United States government to act. In December 1829, President Andrew Jackson introduced a bill that authorized negotiations with the eastern tribes and nations that would result in their removal to the Indian Territory. The bill passed the Senate, 28 to 19; and the House of Representatives, 102 to 97. Many western state representatives voted against it, including Tennesseean Davy Crocket who called the bill "oppression with a vengeance." President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law on May 28, 1830.

National debate over the act was fierce. In the northeastern United States, anti-removal groups, led by Catherine Beecher believed that forced evictions were cruel and unjust. The Cherokee people, too, fought back. Led by their Principal Chief, John Ross, the overwhelming majority remained steadfast in their opposition to removal. The Cherokee Phoenix, the nation's newspaper, edited and written by Elias Boudinat, took a leading role in opposing the new law and promoting the Cherokee cause.

At the same time, American allies of the Cherokee sought legal relief. In 1832, a case involving the missionary Samuel Worcester made its way before the Supreme Court. The case stemmed from Georgia's claim that the state had the right to impose its laws on the Cherokee Nation and the missionary's resistance to the law. In Worcester v. Georgia, the Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a "distinct community" with self-government "in which the laws of Georgia can have no force."

But Georgia rejected the decision. In late 1832, the state held a land lottery in which tracts of land within the Cherokee Nation were given away to Georgia citizens. Thousands of lottery winners rushed into the Nation and violence broke out all along the border.

The Georgian's aggressiveness convinced the Phoenix's editor Boudinat to change his mind about removal. He, his uncle Major Ridge and cousin John Ridge soon organized a small but determined pro-removal faction. In December 1835, they and their followers -- without the permission of the duly elected National Council -- signed the Treaty of New Echota with United States officials.

The United States Senate ratified the treaty in May 1836. The terms provided $5 million to pay for all Cherokee lands in the east, expanded Cherokee lands in the west, and arranged for transportation to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. It gave the Cherokee two years to prepare.

Ross and other leaders continued to fight the treaty saying that it was not the will of the majority of the Cherokee. Despite their best efforts, they failed to overturn the treaty. And in 1836 and 1837, American soldiers moved into the nation and prepared to enforce the treaty.

Dr. Daryl Black is executive director of the Chattanooga History Center. For more visit or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.