If the Cherokee Nation's future seemed perilous in late 1834, it was about to take a disastrous turn in 1835. While Chief John Ross and his delegation had been in Washington, D.C., once again attempting to persuade President Andrew Jackson to honor former commitment to the Nation, the situation was intensifying in Georgia.
When Ross would return home in early 1835, he would find a white family entrenched in his Georgia home, having purchased it during the Georgia lottery for the Cherokee lands. It's difficult to imagine Ross's shock as he rode into the yard after midnight and knocked on his door only to be faced by a new owner who announced that he had no idea where Ross's "Indian wife and children might have gone." After looking around and taking the lateness of the night into account, the owner invited him to spend the night but charged him for stabling his horse. The next day Ross tracked down his family and relocated them to a new home on Cherokee land in Tennessee.
Conditions would only worsen — and worsen quickly. When Ross attempted to move the Cherokee printing press from New Echota to Tennessee, it was seized by the Georgia Guard. When in the fall of 1835, Ross continued his protests against the actions of the Georgia Guard, surprise nighttime visitors would seize Ross at his Tennessee cabin with the announcement that "you are to consider yourself a prisoner." When Chief John Ross asked upon whose authority he was being arrested and for what charges, the leader of the Guard responded, "You'll know soon enough."
When Tennesseans realized that Georgia "militia" had invaded Tennessee to seize a legal resident, angry demands that Tennessee protect its sovereignty reached Tennessee's governor. The governor wrote to his Georgia counterpart demanding Ross's release or face the possibility of a "Tennessee paramilitary force of its own." Georgia's governor claimed to have no knowledge of the arrest of Ross but Ross would be released by late November. During his captivity, Ross had ascertained that the Georgia Guard was not operating under a directive from their governor but instead had been commanded into action by one of President Jackson's allies, Maj. Benjamin F. Currey. The removal plot had thickened.
The Georgians and the federal government began negotiations with the rival Cherokee leadership group, led by Major Ridge. While Ridge predicted that he might be killed for signing a removal treaty, it appears that, despite his own economic gain, Ridge believed that his people's future would only be guaranteed by accepting the inevitable and moving west for a new beginning. The treaty would be signed at New Echota on Dec. 29 at Elias Boudinot's home, allocating $5 million to the Cherokee along with other generous provisions for a school fund, payment for personal homes, food supplies and more. But on closer examination, those funds for provisions would be deducted from the $5 million, meaning the Cherokees would receive much less than they had been promised.
What about the Cherokee people's leader, Chief John Ross? As preparations for the removal began, Ross and 32 other Cherokee leaders met at Red Clay, Tennessee, and signed a letter declaring that the treaty was "a fraud upon the government of the United States and an act of oppression on the Cherokee people." Ross sent the letter to President Jackson, who read it and announced that it was "disrespectful" to the president and Congress.
The letter was returned to Ross with an admonition that removal was to begin. Military leaders, loyal to their president, offered observations about the difficulty of removing a nation opposing its relocation by noting a fear of the "shedding of human blood."
As others prepared for the journey, Ross traveled one last time to Washington, D.C., only to find the new president, Martin Van Buren, dealing with a financial panic and having little interest in the Cherokee plight. A final negotiation with the War Department raised the amount of money to be paid to $6 million dollars and the emigration would be funded by the government, not the army. It was Ross's final attempt to improve the conditions of the removal.
Ross's last days in the East were spent with one of the last parties to leave for the west, containing more than 1,600 of his people. They would depart from Blythe's Ferry. The roads and rivers ahead would be filled with tears.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission and Regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.