How the Cherokees Were Removed to Oklahoma
This episode, certainly appropriate for Thanksgiving, describes how the Cherokee Indian Nation, the original inhabitants, for thousands of years, of Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and other southeastern states, were ethnically cleansed (the term used at the time was "removed") to Indian Territory, a dry prairie, a totally hostile environment, even though they had lived in peace with their white neighbors. I described the legal basis, the doctrine of acquisition by conquest created by John Marshall and the Supreme Court, for this in the last episode.
The forced "removal" of the Cherokees, along what is now called the Trail of Tears (in the Cherokee language, it's Nunna daul Isunyi—"the Trail Where We Cried.") began on May 23, 1838, from near what is now Chattanooga, Tennessee. This is merely one horrible act (and hardly the final one) in a drama filled with lies, deception, broken promises, and (yes) good but misplaced intentions in our Native American policy. Professor Francis Paul Prucha, SJ, of Marquette University, a distinguished historian of our Native American policy, wrote that there were only four possible solutions to the Indian-white man conflict: genocide (exterminate the race), integration (Indians live like white people), protect the natives where they lived, or removal. By 1838, genocide had actually worked, for the most part, in the New England and Middle Atlantic states. For example, King Philip's War (1675-1676), one of the most bloody and costly in American history. It resulted in the elimination of The Narragansett, Wampanoag, Podunk, Nipmuck, and several smaller tribes, (about 3000 Indian soldiers in all) while the Mohicans were greatly weakened. Integration was not what the Indians really wanted. Protecting the natives where they lived was not practical because the white squatters were gobbling up Indian land and the United States did not have enough military might, or will for that matter, to protect the tribes. So the most humane option, according to Andrew Jackson and the other authors of Indian removal, was for the Indians to "relocate" - sort of the Final Solution of the Indian Question - resettle to a land where the Indians could live according to their tribal ways and the whites could "develop" the lands from which the Indians were emptied.
There was also a security aspect to Indian removal. Like some of us believe that all Muslims in the United States are a threat to our national security, Indians were regarded as a security threat as well. This argument had some merit. It's no accident that the war called the Seven Years War in Europe (1756-1763) was called the French and Indian War in the United States. Indeed, many of the Indian tribes in the west (the Iroquois, siding with the British, were a significant exception) sided with the French against the British colonists. Pontiac's Rebellion (1763-1766) was an uprising by Indians around the Great Lakes area, against the harsh treatment of the Indians by Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the namesake of Amherst College in Massachusetts. The British used Indian spies against the Americans in the Revolutionary War.
After our independence, there was constant tension and a number of wars fought between the white settlers and the Indians. Fighting Indians was sort of a rite of passage for many political leaders in the first half of the 19th century. During the War of 1812, Chief Tecumseh attempted to unite the Indians in the west into a coalition to drive the white settlers out. Tecumseh's army was defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe, by the Governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, who became a hero as a result of this victory. Harrison ran successfully under the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too", to become our 9th President in 1841. Unfortunately for Harrison, he only served one month because he died of pneumonia because of all the job seekers who beseiged him when he assumed the office of the President. One of the less publicized parts of Abraham Lincoln's biography is that he was a soldier in the Black Hawk War (1832), which drove the Sac and Fox Indian tribe out of Illinois, as a young man. Another President, Zachary Taylor, also fought in the Black Hawk War. So you can think of Jackson's Indian policy as being "tough on defense" - a very popular position in the "red state" West.
By 1830, the Cherokee Nation was the largest Indian group east of the Mississippi. When I call them a nation, I'm only using the term they called themselves. They had established a functioning government, with its capital at New Echota, Georgia; a written Cherokee language developed by Sequoyah; and even a Cherokee Constitution, modeled after the United States Constitution. The Constitution was written by principal Chief John Ross and Major Ridge, the speaker of the Cherokee National Council, and adopted on 26 July 1827, declaring the Cherokee Nation to be a sovereign and independent nation. Many Cherokees became Christian. As I mentioned in my last episode, they petitioned the Supreme Court, in Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia, as a sovereign nation, even though the Marshall Court struck down their petition. That's not the end of the story - more on that later. The point is that the Cherokees were not savages. They adapted to white ways, creating a government far more functional than the current one in Iraq.
Why did many Georgians want Cherokee removal? After all, the Treaty of Hopewell (1785), signed between the Cherokees and the US government, defined an agreed boundary between the Cherokee and United States nations. Our government encouraged the Cherokees to develop white ways, and as we have seen, they did. With the Compact of 1802, the state of Georgia relinquished to the national government its western land claims (which became the states of Alabama and Mississippi). In exchange, the national government promised to eventually conduct treaties to relocate those Indian tribes living within Georgia, thus giving Georgia control of all land within its borders. In 1823, Creek chief William McIntosh, as an agent of the United States, attempted to bribe prominent Cherokee leaders to make major land cessions to the US. The $12,000 offer was rejected. In 1824, the Legislative Council sent John Ross, Major Ridge and other Cherokee leaders to Washington in an attempt to persuade President James Monroe to negate the Georgia Compact of 1802. The meeting ended in a stalemate, with the Cherokee refusing to cede their lands and Monroe refusing to negate the Georgia Compact.
The land claims issue heated up after gold was found on Cherokee land in north Georgia, sparking the Georgia gold rush - this before the California gold rush. In 1829, the Georgia legislature requested the US government to enforce the Compact of 1802, to confiscate Cherokee land. In 1830, at the urging of President Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized Congress to make treaties with the Indian tribes to exchange their ancestral land for land west of the Mississippi. The Act did not remove any Indians. It just legalized their resettlement, eventually to Indian Territory, the current state of Oklahoma.
The first removal treaty signed after the Removal Act was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830, in which Choctaws in Mississippi ceded land east of the river in exchange for payment and land in the West. The overwhelming majority of Cherokees opposed removal. But Jackson was persistent. He negotiated a treaty with a tiny, unrepresentative faction of the Cherokees, called the Treaty of New Echota, in 1836. When the Cherokees found out about this, they sent a petition with 16,000 signatures to Washington to express their opposition to the treaty. The Treaty was ratified by the Senate, as all treaties must be, by a vote of 31-15, which meant (a 2/3 majority being required to ratify a treaty) that the treaty passed by one vote. Eventually, most of the principal negotiators of the treaty were assassinated by other Cherokees. Nevertheless, having an authorized treaty negotiated by a tiny fraction of the Cherokee nation, the United States government proceeded with Cherokee removal. The actual removal was due to start two years after the Treaty of New Echota, in May, 1838. By that time, Jackson was out of office. The removal was done by Martin Van Buren, Jackson's vice-president, who became President in 1837.
There was significant opposition, especially in New England, against the Indian Removal Act. The famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a letter protesting the Cherokee removal to President Van Buren. Here's an excerpt:
The newspapers now inform us that, in December, 1835, a treaty contracting for the exchange of all the Cherokee territory was pre-tended to be made by an agent on the part of the United States with some persons appearing on the part of the Cherokees; that the fact afterwards transpired that these deputies did by no means represent the will of the nation; and that, out of eighteen thousand souls composing the nation, fifteen thousand six hundred and sixty-eight have protested against the so-called treaty. It now appears that the government of the United States choose to hold the Cherokees to this sham treaty, and are proceeding to execute the same. Almost the entire Cherokee Nation stand up and say, " This is not our act. Behold us. Here are we. Do not mistake that handful of deserters for us ; " and the American President and the Cabinet, the Senate and the House of Representatives, neither hear these men nor see them, and are contracting to put this active nation into carts and boats, and to drag them over mountains and rivers to a wilderness at a vast distance beyond the Mississippi. And a paper purporting to be an army order fixes a month from this day as the hour for this doleful removal.
Nevertheless, under the command of General Winfield Scott, the removal proceeded. Initially, the removal was supervised by the army, but later the Cherokees themselves supervised their own removal. There actually is not one Trail of Tears but instead, a number of trails, as this map shows. Estimates of the number of Cherokee who made the trek vary, although a number between 15,000 and 17,000 is generally accepted. Somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 Cherokees perished along the route. The winter was especially harsh and frostbite deaths were common. The Cherokees crossed frozen rivers in the dead of winter wearing light clothes and moccasins. Food was scarce. The destination, later becoming Tahlequah, Oklahoma, was harsh and desolate. The Cherokees had to compete with other Indian tribes for food and water.
Amazingly, the Cherokees reconstituted themselves and even had periods of prosperity. They are now the largest organized Indian tribe in the United States. There have been some leadership crises in recent times, so in many respects they have adopted the white man's ways all too well. They say that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, and second as farce. Someone added "and third, as tourist trap". These days, you can hike or drive the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. I'm sure that, along the way, you can eat what the Cherokees couldn't eat, stay at the Trail of Tears Sports Resort, and buy an authentic Cherokee squaw doll. There are also a number of Cherokee bands outside of Oklahoma. In North Carolina, a number of Cherokees escaped from the Federal manhunt or were located in a remote area outside the dragnet. Today, you can visit Cherokee, North Carolina, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, officially recognized by the US government. There's great hunting and fishing, demonstrations of native arts and crafts, a museum, gift shops, and more. It's important that we don't forget this incredibly awful chapter of our history, because it could repeat itself.