Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The systematic taking of Cherokee lands and forced evacuation of the Cherokee Nation from the Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia is an example of the United States’ unfair treatment of Indians and land hunger.
The Cherokees made their home in the hills of Georgia, the Carolinas, and Alabama. It was thought to be the loveliest region east of the Mississippi River. In an 1825 statement to the War Department, Thomas L. McKenney describes the Cherokee lands as follows:
“The country is well watered; abundant springs of pure water are found in every part; a range of majestic and lofty mountains stretch themselves across it. The northern part is hilly and mountainous; in the southern and western parts there are extensive and fertile plains, covered partly with tall trees, through which beautiful streams of water glide.”1Thomas L. McKenney
“I always speak freely.”
The first whiteman to encounter the Cherokees was the Spanish explorer Desoto. Desoto came to the fringes of the Cherokee Nation in 1540. The first long term relationship however between the whiteman and Cherokees came in 1733 when Captain Oglethorpe set up the English colony of Georgia on the banks of the Savannah River. The first meeting between Oglethorpe and a Cherokee Chief was very tense. Oglethorpe wanted to relax the situation so he said, “Fear nothing. Speak freely.” The Cherokee Chief replied, “I always speak freely. Why should I fear? I am now among friends; I never feared, even among my enemies.”2
From this initial meeting grew a great friendship between the Georgia Colony and the Cherokee Nation. This friendship lasted for twenty years until June 20, 1752, when England disbanded the Georgia colony on the grounds of insufficient productivity. After the Georgia colony disbanded, England figured the Cherokees were indebted to them because of the protection and technology provided by the Georgia colony, so in 1763 the English forced the Cherokees to sign a treaty. The treaty gave the English large tracts of land to pay off the debt.
This was the last significant agreement between England and the Cherokees until the Revolutionary War. Even though they had literally stolen their land, the Cherokees sided with the British against the United States. The Creeks sided with the British also, but the Cherokees received the worst of the fighting. They had towns burnt, their winter stores destroyed, and whole bands of Cherokees starved.
The Hopewell Treaty
After the United States defeated the British, the first treaty between the United States and the Cherokee Nation, the Hopewell Treaty was made. the treaty convention on November 28, 1785, the United States commissioners made this statement:
“Congress is now sovereign of all our country which we now point out to you on the map. They want none of your lands, nor anything else which belongs to you; and as an earnest of their regard for you, we propose to enter into articles of a treaty perfectly equal and conformable to what we now tell you. This humane and generous act of the United states will no doubt be received by you with glad ness, and held in grateful remembrance and more so, as many of your young men, and the greater number of your warriors, during the late war, were our enemies, and assisted the King of Great Britain in his endeavors to conquer our country.”3
Treaty of Holston
Even while this treaty was being drawn up the Cherokees were complaining about settlers moving into their territory. The problem got so bad that in July of 1791 the Treaty of Holston set up new boundaries for the Cherokee Nation to make room for the new settlers.
The seventh article of the treaty of Holston guarantees that the Cherokees can keep all land not already ceded. The eighth article states that they may punish settlers that trespass as they see fit. The ninth article says that there will be no hunting or trespassing by settlers on Cherokee lands without a passport from the Governor of the reservation.
As positive as those articles were, the United States was still being very negative as is evident in a segment of article two of the same treaty that states, “They also stipulate that said Cherokee Nation will not hold any treaty with any foreign power, individual state, or with individuals of any state.“4
Failure by the US Government to Enforce the Treaty
The whites, who totally ignored the Holston Treaty and the new boundaries settled even deeper into the Cherokee Nation. So in 1794 a new treaty was signed, it again redefined the boundaries of the Cherokees land and upheld the basic articles of the Holston Treaty.
In 1801, the United States tried to take more land from the Cherokees for its settlers. The Cherokees had finally decided to stand up to the United States. As gallant of an action as that refusal was, the United States succeeded in applying enough pressure through trade restrictions and the threat of military force to break down the Cherokee resistance. A new treaty was made in 1805 that ceded more territory to the United States. The United States paid the Cherokee Nation $15,000.00 immediately and then $3,000.00 annually.
The War of 1812
That treaty ended any relations between the Cherokees and the United States for a while. The Cherokee Nation had decided to adopt a closed door policy. This policy ended when the United States asked the Cherokees help in battling the British and the Creek in the War of 1812. The Cherokee were happy to help the United States in fighting the British, because they felt the British had abandoned them after the Revolutionary War and there was also friction between the Cherokee and the Creek.
The Cherokee as an American Ally at War
The Cherokee fought well and brave alongside the American regulars. In 1814 at the battle of Horseshoe Bend, the battle that made General Andrew Jackson famous; the Cherokees turned the tide in conflict. Shortly after the end of the War of 1812, the Cherokees began to become more modern, more civilized. In 1821, a Cherokee named Sequoya made a Cherokee alphabet and in 1828 a newspaper, the “Cherokee Phoenix“, was printed part in English and part in the Cherokee language.
As the Cherokees became more civilized, the more permanent they became. They built houses, cleared fields, made roads, and constructed schools for their children. The permanency of the Cherokees was almost totally overlooked by the United States except that when they took all of the Cherokee’s land in the Carolinas, they gave them $5,000.00 more than the $60,000.00 agreed sum for the improvements on the land.
Outright Theft by the State of Georgia
While the federal government was abusing the Cherokees through illegal land transactions, the state government of Georgia decided to pass laws that made Cherokee’s laws null and void. The laws also stated that a Cherokee could not be a witness in a court in Georgia. At this same time a bill was introduced to Congress calling for the removal of the Cherokees to what is now Oklahoma. The bill was heavily debated. Senators Frelinghuysen, Sprague, Bobbins, Storrs, Ellsworth, Evens, Huntington, Johns, Bates, Crockett, Everett and Test, all spoke against the removal.
“Our Hearts are Sickened”
In a last ditch effort to swing votes in the Senate a Cherokee Chief made this statement before Congress:
“In truth, our cause is your own. It is the cause and of justice. It is based upon your own principles, which we have learned from yourselves; for we have gloried to count your Washington and your Jefferson our great teachers …. We have practiced their precepts with success. And the result is manifest. The wilderness of forest has given place to comfortable dwellings and cultivated fields …. We speak to the representatives of a Christian country; the friends of justice; the patrons of the oppressed …. On your kindness, on your humanity, on your compassions, on your benevolence, we rest our hopes.”5“Our Hearts are Sickened”: Letter from Chief John Ross of the Cherokee, Georgia, 1836
Principal Chief John Ross
But even that wasn’t quite enough because on May 28, 1830 Congress passed the bill with a majority of one vote. Some 2,000 Cherokees left immediately, but most decided to stay and fight the Removal Law/. The fight was led by John Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee. He had taken his oath in 1828. The unusual thing about John Ross was that he was a half-breed, he was only half Cherokee. His father was a Scottish immigrant, but he had his son raised in his mother’s world.
The Cherokee Petition the US Supreme Court
John Ross first brought before the Supreme Court the Cherokee case against Georgia for its unjust laws. The Supreme Court ruled against the Cherokees on the grounds that they cannot rule on state laws, just federal laws. Before Ross could bring his case against the Removal Law before the Supreme Court, he was abducted out of Alabama and thrown in jail in Georgia for 12 days. While he was in jail the government of the United States signed a treaty with some Cherokees who really had no authority to do so.
The Treaty that Took Everything
The treaty was signed in 1835 and was called the Treaty of New Echota (pdf). The treaty took all of the Cherokee land East of the Mississippi River. In return the Cherokees received five million dollars and seven million acres in what is now Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory.
After his incarceration, John Ross brought the total case against the United States to the Supreme Court and the Cherokees won their case. There was only one thing wrong. President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the decision because of the rumor of gold on Cherokee land and the pressure exerted by the State of Georgia. In May of 1838, General Scott was ordered to remove the Cherokees to Oklahoma.
They were supposed to move during the Summer of 1838, but the Cherokees and United States argued over the amount of supplies that should be given. The Cherokees lost the argument and didn’t get near the amount they needed and had to leave in the Winter of 1838-1839.
The Winter of 1838-1839 was extremely harsh. The cold, disease, and lack of supplies took its toll on the Cherokees, put of 18,000 Cherokees only 14,000 survived. The dead included John Ross’ wife, Quitre. The path was called Nuna-da-ut-sun’y, “The trail where they cried”.
Note: Cherokee Language
After they were relocated, they immediately started rebuilding. The Cherokees formed a republican government and in 1901 they were declared United States Citizens. Even though the United States
almost destroyed the Cherokee Nation, today they number more than 100,000.*
See the Cannon Diaries for a day-by-day account of the Cherokee removal through middle Missouri
For more information see: Broken Treaties With Native American Tribes: Timeline
All book links go to Amazon.com. MoTrailofTears.com receives no income or any other benefit from providing these links. The links are provided as a convenience to our visitors and do not imply an endorsement of the author or their views. Links current as of 20230120
- Andrews, Ralph W. Indian Leaders Who Helped Shape America. Seattle: Superior, 1971.
- Capps, Benjamin. The Great Chiefs. New York: Time-Life Books, 1973.
- Capps, Benjamin. The Indians. New York: Time-Life Books, 1973.
- “Cherokee Indians”. Merit Students Encyclopedia (1982),
- “Cherokee Indians”. World Book Encyclopedia (1978).
- Deloria, Jr., Vine. Custer Died for Your Sins. Toronto: MacMillan, 1969.
- Jackson, Helen Hunt. Century of Dishonor. Minneapolis; Ross and Haines, 1964.
- Josephy, Jr., Alvin M. Indians. New York: American Heritage, 1961.
- Josehpy, Jr., Alvin M. The Indian Heritage of America. New York: Knopf, 1968.
- La Farge, Oliver. History of the American Indian. Maplewood, N.J.: C. S. Hammond, 1956.
- Matthiessen, Peter. “The Price of Fellico”. Newsweek, 17 December 1979, p.21.
- “Oklahoma’s Cherokee Phoenix”. Saturday Evening Post, July-August 1983, pp. 86-88
- Roland, Albert. Great Indian Chiefs, New york; Crowell-Collier Press, 1966.
- Van Dewson, Glyndon G. The Jacksonian Era, New York; Harper and Row, 1959
- Jackson, Helen Hunt, Century of Dishonor (Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1964), p. 275.
- Ibid., p. 257,
- 3lbid. , pp. 262-263.
- Deloria, Jr. Vine, Custer Died for Your Sins (Toronto: MacMillan, 1969), p.34.
- Roland, Albert, Great Indian Chiefs (New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1966), p. 120.
- Andrews, Ralph W., Indian Leaders Who Helped Shape America (Seattle; Superior, 1971), p.88
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