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In the first half of the 1800s, the United States was experiencing enormous growth. Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of the Texas, California and Oregon areas all helped to expand the U.S. into a nation that spanned the continent from “sea to shining sea.” This massive expansion did not occur peaceably however. Of particular difficulty were the five civilized Native American tribes of the south east. The most civilized of these tribes, known as the Cherokee, had become westernized to the point of having an elected government, written constitution, and a written language. They had their own towns and shops and even owned slaves. By 1839, the bulk of the Cherokee tribe had been removed to designated Indian territories west of the Mississippi river in accordance with the Treaty of New Echota, in what became known as the “Trail of Tears” period. This essay will investigate the background and justification behind the federal policy of Indian removal, especially as it pertains to the Cherokee Indians and the validity of this argument by looking at the history of the Cherokee tribe and its relations with state and federal governments.
Beginning with the colonization of the eastern coastal areas of what became the United States, the Native American population in these areas started being pushed into the interior by the encroaching new comers. The European settlers used a variety of techniques to displace the Indians with hostile takeover and treaty agreements being the favorites. The Cherokee were no exception. V.O. King notes that between 1785 and 1866, the Cherokee “executed thirty-five treaties with the United States, by which they ceded fifty-six thousand square miles of territory” This was due to a strategy developed by President Thomas Jefferson who as early as 1803 “suggested the exchange with the Indians of their lands on the east of the Mississippi for equal areas on the west, lying within the Louisiana Purchase.”
In the years after the American Revolution, Americans began to push westward with renewed vigor. This westward movement was spurred on by both the availability of cheap land through the government selling off the public domain and by the feeling of Manifest Destiny. The first obstacle to this westward movement was the Native American tribes who had been living on this land for centuries. Friction between the new comers and the Indians resulted in small scale wars started by both sides.
The Cherokee had suffered severely during the Revolutionary War because of their allegiance to the British crown. To show their support, they attacked various American held forts in the south in 1770s. These military actions by the Cherokee were repulsed and led to counter attacks by American armed forces. As a result, “Cherokee power was broken, crops and villages destroyed, and warriors dispersed.” The Cherokee really had no military power left after the war and thus the option of armed resistance against encroaching settlers was not viable.
The new American government had to decide what to do with the Indian problem. There were really only three choices, annihilation, westernization or removal. The first choice was decided against for various reasons. Westernization of the Indians became an early alternative championed by George Washington who sought to integrate them into American society. William McLoughlin comments that “from the Indians the Americans wanted two things – peace and land.” He goes on to note that the plan of President Washington, as presented to congress in 1789, was based on the idea “that the Indians could and should be civilized to the point of becoming ‘incorporated’ or integrated as equal citizens.” Thus began the Cherokee’s movement towards westernization.
Due to the continued loss of Indian land, the Cherokee found that hunting was becoming increasingly difficult and thus their need for meat became great. Following Washington’s policy, the chief federal Indian agent among the Cherokee, a man named Dinsmoor, began giving aid to the tribe. Mcloughlin notes that Dinsmoor helped to “persuade the Creeks and Cherokees to abandon hunting for farming” which wasn’t hard due to the tribes continuing lack of hunting as a source of food. Dinsmoor then proceeded to hand out “plows, spinning wheels, cotton cards and looms at government expense and employed white women to teach spinning and weaving to Indian women.” The end result of this federal aid was that of a jump start effect on the Cherokee tribe starting them on their way towards a society that would have many of the same attributes as its American neighbors. Eventually the Cherokee overcame their traditional notion of farming being woman’s work and adopted it on a wide scale. The Cherokee also started to own light textile production assets. Some Cherokee even became richer than their American counterparts through their own commercial enterprises.
In 1821, a Cherokee leader named Sequoyah developed a written language for the Cherokee people based on their language. This made the Cherokee tribe the only North American Indian tribe in history to have a written language. The tribe caught on quickly and within just a week of learning, individuals could use it to convey information perfectly. Mcloughlin notes that “Sequoyah’s invention provided a new means of self-expression among the Cherokee.” By 1825, most Cherokee could read and write in their native language. Sequoyah’s advancement helped to instigate further western style advances as well.
In 1828, Cherokee in New Echota established the first ever Native American Newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix. The newspaper was distributed in both the English and Cherokee languages. Another great milestone in the Cherokee’s move towards western society was the translation of the bible into the Cherokee language by the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix named Boudinot. Mcloughlin comments that these advancements helped the Cherokee to cross the “great dividing line between a primitive (pre-literate) and a civilized (literate) society.” Mary Young comments that by 1830, through Washington’s plan of westernization, “the Cherokee had schools, churches, plantations, slaves, and a written language, newspaper, and constitution.” By all accounts, Washington’s plan of westernizing the Indians was at the very least proved possible by the example of the developing Cherokee tribe.
Danial Howe notes that in an official report on the nations Indian tribes for the U.S. government, Jedidiah Morse reported that the five civilized tribes were “progressing economically and educationally and advised that they be left alone.” His report was issued in 1822 but did little to sway the hostile feelings directed towards the various Indian tribes by their white neighbors. “White settlers bitterly resented the Natives’ presence; besides occupying good cotton land, they traded with free blacks and sometimes provided a haven for runaway slaves.” One use the report did fulfill was to invalidate the main justification for removal that prevailed at this time. “In the past, whites had justified taking aboriginal lands on the grounds that the Indians were not fully utilizing them.” With this justification gone, proponents of Indian removal moved towards legally deposing the Indians without caring about any sort of justification. Greed for land and resources as well as general racism governed most people’s thoughts whenever Indian removal was brought up.
There was much motivation to implement Indian removal by the whites. One of the main causes for this motivation was that of Manifest Destiny, the feeling that God had ordained a new and expansive nation to spread from coast to coast. This idea was shared by many Americans at that time and thus helped smooth down any small pockets of resistance to the idea of Indian removal.
Another big motivation to implement removal was the immense growth the cotton industry was experiencing at this time. Advances in the manufacture of cotton such as the Cotton Gin as well as the existence of a growing world demand for the product helped to make the industry boom. Prucha notes the “seemingly endless demand for cotton to feed the new mills in England and the Northeast” as an indication of this growth. It was becoming more and more profitable to grow cotton using slave labor. Plantation owners as well as others looked greedily at the land occupied by the Cherokee Indians which was perfect for growing cotton.
Perhaps the biggest motivation came with the discovery of gold in the Georgian mountains in 1828 and the subsequent “gold rush” 1829. The only problem was the fact that most of the gold was discovered on Cherokee tribal land. This obstacle did not stop the flood of fortune seekers looking to strike it big. They disregarded the fact that they were trespassing and went to work. With Americans pouring into Cherokee land, the Georgian state government was under great pressure to remove their Indians altogether. Howe comments that “at times during the Georgia gold rush, neither the Cherokee Nation, the state authorities, nor the federal government could enforce law and order.” The situation was a chaotic one with tens of thousands of lawless miners in the area.
The state of Georgia had long coveted the lands held by the various Indian tribes living within its borders. As for back as 1802, the State of Georgia realized it would be a legal nightmare to try and remove the Indian tribes themselves. The state government’s solution was to make a deal with the federal government. In effect, Georgia relinquished its claims to the area that now makes up part of Alabama and Mississippi. In return for this, the federal government promised the eventual relinquishment of all Indian land titles within the state of Georgia. This became known as the Compact of 1802.
By the late 1820s, Georgia was becoming increasingly worried that the federal government would not make good on its promise. As pressure grew and demand for the lands held by the Indians increased, the state of Georgia “accused the federal government of bad faith in failing to live up to its part of the bargain.” Georgia proceeded to threaten the federal government so that if they did not fulfill the compact, Georgia would extend state law over all the Indians and that’s exactly what they did. Prucha notes that the “state took the law into its own hands. Its line of action was to extend the authority of the state and its laws over the Cherokee lands, in effect withdrawing the Cherokee territory from the status of Indian country, bringing the lands under Georgia’s control.” This action prompted the start of great legal battle dealing with the problem of an Indian Nation’s sovereignty.
In 1785, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Cherokee nation. This treaty, known as the Treaty of Hopewell, defined the border of the Indian nation and acknowledged the right of Indian law over all within the nation so that if any U.S. citizen committed a crime within the nation “such person shall forfeit the protection of the United States, and the Indians may punish him or not as they please” Ironically the treaty goes on to stipulate that “The hatchet shall be forever buried, and the peace given by the United States, and friendship re-established between the said states on the one part, and all the Cherokees on the other, shall be universal.” Also interesting is the fact that treaty confirms the right of the U.S. government to regulate trade with the Indians and that the Indians existed “under the protection of the United States of America, and of no other sovereign whosoever.”
Problems arose for the state of Georgia when the Cherokee Nation decided to bring a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, after attempts to plea for help to congress and the president went unanswered, to contest the loss of law over their own territory. They hired, arguably, two of the best constitutional lawyers in the nation, John Sergeant and William Wirt. Wirt “had been attorney general under Monroe and Adams.” The lawyers “sought an injunction against Georgia’s encroachment on the Indian territory in violation of the tribe’s treaty rights.” They argued that the Georgian law was invalid for the Cherokee nation was a sovereign nation under its own jurisdiction with only the U.S. government having any sort of power over them. This would also be their basis for bringing the case to the Supreme Court which has jurisdiction in matters between States and other nations. Wirt also pointed to the various treaties made between the federal government and the Cherokee and how they demonstrated the Indian nation’s sovereignty. The case now known as Cherokee vs Georgia was a miserable failure. “The justices voted 4 to 2 to sidestep the issue.” Their reasoning was summed up by Chief Justice John Marshal when he explained that the Cherokee were not in fact a sovereign nation but more of a “domestic dependent nation.” Thus without sovereignty, the Cherokee could not bring cases before the Supreme Court for the court would have no jurisdiction in the matter.
After the case of the Cherokee vs. Georgia case was thrown out, the state of Georgia was quick to test its new power of jurisdiction when they convicted a man named Corn Tassel of a murder committed within the Cherokee Nation. Before his punishment could be carried out, the Supreme Court “called for arguments on appeal.” The state of Georgia blatantly ignored the Supreme Court and carried out a death sentence on Tassel. The Supreme Court did nothing to punish this disobedience. Howe surmises that this was the case because of a recent movement to repeal the Supreme Court’s ability to hear appeals from state courts. “Although defeated, the bill seems to have intimidated the Court, for it took no action on the contumacious behavior of the Georgia authorities.”
After the state of Georgia had assumed control over the Cherokee Nation, the state decided to flex its muscles a bit. Since the revolutionary war, there had been a surge of religious missionaries moving into the Indian territories. These missionaries set up schools and churches and ministered to the local Indian population. They taught children to read and taught them the ideals of the Christian faith. The missionaries were sometimes even sponsored by the U.S. government in an effort to help with the struggle of westernizing the Indians as talked about before. The state of Georgia did not like seeing missionaries with the Indians for the state knew that “Christian missionaries were among the most effective opponents of Removal.” A westernized Indian tribe would be all but impossible to remove. Thus, the state of Georgia “determined to interrupt this educational process and expel the missionaries” This they did by a state law in 1831 which stipulated that no whites could live in Indian Territory without a license.
Another problem arose for the State of Georgia when two Christian missionaries, named Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler, refused to leave the Cherokee nation and were arrested by Georgian State authorities for not having a license in accordance with the new state law. This event finally brought the case of Indian sovereignty before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Worcester vs. Georgia. The court ruled in favor of the Indian tribe. John Marshal delivered the opinion of the court when he “declared unconstitutional the extension of state law over Cherokee lands.” While a monumental decision, the State of Georgia refused to accept the ruling since the state had “consistently denied the Court’s right to hear the case at all.” With the Supreme Court’s ruling effectively ignored, the only federal authority that could have affected the release of the two missionaries was President Jackson. Jackson however was completely against the idea of the idea of Indian sovereignty that he refused to act on the matter. He is famously thought to have said “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it!” Thus, even though the decision was a great victory for the Cherokee, it was effectively nullified by the States refusal to implement the ruling. The situation was finally defused when Georgia released the missionaries and repealed the part of the law that outlawed whites within Indian territory. The state still asserted its right to law over the Cherokee.
Finally, the way was paved for the complete removal of the Cherokee Indians. Both the Jackson administration and the State of Georgia were great proponents of the idea of total removal. The unofficial justification for total Indian removal was that it was a humanitarian action on the part of a benevolent nation. The idea here was that in the face of an ever advancing and hostile western population, the only way the Indians could retain their culture and autonomy was if they simply got out of the way. Jackson showed this principle in an address to congress when he said that to save the “red man” from this “or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.”
While a good majority of the U.S. population supported Indian removal based on the above argument, they never the less supported the rights of the Indians. John Ehle notes that over “six thousand people signed a petition to congress, supporting the Cherokee cause.” The general population was, for the most part, against involuntary removal of the Indians. To set the legal precedence for removal, President Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This act allowed for the voluntary and compensated removal of Indian tribes possessing land in the east to special territories west of the Mississippi River at U.S. government expense.
The Cherokee nation remained defiant of the overwhelming pressure against them and continued to hold their ground as best they could. Eventually however, the tribe split into two distinct groups under this pressure. The majority of the Cherokee tribe followed Chief John Ross who remained committed to remaining on the tribes ancestral lands while a small minority led by John Ridge and Elias Boudinot decided “it would be better to sign a removal treaty and try to salvage something from the wreckage.” It was this minority that signed the Treaty of New Echota. The treaty offered the Cherokee tribe new land in present day Oklahoma and 5 million dollars in exchange for the removal of the tribe to that area. The treaty was received with frustration by the majority of Cherokee who protested that “the treaty signatories lacked authorization.” Even though the treaty was not signed by official representatives of the Cherokee people, and opposed by well-known men such as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, “the U.S. Senate consented to ratification on May 23, 1836.” Since a majority of the Cherokee Indians opposed the treaty, there were many who refused to relocate in accordance with the treaty. Thus, the U.S. Army was called in under General Winfield Scott to forcibly remove them.
The period known as the Trail of Tears period began with the rounding up of the squatting Cherokees, who refused to relocate voluntarily, and their placement in detention camps while they waited to be removed. The actual removal came in the fall and winter of 1838-1839 which led to many deaths along the way. Young sums up the situation effectively when she says that “in 1838, volunteer militia under federal command expelled approximately 16,000 Cherokee from their lands. They rode, walked, sickened, and died along the Trail of Tears.”
In the end, the U.S. government, in compliance with the State of Georgia, did a complete turn away from initially seeking to westernize the Cherokee Nation to advocating and eventually implementing their total removal. Again, Young effectively sums up the situation when she notes that “if, as Jackson’s opponents believed, Cherokee improvement demonstrated the improvability of all Native Americans, and if the president’s policy of Indian removal fatally damaged that progressive Nation, then the Cherokee migrants’ symbolized the tragic destruction by the United States of its own cherished work.” Who can say whether the main motivation for removal was to protect the Indians from the whites or simple greed for land on the part of the whites? At any rate, it is the opinion of the writer that whether or not removal was the right choice, its implementation was incredibly faulty and full of disregard for the rights and humanity of the Cherokee tribe.
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