The alienation and removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands was long in the making. White encroachment was an old problem for the Cherokee, but the sovereign right of the Cherokee over their lands had never been more compromised than it was in the 1830s. With Andrew Jackson’s election as President in 1828 and the discovery of gold on Cherokee land that same year, a tide had turned. President Jackson’s popularity and subsequent election were largely attributed to his pro-Indian removal platform, and once in power he began to allow whites to move onto Cherokee land. He also allowed Georgia to extend state law to include the Cherokee Nation. This called into question Cherokee sovereignty and declared their government and laws void.
In 1830, Jackson pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress and signed it into law. In theory, the Indian Removal Act was intended to encourage voluntary removal of Indian tribes to an area designated as Indian Territory. In order for removal to happen, the U.S. government would have to negotiate a treaty with each tribe. The vast majority of the Cherokee Nation, including then Principle Chief John Ross, had no intention of signing any treaty which would remove them from their land. However, some Cherokee who saw no way to stem the tide of settlement considered a voluntary removal to be the best option for the Cherokee people.
John Ridge, a tribal council member, organized a group of Cherokee who wanted to negotiate a treaty with the U.S. government. He recruited several members of his prominent family who supported this same cause including his father, Major Ridge, also a member of the tribal council, as well as his cousins Elias Boudinot, editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, and Boudinot’s brother Stand Watie. This group and their supporters became known as the Treaty Party. Their opposition was the National Party which was led by Chief John Ross and was fighting to reestablish tribal sovereignty with several cases brought to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The issue of removal so divided the Cherokee Nation that family members often found themselves on opposing sides — the Chief’s own brother, Andrew Ross, supported establishing treaty negotiations. In December of 1835, after several years of disagreement over the issue, about 400 members of the Treaty Party met in the Cherokee capital, New Echota, and agreed unanimously to the terms of a treaty as negotiated with the U.S. envoy to President Jackson. The negotiating committee of twenty signed the Treaty of New Echota and the document was presented to the U.S. government.
The Cherokee National party argued that the Treaty was invalid as it was not approved by the Cherokee Tribal Council. The U.S. Senate, however, did deem it valid and ratified the treaty in May of 1836, giving the Cherokee two years to voluntarily remove themselves west. The Treaty Party members emigrated west to Indian Territory, but the majority of the Cherokee remained east, not believing that the Treaty was valid or that they would be forced west when Jackson’s deadline for voluntary removal passed. In 1838, John Ross carried a petition to the U.S. Congress with the signatures of almost 16,000 Cherokees all opposing removal and calling into question the legitimacy of the Treaty, but then President Martin Van Buren ignored the petition. In May of 1838, the U.S. Army, led by General Winfield Scott, entered the Cherokee Nation, rounded up the Cherokee people and began the forced removal west to Indian Territory. This awful event would become known as the Trail of Tears, and it is estimated that some 16,000 Cherokees started the journey and about 4,000 were lost along the way. Many Cherokee suffered and died from disease, starvation, and the cold. One of those lost was Chief Ross’ wife, Quatie.
By March 1839 the Trail of Tears had concluded and the removed Cherokee found themselves in Indian Territory with their government, culture, and people in shambles. Issues arose once again between the Treaty Party and Old Settlers versus the newly-arrived Cherokee as to how to reunite the Cherokee factions and reestablish leadership roles and government organization. To exacerbate the tension, some newly-arrived Cherokee felt that retribution was in order for the suffering of those forced west by an illegal Treaty.
When Major Ridge signed the Treaty of New Echota, he was quoted as having said, “I have just signed my death warrant.” He was right. At the same time that the tribe as a whole was trying to reunite and heal the divide between the tribal factions, some National Party members organized a group of assassins to target several members of the Treaty Party leadership. They justified this by reasoning that they were enforcing a Cherokee law, ironically written by Major Ridge, which prescribed a death sentence for any Cherokee who ceded national land for profit.
On June 22, 1839, Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot were all killed. Stand Watie was also targeted for assassination, but he escaped. These killings served to intimidate political rivals of the newly-arrived Cherokee and sparked off hostilities which would continue until 1846 when the U.S. government forced the factions to sign the Treaty of Washington, a unity treaty. However, the hostilities would be reignited with the American Civil War, when Stand Watie and Chief John Ross would again find themselves on opposing sides of the tribal divide.
Today, it might be tempting to pass judgement on one side or the other, to assign contemporary values to the choices each side made. But imagine what it must have been like for the Cherokee leaders having to decide what course of action to take — voluntarily leave your ancestral homeland, or fight to remain despite a rising tide of invaders and U.S. government action to delegitimize your tribal sovereignty. The Cherokee of the 1830s were forced to make impossible decisions, decisions which affected many lives and changed the course of Cherokee history. What would you have done, were you in their place?