The Cherokee are probably the most misunderstood of all the 500 tribes in the U.S. Not only has the name been stolen and used for marketing of everything from automobiles to clothing lines, but people who have never set foot on American soil create fraudulent tribes around the world. As a person with Cherokee heritage it’s important that you understand something of the past and future of this indigenous people.
There are more twists and surprises in the history of the historical Cherokee Nation than could be included in any literary novel. As with most Native tribes it is a story filled with tragedy, deception and the strength for survival. Here we will focus on some of the key reasons this story is important to you and your family.
In the early days of the European invasion, the Cherokee had no concept of race. Men from Barbados who came to the Carolinas began to send out caravans of raiders to collect Native people, sell them at auction, and put on to slave ships to New England and the West Indies. Native American nations throughout the South were armed and played one against the other to achieve the ambitions of the European invaders. As Britain and France battled overseas, and with the colonies, attempts were made to gain the Cherokee as allies and to obtain land from them. Con artists such as Sir Alexander Cumming went to great lengths, even taking some tribal members to meet King George for their own gain. They embroiled the Cherokee in their disputes and began to establish forts that would later be used in strategies to garner land from the tribes. Richard Henderson, a friend of Daniel Boone managed to get most of what is now Kentucky from the Cherokee under pretext, then use it for his own enrichment. At the same time, European diseases decimated the tribe. In one epidemic alone smallpox killed nearly half of the Cherokee population.
After the American revolution the Cherokee were soon force to begin changing their way of life. Most of their hunting grounds were gone and they were being continually pushed to surrender more lands. They began to centralize their government. In 1821 Sequoyah had completed his way of writing the Cherokee language and by 1825 it was adopted by the tribe. The next year, the Cherokee National Council commissioned the printing of eight copies of the laws of the Cherokee Nation in the new Cherokee language.
Throughout this time traders were intermarrying with Cherokee women, and some women of the European invaders were taken as wives by the Cherokee. The result of one of these unions was John Ross, who though only a thin-blood Cherokee would become an strong advocate in Washington and eventually principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. He became president of the Cherokee National Council in 1817 and dealt with the Washington to prevent them from forcing the Cherokee to move west. After chiefs Pathkiller and Charles Hicks died in the same year, Ross soon became principle Chief in 1828.
Pressure from the whites for the tribe to move west, including gold discovered in Georgia put great pressure on the tribe. It split between those willing to go west and get away from the whites and those who wanted to stand their ground and stay. A warrior named Major Ridge who had led the Cherokee in alliances with General Andrew Jackson led those who wanted to move west. This was known as the “Ridge party”.
Missionaries had begun creating schools, baptizing Cherokee and giving them English names. For example, Chief Charles Renatus (born again) Hicks. In 1828 with the help of Rev. Samuel Worcester, the Cherokee printed their own newspaper in English and Cherokee called the Cherokee Phoenix.
In the fall of 1835, a very important census was taken of Cherokees residing in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. In October of that year, Principal Chief John Ross and an Eastern visitor, John Howard Payne, were kidnapped from Ross’ Tennessee home by a group of Georgia militia. Released, Ross and a delegation of tribal leaders traveled to Washington, DC to protest this high-handed action, and to lobby against the removal policy of President Andrew Jackson. Indian Agent John F. Schermerhorn took advantage of his absence and gathered a group of Cherokee who were in favor of moving west in the home of Elias Boudinot at the tribal capitol, New Echota, Georgia. There on December 29, 1835, this group signed the unauthorized Treaty of New Echota, which exchanged Cherokee land in the East for lands west of the Mississippi River in Indian Territory. This agreement was never accepted by the majority of Cherokee people. In February 1836, at Red Clay, Tennessee lists of Cherokees opposed to the treat were dispatched to Washington, DC and presented by Chief Ross to Congress. Nevertheless, the sell-out treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate by a single vote on May 23, 1836, and signed into law by President Jackson. That “treaty” gave the Cherokee until May 1838 for the tribe to voluntarily remove themselves to Indian Territory.
During the next two years before the deadline a great number of Cherokee moved west voluntarily. Some were “treaty party” members while others went because to avoid the inevitable. These are now known as the “early settlers”. Even though they went semi-voluntarily, they still faced incredible difficulties and many died along the way.
The new president Van Buren assigned General Winfield Scott to head the forcible removal operation in 1838. He arrived at New Echota on May 17, 1838, in command of U.S. Army and state militia totalling about 7,000 soldiers. They began rounding up Cherokees in Georgia on May 26, 1838; ten days later, operations began in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. Men, women, and children were removed at gunpoint from their homes over three weeks and gathered together in concentration camps, often with very few of their possessions.
The Cherokees were then marched overland to departure points at Ross’s Landing (Chattanooga, Tennessee) and Gunter’s Landing (Guntersville, Alabama) on the Tennessee River. It proved to be a such a fiasco of death and desertions that General Scott ordered suspension of further removal efforts. Chief Ross, finally accepting defeat, managed to have the remainder of the removal turned over to the supervision of the Cherokee Council. He organized 12 wagon trains, each with about 1000 persons and conducted by veteran full-blood tribal leaders or educated mixed bloods. This part of the removal is now known as the “Trail of Tears”.