“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
Jefferson was referring to slavery when he said those words, but they are certainly apropos to that other stain on our nation’s history—the Indian Removal of 1838. To fully understand the scope of this travesty of justice, one must keep in mind the historical context.
From George Washington onward, presidents were confronted with the problem of how to coexist with the Indians living within the borders established by the newly formed United States. Washington implemented an acculturation process to educate Native Americans with the intent of making them future citizens. He sent missionaries and teachers who brought them, among other things, the Gospel and the English language.
Thomas Jefferson’s Indian policy was also benign. He respected the Indians’ rights to their eastern homelands and indeed, the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeast—the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—became well established as autonomous nations within the U.S. And for a time, U.S. law protected Indian lands from white settlement.
And Jefferson continued Washington’s assimilation policy. One tenet was to encourage Native Americans to leave behind their hunter-gatherer society for an agricultural one. This would help them fit into the dominant society, but was also a shrewd decision that benefited whites. After all, a farmer required much less land than a hunter-gatherer, thus freeing up acres for white settlers.
Throughout the years of his administration, Jefferson met many times with Indian delegations. They were treated with honor, given clothes, gifts, and parties, just like any visit from foreign dignitaries. Jefferson even took the time to personally educate one Cherokee delegation on the system of government he had recently helped create for the infant United States:
He then gave the delegates a succinct explanation of the American system of representative government, and suggested that each Cherokee town, along with the surrounding countryside, elect delegates to a central council by means of a majority vote.
And the Cherokee followed his suggestions, jettisoning their age-old blood feud laws for a constitutional form of government very similar to that of the United States, including a court system to enforce the laws. In other words, they made the conscious decision to become “civilized.” (a term that held no negative connotation for them) While they embraced civilization, they did not intend to be assimilated as American citizens. This would become the sticking point in later years.
Perhaps it was because of this that Jefferson, although continuing the acculturation policy, also considered the idea of Indian removal. When he proposed the 1803 Lewis and Clark Expedition to the lands beyond the United States’ western boundary, he gave as one reason the possible eventual removal of all Indians east of the Mississippi River.
Jefferson’s glimmer of an idea came to fruition with President Andrew Jackson’s administration. I learned new things about Jackson during my research, and surprisingly enough, came away hating him less than I had previously. Don’t get me wrong. I still hate Jackson, but I found that things were more complicated than I first imagined.
First of all, from Jackson’s perspective, it was a violation of the Constitution for the tribes to have autonomous self-rule within the sovereign states in which they resided. And Georgia had been protesting their status for years. Keep in mind, that before the Civil War, states’ rights were paramount. Jackson declared that if the Indians insisted on having their own jurisdictions, they could only do so on federal, not state, lands—that is, the lands west of the Mississippi River.
And secondly, I learned that, contrary to my simplistic understanding, Jackson didn’t just send soldiers unannounced to force the Cherokee at gunpoint to start marching down the trail. He paid tribal leaders for the land (albeit outrageously low prices) and developed a systematic plan for the Removal that included transportation by flatboat, supplies for the journey, and a $100 stipend for each head of household to help until the families were established in their new homes. He couldn’t have known that so much would go so terribly wrong. See The Trail Where They Cried (But surely we, with 185 years of hindsight since then, know about the unintended consequences of grandiose government-run social programs, right?)
The Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress on May 28, 1830, authorizing President Jackson to negotiate with the Indians for their eastern homelands. You can read more about the law here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Removal_Act
The savvy Cherokee with the help of a friendly white lawyer took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court, led by Justice John Marshall, ruled that the Indians were not subject to state law, and thus Jackson’s Indian Removal Act was illegal. Many added their voices to Marshall’s—from the homespun Davy Crockett and Abraham Lincoln to the elegant Henry Clay, Lyman Beecher and others, including Senator Edward Everett, who spoke with pointed irony:
Here, at the center of the nation, beneath the portals of the Capitol, let us solemnly auspicicate the new era of violated promises, and tarnished faith. Let us kindle a grand council-fir, not of treaties made and ratified, but treaties annulled and broken.
But Andrew Jackson proceeded in spite of their appeals and the Supreme Court’s decision, because he knew he could get away with it. He earned the name nickname King Andrew in the process.
The negotiations between the government and the Indians went on for months. Some not-so “Noble Savages” took under-the-table bribes that fattened their own wallets while selling their tribal homelands at bargain prices. Principle Chief John Ross refused to listen to any talk of selling their lands, citing the Supreme Court’s decision. He reassured the people that they would not have to leave. John Ridge, another chief revered among the Cherokee concurred with Ross. He had long counseled the people not to listen to the government agents who came around trying to buy their lands.
John Ridge was an eloquent orator, and Chief Ross chose him to lead the delegation to Washington. He spent months there doing everything he could to stop the Removal. Eventually however, Ridge reached the conclusion that failure was inevitable. Jackson would not be satisfied until every last Indian was removed from the eastern lands. And the negotiations for land prices were going from bad to worse. Ridge came home to try to convince the people to take the deal while there still was one on the table, or they would end up with nothing for their land and exterminated in the process:
I know the Indians have an older title than theirs. We obtained the land from the living God above. They got their title from the British. Yet they are strong and we are weak. We are few, they are many. We cannot remain here in safety and comfort. I know we love the graves of our fathers. We can never forget these homes, I know, but an unbending, iron necessity tells us we must leave them. I would willingly die to preserve them, but any forcible effort to keep them will cost us our lands, our lives and the lies of our children. There is but one path of safety, one road to future existence as a Nation. That path is open before you. Make a treaty of cessation. Give up these lands and go over beyond the great Father of Waters.
—Chief John Ridge
John Ross refused to listen, holding on to hope that he could reason with Jackson. Fearing his nation’s extinction, Chief Ridge did an end-run around Ross and reached a settlement with Washington on behalf of the Cherokee even though he wasn’t the principle chief. He signed the Treaty of Echota at midnight on December 29, 1835, reportedly saying that in doing so he was signing his own death warrant.
While John Ross remained in Washington still pleading his case. John Ridge and those of his so-called Treaty Party sold their possessions, settled their affairs, and went safely and expeditiously to the Oklahoma Country.
But the vast majority of Cherokee, believing John Ross when he told them they wouldn’t have to leave, stayed put in Georgia and North Carolina. So when Jackson’s May 1838 deadline arrived, and the soldiers came to carry out the Removal, thousands of Cherokee were unprepared to make the journey. Many were forced out of their homes, their only possessions the clothes they happened to be wearing. For them it truly was a Trail of Tears.
John Ridge was assassinated shortly after he arrived in Oklahoma. He is considered a traitor to this day. and not mentioned anywhere (that I could find) on the official Cherokee website.
This is just a brief summary of events, but you can read much, much more about the politics of the Removal in the following sources.
Cherokee Tragedy: the Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People by Thurman Wilkins. University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
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