The year 1828 was a major turning point for the Cherokee people and the preservation of Cherokee culture. It was the year that Andrew Jackson was elected president of the United States. President George Washington had initiated an almost forty year era of peace between the United States and the Cherokee Nation. In that short time, the Cherokee people had generally adopted the acculturation programs of Washington and had moved rapidly toward adopting the Euro-American way of life.
Using Moravian mission schools, and missionary colleges, the youth of the Cherokee were acquiring sophisticated educations [Preserving the Culture: Elias Boudinot]. Many Cherokee were becoming large cotton plantation owners; women were learning European-style weaving and sewing; in 1821 Sequoyah completed his independent creation of a Cherokee syllabary, making reading and writing in Cherokee possible. This was the only time in recorded history that a member of a pre-literate people independently created an effective writing system. In 1825, they established a capital New Echota (near present-day Calhoun, Georgia) and led by principal Chief John Ross and speaker of the Cherokee National Council, Major Ridge, they adopted a written constitution on 26 July 1827, declaring the Cherokee Nation to be a sovereign and independent nation. At this point, Elias Boudinot was editor of the Cherokee National newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, which was published in Cherokee and English, and dedicated to showcasing Cherokee achievements as well as to building unity within the Nation and the United States.
But part of the Cherokee Nation overlapped the state of Georgia and by the early 1800’s, advancing cotton plantations and rampant immigration was putting pressure on the coveted lands of the Cherokee. Andrew Jackson, a large land developer before becoming president, and the State of Georgia had fought against the “acculturation” programs of Washington favoring removal of the “savages” and acquisition of their lands. In 1802, the state of Georgia signed a “compact” with the United States that relinquished to the national government its western land claims (which became the states of Alabama and Mississippi). In exchange, the national government promised to eventually conduct treaties to relocate those Indian tribes living within Georgia to give Georgia control of all land within its borders.
With the election of Andrew Jackson to president, the idea of relocation was given support at the highest level. Coincidently, gold was discovered on Cherokee lands in Georgia which brought on the first U. S. gold rush of 1828. When Georgia moved to extend state laws over Cherokee tribal lands in 1830, the Cherokee Nation took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, the Marshall court ruled that the Cherokee were not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore refused to hear the case. In the same year, the U. S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, giving Jackson authority to negotiate removal treaties that would exchange Indian land in the East for land west of the Mississippi River.
But two years later, in Worcester v. State of Georgia (1832), the Court ruled that Georgia could not impose laws in Cherokee territory, since only the national government — not state governments — had authority in Indian affairs. This did not stop Andrew Jackson who blustered, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”
When Jackson won a landslide re-election in 1832, many in the Cherokee Nation saw it as a sign that relocation was inevitable. Four of the most prominent citizens of the Cherokee Nation, Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and nephews Elias Boudinot and Stand Watie, formed what came to be known as the “Ridge Party”, or the “Treaty Party”. They believed that it was in the best interest of the Cherokee to get favorable terms from the U.S. government before the white squatters, Georgia, Jackson and violence made matters worse. John Ridge began unauthorized talks with the Jackson administration while the state of Georgia arrogantly began holding lotteries in order to divide up the Cherokee tribal lands among white Georgians.
But the overwhelming majority of the Cherokee people were adamantly opposed to removal. Led by the duly elected Principal Chief, John Ross, the majority faction, known as the National Party, tried to stop the Treaty Party from negotiating with the Jackson administration. The Treaty Party formed set themselves up as the representatives of the Cherokee people and appointed William A. Hicks, as their Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. In 1835, Jackson appointed Reverend John F. Schermerhorn as a treaty commissioner who presented a proposal to pay the Cherokee Nation $4.5 million and other considerations to remove themselves. These terms were rejected in October 1835 by the Cherokee Nation Council meeting at Red Clay.
Schermerhorn then organized a meeting with the pro-removal (Treaty Party) council members at New Echota, Georgia. Only five hundred Cherokee attended to sign “The Treaty of New Echota”. The following letter to the Secretary of War by Major W. M. Davis, who was appointed to enroll the Cherokee for removal, describes the contempt the Cherokee people had for the treaty:
“I conceive that my duty to the President, to yourself, and to my country reluctantly compels me to make a statement of facts in relation to a meeting of a small number of Cherokees at New Echota last December, who were met by Mr. Schermerhorn and articles of a general treaty entered into between them for the whole Cherokee nation . . . Sir, that paper, . . . called a treaty, is not treaty at all, because [it is] not sanctioned by the great body of the Cherokee and made without their participation or assent. I solemnly declare to you that upon its reference to the Cherokee people it would be instantly rejected by nine-tenths of them, and I believe by nineteen-twentieths of them. There were not present at the conclusion of the treaty more than one hundred Cherokee voters, and not more than three hundred including women and children, although the weather was everything that could be desired. The Indians had long been notified of the meeting and blankets were promised to all who would come and vote for the treaty. The most cunning and artful means were resorted to to conceal the paucity of numbers present at the treaty. No enumeration of them was made by Shermerhorn. The business of making the treaty was transacted with a committee appointed by the Indians present, so as not to expose their numbers. The power of attorney under which the committee acted was signed only by the president and secretary of the meeting, so as not to disclose their weakness. . . . Mr. Schermerhorn’s apparent design was to conceal the real number present and to impose on the public and the government upon this point. The delegation taken to Washington by Mr. Schermerhorn had no more authority to make a treaty than any other dozen Cherokee accidentally picked up for the purpose. I now warn you and the President that if this paper of Schermerhorn’s called a treaty is sent to the Senate and ratified you will bring trouble upon the government and eventually destroy this [the Cherokee] nation. The Cherokee are a peaceable, harmless people, but you may drive them to desperation, and this treaty can not be carried into effect except by the strong arm of forces.” (quoted from James Moody)
The Cherokee National Council and principal Chief Ross immediately declared the document a fraud, but despite their protests, Congress narrowly ratified the treaty on May 23, 1836, by just one vote.