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Cherokee History

The Turkey Town treaty (1817) was the first formal recognition of the Western Cherokee by the United States. Under its terms, 4,000 Cherokee ceded their lands in Tennessee in exchange for a reservation with the Western Cherokee in northwest Arkansas. With this new immigration during 1818-19, the number of Western Cherokee swelled to over 6,000. However, the Osage continued to object to the Cherokee presence, and the Americans were forced to build Fort Smith (1817) and Fort Gibson (1824) to maintain peace. White settlers of the Arkansas territory were soon demanding the removal of both the Cherokee and Osage. In 1828 the Western Cherokee agreed to exchange their Arkansas lands for a new location in Oklahoma. The boundaries were finally determined in 1833, although it took until 1835 to get the Osage to agree.

Meanwhile, the Cherokee homeland in the east was rapidly being whittled away by American settlement reflected by a series of treaties: Hopewell 1785; Holston 1791; Philadelphia 1794; Tellico 1798, 1804, 1805, and 1806. The final cession of ten million acres in 1806 by Doublehead (Chuquilatague) outraged many of the Cherokee and resulted in his assassination as a traitor by the faction led by Major Ridge (Kahnungdatlageh -"the man who walks the mountain top"). A new, mixed-blood leadership of Ridge and John Ross (Guwisguwi - blue eyes and 1/8 Cherokee) seized control determined not to yield any more of the Cherokee homeland while introducing major cultural changes. With a unity made possible by the departure of the more traditional Cherokee to Arkansas, in less than 30 years the Cherokee underwent the most remarkable adaptation to white culture of any Native American people. By 1817 the clan system of government had been replaced by an elected tribal council. A new capital was established at New Echota in 1825, and a written constitution modeled after that of the United States was added two years later.

Many Cherokee became prosperous farmers with comfortable houses, beautiful cultivated fields, and large herds of livestock. Christian missionaries arrived by invitation, and Sequoia invented an alphabet that gave them a written language and overnight made most of the Cherokee literate. They published a newspaper, established a court system, and built schools. An inventory of Cherokee property in 1826 revealed: 1,560 black slaves. 22,000 cattle, 7,600 horses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 2,488 spinning wheels, 172 wagons, 2,942 plows, 10 sawmills, 31 grist mills, 62 blacksmith shops, 8 cotton machines, 18 schools, and 18 ferries. Although the poor Cherokee still lived in simple log cabins, Chief John Ross had a $10,000 house designed by a Philadelphia architect. In fact, many Cherokee were more prosperous and 'civilized' than their increasingly envious white neighbors.

Although the leadership of the eastern Cherokee steadfastly maintained their independence and land base, they felt it was important to reach an accommodation with the Americans. They refused Tecumseh's requests for Indian unity in 1811, ignored a call for war from the Red Stick Creek in 1813, and then fought as American allies during the Creek War (1813-14). 800 Cherokee under Major Ridge were with Jackson's army at Horseshoe Bend in 1814, and according one account, a Cherokee warrior saved Jackson's life during the battle. If Jackson was grateful, he never allowed it to show. At the Fort Jackson Treaty ending the war (1814), Jackson demanded huge land cessions from both the Cherokee and Creek. As allies, the Cherokee must have been stunned at this treatment, and reluctantly agreed only after a series of four treaties signed during 1816 and 1817.

The Cherokee government afterwards became even more determined not to surrender any more land, but things were moving against them. In 1802 Cherokee land had been promised by the federal government to the state of Georgia which afterwards refused to recognize either the Cherokee Nation or its land claims. By 1822 Georgia was pressing Congress to end Cherokee title within its boundaries. $30,000 was eventually appropriated as payment but refused. Then bribery was attempted but exposed, and the Cherokee responded with a law prescribing death for anyone selling land to whites without permission.

With the election of Jackson as president in 1828, the Cherokee were in serious trouble. Gold was discovered that year on Cherokee land in northern Georgia, and miners swarmed in. Indian removal to west of the Mississippi had been suggested as early as 1802 by Thomas Jefferson and recommended by James Monroe in his final address to Congress in 1825. With Jackson's full support, the Indian Removal Act was introduced in Congress in 1829. There it met serious opposition from Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay who were able to delay passage until 1830. Meanwhile, Jackson refused to enforce the treaties which protected the Cherokee homeland from encroachment. During the two years following his election, Georgia unilaterally extended its laws to Cherokee territory, dividing up Cherokee lands by lottery, and stripping the Cherokee of legal protection. Georgia citizens were free to kill, burn, and steal. With the only alternative a war which would result in annihilation, John Ross decided to fight for his people's rights in the United States courts.

The Cherokee won both cases brought before the Supreme Court: Cherokee Nation vs Georgia (1831) and Worcester vs Georgia(1832), but the legal victories were useless. Jackson's answer: "Justice Marshall has made his decision. Let him enforce it." Without federal interference, Georgia and Tennessee began a reign of terror using arrest, murder and arson against the Cherokee. Ross was arrested, and the offices of the Cherokee Phoenix burned in May, 1834. The mansion of the wealthiest Cherokee, Joseph Vann, was confiscated by the Georgia militia, and the Moravian mission and school was converted into a militia headquarters. When Ross travelled to Washington to protest, Jackson refused to see him. Instead overtures were made to Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and nephew Elias Boudinot (Buck Oowatie), editor of the Phoenix (Cherokee newspaper). The hopelessness of the situation finally convinced these men to sign the Treaty of New Echota (December, 1835) surrendering the Cherokee Nation's homeland in exchange for $5,000,000, seven million acres in Oklahoma, and an agreement to remove within two years.

Known as the Treaty Party (Ridgites), only 350 of 17,000 Cherokee actually endorsed the agreement. Threatened by violence from their own people, they and 2,000 family members quickly gathered their property and left for Oklahoma. The treaty was clearly a fraud, and a petition of protest with 16,000 Cherokee signatures was dispatched to Washington to halt ratification. After violent debate, Jackson succeeded in pushing it through the Senate during May by the margin of a single vote. The Cherokee Nation was doomed. For the next two years, Ross tried every political and legal means to stop the removal, but failed. When the deadline arrived in May, 1838, 7,000 soldiers under General Winfield Scott (virtually the entire American Army) moved into the Cherokee homeland. The Cherokee found that their reward for 'taking the white man¹s road' was to be driven from their homes at gunpoint. It was the beginning of the Nunadautsun't or 'the trail where we cried.' History would call it the Trail of Tears.

Forced to abandon most of their property, the Cherokee were herded into hastily-built stockades at Rattlesnake Springs near Chattanooga. Little thought had been given to these, and in the crowded and unsanitary conditions, measles, whooping cough and dysentery took a terrible toll throughout the summer. After most of the Cherokee had been collected, relocation by boat began in August, but drought had made Tennessee River unusable. At this point Cherokee desperation contributed to the disaster. Not wishing to remain until spring in the lethal conditions at Rattlesnake Springs, Ross petitioned the government to allow the Cherokee to manage their own removal.
Permission was delayed until October. When it finally came, several large groups of Cherokee departed into the face of an approaching winter. They were marched west without adequate shelter, provisions, or food. The soldiers were under orders to move quickly and did little to protect them from whites who attacked and robbed the Cherokee of what little they had left. Two-thirds were trapped in southern Illinois by ice on the Mississippi and forced to remain for a month without shelter or supplies. As many as 4,000, including the wife of John Ross, died enroute. Many had to be left unburied beside the road.

Some Cherokee avoided the removal. Under the provisions of the 1817 and 1819 treaties, 400 Qualia of Chief Yonaguska who lived in North Carolina were United States citizens and owned their land individually. Not members of the Cherokee Nation, they were not subject to removal and allowed to stay. Several hundred Cherokee escaped and hid in the mountains. The army used other Cherokee to hunt them. Tsali and two of his sons were captured and executed after they had killed a soldier trying to capture them. In 1842 the army gave up the effort, and the fugitive Cherokee were allowed to remain in an "unofficial" status. Formal recognition came in 1848 when Congress agreed to recognize the Eastern Cherokee provided North Carolina would do likewise. Currently there are more than 8,000 Eastern Cherokee who living in the mountains of western North Carolina. The Echota Cherokee Tribe in Alabama is another group descended from individual Cherokee landowners protected from removal by the 1817 and 1819 treaties.

At the same time as the Trail of Tears, another group of Cherokee was being forcibly removed to Oklahoma ...from Texas. In 1807, after the Louisiana Purchase, the Spanish government was nervously watching the American expansion towards Texas and requested a number of tribes to resettle in eastern Texas as a buffer against the Americans. The first Cherokee settlement in the region was at Lost Prairie in 1819, and it received a land grant in 1822. After the successful revolt by the Texans in 1835, a treaty confirming the Cherokee title failed ratification in the Texas legislature during 1836 despite the strong support of President Sam Houston. White Texans pressed for the removal, and in July of 1839 three Texas regiments attacked the Cherokee of Chief Bowl and forced them across the Red River into Oklahoma. The irony of the Cherokee situation in Oklahoma in 1839 should not be lost. No matter what course chosen: war, accommodation, surrender, or flight; their fate had been the same.

Of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Creek, Choctaw and Seminole received similar treatment during removal, although the Chickasaw had foreseen what was coming and prepared better. Following removal, all had major problems, but the Cherokee had the most bitter internal divisions. Gathered together for the first time in 50 years, the Cherokee in Oklahoma were ready for civil war during the spring of 1839. 6,000 Western Cherokee (Old Settlers) from Arkansas and Texas had been living there since 1828 and defending themselves from the Osage, Kiowa, Wichita, and Comanche. They had maintained their traditional government of three chiefs without written laws. Suddenly 14,000 Eastern Cherokee (New Settlers) arrived in their midst with an elaborate government, court system, and a written constitution, but the newcomers were bitterly divided between 2,000 Ridgites (Treaty Party) and 12,000 Rossites who had just lost 4,000 of their people on the Trail of Tears.

Violence was not long in coming. On June 22, Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot were murdered. Stand Watie, Boudinot's brother and Major Ridge's nephew, was the only leader of the Treaty Party to escape. The assassinations effectively silenced the Treaty Party, but the hatreds endured. This left only two contending groups: west and east. The Western Cherokee refused to accept any of the new changes, while the more numerous Eastern Cherokee considered themselves superior and would not compromise. The first meeting of these factions failed to reach agreement. At a second meeting, Ross could only obtain the signature of one western chief but proceeded anyway to organize a government. However, the majority of the western Cherokee and the Treaty Party refused to recognize it. For the next six years there was civil war over borders and jurisdiction.

The situation became so bad that Congress proposed dividing the Cherokee into two tribes. This was incentive enough for the Cherokee to set aside their differences and unite under the Cherokee Nation, an accomplishment recognized by treaty with the United States in 1846. The wounds from removal and reunification never healed completely, but the Cherokee adjusted well enough to enjoy what they consider to have been their golden age during the 1850s. On the eve of the Civil War in 1861, the Cherokee Nation was controlled by a wealthy, mixed-blood minority which owned black slaves and favored the South. The vast majority of the Cherokee did not have slaves, lived simple lives and could have cared less about the white man's war, especially the Old Settlers. John Ross leaned towards the South, but mindful of the divisions within the Cherokee, refused the early offers by Albert Pike to join the Confederacy. When Union soldiers withdrew during the summer of 1861, the Confederate army occupied the Indian Territory. The Cherokee Nation voted to secede from the United States in August, 1861, and a formal treaty was signed at the Park Hill home of John Ross between the Cherokee Nation and the new Confederate government. Four years later, this agreement was to cost them very dearly.

Americans are usually surprised to learn that the Civil War was bitterly contested between the Native Americans in Oklahoma. For the Cherokee, it was very much a war of brother against brother. 3,000 Cherokee (usually New Settlers) enlisted in the Confederate army while 1,000(Old Settlers) fought for the Union. In the east 400 North Carolina Cherokee, virtually every able bodied man, served the South. Cherokee Civil War Units included: First Cherokee Mounted Rifles (First Arkansas Cherokee); First Cherokee Mounted Volunteer (Watie's Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Volunteers); Second Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Rifles, Arkansas; First Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Riflemen; First Squadron, Cherokee Mounted Volunteers (Holt's Squadron); Second Cherokee Mounted Volunteers (Second Regiment,Cherokee Mounted Rifles or Riflemen); and Cherokee Regiment(Special Service).

Cherokee units fought at Wilson Creek (1861) and Pea Ridge (1862). There were few large battles in Oklahoma, but these were brutal. In November 1861, a combined force of 1,400 Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Texas cavalry commanded by Colonel Douglas Cooper attacked a refugee column of 4,000 pro-Union Creek trying to reach safety in Kansas. Over 700 refugees were killed during the three day battle before reason took hold. After two assaults against the Creek, the Cherokee refused to participate in a third and withdrew. Meanwhile the Cherokee allegiance to the Confederacy faltered. Following the Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge, John Ross switched sides to the Union. Actually Ross allowed himself to be captured in 1862 and spent the rest of the war in Philadelphia. John Drew's Mounted Rifle regiment also deserted and was reorganized as a regiment in the Union army, but other Cherokee units under Stand Watie remained loyal to the Confederacy.

The fighting in Oklahoma degenerated into the same vicious guerilla warfare that prevailed among the white settlers of Kansas and Missouri. Stand Watie, who became a Confederate general, was a leader of the Treaty Party and personally hated John Ross. After Ross switched in 1862 and went east, Stand Watie was elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in August. He captured the Cherokee capital at Tahlequah and ordered Ross' home burned. The fighting produced hatreds that, added to the earlier differences, endured long after the war was over. Many Oklahoma Indians fled north to escape the fighting. Kansas eventually had more than 7,000 refugees from the Indian Territory which it could not house or feed. Many froze to death or starved. Heavily involved in the fighting throughout the war, the Cherokee Nation lost more than 1/3 of its population. No state, north or south, even came close to this. On June 23, 1865, Stand Watie was the last Confederate general to surrender his command to the United States.

Afterwards, the victorious federal government remembered the services of General Stand Watie to the Confederacy. It also remembered the 1861 vote by the Cherokee legislature to secede from the United States. These provided the excuse to invalidate all previous treaties between the Cherokee and United States. John Ross died in 1866, and in new treaties imposed in 1866 and 1868, large sections of Cherokee lands were taken for railroad construction, white settlement (1889), or the relocation of other tribes. The Cherokee Nation never recovered to the prosperity it had enjoyed before the Civil War. As railroads were built across Cherokee lands, outlaws discovered that the Indian territory, especially the Cherokee Nation, was a sanctuary from federal and state laws. Impoverished by the war, the Cherokee also began to lease lands to white tenant farmers. By 1880, whites outnumbered the Indians in the Indian Territory.

In 1885 a well-intentioned, but ill-informed, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts decided that holding of land in common was delaying the progress of Indians towards "civilization." Forming an alliance with western Congressmen who wish to exploit Indian treaty lands, he secured passage of the General Allotment(Dawes) Act in 1887 which ultimately cost Native Americans 2/3 of their remaining land base. The Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma were exempt from allotment, but came under tremendous pressure to accept it. Until the 1880s, cattle from the Chisholm and Texas trails routinely grazed on the lands of the Cherokee Outlet before going to the Kansas railheads. The Cherokee earned a good income from this enterprise until it was halted without explanation by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1890. It should also be noted that the Oklahoma Territory was organized that same year from the western half of the Indian Territory, and there may have been some connection! After the Cherokee were forced to sell, the land was made available for white settlement.

The Dawes commission attempted to get the Five Tribes to accept allotment in 1893, but they refused. This led to the passage of the Curtis Act (1895) which dissolved tribal governments and forced allotment during 1901. Grafting(swindles) of Indian lands became a massive and unofficially sanctioned form of theft in Oklahoma. Of the original seven million acres granted the Cherokee in the New Echota Treaty, the Cherokee Nation kept less than 1/3 of 1 percent. As compensation, the Cherokee became citizens in 1901 and were finally allowed to vote. An attempt by the Five Tribes to form their own state of Sequoyah in eastern Oklahoma failed in 1905, and the Cherokee Nation was officially dissolved on March 3, 1906. The following year Oklahoma was admitted as the 46th state. The present government of the Cherokee Nation was formed in 1948 after passage of the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act (1934). In 1961 the Cherokee Nation was awarded $15,000,000 by the U.S. Claims Commission for lands of the Cherokee Outlet.

For More Information, Contact:
G. Douglas Cox
P.O. Box 4506
Maryville, TN 37802

865.982.9089 (home)
865-386-6392 (cell)


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