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The Removal of the Cherokees

After England’s acceptance of the terms of the peace made with France and Spain in 1763, in which France gave Louisiana to Spain, the grants formerly made to the six English colonies were considered good only to the Mississippi River. During the American Revolution and soon there after these former colonies were considered good only to the Mississippi River. During the American Revolution and soon thereafter these former colonies, now states of the Union, ceded their unoccupied western lands to the government of the United States, thereby establishing the so-called public domain.

Of these states, the last to cede its western lands was Georgia, which in 1802 surrendered all claim to land included in the present states of Alabama and Mississippi. This cession was made by what was known as the Georgia Compact. It also provided that the United States should at its own expense extinguish for the use of Georgia the Indian title to all lands within the state as soon as it could be done peaceably and upon reasonable terms.

The purchase of Louisiana the following year placed the United States in possession of a large amount of territory It seemed reasonable, at least to the white man, that these Georgia Indians, mainly the Cherokees and Creeks, might be induced to move. One reason given by President Jefferson for this purchase was that it would make a suitable area for a new home for large tribes east of the Mississippi owning fertile lands needed for settlement by the whites. Years earlier some parties of Cherokees had crossed the Mississippi and had gone into what is now northwestern Arkansas because of the abundance of game in that region.

Some of them had settled there more or less permanently, and from time to time others came out to join them. President Jefferson believed that others, or perhaps the entire tribe, might be induced to migrate to the West. The year following the treaty for the purchase of Louisiana he instructed officials of the United States government residing in the Cherokee Nation to approach the chiefs and head men of the tribe with the suggestion that the Cherokees exchange their lands in Georgia for others beyond the Mississippi.

The officials reported to the President, however, that the Indians showed no sympathy with the proposal and had expressed themselves as determined to retain their lands and remain in the east. Yet the suggestion had apparently not fallen upon altogether deaf ears; or perhaps the fact that a number of Cherokees were already living beyond the Mississippi as squatters upon land to which they had no title also had its effect.

At any rate, in 1808 a small party of Cherokees appeared in Washington and called to see the President. They explained to him that many whites had settled along the borders of their country; that, as a result, game was growing scarce; and that, moreover, the livestock of these settlers trespassed upon their fields and caused the Indians much trouble and annoyance. At times, too, lawless white men preyed upon their people, sold them liquor, and often stole their horses and cattle.

Under such circumstances the Indians were at a loss as to what they should do. Some thought that it would be better to give up their lands in Georgia and remove to the West where there was an abundance of game, and there, remote from the influence of the whites, to continue to live as their forefathers had in the past. Others believed it would be better to remain where they were, learn more of the white civilization and ways of life, and come ultimately to accept them as their own.

Since the two groups could not agree, they asked President Jefferson to send surveyors to their country to establish a line separating the land of those who wished to remain from that of others who wanted to go, and to give to the latter in exchange for the lands they would cede in the East a new country beyond the Mississippi. Jefferson replied that it should be as they wished; he instructed them to return to their homes and send an exploring party to the West to look for a new home.

When they had found lands suited to their needs, he would by treaty grant them this country, giving them “acre for acre as much land as they gave up in the East”. He would also pay them for any improvements which they might abandon, and would assist them to move by providing subsistence for the journey and a year’s supply of provisions after the new home had been reached in order that they might not be reduced to want before crops could be grown and harvested.

President Jefferson went out of office, the following March, and the growing difficulties between the United States and Europe, culminating in 1812 with the outbreak of the second war with Great Britain, served to delay the Cherokee affairs. Because of this the first Cherokee treaty of removal was not signed until 1817. By this treaty the Cherokees surrendered nearly one third of their land in the East in exchange for a new grant between the Arkansas and White rivers in what is now the northwestern part of Arkansas.

By this time many Cherokees were already living in this area, and a great many more migrated westward under the terms of this treaty. In this way the Cherokee Nation became divided into two parts. Those residing in Arkansas, called the Cherokee West, numbered seven to eight thousand, and those still remaining east of the Mississippi, sometimes referred to as the Cherokee East, numbered about twice that number or slightly more.

Accordingly, in 1828 the Cherokee West signed a treaty with the United States by which they agreed to give up their lands in Arkansas in exchange for a new grant of seven million acres farther west in what is now Oklahoma. The Indians where being pushed even farther west. The Cherokees realized only too well that only by the most desperate exertions could they hope to retain the land they loved and had occupied so long.

Feeling that their living under a tribal form of government might be urged as a reason for forcing them to leave Georgia, they determined to adopt a written constitution and code of laws. In 1826 the Cherokee National Council called an election to be held the following year to choose delegates to a constitutional convention for the purpose of forming a fundamental law. This convention met in the summer of 1827, and framed a constitution remodeled on that of the United States.

It provided for a principal chief, in whom the executive powers were to be vested, a second chief, a legislative body of two houses called the national council, a supreme court, inferior courts, and local officials. All lands were to be held in common, though any improvements were the property of the one who had made them. White persons who married Cherokees thereby became citizens, but were denied the right to hold office. The constitution was ratified by the Cherokee people at an election held for that purpose, and at the same time officers were chosen for the new government.

To the surprise of the Cherokees, the adoption of this new form of government was urged by Georgia as an additional reason for removing them from its limits. The attention of the President of the United States was called to section of the Federal Constitution which declares that no state shall be formed within the limits of another state without the consent of the latter as well as of Congress. It was asserted that the Cherokees had, in adopting a constitution, sought to form a new state within the limits of Georgia.

The President promptly asked Congress to provide for an investigation of this purported Indian state and for “arresting its designs”. The first Cherokee principal chief chosen under the terms of the new constitution was William Hicks, the brother of the beloved Chief Charles Hicks, who had authored the constatution but had died in January of 1827. William served but a short time, and in 1828 he was succeeded by John Ross who had been a protege of Charles Hicks for several years.

Ross was only one eighth Cherokee and the rest Scottish, but he had been born and reared among the Cherokees, to whom he was deeply devoted. Well educated, with a keep mind and rare ability as a statesman, he served almost continuously as principal chief until his death nearly forty years later. During all these years he wielded a powerful influence in the affairs of the tribe; his life story during this long period is virtually a history of the Cherokee people.

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