• Rifle Regiment arriving at Belle Point, 1817. Artwork by Michael Haynes

    Fort Smith

    National Historic Site AR,OK

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Cherokee Relations with US Government Before Removal

"It is evident that the Gov'mt is determined to move us at all hazzards and it only remains for us to do the best we can." - Lewis Ross to his brother, Principal Chief John Ross; April 12, 1838

Early Treaties and Emigration to Arkansas Territory

Beginning in 1791 a series of treaties between the United States and the Cherokees living in Georgia gave recognition to the Cherokee as a nation with their own laws and customs. Nevertheless, treaties and agreements gradually whittled away at their land base, and in the late 1700s some Cherokees sought refuge from white interference by moving to land between the White and Arkansas Rivers (present day northwest Arkansas). As more and more land cessions were forced on the Cherokees during the first two decades of the 1800s, the number moving to Arkansas increased. Then in 1819, the Cherokee National Council notified the federal government that it would no longer cede land, thus hardening their resolve to remain on their traditional homelands.

States' Rights Issue

The Cherokee situation was further complicated by the issue of states' rights and a prolonged dispute between Georgia and the federal government. In 1802, Georgia was the last of the original colonies to cede its western lands to the federal government. In doing so, Georgia expected all titles to land held by Indians to be extinguished. However, that did not happen, and the Cherokees continued to occupy their ancestral homelands, which had been guaranteed to them by treaty.

Georgia residents resented the Cherokees' success in holding onto their tribal lands and governing themselves. Settlers continued to encroach on Cherokee lands, as well as those belonging to the neighboring Muscogee (Creek) Indians. In 1828, Georgia passed a law pronouncing all laws of the Cherokee Nation to be null and void after June 1, 1830, forcing the issue of states' rights with the federal government. Because the state no longer recognized the rights of the Cherokees, tribal meetings had to be held just across the state line at Red Clay, Tennessee.

When gold was discovered on Cherokee land in northern Georgia in 1829, efforts to dislodge the Cherokee from their lands were intensified. At the same time President Andrew Jackson began to aggressively implement a broad policy of extinguishing Indian land titles in affected states and relocating the Indian population.

Supreme Court Cases

In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which directed the executive branch to negotiate for Indian lands. This act, in combination with the discovery of gold and an increasingly untenable position within the state of Georgia, prompted the Cherokee Nation to bring suit in the U.S. Supreme Court. In United States v. Georgia (1831) Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the majority, held that the Cherokee nation was a "domestic dependent nation," and therefore Georgia state law applied to them.

That decision, however, was reversed the following year in Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Under an 1830 law Georgia required all white residents in Cherokee country to secure a license from the governor and to take an oath of allegiance to the state. Missionaries Samuel A. Worcester and Elizur Butler refused and were convicted and imprisoned. Worcester appealed to the Supreme Court. This time the court sided with the Cherokees and ruled that Indian nations are capable of making treaties, that under the Constitution treaties are the supreme law of the land, that the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation, and that state law had no force within the Cherokee boundaries. Georgia simply ignored the ruling and the federal government (judicial and executive branches) did nothing to enforce it. The Supreme Court opted not to require federal marshals to carry out its decision while President Jackson, who sided with Georgia, refused to act as well.

Treaty of New Echota (1835)

The State of Georgia continued to press for Indian lands, and a dissident group of Cherokees known as the Ridge Party began negotiating a treaty with the federal government. The group, led by Major Ridge and including his son John, Elias Boudinot, and his brother Stand Watie, signed a treaty at New Echota in 1835. Despite the majority opposition to this treaty, opposition that was led by Principal Chief John Ross, the eastern lands were to be sold for $4.5 million, and the Cherokees would be moved beyond the Mississippi River to Indian Territory. The Senate ratified the treaty despite knowledge that no official representative of the Cherokee Nation signed it. Ross gathered a petition of over 15,000 signatures asking Congress to void the treaty. The petition was ignored and within two years the Cherokees were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands.

Did You Know?

Trail of Tears Routes

The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, (Muscogee) Creek and Seminole Indian tribes were forcibly moved to Indian Territory on what became known as the Trail of Tears. The Arkansas River served as a water route to Fort Smith where they received supplies before crossing the river into Indian Territory.