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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark CHEROKEE NATIONAL CAPITOL

Location: Cherokee County, Courthouse Square, Tahlequah.

This structure commemorates the achievements of the Cherokee Indians in overcoming the hardships of removal to Indian Territory from the Southeastern United States, merging their tribal factions into a unified nation, and assuming a prominent position among the Five Civilized Tribes.

Between 1808 and 1817 some 2,000 Cherokees, disturbed by the pressure of settlers, voluntarily moved from the Southeast to a reservation in northwestern Arkansas. In 1817 another group of about 4,000 ceded their lands to the U.S. Government and within 2 years joined their brethren in Arkansas. Removed from much contact with the whites, these Western Cherokees tended to resist change, and their way of life and political institutions remained static. Living a simple agrarian life, they paid little heed to educational and cultural refinements. Governed by three chiefs and a council, they lacked a written constitution and had few written laws. The council met informally several times each year to elect chiefs, councilmen, judges, and policemen.

Cherokee County Courthouse
Cherokee National Capitol, today the Cherokee County Courthouse.(Tahlequah Chamber of Commerce)

Before long the Western Cherokees felt the pressure of the frontier's advance. As the years passed after Arkansas became a Territory in 1819, settlers began to petition Congress for their removal. Finally, in 1828 they agreed with the U.S. Government to exchange their lands in Arkansas for new ones in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Within a year all of them had emigrated.

In contrast to the Western Cherokees, the less isolated Eastern Cherokees, those originally living mostly in Georgia but also in North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee, had an advanced agrarian economy and were more commercially oriented. Some of them were wealthy and influential, owning large tracts of land and numerous slaves. They had produced many outstanding statesmen, literary figures, and educators. Although they retained a principal chief as titular head of their nation, they utilized a bicameral elective legislature and a supreme court. Their codified laws and written constitution were based on those of the United States. Following Sequoyah's invention of the Cherokee syllabary in 1821, most of them learned to read and write; in 1828 the tribe began publishing at its capital of New Echota, Ga., a national newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix.

In 1835 a small group of Eastern Cherokees negotiated in secret a treaty with the U.S. Government illegally ceding all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi and agreeing to move to Indian Territory. Known as the Treaty Party, this group managed to persuade some 2,000 of their tribesmen to emigrate between 1835 and 1838. Remaining behind were about 15,000 people, most of them strongly opposed to removal. In 1838-39 the U.S. Government forced them to march over the "Trail of Tears" to Indian Territory. Many of them died resisting removal or along the way. Only about 11,000 to 13,000 safely reached their destinations.

Cherokee council
John Mix Stanley's on-the-spot painting of the grand Cherokee council of 1843 at Tahlequah, Okla. Attended by thousands of representatives from the Five Civilized Tribes and the Plains Indians, it resolved intertribal differences. (Smithsonian Institution)

Conflicts inevitably arose between the two major Cherokee factions in Indian Territory. The Western Cherokees did not want to share their land, nor did they wish to change their system of government or way of life. The Eastern Cherokees, who felt their political system and culture to be superior and who were far larger in number, refused to compromise. Complicating matters was the hostility of the Treaty Party, which had formed an alliance with the Western Cherokees, toward the eastern group.

The first meeting between the eastern and western factions, in June 1839 at Takattokah (Double Springs), failed dismally. The next month more than 2,000 Cherokees gathered at a campground near Park Hill Mission. On July 12 the Chief of the Eastern Cherokees, John Ross, adopted an Act of Union uniting the two groups, though only one of the three western chiefs signed the act and few of the western braves were present. In September at an other council Ross was able to win enough Western Cherokees over to his side to initiate a government. The conferees elected him as their principal chief and a Western Cherokee as assistant, or second, chief; adopted a constitution based on that of the Eastern Cherokees; and elected governmental officials from both factions. Ross chose the site of Tahlequah as the capital of the United Cherokee Nation. A minority group of Western and Treaty Cherokees remained hostile and refused to acknowledge the new government.

Chief John Ross immediately began to reconcile intertribal and tribal differences. In June 1843 he held a grand council at Tahlequah, in which delegates from a large number of tribes living in or adjacent to Indian Territory participated. Within 30 days the delegates settled major intertribal conflicts and agreed to live peaceably and end devastating border wars. Ross also spent considerable time in Washington trying to gain recognition of his government as the official government of the Cherokee Nation, as well as obtain redress for the grievances of the various factions. In 1846 he was instrumental in the defeat of a congressional bill dividing the Cherokee Nation into two separate nations and in negotiating a treaty with the U.S. Government. Signed by a delegation representing all three factions, it guaranteed the Cherokees, as a unified nation, patent to their land in Indian Territory and compensated all of them for losses of land and property and other in conveniences incurred during the removal.

John Ross
John Ross, father of the United Cherokee Nation. (photo A. Zeno Shindler, Smithsonian Instiution)

This treaty did much to resolve factional differences. From that time on, except during the Civil War, when the tribe once again split into factions, the Cherokee Nation prospered. Other tribes especially the Creeks, often called upon it to participate in intertribal councils and to make major policy decisions affecting the lives of all Indians in Indian Territory. Because of their printing facilities, the Cherokees were also often the spokesmen for the other tribes.

For 4 years after Tahlequah became the permanent Cherokee capital in 1839, it was merely a campground where delegates met to conduct governmental business. In 1843, however, the tribe platted the town and built three log cabins for governmental purposes. In 1845, on the southeastern corner of the town square, a two-story brick building was erected for the supreme court. Fire razed it in 1874, but it was rebuilt, utilizing the surviving walls. The Supreme Court Building housed the printing press of the Cherokee Advocate, official publication of the Cherokee Nation and the first newspaper in Oklahoma. The Capitol, a two-story brick structure completed in 1869, occupied the center of the town square. It accommodated executive and legislative offices until 1906, the year before Oklahoma became a State, when the Five Civilized Tribes began abolishing their tribal governments in accordance with the Curtis Act (1898).

The Cherokee Capitol serves today as the county courthouse of Cherokee County. Although the interior has been altered, the exterior retains its 1869 appearance and the building is in good condition. The Supreme Court Building serves as an office building.

NHL Designation: 07/04/61

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005