"You cannot remain where you are now": Cherokee Resistance and Relocation in the 1830s

In the centuries that followed Christopher Columbus landing in the Caribbean, Europeans and European-Americans slowly but steadily took control of the land already home to indigenous Americans. Cherokee Indian lands in the 1800s were no exception. The United States used violence and coercion through treaties to acquire land in the south-eastern United States, especially in the state of Georgia. Eventually, the Cherokee, along with the other American Indian Tribes, were forced to move west in migrations known as the "Trail of Tears."

The Cherokees might have been able to hold out against American settlers for a long time. But two circumstances combined to severely limit the possibility of staying put. in 1828 Andrew Jackson became president of the United States. In 1830- the same year the Indian Removal Act was passed- gold was found on Cherokee lands. There was no holding back the tide of Georgians, Carolinians, Virginians, and Alabamians seeking instant wealth. Georgia held lotteries to give Cherokee land and gold rights to white prospectors. The state had already declared all laws of the Cherokee Nation null and void after June 1, 1830, and also prohibited Cherokees from conducting tribal business, contracting, testifying against U.S. citizens in court, or mining for gold. Cherokee leaders successfully challenged Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court, but President Jackson refused to enforce the Court's decision.

The Jackson Administration was hostile to indigenous sovereignty. In 1830, the U.S. Federal government passed the Indian Removal Act. This Act gave the president authority to make treaties with the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw Nations. Its purpose was to move these entire societies from their land in the southeast to land west of the Mississippi River. Americans and the United States could then move to claim the land.

The Cherokee were the last to move voluntarily. Many Cherokee wanted to stay on their land and spoke openly at their Council meetings about resisting the U.S. government and the Americans. Other Cherokee felt that it was futile to fight any longer. Pressure grew as other American Indian societies moved west under the Indian Removal Act. By the early 1830s, a Cherokee man called Major Ridge, decided the American invasion into Cherokee lands was so severe, that moving was the only way to survive as a nation. He spoke out as well.

Major Ridge was a wealthy Cherokee leader who had embraced white culture, owned slaves, and managed a plantation on Cherokee land that is now part of Rome, Georgia. Major Ridge led Cherokee in a military alliance with Andrew Jackson against the Creek and British during the War of 1812. Years later, he allied with Jackson again. Major Ridge believed a new treaty would at least pay the Cherokee for their land before they lost everything by force. Major Ridge lived his Cherokee culture through its practices and language. He believed the culture would be conserved if they moved west and destroyed if they stayed. Major Ridge and his supporters organized themselves into a Treaty Party within the Cherokee community. He did not speak English and his son, John Ride, translated for him. The father and son presented a resolution to the Cherokee National Council in October 1832, to support a treaty for relocation. They were not successful: it was defeated and no treaty was made at the time.

The U.S government submitted a new treaty to the Cherokee National Council in 1835. President Jackson sent a letter outlining the treaty terms and urging its approval. The letter stated,

My friends: I have long viewed your condition with great interest. For many years I have been acquainted with your people, and under all variety of circumstances in peace and war. You are now placed in the midst of a white population. Your peculiar customs, which regulated your intercourse with one another, have been abrogated by the great political community among which you live; and you are now subject to the same laws which govern the other citizens of Georgia and Alabama.

I have no motive, my friends, to deceive you. I am sincerely desirous to promote your welfare. Listen to me, therefore, while I tell you that you cannot remain where you now are. Circumstances that cannot be controlled, and which are beyond the reach of human laws, render it impossible that you can flourish in the midst of a civilized community. You have but one remedy within your reach. And that is, to remove to the West and join your countrymen, who are already established there. And the sooner you do this the sooner you will commence your career of improvement and prosperity. [Allegheny Democrat, March 16, 1835; quoted in Ehle, Trail of Tears, 275-278.]

John Ross, the Principal Chief of Cherokee, persuaded the Council not to approve the treaty. He continued to negotiate with the federal government, trying to strike a better bargain for the Cherokee people. Each side-Major Ridge's Treaty Party and Ross's supporters- accused the other of working for personal financial gain. Ross, however, clearly won the passionate support of the majority of the Cherokee nation, and Cherokee resistance to removal continued.

In December 1835, the U.S. resubmitted the treaty to a meeting of 300 to 500 Cherokee at New Echota, Georgia. Major Ridge addressed the Cherokee to explain why he supported the Treaty of New Echota:

I know the Indians have an older title than theirs. We obtained the land from the living God above. They got their title from the British. Yet they are strong and we are weak. We are few, they are many. We cannot remain here in safety and comfort. I know we love the graves of our fathers. We can never forget these homes, but an unbending, iron necessity tells us we must leave them. I would willingly die to preserve them, but any forcible effort to keep them will cost us our lands, our lives and the lives of our children. There is but one path of safety, one road to future existence as a Nation. That path is open before you. Make a treaty of cession. Give up these lands and go over beyond the great Father of Waters. [Thurman Wilkins, Cherokee Tragedy: The Story of the Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 276-77; quoted in Ehle, Trail of Tears, 294.]

The U.S. Senate approved the controversial Treaty of New Echota on December 29, 1835. It passed by a single vote. Twenty Cherokee men, none of them elected officials of the tribe, signed the treaty. It gave all Cherokee territory east of the Mississippi to the U.S. in exchange for $5 million and new homelands in Indian Territory.

The Treaty of New Echota was widely protested by Cherokee and by whites. The trial members who opposed relocation considered Major Ridge and the others who signed the treaty traitors. The Ridge family moved west in 1837 voluntarily along with other supporters. In 1839, Major Ridge, his son, and his nephew were murdered in Indian Territory. Major Ridge feared this would happen and it is believed they were killed because they supported the treaty. As John Ross worked to negotiate a better treaty, the Cherokee tried to sustain some sort of normal life-even as white settlers carved up their lands and drove them from their homes.

In Spring 1838, Federal troops forced thousands of Cherokee to gather in camps and organize for the journey. Groups of Cherokee were escorted by soldiers west by railroad, boat, and wagon. Christian missionaries and American doctors accompanied some of the groups to give relief, but the conditions of the march were harsh. Many walked. Food, medicine, clothing, even coffins for the dead were in short supply. Water was scarce and often contaminated. Diseases raged through the camps. Over the next year, groups of Cherokee traveled west and the last arrived at their destination in March 1839.

No one knows exactly how many died during the journey. One doctor on the Trail estimated that nearly one fifth of the Cherokee population died. The trip was especially hard on infants, children, and the elderly. The U.S. government never paid the $5 million promised to the Cherokee in the Treaty of New Echota. The Cherokee coined the term "Trail of Tears" at the time, but other indigenous societies used it to describe their own forced relocation marches.

Today, Americans recognize and rediscover this history through private and public organizations, including the National Park Service. The Park Service manages the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and documents historic places like the Major Ridge House in Rome, Georiga. The Major Ridge House is a private museum where people go to learn about this important history and American heritage. The descendants of the historical Cherokee Nation belong to contemporary Tribes, including three recognized by the Federation Government in Oklahoma and North Carolina.

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

Last updated: September 2, 2021