America’s Long Journey: Jackson and the Cherokee Removal


The story of the Five Civilized Tribes, as they were called, demonstrates at least two things. First, the Indians were able to adopt white man’s ways when they chose to, including literacy, fixed residence, even slave-holding and Christianity. Second, doing so didn’t spare them from their white neighbors’ racism or their greed for gold and land.

The five tribes were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole. By the 1830s, under constant pressure from settlers, each tribe had ceded most of its lands, but sizable self-governing groups lived in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. All of these (except the Seminoles) had had adopted many of the colonists’ customs and had generally good relations with their neighbors. They didn’t want to move.

Unfortunately for the Cherokees, their land, as defined in an 1819 treaty, contained gold. The first gold rush in American history was sparked by the discovery of gold in 1828 in Dahlonega, Georgia, north and a little east of present-day Atlanta.

What phenomenon exemplifies greed and gambling-lust more than a gold rush? It is the perfect embodiment of get-rich-quick. Once the gold was discovered, first came trespass, then came politics, and then came exile. All quite illegal, but the white men had the money, the troops, the interested parties, and thus, soon enough, the legal decisions. In 1831, in “Cherokee Nation v. Georgia,” the Supreme Court said that the Cherokees were not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore had no right to sue.

The story of the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation from their lands east of the Mississippi to what is now eastern Oklahoma is a major blot on Jackson’s presidency. Most of the actual relocation took place in the presidency of his successor, Martin Van Buren, but the treaty mandating it was signed and ratified in 1836, when Jackson was in the White House. Cherokee relocation was opposed, and not merely by tender-hearted (and geographically distant) New Englanders like Emerson, but by frontier stalwarts like Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, both Jackson allies who on this issue saw the injustice of what was happening. So why did Jackson let it happen?

Partly, perhaps, from principle. To understand his position, we must see it with his eyes, not the eyes of posterity. In his first annual message to Congress as president, in December, 1829, he had called for Indian tribes either to relocate beyond the white man’s civilization, or conform to its uses. “This emigration should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers and seek a home in a distant land. But they should be distinctly informed that if they remain within the limits of the States they must be subject to their laws.”

(Fair enough, from the viewpoint of his society in his day, and perhaps two different kinds of society – one settled, one nomadic — could not live intermingled. But the Cherokees were living settled lives.)

Partly perhaps from practical politics. He was authorized by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to negotiate to buy tribal lands in the east in exchange for lands west of existing state borders. With the nullification crisis brewing, he didn’t need to provoke another conflict over states’ rights by interposing the federal government between the Cherokees and the state of Georgia.

So, there came the Treaty of New Echota, exchanging Cherokee land for lands in the Indian Territory (eastern Oklahoma), signed in December, 1835, by small group of Cherokees who argued that it would be better to make a deal sooner (with the federal government), rather than later (with state officials and who knew what others). The following February, some 13,000 tribal members (of a total of 16,000 counted by the U.S. War Department itself ) signed protests saying that this treaty was not the will of the majority. Naturally, this being inconvenient, it was ignored. The treaty was ratified by the Senate (by a single vote) in May, 1836, and the tribe was given a two-year grace period to move “voluntarily” to the Indian Territory.

A few hundred did, accepting government funds for subsistence and transportation. Most did not. As the deadline neared, President Van Buren sent U.S. General Winfield Scott to enforce the treaty. Scott arrived at the Cherokee capital of New Echota in May, 1838, in command of about 7,000 soldiers and state militia. They removed men, women, and children from their homes at gunpoint and gathered them in camps, then marched them overland to departure points at present-day Chattanooga, and put them onto flatboats and steamers.

When low water stymied this effort, Gen. Scott suspended it, and the Cherokees who had not yet been transported were put into eleven internment camps. There they remained through the summer of 1838, suffering about 350 deaths through illness. Scott granted a petition for delay until cooler weather, and Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, accepting defeat, arranged for the remainder of the removal to be supervised by the Cherokee Council. The remaining 11,000 Cherokees were removed under the supervision of Chief Ross in 12 wagon trains, each with about 1,000 persons, with expenses paid by the Army.

How many died along the “trail of tears”? The short answer is, nobody knows. The highest estimate is 6,000; the lowest, 2,000. The intermediate figure of 4,000 is the most often cited, as being the difference between the 16,000 Cherokees enumerated in the 1835 census (omitting 2,000 slaves), and 12,000 counted in the emigration. But Cherokees who lived on private, individually owned lands (rather than communally owned tribal land) were not subject to removal. Some 1,500 Cherokees remained in North Carolina, and many more in South Carolina and Georgia. And it is guessed that perhaps another thousand evaded the soldiers.

As so often in the history of white-Indian relations, it came down to might makes right. As usual, a fig-leaf of legality was employed to cover naked theft. As usual, a relative few enriched themselves by using the government for their own purposes. And, as usual, the events really happened, but not quite in the way they are remembered.

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