This was the situation the Cherokee Nation found itself in during the 1830s. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law; its goal was to relocate native tribes from their respective lands (regardless of any prior treaties) and push them onto the newly created “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River. This was still a vast frontier, largely undeveloped, and seemed like a good place to put an unwanted people group.
Treaties were negotiated with the “Indians” to exchange their ancestral lands for designated tribal territories in the west. The word negotiate is used loosely here. They weren’t given much choice. Even the Five Civilized Tribes, despite efforts to assimilate, were still viewed by their white counterparts as both inferior and as a threat to their own development and resources. In 1830, it was the Choctaw; in 1832, the Chickasaws and Muscogee (also known as Creeks); in 1832 and 33, the Seminole were pushed out of Florida.
The Cherokee in North Carolina and Georgia were the last hold-out tribe. They didn’t want to give up. They didn’t want to give in. Well, at least some of them. And that’s where it starts to get interesting.
There was no unified opinion as to whether they should stay or go. It wasn’t just “Andrew Jackson v. the Cherokees,” there were different ideas within the Cherokee Nation about what was best for their future, and a lot of inner conflicts within the Nation resulted.
This statue represents three factions of the Cherokees and the different paths they took because of Removal.
Oconaluftee Citizen Party
These Citizen Indians form the core of the present-day Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. They had applied to become U.S. citizens, taking advantage of a treaty clause which allowed them to separate from the Cherokee Nation and occupy private reservations and ceded lands.
The Treaty Party
The Treaty Party was led by Major Ridge, his son, John Ridge, and his nephew, Elias Boudinot. Originally opposed to removal, they came to believe that it was the best policy, and in December 1835, they signed the Treaty of New Echota which ceded their eastern homeland for five million dollars and western land. Looked upon as traitors by the majority of the Cherokee Nation, the Treaty Party leaders, including the Ridges and Boudinot, were later executed for “selling their birthrights.”
John Ross and the Cherokee Nation
The majority of the Cherokee Nation wanted to stay on their homeland and fought with every legal means available. Some lobbied in Washington, others fought legal battles, such as Worcester v. Georgia. But in the end, all their efforts failed and they were forcibly removed to Indian Territory.
Their tragic journey west became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Having read multiple books delving into the motives and specific actions of all three parties, I find this explanation to be an oversimplification. For now, I will only say that the Treaty of New Echota was the means by which Andrew Jackson achieved his goal of removing the final, protesting tribe to Indian Territory. The majority of the Cherokee Nation did not consent to it. It was not approved by either the Council or the Principal Chief. It should never have been regarded as a legal and binding contract.
Members of the Treaty Party signed as representatives of the Cherokee Nation, although they were not recognized by it as legitimate delegates. Legally, they were just a rogue faction assuming authority they didn’t possess. President Andrew Jackson knew it. Indian Commissioner John F. Schermerhorn knew it. Federal Indian Agent Ben Currey knew it. They accepted it anyway because it suited their purposes.
In my novel, DRIVEN BY THE PRAIRIE WIND, I have tried to bring to life this complicated story and present the different Cherokee factions as they fight for survival in a world that didn’t have room for them.