John Ross

The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains

Major Ridge
Major Ridge
Cherokee Chief

He explained the defection of the minority leaders by intimating that they feared for their personal safety. “But,” he piously added, “the Lord is able to overrule all things for good.”

The reason for heading the Indians away from Washington was that Ross was a man of such high character, ability, and impressive personality that his influence was feared if he could get in touch with Congress, and there was already a powerful opposition to the administration’s Indian policy.

At the October meeting of the council, notice was served on the Cherokee Nation to meet Schermerhorn and the Governor of Tennessee, as commissioners, at New Echota in the following December, for the purpose of negotiating a treaty, and it was declared that all who failed to attend would be counted as assenting to whatever treaty might be made.

But these commissioners were not empowered to deal on any other basis than the one that the Cherokees had already rejected. Therefore Ross determined to carry their case direct to Washington. lie had moved his home to Tennessee, to escape persecution by the Georgia authorities; but they, hearing of his intended visit to Washington, sent a body of Georgia militia across the line into Tennessee, arrested Ross, confiscated all his private papers and the proceedings of the council, and carried him into Georgia, where he was held for a time without charge.

The poet, John Howard Payne, author of Home, Sweet, Home, was stopping with Ross at the time, collecting scientific data relating to the Indians. He likewise was seized, and his manuscripts taken from him. At the same time the national newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, was suppressed.

By such acts as these, in plain defiance of the law of the land, the Cherokees, at the most critical time in their history, were deprived of their teacher, their national press, and the one spokesman whose voice at the seat of government might have won them a hearing.

When the time came for the assembling at New Echota, not over 300 Cherokees, men, women, and children, were present, out of a population of over 17,000. The Governor of Tennessee was absent. Schermerhorn, on the one side, and a dozen Indians as committeemen, on the other, negotiated a treaty that sealed the doom of the whole Cherokee Nation.

This instrument provided that the Cherokees cede to the United States all of their remaining territory east of the Mississippi for the sum of five million dollars and a common joint interest in the region already occupied by those Cherokees who had gone west at an earlier date. This region was situated within what are now Oklahoma and Kansas. Improvements on the eastern lands were to he paid for, and the Indians removed at the expense of the Government and subsisted for one year after their arrival in the West.

Soon after this farce had been enacted, the War Department sent into the Cherokee country a confidential agent, Major W. M. Davis. He reported as follows:—

“Sir, that paper, . . . called a treaty, is no treaty at all, because not sanctioned by the great body of the Cherokees, and made without their participation or assent. I solemnly declare to you that upon its reference to the Cherokee people it would be instantly rejected by nine-tenths of them and I believe by nineteen-twentieths of them. There were not present at the conclusion of the treaty more than one hundred Cherokee voters. . . .The most cunning and artful means were resorted to conceal the paucity of numbers present at the treaty. No enumeration of them was made by Schermerhorn. The business of making the treaty was transacted with a committee appointed by the Indians present, so as not to expose their numbers. The power of attorney under which the committee acted was signed only by the president and secretary of the meeting, so as not to disclose their weakness…Mr. Schermerhorn’s apparent design was to conceal the real number present and to impose upon the public and the Government upon this point. … I now warn you and the President that if this paper of Schermerhorn’s called a treaty is sent to the Senate and ratified you will bring trouble upon the Government and eventually destroy the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokees are a peaceable, harmless people, but you may drive them to desperation, and this treaty cannot be carried into effect except by the strong arm of force.”

Chief Ross and a body of national delegates sent protests to Washington with signatures representing nearly 16,000 Cherokees. Resolutions denouncing the treaty were presented to General Wool, commanding United States troops who had been sent into the Cherokee country “to look down opposition,” and he forwarded them to Washington. The General received for his pains a stinging reprimand from President Jackson, who declared that no communication whatever would be held with Ross, and that no council would be permitted even to discuss the treaty.

The outrageous injustice suffered by the Cherokees, without one retaliatory act on their part, excited the sympathy of decent people everywhere. And yet the “treaty,” so infamously concocted and so brazenly sustained by the administration, passed the Senate by the margin of one vote, and was proclaimed by the President on the 23rd of May, 1836. The Indians were given two years from this date in which to abandon the land of their fathers and move a thousand miles to the western wilderness.

Some of the ablest leaders in Congress, northern and southern, were bitterly opposed to the treaty. It was denounced by Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, Henry Wise and Henry Clay. A few years earlier Jackson’s Indian policy had been scathingly rebuked by sturdy old Davy Crockett, who cried shame upon it as unjust, dishonest, cruel and shortsighted. “I had considered a treaty,” said he, “as a sovereign law of the land, and now I hear it considered as a matter of expedience.”

Crockett’s own constituents were immediately interested in the removal of the Indians. He had been elected to Congress from Tennessee as a Jacksonian Democrat, and he had been threatened that if he did not advocate the forcible the removal of the Cherokees his public career would be summarily

cut off; but he declared on the floor of the House that he could not permit himself to please his constituents and his colleagues at the expense of his honor and his conscience. Jackson never forgave him; and the threat to eject Crockett from politics was carried out.

False reports were now circulated that Chief Ross and other leaders were seeking to excite the Cherokees to war, and the militia of the surrounding states were put in the field to prevent or suppress it. General R. E. Dunlap, commanding the East Tennessee volunteers, found on the contrary that it was the Indians, and not the whites, that needed protection. In a speech to his brigade at their disbandment he said “My course has excited the hatred of a few of the lawless rabble in Georgia, who have long played the part of unfeeling petty tyrants, and that to the disgrace of the proud character of gallant soldiers and good citizens. I had determined that I would never dishonor the Tennessee arms in a servile service by aiding to carry into execution at the point of the bayonet a treaty made by a lean minority against the will and authority of the Cherokee People… . I soon discovered that the Indians had not the most distant thought of war with the United States, notwithstanding the common rights of humanity and justice had been denied them.”

General Wool was ordered to disarm the Cherokees and overawe them by a display of force. While going about this work he was manifestly disgusted with the role and sick at heart. In one of his letters he declared

“If I could (and I could not do them a greater kindness) I would remove every Indian to-morrow beyond the reach of the white men, who, like vultures, are watching, ready to pounce upon their prey and strip them of everything they have or expect from the Government of the United States. Yes, sir, nineteen-twentieths, if not ninety-nine out of every hundred, will go penniless to the West.”

Nemesis fell heavily upon the very men who signed the treaty at New Echota as Indian committeemen. Their leader, Major John Ridge, who had negotiated the first treaty with Schermerhorn, was obliged to appeal to President Jackson for protection against the harpies who beset him and his neighbors: “They have got our lands and now they are preparing to fleece us of the money accruing from the treaty. We found our plantations taken either in whole or in part by the Georgians—suits instituted against us for back rents for our farms. These suits are commenced in the inferior courts, with the evident design that , when we are ready to remove, to arrest our people, and on these vile claims to induce us to compromise for our own release, to travel with our families. Thus our funds will be filched from our people, and we shall be compelled to leave our country as beggars and in want.

“Even the Georgia laws, which deny us our oaths, are thrown aside. . .. The lowest classes of the white people are flogging the Cherokees with cowhides, hickories and clubs. We are not safe in our houses—our people are assailed by day and night by the rabble. Even justices of the peace and constables are concerned in this business. This barbarous treatment is not confined to men, but women are stripped also and whipped without law or mercy… Send regular troops to protect us… If it is not done we shall carry off nothing but the scars of the lash upon our backs, and our oppressors will get all the money. We talk plainly, as chiefs having property and life in danger.”

A few of the Indians accepted outfits and moved voluntarily to the West, but the main body sternly refused to go. It took all of Ross’s influence to preserve the peace, and military officers on the spot reported that he alone stood between the whites and bloodshed. In February, 1837, General Wool called the Cherokees together and made them a speech counseling prudence and submission to the inevitable. The result he reported to the Adjutant-General at Washington

“It is, however, vain to talk to a people almost universally opposed to the treaty and who maintain that they never made such a treaty. So determined are they in their opposition that not one of all those who were present and voted at the council held but a day or two since, however poor and destitute, would receive either rations or clothing from the United States lest they might compromise themselves in regard to the treaty. These same people, as well as those in the mountains of North Carolina, during the past summer preferred living upon the roots and sap of trees rather than receive provisions from the United States, and thousands, as I have been informed, had no other food for weeks.”


Kephart, Horace. The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains, A Little Band that Has Stood Against the White Tide for Three Hundred Year. Ithaca, N.Y.: The Atkinson press. 1936.

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