John Ross served as the elected president of a sovereign country that was scorned, dispossessed and driven out of its homeland by the United States government in a classic case of ethnic cleansing. Under Ross, the Cherokee Nation won an injunction against Georgia’s attempt to bully the tribe out of its borders. But the “people’s president” refused to recognize the injunction and, instead, used the U.S. Army to enforce the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Thousands of Native Americans perished in the resulting “Trail of Tears.”
The Cherokees had farmed for centuries in a region that contained parts of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. As one of the Five Civilized Nations – which included the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles – the Cherokees had largely assimilated into American culture. In fact, they had supported the United States in the War of 1812. Ross had served as an assistant to Andrew Jackson in the Creek War, and 500 Cherokees joined Jackson on the Tallapoosa River at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, defeating the Red Sticks recruited by Tecumseh. Ross was named to the Cherokee Nation Council in 1814 and elected its president in 1819.
George Washington had always treated Native American tribes as foreign nations. However, Jackson believed that Indian jurisdictions violated states’ rights under Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution. This view received credence in 1823 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Johnson v. M’Intosh, holding that tribes could not hold title to lands within the United States.
Seeing the coming clash with the federal government, Ross and the Cherokees developed a constitution of their own and elected a representative government in 1827. They had laws and a police force and had built roads, churches and schools. A scholar named Sequoyah had developed a Cherokee alphabet in 1821, and his “Talking Leaves” had half the tribe’s population reading at a time when barely one person in five was literate in the general population.
Between 1790 and 1830, the population of Georgia increased 500%. When gold was discovered there, the clamor to relocate the Cherokee increased. The state legislature acted in 1828 to dissolve the tribe’s government and laws and set up a means for seizing Cherokee lands and redistributing them to whites. In his inaugural address in 1829 President Jackson called for a process for states to move the tribes to territory west of the Mississippi River.
The 1830 Indian Removal Act was strongly opposed by powerful Sens. Daniel Webster and Henry Clay and by Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett. But the act was pushed through by the Southern states and signed by Jackson within two days.
Meanwhile, Ross had filed suit to stop Georgia from moving the Cherokee people. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) the high court ruled that it had no jurisdiction, but Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in an opinion that the Cherokees were a “domestic, dependent nation.”
While Cherokee Nation moved through the courts, the Georgia legislature took exception to the way that Christian missionaries were influencing tribal affairs. A new law prohibited whites from being on Cherokee lands without a state license. Samuel Worcester was convicted under the law and sentenced to four years of hard labor. He sued. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832) Marshall wrote for the court majority which struck down the GA extension law. Marshall wrote that Indian nations were "distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights" and that several treaties between the Cherokees and the United States had validated that finding.
The ruling made no difference to Jackson, who urged Cherokees to relocate before Georgia enforced its removal laws. "The decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that it cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate," Jackson said.
The Cherokee Nation Council orders death for anyone who tries to give up tribal lands. However, a small group of dissidents sealed the tribe’s fate by signing the Treaty of New Echota (1835), which gave up all lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for money, livestock, tools and other supplies. As the federal government prepared to execute the Indian Removal Act, partnering with Georgia’s legal apparatus, the great philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a passionate appeal to Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren. Emerson said “almost the entire Cherokee Nation” rose to repudiate the sham treaty.
“And the American President and the Cabinet, the Senate and the House of Representatives, neither hear these men nor see them,” wrote Emerson, “and are contracting to put this active nation into carts and boats, and to drag them over mountains and rivers to a wilderness at a vast distance beyond the Mississippi . . . How could we call (this) conspiracy . . . our government, or the land . . . our country anymore? . . . Will the American government steal? Will it lie? Will it kill?“
The U.S. Army rounded up the 17,000 Cherokees in the summer of 1838. Many were held in prison camps while awaiting extradition by boat down the Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers to the region reserved for them in what is today northern Oklahoma. An estimated 4,000 men, women and children died of hunger, disease and exposure during the long removal process.
Ross continued to serve as leader of his nation through the Civil War.
“A Brief History of the Trail of Tears.” Cherokee Nation. Acquired 10/23/1016.
“Cherokee Trail of Tears.” Aboutnorthgeorgia.com. Acquired 10/23/2016.
Garrison, Tim A. "Worcester v. Georgia (1832)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/government-politics/worcester-v-georgia-1832
19 October 2016. Web. 21 October 2016. Acquired 24 October 2016.