John Freeman Schermerhorn was born in New York in 1786 and educated at Union College. When the U.S. House established a commission in July 1832 to visit Indian Territory, Schermerhorn was appointed to serve with Montfort Stokes, the chairman, and Henry L. Ellsworth. Their task was to recommend a plan of government for the region. Secretary Lewis Cass instructed them to treat with the tribes who had relocated, stressing the government's guarantee of a permanent home and protection from intruders, the promotion of "civilization," and the consolidation of tribes that were similar in customs and manners.
In late 1832, Schermerhorn and Ellsworth negotiated articles of agreement, adjusting the common landholdings of the United Nation of the Seneca and Shawnee, who had removed to the northeastern corner of the Indian Territory from near Lewistown, Ohio, under a treaty in 1831. In February 1833, Schermerhorn, Ellsworth, and Stokes signed agreements with the Western Cherokee clarifying their boundaries and making other provisions in anticipation of Eastern Cherokee removal, as well as with the McIntosh Creek, preparing the way for Creek removal and a union in the West of the Creek and Seminole.
The next month they negotiated a disastrous treaty with a Seminole delegation that was visiting Fort Gibson. This treaty, which provided for Seminole removal, was made on questionable authority. In 1832, James Gadsden had gone to Florida to negotiate a removal treaty with the Seminole. He insisted that the Seminole remove west and unite with the Creek. When they refused, he threatened to pay their annuity to the Creek, from whom they would have to collect it. The Seminole gave in and signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing (1832). However, removal was contingent on the report from a delegation to the West that the land was satisfactory. It was this delegation that Schermerhorn, Stokes, and Ellsworth maneuvered into signing the Treaty of Fort Gibson (1833), although the delegation had no authority to negotiate an agreement. The document they signed provided for the removal of the Seminole and their union with the Creek. Although the Seminole protested the validity of the treaty, the United States claimed it was valid and ordered the Seminole to prepare for removal. In this manner, Schermerhorn helped lay the groundwork for the Second Seminole War of 1835–1842. The Fort Gibson Treaty was Schermerhorn's first application of the government's divide-and-conquer tactic that was often used in treaty making.
Before he left the West, on May 13, 1833, Schermerhorn negotiated a final removal treaty with the Quapaw, who relinquished the Caddo lands on the Red River given them by the Treaty with the Quapaw Treaty (1824). The Treaty with the Quapaw (1833) provided for their resettlement in the northeastern corner of the Indian Territory next to the Seneca and Shawnee.
Schermerhorn's second major application of underhanded tactics was the Treaty of New Echota (1835), which he and William Carroll concluded on December 29, 1835. This infamous document, like the Seminole's Fort Gibson Treaty, was signed by only a small faction of the Cherokee but was applied to the entire tribe. Schermerhorn's duplicitous tactics became well known to the public. Carroll somehow escaped the criticism, for the treaty became known as "Schermerhorn's Treaty." Jackson, of course, defended the treaty.
Unlike the Seminole, who resisted removal by arms, the Cherokee chose to put their faith in the American political system; although this approach delayed removal, ultimately the Cherokee were forced west by the army, making Schermerhorn a hated figure in Cherokee history.
Schermerhorn died in Richmond, Virginia, in 1851.
Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr.
Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989; Satz, Ronald. American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975; U.S. Congress. House. Regulating the Indian Department. 23rd Cong., 1st sess., 1834. H. Rept. 474.