Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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Tennessee and Indian Removal

The history of what is now the state of Tennessee offers a microcosmic version of the overall history of the United States, before and during removal. The groups involved in the politics of the area include the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, and Shawnee as well as English, French, and Spanish settlers. The complexity of the situation was exacerbated by the existence of factions within each of these groups. The final complex component was the fight between state and federal power over territorial issues. As the colonies that would be America were dividing over the issue of revolution, many of the Native communities looked to England to protect them from the incursion of settlers. The increasing number of American settlers crossing the mountains through the Cumberland Gap was depleting game and resources. When a group of Cherokee chiefs ceded land to the Transylvania Company's Richard Henderson in 1775, a dissenting group led by Dragging Canoe, Glass, Bloody Fellow, Doublehead, Pumpkin Boy, John Watts, and others consolidated in an area shared with the Creek and Chickasaw. They founded a group of towns between Chickamauga and Muscle Shoals and joined the resistance movements of the Creek to the south and the Shawnee to the north.

With the Treaty of Hopewell (1785), Congress agreed to the Cherokee version of its tribal boundaries and recognized the Cherokee's right to evict whites who had settled within those boundaries. However, the treaty gave the federal government the sole right to determine what was proper within the Cherokee boundaries and claimed that the Cherokee acknowledge their status under the protection of the new U.S. Government. The federal government failed to enforce the protection of Cherokee rights against the state government, and the citizens of the State of Franklin (an autonomous U.S. territory that existed from 1784 to 1788, led by John Sevier and James Robertson) were set to eradicate all Cherokee in the territory. These eradication attempts led to the murder of Old Tassle in 1788 and Hanging Maw's wife, along with 15 other Native Americans gathered for peace talks in 1788. In 1791, Governor William Blount announced at the Council at Holston that the federal government could not guarantee the land decreed in the Hopewell Treaty (1785) and asked the Cherokee to cede more land. The chiefs, led by Bloody Fellow, objected. When Blount refused to uphold the Hopewell Treaty (1785), even at the behest of President George Washington, the warfare between the tribes and the settlers escalated.

From the time of Dragging Canoe's organization of the Chickamauga towns until the time of the removal, the animosity between Native Americans and settlers remained constant. Although there were factions within the Cherokee groups, mostly Upper Towns, that attempted peace with the settlers and the state, the Lower Towns joined with the Creek to fight the incursion of settlers into the region. In many cases, the state of Tennessee did not discriminate between peaceful towns and towns with which it was at war when it attacked the indigenous communities in retaliation. In 1794, with the defeat of Bloody Fellow and John Watts by Col. James Ore, Tennessee proclaimed the war with the Cherokee to be over.

The year 1794 opened an era in which both the state and federal governments attempted to "civilize" the Cherokee. However, the resistance of the Lower Towns and the continued incursion of the settlers led to renewed violence. In addition, whereas Natives were prosecuted for murders and crimes against settlers, the reverse was not the case. The federal government's attempts to force the state to prosecute and punish settler crimes against Native Americans failed, both because the juries would not convict and because indigenous people were not allowed to give testimony. After 1803, the federal government attempted to stem tribal retaliation by paying the families of those murdered. When further payment for other crimes was required, the federal government incurred a substantial loss.

A renewal of violence occurred between 1806 and 1810 when the state of Tennessee attempted to take the mining rights on Cherokee land along the Tennessee River, leading to the 1807 execution of Doublehead because of his willingness to cooperate with the Tennessee land seekers. From 1810 to the fourth official attempt at removal during 1838–1839, the Cherokee struggled to keep their boundaries and unify their chiefs. The chiefs became divided on the issue of removal, some wanting to take the money offered and move west. Lack of food and poverty, along with the pressure to assimilate into "civilized" society, began to entice some to the idea of removal. By 1820, a large population of Cherokee occupied the lands of the Cherokee Nation West in Arkansas Territory. Attempts to force emigration to the west by coercion failed in 1828, when the Arkansas Cherokee were removed west to what would become Indian Territory. However, with the election of Andrew Jackson, the fate of  Native Americans east of the Mississippi was sealed. Instead of favoring federal authority over that of the states, and contradicting the Supreme Court's ruling in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Jackson supported the state of Georgia in its claim to all the land within its borders. With federal government support for Georgia's claims, the states of North and South Carolina then declared all land within their boundaries to be under state control. Tennessee followed, declared title to all land, and began selling parcels before the forced removal of its Native occupants.

Chief John Ross had resisted removal with the hope that the Supreme Court would support the treaties. When the Supreme Court found in favor of the Cherokee, designating the Cherokee Nation a "domestic nation," Ross attempted to use these words to establish that the Cherokee were not "wards of the government." He failed to forestall removal when the pro-removal Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota (1835). Regardless of the fact that these Cherokee were both few in number and did not have the support of the people required by the Cherokee constitution, Jackson used the treaty as a binding agreement for all Cherokee. Approximately 2,000 of the 15,000 Cherokee emigrated following the treaty, but the vast majority made no preparations to go. When the Cherokee were forced to remove during 1838–1839, it is estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 escaped to the mountains. Those who remained in the mountains and their descendants became known as the Eastern Cherokee.

Tennessee played an important role in the logistics of removal. When forced removal began in the spring of 1838, Ross's Landing at present-day Chattanooga and the Cherokee Agency on the Hiwassee River were the sites of large concentration camps in which the Cherokee were held during the summer of 1838 while awaiting removal. The agency was the place from which agents, army officers, and others coordinated Cherokee removal. Ross's Landing served as a major launching place for departing groups traveling by both water and land. Finally, the office of the disbursing agent for Indian removal east of the Mississippi was in Memphis and played a key role in coordinating transportation of supplies and subsistence rations for removal parties of not only Cherokee but also Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw.

Tennesseans, perhaps more than any others, except Arkansans, profited economically from Indian removal. Every overland contingent of Cherokee crossed a major part of the state, most traveling to Nashville and then northwest into Kentucky, and one group traveling from Ross's Landing to Memphis. The established roads they took passed through well-settled areas. Farmers supplied rations for the people and feed for animals. Merchants supplied dry goods, utensils, and other products. Keepers of tollgates (some hastily constructed just for the Cherokee) made easy money.

Finally, Tennessee supplied perhaps the largest number of key people who carried out Indian removal in the south. Andrew Jackson filled key posts with his loyal followers: John H. Eaton, secretary of war and negotiator of treaties; Carey A. Harris, commissioner of Indian affairs; John Coffee, treaty maker; William Carroll, conegotiator of the Treaty of New Echota (1835) and overseer of Chickasaw land sales; William Armstrong, western superintendent for Indian affairs; and many others of lesser note, but all of a single mind—to rid the Southeast of its Native population.

Lavonna Lovern


Further Reading
Cotterill, R. S. The Southern Indians: The Story of the Civilized Tribes before Removal. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954; Foreman, Grant. The Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, Creek, Seminole. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934; McLoughlin, William G. Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986; Mooney, James. History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Asheville, NC: Historical Images, 1992; United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center. Trail of Tears National Historic Trail: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee. Comprehensive Management and Use Plan. Denver: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1992.
 

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