In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which provided funds for the president to conduct land-exchange treaties with Natives living east of the Mississippi. Initially, federal negotiators tried to coerce principal chief John Ross and members of the Cherokee National Council to remove to the West. When federal negotiators were unable to convince the elected Cherokee leadership to sign a removal treaty, President Andrew Jackson sent Gen. William Carroll and Rev. John Schermerhorn to draw up a treaty with a few prominent Cherokees who favored removal. Members of this faction, later called the Treaty Party, included Major Ridge, John Ridge, Stand Watie, and Elias Boudinot.
Major Ridge was a former acting chief of the Cherokee Nation and a wealthy, slave-owning planter. He was familiar with the laws of the Nation and knew he was in violation of the Blood Law, which made the sale or cession of Cherokee land a crime punishable by death. However, he and other members of the faction were greatly disturbed by the constant harassment they and other Natives received from white settlers. In 1829 and 1830, the Georgia legislature passed a series of laws that outlawed the Cherokee government and authorized a survey of Cherokee land and a lottery to distribute the land to the white residents of Georgia. The legislature also passed the Indian Code, which prohibited Cherokee from testifying in court against white persons, mining gold on their own land, speaking against removal, and meeting in council.
After several trips to Washington to talk to federal officials and a survey of the countryside, Ridge believed that it was in the best interest of the Cherokee Nation as a whole to relocate in the West. He thought that further resistance to federal removal demands would be futile, that the Cherokee should get the best terms possible from the government and depart before there was more bloodshed.
Immediately after signing the document and receiving their payment from the government, the members of the Treaty Party moved west. They selected the best land in the new Cherokee Nation and made alliances with the three thousand "Old Settler" Cherokee, who had left the main body of the Cherokee Nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for various reasons. While the Treaty Party adjusted to their homes in the West, principal chief John Ross, members of the Cherokee National Council, and the vast majority of the Cherokees living in the East repudiated the treaty and refused to move.
They vigorously protested the treaty and made their cause known to the American people. Regardless of the protests, the Senate ratified the treaty by one vote in May 1836. Undaunted, the Cherokee Nation continued to lobby against the treaty and to postpone the removal process. In April 1838, approximately 15,600 of the 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation signed and presented a petition to Congress requesting that the treaty be voided. Congress ignored the petition.
In May 1838, federal officials became frustrated with the Cherokee resistance. President Martin Van Buren ordered Gen. Winfield Scott and seven thousand soldiers to round up all Cherokee living in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, and place them into camps to prepare for removal. To discourage the people from running away and returning to their homes, Scott had all Cherokee property burned and all crops destroyed. The forced march to the West began during the summer of 1838 and continued through the harsh winter of 1839. Of 16,543 Cherokee and 1,592 slaves removed, one quarter of the people died. The Cherokee call their trek west Nunna daul Tsuny—"the trail where they cried."
Once the majority of the Cherokee arrived in the West, the three distinct groups of Cherokee people—the Old Settlers, the Treaty Party, and the Ross Party—were expected to merge into one single nation. Unfortunately, the transition was not easy. Many of the new arrivals were furious with the members of the Treaty Party and wanted to avenge the loss of their relatives and the loss of their homeland. However, Chief John Ross would not authorize the execution of the Treaty Party members.
On the night of June 21, 150 to 200 people gathered at Takatoka Camp Ground to discuss recent events. Angry about removal and holding the Treaty Party responsible for their losses, they decided that now was the right time to enforce the Blood Law on the signers of the Treaty of New Echota. They drew lots to select the assassins. Early in the morning of June 22, the assassins left the campgrounds in search of Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and Stand Watie. Both of the Ridges and Boudinot were executed; Stand Watie was able to escape. The executions intensified the preexisting tribal divisions and caused an intermittent civil war to rage through the Cherokee Nation for the next 40 years.
Joyce Ann Kievit
Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989; Moulton, Gary E., ed. The Papers of Chief John Ross. 2 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.