Last Fall, the Cherokee Nation appointed a delegate to the U.S. Congress—a first for the Cherokee Nation or any tribal government in the United States. It was an appointment over 180 years in the making, legally drawn from the 1835 Treaty of New Echota.
Before it came to symbolize representation in the U.S. Congress, though, the treaty was better known for catalyzing a genocide. It provided the legal basis for the Cherokee people’s forced removal from their ancestral homeland in the South, their Trail of Tears.
More than 4,000 people died during their forced death march over hundreds of miles from their homelands in the present-day South to Oklahoma in 1838. And the treaty’s signing led to a deep fissure within the nation: A minority party of Cherokee elites brokered the deal with the U.S. government, behind the back of the Principal Chief, John Ross. As a result, the treaty pitted brother against brother, and Cherokee against Cherokee.
But before the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee did everything they could to show the U.S. they could assimilate into American culture and that the two nations could live together. But despite the Cherokee having created a democratic government that mirrored that of the United States, the federal government did everything it could to undermine those efforts. And now, the treaty is a prime example of the legal documents that shattered societies throughout Native American history, echoing in other broken treaty rights from the U.S. government that continue to deprive Native people of their land.
Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
The story of the treaty began with the Cherokee Nation united in the desire to maintain its land in the South, what’s now parts of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama. Treaties had been whittling away at their land through the first two decades of the 1800s, and growing numbers of Cherokee were being bribed and threatened into ceding their land and moving to present-day Arkansas.
Of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” the roughly 16,000 Cherokee who remained in Georgia held onto their land the longest, through their efforts to be granted basic humanity from the young nation squatting on their land. In 1825, they adopted a written alphabet of their language, which was created and taught widely within a generation. In 1827, they created a constitution based on the United States’, which formed judicial, legislative and executive branches.
Four of the powerful Cherokee men who eventually signed the Treaty of New Echota—Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and his nephews Elias Boudinot and Stand Watie—were doing everything “right” by the standards of the white government leaders they wanted to appease. They practiced and advocated for Christianized education and religion, English fluency, land-holding, plantation-owning and slave-owning.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
For Major Ridge, assimilating was a matter of being forward-thinking. A well-respected soldier and statesman, he fought alongside General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War. He actually took on the name “Major” after being awarded the rank by Jackson—”Ridge” is a simplified translation of his name Ca-nung-da-cla-geh. He was a successful businessman and, by the early 1800s, one of the wealthiest men in the region, with a ferry, trading post and plantation. He owned about 30 black slaves, which was relatively common among the Cherokee elite.
Ridge closely advised and mentored John Ross, who became chief in 1828 at the relatively young age of 38. Ross, too, was a wealthy and well educated Creek War veteran who hoped to prove the Cherokee were “civilized” enough to maintain their sovereignty and land. He had been negotiating with the U.S. government in regards to land rights on behalf of the Cherokee for years, and his skills in diplomacy and English fluency let him rapidly ascend the ranks.
John Ridge and Elias Boudinot attended the Foreign Mission School in Connecticut, where they received Christianized educations in one of the few environments that would educate Native men and immigrants of means. They also both fell in love with and married local white women, and the resulting scandals arguably lead to the closure of the school in 1826, fewer than 10 years after its opening.
Soon after his marriage, Boudinot gave a speech in Philadelphia, titled “An Address to the Whites.” “There are, with regard to the Cherokees and other tribes, two alternatives,” he said. “They must either become civilized and happy, or sharing the fate of many kindred nations, become extinct.”
Boudinot went on to be the first editor of the first Cherokee newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, which he ran with Samuel Worcester, a white missionary. Worcester would prove to be a pivotal figure in the history of the Cherokee Nation; in 1831 the state of Georgia indicted Worcester and several other missionaries for living in Cherokee territory without a license from the state.
After he was convicted at a trial, Worcester appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that Georgia’s law was unconstitutional. And in 1832, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that states did not have the right to make laws on the Cherokee’s sovereign land, and that it was the place of the federal government to negotiate with tribal nations—and therefore anti-constitutional for Georgia to do so.
This decision, Worcester v. Georgia, was a turning point in the Cherokee’s relationship with the U.S., because it was blatantly ignored; both Georgia and President Andrew Jackson declined to enforce the ruling. Jackson is often quoted as saying, “John Marshall has made his decision, let him enforce it,” though that’s likely apocryphal. There is evidence of him writing, though, that “the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.”
Flying in the face of the Supreme Court, Georgia did not release the missionaries and continued to pressure for removal, effectively sanctioning violence against Cherokee, according to historian Julie Reed. “There’s a lawlessness playing out on the ground. That Cherokees can be robbed, they can be raped, they can be assaulted and they have no recourse if they choose to remain in the southern states that they’re residing,” she says.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Principal Chief Ross insisted that the Cherokee would remain where they were, but Reed says the Ridges began to question whether they should go ahead and leave their ancestral land. Their debate, she says, went something like this: “Do we stay in the South, in an increasingly racialized South, and become second-class citizens? Or do we move west and maintain our sovereign integrity?” It was in this time they formed the Treaty Party, a vocal minority advocating to work out a deal with the U.S. government to leave their land on favorable terms.
By 1835, Ross knew that pressure was mounting, and tried to hardball President Jackson by saying he would only cede Cherokee territory to the U.S. for $20 million—almost $600 million today. When Jackson heard this number, he dismissed it as filibustering. Ross was in fact stalling; he was banking on having allies in the U.S. Congress to help his case, and promised he would take whatever price the Senate was willing to offer. They came back with $5 million. After losing patience with Ross, Jackson sent a commissioner to New Echota to negotiate with the Treaty Party.
During negotiations, Major Ridge made his stance clear in a speech, saying: “We can never forget these homes, I know, but an unbending, iron necessity tells us we must leave them. I would willingly die to preserve them, but any forcible effort to keep them will cost us our lands, our lives and the lives of our children. There is but one path to safety, one road to future existence as a Nation.”
It was under these polarized circumstances that the Treaty of New Echota was signed in December of 1835, declaring that all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi River would be ceded for $5 million and giving them new land in current-day Oklahoma. No more than 500 Cherokee backed the treaty’s terms, and everybody involved in the treaty signing was aware of its illegitimacy; Major Ridge is quoted as saying, “I have signed my death warrant.”
Around 7 million acres of land was sold for $5 million, as well as provisions for peace, small measures of economic security and social support for veterans and education. And the Treaty Party agreed to removal, with a deadline of two years.
Alarmed, Chief Ross and the Cherokee council started a petition to stop the recognition of the treaty. They got an overwhelming majority of the nation—more than 15,000 members—to sign it. Congress was set to review the petition with just weeks before the removal deadline in May 1838. When Ross was present with all the signatures, a deadly duel broke out in the house and Congress never ended up getting to it.
The Treaty Party left for Oklahoma early and on their own terms. But the broader swath of the Cherokee people’s removal saw at least a quarter of the entire population die on the trail. “Pregnancies are not happening that should have happened,” Reed says. “Added to that, you’ve lost your elders. You’ve lost the people who can help put your history in perspective, help mediate and remind you of times that were hard before.”
In Oklahoma, Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot faced the consequences of the “death warrant” they had signed. The three men were all killed on the same day, June 22, 1839, at the hands of their fellow Cherokee. Major Ridge was ambushed and shot while travelling in Arkansas, checking on an ill slave. The younger Ridge was pulled from his home, stabbed to death in front of his family after a gun failed to fire. Boudinot was ambushed and stabbed leaving Samuel Worcester’s house.
These men’s efforts to acquiesce to the U.S. government, originally intended to ensure their nation’s survival, had backfired at the expense of their lives, in addition to the lives of thousands of fellow Cherokee. But this was the position they were forced into, in the face of almost certain destruction if they remained. It was never about being civilized.
Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor’s Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.