Primary Source: Letter from Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

During Andrew Jackson's presidency, systematic efforts to relocate Native Americans westward created significant strife. Some chiefs agreed to relocation, while others chose to fight against the American government.

Indian Removal Act

Andrew Jackson was president between 1829 and 1837, a period when America's population was expanding and moving to the south and west in search of new settlements for farms and cities. While doing so, they ran into large populations of Native American tribes, some of whom welcomed them, but many more resisted their advance. Jackson was fiercely committed to spreading American populations to new areas and to remove the Native Americans in these areas at all costs. He famously signed the Indian Removal Act, which gave him the authority to relocate tribes either by negotiation or by force.

Some tribes realized that they lacked the capability to resist the advance of white settlers and agreed. The infamous 'Trail of Tears' was a relocation of tribes in the American southeast to what is today Oklahoma, remembered for its suffering and the callousness of white politicians like Jackson. Still other tribes chose to fight the American government: the Seminole tribe of Florida was the most successful and gained the recognition of autonomy, since the government could not defeat them militarily.

The Cherokee Nation was one native tribe that had signed a treaty for removal, the Treaty of New Echota, in 1835. This treaty was signed in New Echota, Georgia by the U.S. Government and the Cherokee tribe, establishing terms in which the Cherokee would remove themselves from their land and expand into the West. The treaty claimed to speak for the Cherokee nation, though it was not approved by the tribal council or Chief John Ross. Ross believed the treaty to be fraudulent and argued against it before the government itself. In 1836, he wrote a letter to Congress that explained the unfairness of the treaty and the Indian Removal Act. While he gained some support, the Cherokee nevertheless were subjugated to the Trail of Tears, in which one in every four people died.

Let's take a look at the letter now.

Text of Letter from Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation:

(Red Clay Council Ground, Cherokee Nation, September 28, 1836)

It is well known that for a number of years past we have been harassed by a series of vexations, which it is deemed unnecessary to recite in detail, but the evidence of which our delegation will be prepared to furnish. With a view to bringing our troubles to a close, a delegation was appointed on the 23rd of October, 1835, by the General Council of the nation, clothed with full powers to enter into arrangements with the Government of the United States, for the final adjustment of all our existing difficulties. The delegation failing to effect an arrangement with the United States commissioner, then in the nation, proceeded, agreeably to their instructions in that case, to Washington City, for the purpose of negotiating a treaty with the authorities of the United States.

After the departure of the Delegation, a contract was made by the Rev. John F. Schermerhorn, and certain individual Cherokees, purporting to be a 'treaty, concluded at New Echota, in the State of Georgia, on the 29th day of December, 1835, by General William Carroll and John F. Schermerhorn, commissioners on the part of the United States, and the chiefs, headmen, and people of the Cherokee tribes of Indians.' A spurious Delegation, in violation of a special injunction of the general council of the nation, proceeded to Washington City with this pretended treaty, and by false and fraudulent representations supplanted in the favor of the Government the legal and accredited Delegation of the Cherokee people, and obtained for this instrument, after making important alterations in its provisions, the recognition of the United States Government. And now it is presented to us as a treaty, ratified by the Senate, and approved by the President (Andrew Jackson), and our acquiescence in its requirements demanded, under the sanction of the displeasure of the United States, and the threat of summary compulsion, in case of refusal. It comes to us, not through our legitimate authorities, the known and usual medium of communication between the Government of the United States and our nation, but through the agency of a complication of powers, civil and military.

By the stipulations of this instrument, we are despoiled of our private possessions, the indefeasible property of individuals. We are stripped of every attribute of freedom and eligibility for legal self-defence. Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family! We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own. And this is effected by the provisions of a compact which assumes the venerated, the sacred appellation of treaty.

We are overwhelmed! Our hearts are sickened, our utterance is paralized, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed, by the audacious practices of unprincipled men, who have managed their stratagems with so much dexterity as to impose on the Government of the United States, in the face of our earnest, solemn, and reiterated protestations.

The instrument in question is not the act of our Nation; we are not parties to its covenants; it has not received the sanction of our people. The makers of it sustain no office nor appointment in our Nation, under the designation of Chiefs, Head men, or any other title, by which they hold, or could acquire, authority to assume the reins of Government, and to make bargain and sale of our rights, our possessions, and our common country. And we are constrained solemnly to declare, that we cannot but contemplate the enforcement of the stipulations of this instrument on us, against our consent, as an act of injustice and oppression, which, we are well persuaded, can never knowingly be countenanced by the Government and people of the United States; nor can we believe it to be the design of these honorable and highminded individuals, who stand at the head of the Govt., to bind a whole Nation, by the acts of a few unauthorized individuals. And, therefore, we, the parties to be affected by the result, appeal with confidence to the justice, the magnanimity, the compassion, of your honorable bodies, against the enforcement, on us, of the provisions of a compact, in the formation of which we have had no agency.

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