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Removal of Cherokee from North Georgia

Updated on September 9, 2011
Cherokee Trail of Tears painted in 1942 by Robert Lindneux
Cherokee Trail of Tears painted in 1942 by Robert Lindneux | Source

A proud people the Cherokees of north Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina were among the most civilized and advanced of the Indian tribes in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As early as 1710 they had been trading with the white man and perhaps unknowingly opening the door to the settlements of the white men which creep further and further west into Cherokee territory, with over 90 percent of their traditional homelands being lost to them by 1819.[1] The last decade of the eighteenth century the United States through several treaties gave recognition of The Cherokees of Georgia as a nation, with their own laws and customs. This cost them more land and was the reason for the first group of Cherokees to move to northwest Arkansas in the late 1700’s.During the next two decades as more and more land was ceded through treaties the numbers of Cherokee immigrates increased. This led in 1819 to the Cherokee National Council informing the United States that they would not cede more land to the government.[2]

The Cherokees of the 1820s for the most part lived in a style very much like the colonist, in European –style houses and many wore European –style clothing. They owned plantations and farms, such as Joseph Vann’s eight hundred acre plantation at Spring Place, Georgia. There was a written language invented by Sequoyah (a mixed blood also known as George Gist) and they had their own newspaper.[3] The Cherokees had schools and churches, with many being Christian. By the early 1800s many of the influential chiefs and members of the Cherokee Council were of mixed blood, including the Principal Chief of the Cherokee, John Ross who was Scottish with only an eighth Cherokee blood.[4]

Even though this tribe had assimilated to the point of being as civilized as most of their white neighbors they were not without enemies in both the state and federal government. The state of Georgia had long wanted the Cherokee land and when in 1802 Georgia had ceded its western lands to the federal government it was with the understanding that eventually the federal government would see that the Indians were removed from the land in north Georgia and it would be given to the state. This was not happening and in the 1820s Georgia began a push to take the land.[5] Andrew Jackson was in 1828 running for president and he knew that to win he would have to get the support of the land hungry settlers. He offered to aide Georgia in their quest for the Cherokee land. Within three weeks of his election Georgia had made her move to take the land of the Cherokee Nation. First Georgia passed a law annexing all of the Cherokee land within her borders then it declared all laws and customs of the Cherokee Nation were null and void. Surveyors were sent in to survey the land into one hundred sixty acre plots which were to be awarded in a state lottery.[6]

John Ross as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee National Council left for Washington to protest the actions of the Georgia legislature. Most of the support that he found in Washington for the Cherokees was from anti-Jackson men, Jackson himself told Ross that no help would be coming to the Cherokee unless they moved west. It seemed that Jackson had forgotten the help that the Cherokees had given him and the United States during the War of 1812 and the fact that they had been the deciding force against the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend. He was determined to see all Indians removed to the west. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, under this act Indians were to give up lands east of the Mississippi for lands in the west.[7]

Georgia opened up the Cherokee land to settlers who often came in and ousted the Indians from their homes. The Vann house at Spring Place was one such home. A beautiful plantation house built in European –style, settlers almost set the building on fire in their haste to evict the Vann family. The Cherokees filed a law suit against the state of Georgia in 1830, the Supreme Court in 1831 refused to rule, declaring the tribe a “domestic dependent nation” and making it ineligible for the protection of the Court. In Worcester v. State of Georgia the Supreme Court held this ruling but declared that the white citizens of Georgia could not enter Cherokee territory without the permission of the tribe. It seems that the Constitution by declaring treaties already made and those to be made, to be the supreme law of the land and by admitting that the Cherokee were capable of making such treaties had admitted that the Cherokee were a “sovereign nation”.[8] However the state of Georgia ignored the ruling of the Court and President Jackson did the same saying “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”

Georgia continued to harass the Cherokee, claiming that all land held by the Cherokee was state property, the governing council was forbidden to meet except to ratify treaties and Indians were prohibited from testifying against white in the courts of the state. They also required that any whites living among the Cherokee had to swear an oath of allegiance to the state of Georgia. Still the most obvious thing about this situation was the open refusal of the United States to protect the Cherokee. One person who commented on this in Washington was Tennessee representative Davy Crocket who called it, “unjust, dishonest and cruel.”[9]

In 1835, a small group of Cherokee later known as the Treaty Party signed a treaty at New Echota with the United States which ceded all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi to the federal government for $5 million. The head of this group was Major John Ridge, who in 1828 had drafted a law in the Cherokee National Council that called for the death penalty for anybody who agreed to sell or dispose of tribal lands. So by doing this Ridge and those who had signed the New Echota Treaty all signed their own death warrants and gave Jackson the means by which to begin the removal of the Cherokee to Indian Territory.[10] The Senate ratified the treaty knowing that only a minority had accepted it. Major Ridge was paid $30,000 for his land in Georgia far more than it was actually worth and those who signed with him were given a thousand dollars each. The terms of the treaty gave the Cherokee two years to evacuate their homes and move west.

In May of 1838 General Winfield Scott arrived in Georgia with around 7000 federal troops and began arresting Cherokees and placing them in the stockades until they could be moved to the west. There were over thirty forts that had been built for this purpose in the last eight years since the Indian Removal Act was signed by President Jackson. They were little more than concentration camps, overcrowded and with little comfort or food. The Cherokees were taken from their homes, fields, roads where ever they were and given little time to gather any goods or clothing to take with them. In some cases families were separated if not together when taken. Nearly always it was at bayonet point. Elderly, children, women and men all were pushed and prodded along the way to the stockades where many of them became ill.

In June the first group numbering close to eight hundred left from Ross’ Landing near present day Chattanooga on the water route by flat boats lashed to the sides of a Steamboat. Many of these first who left refused any kind of help, food or clothing from the government as they felt that it would mean that they were accepting the removal and they were not.[11] There were many deaths because of the heat and drought, mostly children. The deaths from this and the next contingent to leave was so great that Principal Chief Ross went to General Scott and asked that they be allowed to wait until the drought broke to leave and allowed to travel overland in wagons and manage the trip themselves. Scott gave his permission as long as they left by the first of October. Ross agreed to this. By the first of October the living conditions were so bad in the concentration camps that people were beginning to die in the camps, the drought and broke and now there was mud everywhere and the cold nights with little for clothing and cover began to take its toll on the weak, children and elderly.

The first group to travel on the northern route by wagon left on October 1, 1838, eleven more wagon trains left during the month of October. November 4, saw the last of the Cherokees start on the trail for the Indian Territory. This group was led by Principal Chief John Ross, himself. The northern route over which the wagons, horsemen and people on foot stretched from the mouth of the Hiwassee river in east Tennessee across the Cumberland Plateau to McMinnville and then north through Nashville where they crossed the Cumberland River to Hopkinsville, Kentucky and then to where the Ohio River met the Cumberland in southern Illinois and due west to Cape Girardeau, Missouri where they crossed the Mississippi. This trip was hard, long and cold. The food was not of the best quality, there was not enough warm clothing or even blankets and the roads were not hospitable at all. Cold rain, sleet and even snow made the roads almost impassable for the wagons which had to be manually pulled along the way at times. White people along the way charges tolls for them to cross their lands, use the roads and the ferries along the trail, often at twice the normal price. There were deaths on a daily basis. Chief Ross lost his own wife, Quatie Ross when she died of pneumonia after giving her only blanket to a child.[12]

When falling temperatures in January caused the Mississippi River to freeze many of the Cherokees were trapped on the banks unable to cross. This led to starvation and malnutrition as the food began to run out. In this weakened condition the people became easy victims of sicknesses, such as cholera and smallpox. Sixteen thousand Cherokee began the long journey; of this number at least four thousand are buried along the trail.[13] The last wagon train of immigrates reached their destination in the west in March 1839.

One soldier who had made the trip as a guard wrote the following report of it some years later: “I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west…On the morning of November 17th we encountered a terrific sleet and snow storm with freezing temperatures and from that day until we reached the end of the fateful journey on March the 26th 1839, the sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold and exposure…” by Private John G. Burnett, Captain Abraham G. McClellan’s Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Infantry, Cherokee Indian Removal.[14]

The removal of the Cherokees was I think one of the saddest and most unfounded acts of cruelty of the United States during the nineteenth century. The Cherokee were a people with a civilization equal to the whites that lived in the state of Georgia. They had a constitution and legislature, they held their own courts and policed their own lands, a good deal of them were Christian, they had schools, churches, a written language and had adopted many of the white man’s’ ways. Yet when gold was discovered near Dahlonega in the heart of the Cherokee Nation, the federal government did nothing to protect them from the land grabbers and the state of Georgia. The Cherokees acted in a civilized manner and took the case to court but even when after the second suite was found in their favor, President Jackson ignored it. Then President Martin Van Buren in 1838 sent the troops into begin the removal. Jackson patronized the Cherokees, saying such things as “My friends, circumstances render it impossible that you can flourish in the midst of a civilized community. You have but one remedy within your reach, and that is to remove to the west. And the sooner you do this, the sooner you will commence your career of improvement and prosperity.” President Van Buren simply forced them to accept. When the last of the Cherokees reached the Indian Territory, it was not long before the signers of the New Echota Treaty paid for their deed of betrayal to the people with their own lives. Then the Cherokee got down to the business of rebuilding the Cherokee Nation in the new land. They would never forget though the “trail where they cried”; The Trail of Tears, a sad note in our history as a young republic.

[1]Bradley University, “The Trail of Tears Across the Mississippi Valley” (2009) (accessed 14 December 2010).

[2] National Park Service, “Cherokee Removal _ the Trail Where They Cried” (1992) Http:// (accessed 15 December 2010).

[3] Lucy Maddox, removals: Nineteenth Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991),26

[4] (Bradley University 2009)

[5] Lindsay G. Robertson, Conquest by Law (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 144.

[6] Dee Brown, “The Trail of Tears/American History Illustrated” (June 1972) (accessed 17 December 2010).

[7] (Bradley University 2009)

[8] Helen Jackson, A Century of Dishonor (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1895), 14.

[9] (Brown 1972)

[10] (Bradley University 2009)

[11] (Bradley University 2009)

[12] (Bradley University 2009)

[13] (Brown 1972)

[14] (Bradley University 2009)


National Park Service. Cherokee Removal - the Trail where They Cried. 1992. (accessed December 15, 2010).

Bradley University. The Trails of Tears Across the Mississippi Valley. 2009. (accessed December 14, 2010).

Brown, Dee. The Trail of Tears. 1972. (accessed December 17, 2010).

Jackson, Helen. Century of Dishonor. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1895.

Maddox, Lucy. Removal: Nineteenth Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Miles, Tiya. Ties That Bind: The Story of Afro-Cherokee Family in slavery and Freedom. Berkely : University California Press, 2005.

Robertson, Lindsay G. Conquest by Law. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Thornton, Russell. "Cherokee Population Losses During the Trail of Tears: A New Perspective and a New Estimate." Ethno History (Duke University Press) 31, no. 4 (Autumn, 1984): 289-300.

Wilkins, David E. American Indian Sovereignty and the US supreme Court: the Masking of Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      i am cherokkee and this really saddens me

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      6 years ago from Essex, UK

      maridax; this is an excellently written appraisal of the history behind the enforced removal of the Cherokee from Georgia. It's not a nice chapter in the history of America is it?

      This is one of the more informative essays on native American history on HubPages, and as such I have included it in a HubPage review of my favourite articles on this subject matter, which has just been published. Hope it brings a little more traffic to your hub. Alun.

    • maridax profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from North Central Arkansas,USA

      Thank you.History is my passion and the fact that so much of what we were taught in school was not the whole truth has sent me on a search for that truth.

    • WesternHistory profile image


      7 years ago from California

      Very interesting story. Voted up. The relocation of the Cherokees as well as other tribes from Sioux to Apache was due to land.

      You make a good point that regardless of assimilation the Native Americans were relocated either to defined reservations or to the Indian Territory. The settlers wanted Indian land and assimilation really was secondary. Assimilation was attempted and urged once the Indian was put on reservations.


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