Indian Removal and the Focus on the Cherokee

When one thinks about the topic of Indian Removal during the 1830s in American history, there tends to be a focus on the Cherokee tribe as the only Indians to be affected. This of course is not the case. There were five main, “civilized” tribes that were impacted by American policy and were left with no other choice then to move west. Those other tribes are the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and the Seminole. With that knowledge in mind the question remains as to why the Cherokee stick out in the minds of those discussing the issue. The reason for this is that the Cherokee have been made to represent the poster child for the entire Indian removal period in American history. This will be shown through an analysis of the Cherokee’s relationship with the Americans and through an analysis of what the other tribes did during the same time period.

First, the amount of land the Cherokees lost even before they were forced to move was enormous. Before the American Revolution the Cherokee inhabited 124,000 square miles of land. After the war they had suffered a loss of 60% of their land. By 1819 they only inhabited 17,000 square miles. The Cherokee were willing to work with the Americans. The Cherokee more than the other tribes in North America, tried to adopt the Anglo-American culture. Very quickly the Cherokees had completely altered their society and modified their traditional culture to adjust to United States policy. They were hoping to preserve their tribal integrity. The Cherokee believed that if they could do the things the white man requested, they would in turn gain the white man’s respect.

The Americans initially wanted to “civilize” the Indians. This assimilation into the white’s culture involved the Indians giving up things like, hunting, their language, religion, tribal organizations, and their customs. The Whites believed that if the Indians did the things they asked it would benefit the Indians and the new nation. From this perspective it seemed generous. All of it was really just an attempt to take land their land. One idea that the Americans had was that if the Indians did not hunt, their hunting lands would become something that the Indians would willingly exchange for funds to support their assimilation process. The assimilation process had the opposite effect of what the Americans had hoped for. The Cherokee wanted respect as tribe for honoring all the requests that the whites had given them. “They established schools, written laws, and abolished clan revenge.” There were even the few Cherokee who built plantation houses and owned slaves.

This road the Cherokee had taken to assimilate did not go without some hinders to the progress. In 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase occurred, the Americans had an option. They did not have to civilize the Indians if they didn’t want to, they could remove the Indians from their lands. Because many Indians didn’t want to give up their ways, and it was taking too long for most Indians to assimilate, whites started to believe that the only option besides destroying them, was removing them to the west. In 1817 the first treaty with the Cherokee was negotiated that included provisions for removal. The plan was that Cherokees that wanted could exchange lands in the southeast for territory west of the Mississippi river. The American government promised assistance in resettling for those that chose to move. About 1500 to 2000 did move. The treaty also included a provision for an experiment in citizenship. The plan there was that an Indian could apply for a 640-acre reserve and citizenship. The Cherokee leaders were in opposition to this treaty as were most Cherokees. The experiment in citizenship might have worked to benefit assimilation had it not been for white greed and the growing strength of the states rights movement. In 1819 the Cherokee council voted to deny citizenship to any Cherokee who emigrated to the west or accepted a reserve. They were stuck in the middle because they wanted to remain as their own people and yet not are forced to move from their land. In 1819 another treaty was negotiated with a provision that stated that the Cherokee could, “maintain communal ownership of more than 10 million acres of their ancestral lands in the East.” This meant that the Cherokee ceded 4 million acres of land to the Americans. The Cherokees hoped and believed that this final cession would end any removal efforts.

The Cherokee accelerated their acculturation efforts. They increased written laws and established a bicameral legislature. In 1827 they established a supreme court and a constitution. They were trying to prove that a Cherokee could do all the things a white man could do. It is clear that the Cherokee rose to the standards that were set out for them by the whites. The problem was that most whites ascribed to the idea of white superiority. They believed that no matter how civilized an Indian might seem; he would always maintain his savage nature.

The states saw the Cherokee constitution as a challenge to states rights, especially Georgians. The Cherokee constitution claimed sovereignty over tribal lands, which effectively established a state within a state. Georgians argued that this violated the United States Constitution and that the federal government was not doing anything to fix the situation. When Jackson gave his inaugural address he recognized state control over local Indians, repudiated Cherokee claims to sovereignty, and called for Congress to provide for Indian removal. Gerogia, believing the federal government would back them, passed laws abolishing Cherokee government. The Cherokee took their case to the United States Supreme Court. In Worcester v. Gerogia Chief Justice John Marshall declared that Georgia had exceeded its authority by extending state law into Cherokee territory. Georgia chose to ignore the decision instead of challenge it. This along with other factors shaking the country at the time led the federal government to make the decision to remove the Cherokee west in order to preserve the union.

A minority group led by John Ridge believed that removal was eventually going to happen and they sought to get it on the best possible terms. The majority of Cherokee led by Chief John Ross opposed removal. The United States ignored the majority and negotiated the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 with the minority group. In spite of a petition of over 15,000 Cherokees protesting the treaty, the Senate ratified the treaty in 1836. The Cherokee were given two years to move. In the two years time only 2,000 had moved. The government decided to send 7,000 militiamen and volunteers to force the Cherokee to move at gunpoint. Thus began the Cherokee “Trail of Tears.” The Cherokee worked extremely hard to gain the respect of the whites, but in the end were forced to move anyway. To better understand why the Cherokee are the poster people for Indian removal, I will examine the other “civilized” tribes, starting with the Choctaw.

For the most part, the Choctaw were neutral in the American Revolution. Some served as scouts for Washington, but that was about it. The Choctaw did have reason to side with the British against the American settlers who had take some of their land, but they also were upset with the British for driving out the French, who had been friends with the Choctaw. The American settlers had reason to befriend the Choctaw. They were seen as a buffer between the United States and the Spanish and French. Once the Spanish and French were gone, the Choctaw no longer served this purpose to the Americans and the whites eyed their land greedily. Under President Monroe, John C. Calhoun was secretary of war. During his time in office, he completely reorganized the war department, including how Indians were to be dealt with. He was moderate in his views. He wanted to remove the Indians, but he did not want to use force. He chose to attempt to remove the Choctaws first because he felt that if the relatively peaceful removal of a large tribe was successful, it would make the other tribes consider removal on their own. The Americans felt Calhoun’s policies were taking to long to get rid of the Choctaw. They wanted their land immediately. When Jackson became president the handling of the Choctaw changed drastically.

Before Jackson became President the Choctaw had signed many treaties with the United States government. The first, known as the Treaty of Hopewell, signed January 3rd, 1786 ceded 69,120 acres of Choctaw land to the United States in exchange for protection. The Treaty of Fort Adams signed in 1801, gave the Choctaw relief from a famine but cost them over two million acres of land. Then in 1802 the Treaty of Fort Confederation saw the Choctaw loss of another fifty thousand acres. Trading posts in Choctaw areas encouraged them to run up massive debts on credit. In order to pay back the debt the Choctaw signed the Treaty of Hoe Buckintoopa in 1803 and the Treaty of Mount Dexter in 1805. Jackson was willing to use force to remove the Indians. State and federal threats on the Choctaw forced them to sign the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830. The Choctaw were removed in three groups stating in 1831. The United States government wanted to be as generous as possible to the first to leave in order to encourage the rest to follow suit. When the first group reached Little Rock Arkansas a reporter interviewed a Choctaw chief. He was quoted as saying the removal had been. “a trail of tears and death.” This quote was picked up by the eastern press and later associated with the Cherokee removal. Some Choctaw remained but those who did found life quite difficult. From the information here it is easy to see that the Choctaw complied with removal years before the other tribes. Next I will examine the Chickasaw tribe.

The Chickasaws did not sign a formal treaty of removal until 1837, however, they were very aware that removal was inevitable. In November of 1830 Chickasaw leaders traveled west of Arkansas to survey the land for a possible relocation site. The Ratification of the Treaty of Franklin depended upon this trip. A few months after the trip one tribal leader, Levi Colbert, wrote a letter to President Andrew Jackson in which he described the land as unsuitable for the Chickasaw. The Treaty of Franklin was void, but excitement began over the possibility of Indians passing through central Arkansas during emigration. A few months after the 1830 Chickasaw leaders passed through Little Rock the Arkansas Gazette reported on the probable route of the tribes through central Arkansas to their new homes. The strategic positions of the North Little Rock and Little Rock sites were evident. In 1833 another group of Chickasaw leaders went through the area to find suitable land under the Treaty of Pontotoc. There were parties who traveled west in 1835 and 1836 as well, but it took until January 1837 for a treaty to be agreed upon by both sides. The party of 1836 established an agreement with the Choctaw at Doaksville, Indian Territory, whereby the Chickasaws could purchase a part of the western portion of the Choctaw domain as a permanent home. At the time, the Chickasaws numbered about 4,914 and 1,156 slaves. Once this treaty was signed, arrangements were made for Chickasaw removal to begin in the summer 1837. During the years of 1837 and 1838 parties of Chickasaw emigrated west. By the end of 1838 nearly all of the Chickasaw had moved off their land. The Chickasaw did not move as early as the Choctaw, but this is because they took time to find land suitable enough to settle on. They did, however, cooperate with the idea of Indian removal, just as the Choctaw had. Next I will look at the Creek tribe.

The Creeks for the most part remained neutral in the American Revolution. There were some small factions that fought on either side, but nothing to take note about. In 1783 two chiefs, Tallassee and Cusseta ceded Creek land to the United States. After this the relationship between Georgia and the Creeks was growing worse. In 1786 the Creeks declared war. Two attempts at treaty were made, but there was no peace between the two sides until after the War of 1812. After a war with the Red Sticks, where General Jackson fought alongside Creeks and Cherokees, Jackson forced the Creeks to cede a third of its entire land to the United States. Chief McIntosh had gained the support of a strong majority of the Creeks. He was however the first cousin of George Troup the governor of Georgia elected in 1823. In 1825 the two men signed the Treaty of Indian Springs. This gave Georgia all Lower Creek land. McIntosh had been played by the government and technically had no mandate to sign the treaty from his people. Still the treaty was ratified. In 1826 President John Quincy Adams negotiated the Treaty of Washington with the Creeks. This treaty was no better that Indian Springs, but Troup was against it. He began to remove the Creeks by force. The federal government did not step in. The Creeks were forced west. The Creeks as opposed to the tribes previously discussed took on a course of violence against the United States and had to be removed by force. The final tribe we will look at is the Seminole, who also fight back against the United States, but to an even greater degree.

After the United States took control of Florida in 1821, instigated partially by fighting between United States forces led by General Andrew Jackson and the Seminoles in North Florida between 1817 and 1818, which is referred to as the First Seminole War, it negotiated the Treaty of Moultrie Creek in 1823 to establish a Seminole reservation in Central Florida. In 1832, the U.S. arranged a second agreement; the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, which required the Seminole people to move west of the Mississippi within three years. Ratified in 1834, the treaty was signed by some but not all Seminole leaders. As the United States Army moved in to force the Seminoles’ removal, many resisted, led by fighters such as Micanopy and Osceola. The result was a lengthy and bloody war between 1835 and 1842. This became known as the Second Seminole War. As in the first war, fugitive slaves fought beside the Seminoles who had taken them in. Thousands of lives were lost in the war, which cost the Jackson administration approximately 40 to 60 million dollars. The Seminole consisted of many towns, clans, and political organizations that shared a common culture and language. Because they were nowhere near as unified as the American forces, confusion and accusations of betrayal amounted upon the Seminoles. This ultimately led to their defeat and forced emigration west. A few did remain and had to defend themselves in the Third Seminole War from 1855 to 1858 from being forced out. They were finally paid to leave. The Seminoles took similar approach as the Creeks, but a completely different approach to dealing with the Americans than the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw. While the latter three sought peaceful means to emigration because for the most part they had accepted their fate, the Seminoles lashed out against the United States and fought violently to keep their lands. In the end of course they were no match for the United States Army.

The “Five Civilized Tribes” did not want to give up their land to the United States. The tribes eventually took their own path in how they would deal with the United States. Some like the Choctaw and Chickasaw saw the futility in trying to fight and worked with the United States for peaceful removal from their lands. Others like the Seminole and Creeks fought back against the United States, but were eventually defeated and forced to move. Then there is the Cherokee. They appeared to have taken the noblest of paths. They wanted the respect of the whites, but they went above and beyond in terms of assimilation, when compared to the other tribes. Yet in the end they were disgraced and forced to leave their lands. It would seem appropriate then for the Cherokee to be made out to be the “poster people” for Indian removal. The Choctaw and the Chickasaw basically gave up and moved peacefully. This would seem hardly appropriate to make them the symbol of the hardships faced on the “Trail of Tears.” The Seminole and Creeks have a better shot and being recognized because they tried to fight to keep their lands. Even so the use of violence on their part takes away from their effectiveness as the symbol of the struggles faced on the “Trail of Tears” The Cherokee make for the best symbol. They worked so hard to establish themselves as equal among the whites, and yet the white sense of superiority won in the end the Cherokee were forced off their land to face the hardships on the “Trail of Tears” This is why we hear so much more about the Cherokee and why they are the only tribe typically associated with the “Trail of Tears.”

Although the five Indian nations had made earlier attempts at resistance, many of their strategies were non-violent. One method was to adopt Anglo-American practices such as large-scale farming, Western education, and slave holding. This earned the nations the designation of the “Five Civilized Tribes.” They adopted this policy of assimilation in an attempt to coexist with settlers and ward off hostility. But it only made whites jealous and resentful. The United States put into action legislation to remove the Indians from their lands. They did this out of greed and a belief of superiority to the Indians. The Indian tribes in turn chose their course of action. There were some that gave in and moved west without much of a struggle. Others defended their rights to their land and fought the United States before being forced to move. But it was the Cherokee who rose above the other tribes as the one most often talked about and associated with Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears. It was because of the path they chose to gain respect of the whites without violence that established them as a poster people of the Trail of Tears.