The Cherokees vs. Andrew Jackson

John Ross and Major Ridge tried diplomatic and legal strategies to maintain autonomy, but the new president had other plans

John Ross, left, and Major Ridge teamed up to protect Cherokee holdings in what is now Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Library of Congress)
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Ridge’s embrace of change was initially unpopular among his tribesmen, but few questioned his loyalty. In 1807 he had helped kill the powerful Cherokee chief Doublehead for selling tribal hunting grounds for personal profit. And in 1808, when white U.S. Indian agents enticed principal chief Black Fox into proposing that the tribe move west, Ridge had been the first to protest. “As a man he has a right to give his opinion,” Ridge declared before the Cherokees’ ruling council, “but the opinion he has given as the chief of this nation is not binding; it was not formed in council in the light of day, but was made up in a corner—to drag this people, without their consent, from their own country, to the dark land of the setting sun.”

By 1813, Ridge had seen enough of politics to understand the diplomatic advantage to be gained from joining the Tennesseans against the Red Sticks. The Cherokees might even have realized that advantage had it not been for the militia leader they fought under: Andrew Jackson.

As a boy in the 1770s, Jackson had listened to stories of Indian violence toward settlers, and with no apparent understanding of their motives, he developed prejudices that he—like many Americans of his day—held throughout his life. He routinely called Indians “savages” and people of mixed heritage “half-breeds,” and he was unshakable in his conviction that Indians should be removed from the South. When news that the Red Sticks were attacking settlers reached him in Nashville, he asked: “Is a citizen of the United States, to remain under the barbarous lash of cruel and unrelenting savages?”

In March 1814, Jackson tracked the Red Sticks to Horseshoe Bend, a peninsula formed by the Tallapoosa River in what is now Alabama, and launched a frontal assault on their breastworks. His troops might have been repulsed had the Cherokees not crossed the river and attacked from the rear. Caught between two attacking forces, the Red Sticks lost nearly 900 warriors in what proved to be the decisive battle of the war.

That day, a Cherokee named Junaluska saved Jackson from an attacker, prompting the Tennessean to declare, “As long as the sun shines and the grass grows, there shall be friendship between us.” But in the peace treaty he negotiated with the Creeks, Jackson confiscated 23 million acres of land in Alabama and Georgia—some of which belonged to the Cherokees.

In 1816, the Cherokees’ principal chief, Pathkiller, sent a delegation to Washington to reclaim that land. The delegates, who included Ross and Ridge, made quite an impression while mingling with the city’s elite. Ridge sang a Cherokee song so raunchy his interpreter declined to translate it. (“It’s just like a white man’s song,” Ridge joked in his limited English, “all about love and whiskey.”) Even so, a reporter from one newspaper, the National Intelligencer, wrote that “their appearance and deportment are such to entitle them to respect and attention.”

Because of his fluency in English, Ross became one of the Cherokees’ lead negotiators, and he proved more than a match for Secretary of War William Crawford. “It is foreign to the Cherokee principle to feign friendship where it does not exist,” Ross said, implying a contrast with Washington bureaucrats. “You have told us that your Government is determined to do justice to our nation and will never use oppressive means to make us act contrary to our welfare and free will.” The treaties the Cherokees had signed generally required them to give up large tracts of land but guaranteed their rights to whatever remained. Now they wanted those rights enforced.

After more than a month of back-and-forth debate, Crawford finally relented: the United States would restore the bulk of the land the Cherokees claimed. In return, the Cherokees agreed to sell a small tract in South Carolina for $5,000 (the 2011 equivalent of $78,800) to the state government.


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