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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A month later, Andrew Jackson was elected president of the United States. He would test the Cherokees’ leadership soon enough, but even before Jackson was inaugurated, Georgia presented a more immediate threat, passing laws that annexed Cherokee land and extended state laws to that territory. Within two years, the state would require any whites living among the Indians—such as missionaries—to sign an oath of allegiance to the state or get out.

Ross spent much of those two years in Washington, trying to overturn the new laws. Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton, told Ross the tribe’s troubles had been self-inflicted: by adopting a constitution, it had insulted Georgia’s sovereignty. As the months passed and Georgia’s deadline loomed, some 500 Cherokees abandoned their homes and headed west to join earlier emigrants. Major Ridge grew alarmed: the fewer Cherokees who remained, the easier they would be to displace. He set out on a speaking tour intended to calm tribe members inclined to flee. He told large crowds that they had been targeted not because they were weak, but because they were strong and had “unexpectedly become civilized.”

“It is too much for us now to be honest, and virtuous, and industrious,” he noted sarcastically, “because then are we capable of aspiring to the rank of Christians and Politicians, which renders our attachment to the soil more strong.”

When Ross returned from Washington, he joined Ridge’s campaign, rousing crowds with his defiant oratory. He told a missionary friend that his “hopes of success were never greater.”

But more trouble was on the way: gold had been discovered on tribal land in Georgia, drawing a new wave of settlers, and President Jackson was not about to stop them. In February 1830, the tribe exercised its legal right to evict squatters; Ridge, then 60, led a two-day raid in which Cherokees burned settlers’ houses and outbuildings. After Georgia authorities sent a posse after the Cherokees, gunfire rang out through northern Georgia.

The timing could hardly have been worse: at that very moment, Congress was hotly debating the Indian removal bill, a measure Jackson had introduced to establish an “ample district” west of the Mississippi to which the Indians of the South could move. On one hand, he had said in his inaugural address, Indian emigration “should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers and seek a home in a distant land.” On the other, he made it clear that Indians could not live as independent peoples within the United States: “surrounded by the whites with their arts of civilization” they would be doomed “to weakness and decay.” They had either to submit to state laws or go.

Congress passed the removal bill that May, and by September Jackson had begun negotiating with the Chickasaws, the Choctaws and the remaining Creeks to move west. Within four years they would be under land cession treaties or on the move. Some Seminoles also left in the early 1830s, and others fought the Army in Florida for several years. But Ross refused even to meet with Jackson. Instead, he turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to invalidate Georgia’s removal law.

As the court’s spring session opened in March 1831, Georgia officials roamed the Capitol to rally states’ rights advocates to the idea of stripping the justices of their power to review the acts of state governments. The justices—in an act that historians would say reflected their worry over the talk coming out of Congress—ruled that they lacked jurisdiction over the Cherokees’ claims against Georgia. Chief Justice John Marshall offered their only hope when he wrote that “the Indians are acknowledged to have an unquestionable...right to the lands they occupy.”


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