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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Ross used that opinion to bring another suit, this time challenging the arrests of white missionaries who had refused to swear allegiance to Georgia. Now faced with a case involving U.S. citizens, the court was forced to act. On March 3, 1832, the justices declared the arrests unconstitutional and said Georgia could not extend its laws to Cherokee land. They also ruled that the federal government, by treaty, had the authority to protect Indian tribes from state intrusions. Taking aim at removal, Marshall wrote, “Protection does not imply the destruction of the protected.”

Ross wrote to some Cherokee delegates in Washington, “[T]here are great rejoicings throughout the [Cherokee] nation.”

But Jackson declared the ruling “stillborn.”

A month later, Major Ridge’s son John and two other Cherokees were in Washington, trying to determine whether the federal government would enforce the court’s decision. Jackson met with them only to send them home to tell their people “that their only hope of relief was in abandoning their country and removing to the West.”

Jackson’s resolve unnerved the younger Ridge. Gradually, he realized that court victory or not, his people were losing ground. But he could not relay that message to the tribe for fear of being branded a traitor, or killed. He was even hesitant to confide in his father, believing Major Ridge would be ashamed of him.

But the son underestimated his father. Major Ridge judged his people’s prospects by their suffering, and he knew the situation was far worse than anyone had dared to admit. Forbidden to meet by Georgia law, the Cherokees had abandoned New Echota in 1831. Settlers were confiscating their homesteads and livestock. By sharing his thoughts on Jackson, John Ridge helped his father come to the conclusion that the tribe had to at least consider going west.

But Major Ridge kept his feelings private, believing he needed to buy time to persuade his people to think about uprooting. At the same time, he began to wonder how Ross could remain so strident in his resistance. Couldn’t he see that his strategy was bearing no fruit?

Ross met twice with Jackson at the White House, to no avail. When Jackson offered $3 million to move the Cherokees west, arguing that Georgia would not give up its claims to Cherokee land, Ross suggested he use the money to buy off the Georgia settlers.


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