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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By spring 1833, the Cherokees were split between a National Party, opposed to removal, and a Treaty Party, in favor of it. As factional violence flared, some of the most influential Cherokees signed a letter to Ross saying their ongoing “course of policy” would “not result in the restoration of those rights” that had been taken from them. In signing the letter, Ridge acknowledged that he had softened on removal. In a closed meeting, the chiefs gave Ross until fall to resolve the impasse with the government before they made the letter public.

Under so much pressure—from the state of Georgia, the federal government and a stream of settlers—the tribe began to disintegrate. Some Cherokees—including Ross’ brother Andrew—set out for Washington to broker their own deals. John Ridge quietly continued to recruit members to the Treaty Party and make overtures to Jackson. When Ross learned of these efforts, he tried to pre-empt them, proposing to cede Cherokee land in Georgia and to have Cherokees in other states become U.S. citizens.

By then, the rift between Ross and Major Ridge was widening: when Ridge heard of the chief’s offer, he saw it not just as a bargaining ploy but as an abuse of power. Without the blessing of the other chiefs, Ridge said, Ross had no more power to make a treaty than his traitorous brother.

The majority of the tribe members remained opposed to removal, but the Ridges began advocating the idea more openly—and when they broached it at a council meeting in Red Clay, Tennessee, in August 1834, one Cherokee spoke of shooting them. Father and son slipped away unharmed, but by the end of the summer the Cherokees were trading rumors—false—that Ross and Major Ridge had each hired someone to kill the other.

In September 1834, Ridge visited Ross at his home to put the rumors to rest. They tried to talk as they once had, but the only thing they could agree on was that all talk of murder had to stop. Ridge believed Ross’ intransigence was leading the Cherokees to destruction. Ross thought his oldest friend had become soft, unduly influenced by his son.

By January 1835, the council had sent Ross back to Washington with instructions to again seek federal protection, and the Treaty Party had sent John Ridge to broker a deal. Afraid of being outflanked by the Treaty Party, Ross told Jackson the Cherokees would leave their land for $20 million. He was stalling; he knew the federal government would never pay that much. When Jackson rejected him, Ross proposed that the Senate come up with an offer. When the Senate named its price as $5 million, Ross said he would take the offer to the council but wouldn’t be bound by that figure. By then Jackson had lost his patience. In late 1835, he dispatched a commissioner to Georgia to seal an agreement with the Treaty Party leaders.

They met in New Echota, the deserted Cherokee capital. The terms were simple: the Cherokees would receive $5 million for all their land east of the Mississippi. The government would help them move and promise never to take their new land or incorporate it into the United States. The Cherokees would have two years to leave.

It was Major Ridge who outlined the final argument to those present. “They are strong and we are weak,” he said. “We are few, they are many....We can never forget these homes, I know, but an unbending, iron necessity tells us we must leave them. I would willingly die to preserve them, but any forcible effort to keep them will cost us our lands, our lives and the lives of our children. There is but one path to safety, one road to future existence as a Nation.”


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