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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On December 29, a small group of Cherokees gathered at the home of Ridge’s nephew Elias Boudinot to sign the Treaty of New Echota. After Ridge made his mark, he paused and said, “I have signed my death warrant.”

John Ross tried to overturn the treaty for two years but failed. In May 1838, U.S. troops herded more than 16,000 Cherokees into holding camps to await removal to present-day Oklahoma. Indians who tried to flee were shot, while those who waited in the camps suffered from malnutrition, dysentery and even sexual assault by the troops guarding them. Within a month, the first Cherokees were moved out in detachments of around a thousand, with the first groups leaving in the summer heat and a severe drought. So many died that the Army delayed further removal until the fall, which meant the Cherokees would be on the trail in winter. At least a quarter of them—4,000—would perish during the relocation.

Ridge headed west ahead of his tribesmen and survived the journey, but on the morning of June 22, 1839, separate groups of vengeful Cherokees murdered him, John Ridge and Boudinot. Ross, appalled, publicly mourned the deaths. “Once I saved Major Ridge at Red Clay, and would have done so again had I known of the plot,” he told friends.

John Ross served as principal chief for 27 more years. He oversaw the construction of schools and a courthouse for the new capital, and spent years petitioning the federal government to pay the $5 million it owed his people. (It wasn’t fully paid until 1852.) Even as his health failed, Ross would not quit. In 1866, he was in Washington to sign yet another treaty—one that would extend Cherokee citizenship to freed Cherokee slaves—when he died on August 1, two months shy of his 76th birthday. More than three decades later, the federal government appropriated Indian property in the West and forced the tribes to accept land reservations. Today, many of the country’s 300,000 Cherokees still live in Oklahoma.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred erroneously to events having taken place in the Alabama Territory in 1813 and 1814. The territory was not organized until 1817

Adapted from Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears, by Brian Hicks. Copyright © 2011. With the permission of the Atlantic Monthly Press.


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