Dec. 29 marks Treaty of New Echota’s 182nd anniversary
The signing of the Treaty of New Echota on Dec. 29, 1835, is depicted at the New Echota Historic Site in Calhoun, Georgia. The signers are shown signing the treaty in the parlor of former Cherokee Phoenix Editor Elias Boudinot. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – “The Cherokee Nation hereby cede, relinquish and convey to the United States all the lands owned claimed or possessed by them east of the Mississippi River.”
Those fateful words are a part of the Treaty of New Echota signed Dec. 29, 1835, in New Echota, Georgia, by 21 Cherokee headmen and two government officials. The signing, 182 years ago, ended nearly 20 years of efforts by the U.S. government to push the Cherokee people west beyond the Mississippi.
When the tribe first entered into treaties with the British in 1721 its estimated holdings included slightly less than 80 million acres. By 1817, the tribe held less than 15 million acres of its original lands.
An 1825 census revealed a population of 13,563 Cherokee, 220 whites and 1,277 slaves within the tribe’s borders. In the 1820s, the CN claimed 7.8 million acres in what is now eastern Tennessee, eastern Alabama, western North Carolina and northern Georgia. The tribe’s capital was located in New Echota.
On July 26, 1827, perhaps to strengthen its position against Georgia claims on their lands, the CN adopted a constitution. As expected, Georgia immediately resented and condemned the document.
Though they didn’t realize it, the results of the 1828 national election sealed the future of the Cherokee people. The new president, Andrew Jackson, had already made it clear he wanted all tribes living in the southeast to move west, and the Georgia legislature interpreted Jackson’s election as a mandate to move ahead with its plans to extinguish Indian claims in the state.
In December of 1828, Georgia lawmakers passed a bill that stated after June 1, 1830, the Cherokee people would be under the jurisdiction of Georgia law. Perhaps the most stinging of all the bills Georgia enacted was the one stating, “That no Indian or descendant of an Indian residing within the Creek or Cherokee Nations of Indians shall be deemed a competent witness in any court of this state to which a white person may be a party.”
Cherokee leaders hoped the situation had turned in their favor on March 3, 1832, when the U.S. Supreme Court led by Judge John Marshall declared in Worcester v. Georgia that the United States had assumed the treaty relationships, which Great Britain had set up before 1784.
“The Cherokee Nation, then,” the opinion read, “is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force.”
Jackson reacted and was reported to say: “John Marshall has made his decision: Now let him enforce it.”
In his annual message to Congress in December 1833, Jackson said: “…tribes can not exist surrounded by our citizens is certain. They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire to improvement, which are essential to any favorable change in their condition.”
The following year, CN leaders began to divide on the removal issue. Chief John Ross and his followers stood against removal, but it became evident that a band of Cherokee leaders were beginning to favor escaping what had become an uncomfortable position. The removal faction, led by Major Ridge, his son John Ridge and his nephew Elias Boudinot, negotiated a treaty on June 19, 1834, which called for removal of the tribe to the west. Despite protests from the Ross faction, the treaty was presented to the U.S. Senate but was not ratified.
In February 1835, both Ross and John Ridge led their delegations into Washington. Sensing an agreement between Ridge and federal authorities, Ross’ group made a proposal to the government, which called for removal on the basis of a $20 million allowance for the Georgia lands. Because of the large sum requested, the offer was not considered and a counter offer of $5 million was offered to Ross.
Federal authorities were also in touch with the Ridge faction and appointed the Rev. John F. Schermerhorn to act as government negotiator.
The tribe’s council met in October 1835 at Red Clay, Tennessee, in the CN and followed Ross’ advice to reject the Ridge treaty. Ridge and Ross had apparently reached some understanding on the matter. The council approved Ross’ plan to return to Washington and press for a different treaty.
Before the council at Red Clay adjourned, Schermerhorn served notice that a similar meeting would be held at New Echota in December to reopen the treaty issue. He ordered news of the meeting distributed throughout the CN and added Cherokees not in attendance would be assumed to favor any treaty that might be negotiated there.
A committee was chosen to negotiate with Schermerhorn on Dec. 23, and for five days the group discussed the $5 million figure mentioned by various senators when Ross’ earlier proposal was rejected.
Schermerhorn, Major Ridge, John Ridge, Andrew Ross (John’s brother), Elias Boudinot and 17 other tribal men signed a conditional treaty on Dec. 29. The document called for a grant of $5 million for the ceded lands and a guarantee of 7 million acres of western territory. The removal was to begin within two years after the treaty was ratified by the Senate.
John Ross denounced the treaty and returned to Washington to protest its provisions and fight against its ratification. He went to the capital with a protest signed by 12,714 Cherokees, but Jackson let it be known that the federal government would no longer recognize any existing government among the Cherokees.
The New Echota Treaty was ratified May 23, 1836. The actual removal of Cherokee people then became the military’s problem to solve.
The Ridge family left the old CN in March 1837. Government records show about 700 Cherokees removed themselves to Indian Territory that year. In early 1838, 250 more Cherokees headed west.
In May 1838 those Cherokees who had refused to give up their lands began to be rounded up by U.S. soldiers for the forced removal west. Many of them may not have understood the treaty that sold their lands, but they were now going to suffer the consequences of it. Sources:
Wilkins, Thurman, “Cherokee Tragedy – The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People,” University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
Rutland, Robert, “Political Backgrounds of the Cherokee Treaty of New Echota,” Chronicles of Oklahoma