May 07, 2009

Removal in Trail of Tears

Continuing the discussion of Trail of Tears, the third episode of PBS's We Shall Remain series:

Here are some of the key steps in the progression to the Trail of Tears:

The Cherokee government declared its absolute sovereignty within its borders. The state of Georgia didn't accept this.

Gold was discovered in Cherokee territory.

Southern frontiersmen elected Andrew Jackson president.

The Indian Removal Bill was Jackson's first priority in office.

The white man's thinking became more racist. Cherokees were deemed inferior, unable to become like whites.

While the Cherokees sought allies, other tribes prepared for removal.

Georgia passed laws outlawing Cherokee government. Missionaries had to sign loyalty oaths. The federal government offered no protection.

Major Ridge thought the Cherokees were better served by an English-speaking principal chief. His son John was too young, so he backed John Ross.

Ross rewrote the "blood law." Any Cherokee who made a deal to sell land to the US without the consent of entire tribe faced severe consequences.

The Supreme Court ruling

Ross sought to shame the Americans in court. He filed more than a dozen separate suits.

In Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled for the Cherokee, but Jackson refused to recognize the verdict.

The Cherokees realized they could stay and fight, or leave. But their nation wasn't strong enough to win a war.

The US renewed its offer of cash and land west of the Mississippi. The Ridges were ready to listen.

As Trail of Tears puts it, they believed the choice was preserving their land or preserving their sovereignty. They thought the latter was more important.

But they were in the minority. 16,000 traditional Cherokees said they wanted to stay and backed John Ross.

John Ridge prepared to run for chief against John Ross. The Ridges thought they could convince the Cherokee to go.

Ross canceled the elections, and John Ridge denounced Ross as a dictator.

At an emergency session at Red Clay, in the summer of 1834, Ross took aim at Major Ridge. His backers decided to impeach the Ridges from the tribal council.

The Treaty of New Echota

Major Ridge and a few of his followers, including Ross's brother, signed a treaty ceding the Cherokee land to the US. They didn't have the authority to do this; in fact, they knew they were violating Cherokee law and would be considered traitors.

In defiance of Ross and the council, Major Ridge and a few of his followers, including Ross's brother, met in private. They signed Treaty of New Echota, which ceded the Cherokee land to the US.

As Trail of Tears puts it, they had come to believe what they were telling themselves. "We're the ones who have to take action for those who don't understand."

They felt a heavy burden knowing the others would see them as traitors worthy of the death penalty.

The Ridges and 2,000 of their people journeyed west. The others were told they had two years to leave. They continued farming lands as if nothing would happen.

Three days after the appointed departure date, 7,000 troops ringed the Cherokee territory. White settlers were ready to take land.

Ross wrote a petition to the government. It was signed by 15,665 Cherokees--almost every single adult. Congress ignored it.

The Trail of Tears

Federal and state troops moved in. They forced the Cherokees into the road with only the clothes on their backs. They put them into staging areas, which were basically stockades or cattle pens.

Ross took over the organization of the removal. 12,000 waited in the fetid stockades for the summer season of disease to end.

They began the final trip in December. It turned out to be one of the harshest hardest winters in memory. A quarter of the Cherokees died on the way.

For more on the subject, see Slave-Owning in Trail of Tears and Review of Trail of Tears.

Below:  John Ridge.

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