By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
The politics of removal in the Cherokee Nation during the first four decades of the 19th century proved to be a critical and central episode not only in American Indian history but also in the history of federalist politics. Read on to know more.
The Impact of the Louisiana Purchase
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 fueled demands for expansion. It led to brutal violence, land cessions, and war that brought an end to effective Indian military resistance in the Ohio Country and the Southeast between 1790 and 1815.
For the Cherokee and all the tribal nations east of the Mississippi River, it meant that beleaguered Native communities in the east were quickly becoming surrounded and perceived as anachronistic.
More and more non-Native voices, including those of state and territorial governors, as well as the press and pundits, demanded that the federal government deliver a coup de grace by forcibly removing tribes throughout the Southeast and the Great Lakes region to areas west of the Mississippi River.
Learn more about Native Americans in the West.
The Georgia Compact
By the 1820s, Georgia’s political leaders strenuously argued that the state had already waited too long for removal, pointing especially to an agreement it forged with Thomas Jefferson’s administration in 1802 called the Georgia Compact.
In keeping with this agreement, the federal government paid Georgia $1.2 million to relinquish its claims to lands in present-day Alabama and Mississippi. In return, President Jefferson agreed to use federal treaty power to extinguish tribal land claims within the state’s limits peaceably and on reasonable terms.
After more than two decades of federal inaction—and, no less important, the discovery of gold in north Georgia—the state took matters into its own hands.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Georgia Passes Law for Cherokee
In 1828, Georgia passed a law stating its intention to extend civil and criminal jurisdiction over the Cherokee—a move that would surely diminish if not completely destroy Cherokee sovereignty.
The state bolstered its argument by pointing to the Supreme Court’s ruling in a case called Johnson v. M’Intosh. Handed down in 1823, this decision reasoned that the doctrine of discovery invested absolute underlying title in the discovering nation, in this case, the United States to the lands being discovered in this case, Indian land.
In other words, being discovered meant that Indigenous people immediately became mere tenants with nothing more than occupancy rights to the lands they had lived in for thousands of years.
The plot thickened when Georgia took this argument and, quite unexpectedly, argued that it had inherited title to Indian lands within its boundaries when it declared independence from the British, the original discovering nation. This happened before the founding of the United States, Georgia reasoned, and the state didn’t relinquish its claim to title afterward.
Nation-building Campaign by the Cherokee
The Cherokee leaders well understood the origins of the removal crisis, and discerned what consequences it carried for their people and their homelands.
After all, by the early 19th century, the Cherokee had already navigated many challenges posed by colonization, including the introduction of devastating disease, war, increased dependency, and land loss. As a whole, the Cherokee proved themselves to be cosmopolitan in outlook, readily integrating new ideas, beliefs, technologies, and material objects into their way of life.
So the Cherokee leaders devised innovative means of meeting this new crisis head on by engaging in a nation-building campaign of their own and then, in classic American fashion, by taking Georgia to court.
The Cherokee used strategic accommodation to reinforce their separate nationality, resist removal, and preserve their aboriginal lands.
Learn more about expansion with honor.
Strategic Accommodation of the Cherokee
Strategic accommodation took many forms. The Cherokee had already embraced the U.S. government’s civilization program. However, they also accepted missionaries into their communities, sent their sons and daughters to be trained in Christian schools, operated grain and lumber mills, and built brick-and-stone houses.
In what may come as an even greater surprise, the Cherokee also established plantations and adopted African-American slavery.
Cherokee Promote Literacy
Promoting literacy served as another cornerstone of their efforts. Rather than relying on the English language, however, the Cherokee developed a written form of their own language.
During the early 19th century, Sequoyah, also known as George Guess or Gist, created a unique syllabary containing more than 80 glyphs, each representing a combined consonant-vowel sound.
This amazing innovation made it possible for the Cherokee to achieve a higher literacy rate in Cherokee than their non-Indian neighbors had in English.
The Cherokee Phoenix
The unique syllabary also led to the publication of a national newsletter, the Cherokee Phoenix, edited by Elias Boudinot, and first published in 1828.
In addition to promoting literacy, the Cherokee Phoenix, which featured political commentary on the removal crisis, fostered the development of a national identity.
Establishment of the Cherokee Republic
Nation building also expressed itself in terms of dramatic political change. In 1818, for example, the Cherokee established the Cherokee Republic. Founded on traditional notions of leadership, decision-making continued to be based upon consensus and a clan-based system of belonging.
Then, between July 4 and July 26, 1827, the Cherokee convened to adopt a new constitution, which defined a system of government that featured a bicameral legislature, an executive branch, and a judiciary. No less important, it clearly delineated territorial boundaries and reaffirmed the common ownership of the land.
Two years later, the National Council even made the selling of tribal lands without its approval punishable by death, and it established a National Police Force to ensure law and order.
Thus, rather than cower or submit to defeat, the Cherokee signaled their intentions of resisting Georgia’s aggression.
Common Questions about the Birth of the Cherokee Republic
In 1823, the decision in the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh reasoned that the doctrine of discovery invested absolute underlying title in the discovering nation, in this case, the United States, to the lands being discovered, in this case, Indian land.
During the early 19th century, Sequoyah created a unique syllabary containing more than 80 glyphs, each representing a combined consonant-vowel sound. This made it possible for the Cherokee to achieve a higher literacy rate in Cherokee than their non-Indian neighbors had in English.
In 1818, the Cherokee established the Cherokee Republic. It was founded on traditional notions of leadership with decision-making based upon consensus and a clan-based system of belonging.