The Cherokee Nation: Challenges and Struggles

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The conflict between the Cherokee Nation and Georgia took many turns over the years. Though the Cherokees fought back to retain their sovereignty, Georgia forced their removal from their homeland. Read to know how the Cherokee Nation still endured.

Silhouette of a Native Indian riding a horse with a spear in his hand.
Andrew Jackson had tried to undermine Cherokee assertions of nationhood. (Image: TORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock)

Andrew Jackson: A Proponent of Removal

The conflict between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation reached a crossroad in 1828. It was no coincidence, as that year, a national presidential election brought to power Andrew Jackson, a Tennessean known as an Indian fighter and proponent of removal.

Jackson had no respect for tribal sovereignty and rejected the treaty-making process that had been at the heart of Expansion with Honor. From his point of view, it was below the dignity of the United States.

Learn more about Native Americans in the East.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830

In the midst of rising tensions in Georgia, the Congress enacted legislation that changed the dynamics of the crisis. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 gave congressional sanction to complete the removal of tribes residing east of the Mississippi River.

Cherokee nation builders, led by Principal Chief John Ross and National Council Member Major Ridge, understood that the state governments surrounding Cherokees wanted them gone. And now the Congress had passed legislation that seemed to place its imprimatur on the solution the states desired most, removal.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Cherokee Take Georgia to Court

However, Ross, Ridge, and other leaders devised a strategy that would use the federal system itself to protect Cherokee sovereignty. Placing their faith in the rule of law, they opted to fight back by taking Georgia to court—all the way to the Supreme Court.

The effort led to a pair of landmark Supreme Court decisions, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831 and Worcester v. Georgia in 1832. These decisions and the 1823 case Johnson v. M’Intosh form what is known as the Marshall Trilogy.

Cherokee Nation v. Georgia

Painting of John Ross.
Principal Chief John Ross led the Cherokee nation builders. (Image: Charles Bird King/Library of Congress/Public domain)

In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Principal Chief John Ross challenged Georgia’s right to exercise jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation. The Supreme Court ultimately established a critically important precedent by deciding not to decide on the case.

Marshall argued that the Supreme Court would not hear the matter because the Cherokee Nation wasn’t a foreign state. He explained that tribal nations ought to be defined as domestic dependent nations. This wasn’t the outcome that Principal Chief John Ross and the Cherokee people had hoped for.

The Cherokee immediately devised a new strategy in cooperation with several sympathetic missionaries, among them Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler.

Learn more about the struggle for lands in the Plains.

Worcester v. Georgia

The second case, Worcester v. Georgia, was made possible by a law Georgia passed that made it illegal for non-Indians to reside within the Cherokee Nation without first taking an oath of allegiance to the state.

Worcester and Butler refused to take the oath or leave the Cherokee Nation. And by challenging Georgia’s right to arrest, try, and sentence them, the missionaries provided an admissible way for the Supreme Court to hear the question of tribal versus state sovereignty.

In Worcester v. Georgia, the court ruled that the state didn’t have the right to arrest the Indian missionaries and, by extension, it declared unconstitutional all of the laws that the state had passed over the Cherokee Nation.

In so doing, Worcester affirmed a federal system that included three distinct sovereign entities. By order of authority, they were federal, tribal, and state.

The Discovery Doctrine

The chief justice limited his original definition of the discovery doctrine. When discovering nations gained underlying title to aboriginal lands, he clarified, it granted an exclusive right to first purchase, and the right of first purchased belonged to the federal government.

Thus, the state could not inherit title to Cherokee lands, and because of that, neither could it violate Cherokee sovereignty through the extension of state jurisdiction.

Learn more about the Native Americans in the West.

The Split of Cherokees

Bolstered by President Jackson’s indifference, Georgia moved forward with a land lottery it originally authorized in 1830. This land lottery actually distributed Cherokee lands to non-Indians without the Cherokee Nation’s consent.

As settlers flooded into the Cherokee Nation and pressure from settlers and the state of Georgia mounted, Cherokees split into pro- and anti-removal factions.

Treaty of New Echota

Painting of Major Ridge.
Major Ridge negotiated the Treaty of New Echota. (Image: J. T. Bowen/Public domain)

In December 1835, without the consent of the National Council, Ridge and his followers negotiated the Treaty of New Echota.

Through the Treaty of New Echota, the Cherokee relinquished their claims to lands in the East in exchange for a new homeland in present-day north-eastern Oklahoma. In addition, they received $5 million as well as the promise of transportation to the West, and assistance from the United States government for one year after removal.

John Ross responded by demanding that the U.S. Senate refuse to ratify the treaty but to no avail. In the spring of 1836, it gained the force of law.

The Removal of Cherokees

In May 1838, soldiers arrived and drove Cherokees in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina to stockades where untold numbers died. In June, a small detachment departed for the West only to suffer tremendously in the hot, dry summer.

In response to the overwhelming hardship and tragedy, John Ross belatedly convinced the federal government to allow the Cherokee to oversee the rest of the removal. The results were no better for the 13 detachments leaving between August and December 1838 and arriving between January and late March 1839. Between 4,000 and 8,000 Cherokees lost their lives during the ordeal, including Ross’s wife, Quatie.

Rebuilding of the Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation seemed shattered beyond repair. And no sooner had these Cherokee detachments arrived in the Indian Territory that they set about seeking an avenging justice.

Acting upon their understanding of Cherokee law, Ross’s supporters executed Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot.

A civil war soon erupted within the Cherokee Nation, one that continued until 1846. Only then, nearly 10 years after their exodus, could Cherokees really begin the arduous task of rebuilding their nation—a nation that, against all odds, endured.

Common Questions about the Cherokee Nation’s Challenges and Struggles

Q: What was The Indian Removal Act of 1830?

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 gave congressional sanction to complete the removal of tribes residing east of the Mississippi River.

Q: What is the Marshall Trilogy?

Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831, and Worcester v. Georgia in 1832 form what is known as the Marshall Trilogy.

Q: Who negotiated the Treaty of New Echota?

In December 1835, Major Ridge and his followers negotiated the Treaty of New Echota.

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