The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains

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John Ross
John Ross
Cherokee Chief

Naturally the Cherokees protested that their limits were defined by treaties with the United States, and they declared that “It is the fixed and unalterable determination of this Nation never again to cede one foot more of land.”

The Governor of Georgia in reply blamed the missionaries for the refusal of the Indians to “move on,” and informed the Federal government that if it backed up the Indians and resisted occupancy of their lands by Georgians it would have a fratricidal war on its hands.

The thread of Indian tenure thus strained was soon snapped by an unexpected turn of affairs. Gold was discovered in the Cherokee country, and the white man’s greed burst all bonds of law or morality. At the same time Andrew Jackson, an out-and-out Indian hater, became President of the United States. From that moment the doom of the Cherokees was sealed.

How the Cherokee Nation was then driven at the point of the bayonet .to the far West, and by what strange means a few hundred of their people, starving in the gulfs of the Great Smoky Mountains, but still indomitable, were at last permitted to retain a fragment of their ancient birthright, is one of the most dramatic episodes in American history.

The existence of gold in the Cherokee country was well known to Spanish adventurers who followed after De Soto in the last half of the sixteenth century. There is evidence that they carried on some mining operations in that region. But they kept their knowledge secret, and it perished when they left the country. Then a century went by before the English appeared on the scene, and another century before any gold finds were reported in the South.

In North Carolina the first mint returns appeared in 1793. Six years later a 17-pound nugget was discovered on the Reed plantation in Cabarrus County, and in 1823 one was found that weighed 28 pounds. here and in adjoining districts the placer ground was vigorously worked, and much nugget gold was taken out.

From 1804 to 1827, all the gold produced in the United States came from North Carolina. It was from the Piedmont region, east of the mountains, and not within the Cherokee country.

In 1828, gold was discovered in the mountains of Burke County, North Carolina, and the auriferous belt was at once traced southward along the edge of the Indian territory. About the same time some of the precious metal was found near the present Dahlonega, within the boundary of the Cherokee Nation, but in the part claimed by Georgia. Then the Georgians went wild.

In December, 1828, one month after Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency of the United States, the Georgia legislature passed an act annexing that part of the ‘Cherokee country within her chartered limits. It was further ordained that after the first day of June, 1830, all laws, usages and customs of the Cherokee Indians should be null and void within that region; that all Indians remaining within it should be subject to such laws as Georgia might enact; and that no Indian, or descendent of an Indian, should be deemed a competent witness or a party to any suit in any court where a white man was a defendent.

The confiscated territory was then mapped out by state surveyors into “land lots” of 160 acres each, and “gold lots” of 40 acres, which were put up at public lottery, each white citizen of Georgia being given a ticket.

A caustic but truthful writer of the time remarked that “intrusive mining ceased then and there, and swindling mining commenced.” So far as gold was concerned, most of the supposed mineral veins proved to be barren; but the land lottery was a different matter.

By laws passed later, every Cherokee head of a family was nominally granted an allotment of 160 acres. This was a barren gift as other laws enacted made it impossible for the Indian owner to defend his right in any court, or to prevent the seizure of his homestead, or even of his own dwelling house, by any white who saw fit to oust him. if he resisted he was subject to imprisonment.

Any contract between a white man and an Indian was declared invalid unless established by the testimony of two white witnesses. This virtually cancelled all debts due from white men to Indians. An Indian was forbidden to dig for gold on his own land. Armed bands of Georgians now swept over the country, seizing or destroying Indian property and assaulting any of the owners who resisted.

There were among the Cherokees some white teachers, missionaries and printers, who had been sent there by permission of the President of the United States. In order to get rid of them, or at least shut their mouths about the spoliation, Georgia demanded that they take a special oath of allegiance to the State. Those who refused were sent to the penitentiary.

In 1832, the Supreme Court of the United States, of which John Marshall was Chief-justice, decided that the Cherokees formed a distinct community in which the laws of Georgia had no force, declared the act of Georgia in seizing their lands to be void, and ordered the release of the missionaries.

With regard to Georgia’s claim that the land in question was within her chartered limits, the Supreme Court ruled that a charter granted by the King of Great Britain to one of her colonies merely regulated the rights of the discoverers among themselves, hut could not affect the rights of those already in possession as aboriginal occupants. It simply conferred the exclusive right of purchasing such lands as the natives were willing to sell. The treaties with the Cherokees bound them as a dependent ally of the United States claiming and receiving the protection of a powerful friend and neighbor, but without involving a surrender of their national character.

It is said that when the action of the court was announced, President Jackson remarked, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” The Governor of Georgia had defied the summons, with threat of rebellion. He now ignored the Supreme Court’s decision and kept the imprisoned missionaries at hard labor among felons for more than a year.

The Cherokees were staring ruin in the face. As a last resort they submitted to Washington a memorial proposing to satisfy Georgia by ceding to her a part of their lands, they to be protected in possession of the remainder for a definite period to be fixed by the United States, after which, having disposed of their surplus lands, they should become citizens of the various States within which they resided.

Their plea might as well have been addressed to the North Star. Bluntly they were told that the only way out of their troubles was for them to give up the land of their fathers and emigrate in a body to the far West.

It would be to the honor of the Government if then and there an end had been made to subterfuge and the bayonets of the ejectors frankly bared. No doubt that would have been Jackson’s way if he had been dictator. But some pretext of bargaining with the Indians had to be found to give color of legality to their banishment. And now a sly politician, in the garb of a Christian minister, steps into the plot.

Among the Cherokees there was a small faction that favored the idea of emigrating. With the leaders of this faction a commissioner, in the person of Reverend J. F. Schermerhorn, drew up the terms of a treaty binding the Cherokee Nation to surrender their whole territory and move west, in consideration of a sum of money and a new territory beyond the Mississippi. The deal, however, could not be concluded until ratified by the Nation in full council assembled. Schermerhorn then visited the Cherokee country and tried for six months to induce the national council to approve this treaty; but he completely failed. The reverend emissary then suggested to the Secretary of War two alternative propositions:

(1) to get the signatures of influential Cherokees by buying up their personal improvements at their own valuation, if any degree reasonable; or (2) to make a treaty with a part of the Cherokees and compel the rest to accept it.

Jackson, although ruthless himself in dealing with the Indians could not stomach this. He replied pointedly that the treaty, if concluded at all, must be procured on fair and open terms, with no special inducement to any individual, high or low, to win his aid or influence, and without sacrificing the interest of the whole to the cupidity of a few.

In October, 1835, the national council of the Cherokees, led by their great chief John Ross, unanimously rejected the treaty framed by Schermerhorn, even the original signers repudiating it. The commissioner concealed his chagrin by reporting, “I have pressed Ross so hard by the course I have adopted that although he got the general council to pass a resolution declaring that they would not treat on the basis of the five million dollars, yet he has been forced to bring the Nation to agree to a treaty, here or in Washington. They have used every effort to get by me and get to Washington again this winter. They dare not yet do it.”


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MLA Source Citation:

Kephart, Horace. The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains, A Little Band that Has Stood Against the White Tide for Three Hundred Year. Ithaca, N.Y.: The Atkinson press. 1936. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/the-cherokees-of-the-smoky-mountains.htm - Last updated on Apr 23rd, 2013


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