The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains
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Soon after making this report, General Wool was relieved from command at his own request.
Meantime Jackson had been succeeded in the presidency by Martin Van Buren. Word having reached Washington that the mass of the Cherokees did not intend to move to the West, Van Buren ordered General Winfield Scott to assume command of the troops already in the Cherokee country and to add to them a regiment of infantry, a regiment of artillery, and six companies of dragoons. Scott was further authorized, at his discretion, to call upon the governors of the four neighboring states for militia and volunteers, not exceeding four thousand in number, to aid in moving the Indians.
But public feeling was now so deeply stirred in sympathy with the Indians that Van Buren sought a compromise by proposing to allow them two years further time in which to move. To this suggestion Governor Gilmer, of Georgia, responded:
“It is necessary that I should know whether the President intends by the instruction to General Scott to require that the Indians shall be maintained in their occupancy by an armed force in opposition to the rights of the owners of the soil. If such be the intention, a direct collision between the authorities of the State and the General Government must ensue. My duty will require that I shall prevent any interference whatever by the troops with the rights of the State and its citizens. I shall not fail to perform it.”
Van Buren hastily explained that no such action was contemplated, and he proceeded to carry out the original schedule.
On the 10th of May, 1838, General Scott issued a proclamation to the Cherokees in which he announced that
“The President of the United States has sent me with a powerful army to cause you, in obedience to the treaty of 1835, to join that part of your people who are already established in prosperity on the other side of the Mississippi. Unhappily the two years. . . allowed for that purpose you have suffered to pass away.., without making any preparation to follow, and now.., the emigration must be commenced in haste… The full moon of May is already on the wane, and before another shall have passed away every Cherokee, man, woman, and child.., must be in motion to join their brethren in the far West… I have come to carry out that determination. My troops already occupy many positions. . . and thousands and thousands are approaching from every quarter to render resistance and escape alike hopeless… Will you then by resistance compel us to resort to arms?… Or will you by flight seek to hide yourselves in mountains and forests and thus oblige us to hunt you down? Remember that in pursuit it may be impossible to avoid conflicts. The blood of the white man or the blood of the red man may be spilt, and if spilt, however accidentally, it may be impossible for the discreet and humane among us, to prevent a general war and carnage.”
Let us now briefly summarize the situation:
The Cherokees of the South, by a census taken in 1835, numbered 16,542, exclusive of 1,592 negro slaves, and 201 whites intermarried with the Indians. They were entirely self-supporting. They grew bountiful crops of corn, wheat, oats, cotton, potatoes, indigo and tobacco. Their apple and peach orchards were prolific. Much attention was given to gardening. They had plenty of cattle, horses, sheep, goats and swine. Many families made butter and cheese.
Cotton and woolen cloths and blankets were manufactured by the women. Considerable trade was carried on with the neighboring States. In boats of their own, the Cherokees exported much cotton to New Orleans. The Nation had no debt, and the revenue was sufficient for public purposes. The roads were in good condition, and at convenient distances along the routes, inns were kept by natives.
Nearly all Cherokees could read and write their own language. Schools were increasing every year. There was a national press (or had been until the Georgians destroyed it). Some of the leading men of the Nation were highly educated, according to the standard of the time, and could hold their own in discussion with statesmen anywhere.
The Cherokees were the mountaineers of the South. Like all highlanders, of whatever race, they were passionately attached to the rugged but healthful and picturesque land that gave them birth. The promise of a far away wilderness, encompassed and disputed by savages, in exchange for their ancient villages and cultivated fields, held no allurements for a people that was prosperous in the arts of peace and asked nothing better than to be let alone.
They had been at peace with the United States for forty years. The last war in which they had been engaged was when they fought shoulder to shoulder with the Americans against the Indian allies of Great Britain. If it had not been for their charge against the enemy’s rear at the battle of the Horseshoe Bend it is probable that General Jackson would have been obliged to retire, instead of winning that decisive victory.
The nationality of the Cherokees, and their clear title to the soil they occupied, had been confirmed by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the sea-to-sea charters of the British gave the States that had succeeded to them merely exclusive rights to buy land from the Indians, but no right to force such sales. The territory of the Cherokees was separated from that of any other state within whose chartered limits they might reside by a boundary line established by treaties, and within that boundary the Indians possessed rights with which no State could interfere. The Federal Government had guaranteed the Cherokees by treaty that their territory should remain inviolate forever.
And yet President Jackson, with a frontiersman’s contempt for Indians, and an arrogance that brooked no opposition from any quarter, disputed the ruling of the Supreme Court and forthwith proceeded to violate it. His weak-kneed successor, seeking to temporize, was shaken back into direct action by the threatening hand of a State executive. And now came a force of 7,000 troops, with artillery, to round up and drive out the Cherokees, who if they had wanted to fight and had possessed arms with which to fight, could not have mustered more than half as many men, to say nothing of the myriads that were at the call of the President if reinforcements for Scott’s army had been needed.
One can feel today the sting in the words of old chief Junaluska; “If I had known that Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day at the Horseshoe.”
The Cherokees preserved to the end an unwavering devotion to their great chief Ross and a pathetic trust in his ability to persuade Congress to let them remain in their old home. He did all that a wise and brave leader could do to preserve the peace and rescue for his people at least a moiety of what was by right and in honor due them.
On the advice of Ross, the Indians had given up their arms to General Wool, so that no suspicion of ill intent could be harbored against them. They did this even though it left them defenseless against the rabble who harried and robbed them behind the backs of the Federal troops.
Despite repeated rebuffs at Washington, and threats against his person and property at home, Ross once more sent to Congress a protest and memorial in the name of the Cherokee Nation. This was delivered in March, 1838. At the same time a memorial from citizens of New York was submitted calling for an inquiry into the validity of the treaty of 1835.
The ensuing debate in both houses of Congress was “characterized by a depth and bitterness of feeling such as had never been exceeded even on the slavery question.” Henry A. Wise, who was a member of the House of Representatives from Virginia, declared “without fear of contradiction” that there was not one man in that House or out of it, who had read the proceedings of the case, who would say that there had ever been any assent given to that treaty by the Cherokee Nation.” In replying to Mr. Halsey of Georgia he told him that an ex-governor of Halsey’s own State, who had declared that Georgia must and would have the Cherokee lands, would not gain greatly by comparison, either in civilization or morals, with the Cherokee chief. John Ross.
This chief Ross, by the way, was only one-eighth of Indian blood. His father and maternal grandfather were born in Scotland, and his mother was only a quarter-blood Cherokee. From 1809 until his death, in 1866, he was in the constant service of his people. He was adjutant of the Cherokee regiment that turned the tide of battle for General Jackson at the Horseshoe Bend. He was a member, and then president, of the national committee of the Cherokee council.