When the Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere the Cherokee were a free people and a sovereign nation. Both the English and the French wanted to make alliances with this nation for protection and benefit. The United States recognized its sovereignty in 1785 and 1791, guaranteeing that land not ceded then would remain in Cherokee hands. Whites could not even hunt on Cherokee lands, according to the agreements.
In 1721, South Carolina made a treaty with the Cherokee, the first cession of Cherokee lands. The process was to be repeated so often that by 1835 the Cherokee had concluded more treaties with the United States than any other tribe. Almost without exception every treaty stated that it would be the last one. Treaties contained impressive promises:” The United States solemnly guarantees to the Cherokee Nation, all their lands not hereby ceded”; this treaty will stand “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.” Each treaty stole more from the original land until the Cherokee government finally passed a law making it a capital offense for any tribal member to cede land to the U.S. government.
One of the main ideological arguments used by the Europeans to take the land was that the indigenous were savages and roamed the land as hunters rather than “settling down” and farming the land as “civilized people” do. The Cherokee, however, adapted to many European customs, hoping to maintain their lands not by warfare but through accommodation. By the 1820’, the Cherokee had their own written languages and a bilingual newspaper published in English and Cherokee. They had a constitutional government and an elaborate judicial system. Some of them had accumulated considerable wealth and were living on large farms with spacious homes.
The discovery of gold in 1828 in Georgia sent hordes of fortune seekers into Cherokee territory. That same year the Indian fighter Andrew Jackson campaigned on a platform of removal on the Indians to west of the Mississippi. After Jackson became president, Congress granted him power to negotiate treaties that exchanged land in what is now Oklahoma for their original Smoky Mountain land.
Before a treaty was made, Georgia divided up the Cherokee lands and gave it by lottery to whites. Even improved property with houses and barns, cultivated fields, mills, gardens, and orchards was simply given to whites.
On December 29, 1835, a few Cherokee without authority signed the Treaty of New Echota which ceded the remaining territory east of the Mississippi. Chief John Ross, who had recently been released from prison in Georgia, collected over fifteen thousand Cherokee signatures denouncing the treaty as a fraud. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that it was quite evident that the Cherokee had made it a capital offense to cede territory in order to stop just such a trick, Congress ratified the treaty and gave the Cherokee two years to move.
From 1825, until the moment of their removal, the Cherokee constantly and peacefully petitioned the U.S. government for justice. They sent representatives to the president and to Congress. They testified before committees, passed their own laws, signed petitions, developed their own constitution. Their bilingual newspaper the Cherokee Phoenix, clearly spelled out Cherokee objections to the removal policy. All to no avail!
In 1838, the newly elected president, Martin Van Buren, stated: “No State can achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress in safety as long as Indians are permitted to remain.” So the Cherokee were to be forcibly removed—the bilingual Cherokee whose language was so complex that professional ethnologists at the time could not figure out how it was written. The Cherokee Sequoyah invented an alphabet of eighty-five characters so accurately expressing the roots of the language that any Cherokee could learn to read and write in a few days. The Cherokee rate of literacy was higher than that of the “white rabble” coming to take their lands in the name of “civilization.”
In June of 1838, the Train of Tears began as seven thousand troops marched the Cherokee to concentration camps while the whites looted their houses, burned their crops, and drove off their livestock.
See Cherokee Heritage