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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter VII - The Cherokees Adopt a Constitution


Georgia had charged, as one of her arguments for removal, that the Cherokees were a semi barbarous people who stood in the way of state progress. As a matter of fact, they were almost as progressive as the white people of the state at that time. According to a report made to the War Department by the Reverend David Brown, who travelled extensively through the Cherokee Nation in the fall of 1825 farming and stock raising were successfully carried on, apple and peach orchards were common, and much attention was paid to the cultivation of gardens. Corn, wheat, oats, and tobacco were raised in abundance, and cotton in sufficient quantities to supply their own use and leave a considerable surplus to be shipped in boats of their own make to New Orleans. Hides and live stock, sold to the neighboring states, brought sufficient currency into the nation. There were many flourishing villages, and the numerous roads through the country had "public stops" kept by natives, at convenient intervals. In the homes, cotton and woollen cloth and blankets and coverlets were woven, and stockings and gloves knitted. There were blacksmiths, silversmiths and now and then a native carpenter. Commercial enterprises were being extended, and nearly all the merchants were Cherokee citizens. Churches and schools were increasing and plans were discussed for a high school, a library and a museum to be established and maintained at the expense of the Cherokee Nation. In one district alone there were reported to be upwards of a thousand volumes of good books, while eleven periodicals, political and religious were taken and read. It is doubtful whether in the surrounding country many groups of white population of equal number could have shown a better record. Stringent laws were passed against drunkenness and the introduction of intoxicating liquors into the nation, and indolence was frowned upon. The government was well organized and administered, while the revenue was in a flourishing condition.

Adherence to some of their primitive customs in government had given rise to the accusation that they were uncivilized. In order to disabuse the mind of Georgia and the whole world of this idea, and to establish a firmer political foundation on which to build a greater Cherokee Nation, the Cherokees determined to establish a regular republican form of government, based on a written constitution.

A resolution passed by the General Council in the fall of 1826 provided for a constitutional convention to meet July 4, the following year at New Echota. On July 1, delegates to the convention were elected from each of the eight districts into which the nation had been divided in 1820. Voting was conducted viva voce. In some districts interest was so great that the election "was warm and closely contested".

The convention met and organized by electing John Ross chairman. It then promptly addressed itself to the business of drafting a constitution. This document is closely modeled after the constitution of the United States and differs from it merely to meet the needs of local conditions. The most striking departure is found in the words of the preamble, "We, the Cherokee people, constituting one of the sovereign and independent nations of the earth, and having complete jurisdiction over its territory to the exclusion of the authority of any other state, do ordain this constitution". The executive branch of the government was to be composed of a principal and a second chief, the legislature to consist of a National Committee, composed of two representatives from each district and a Council composed of three, both branches to be styled "The General Council of the Cherokee Nation." The judiciary followed closely that outlined by the constitution of the United States. White men married into the tribe were to enjoy all the privileges of citizenship except the right to hold office, and land was still to remain the common property of the nation, improvements only belonging exclusively and indefeasibly to the individual citizen. It provided religious toleration, but no minister of the gospel was eligible to the office of principal chief or a seat in the General Council. All the provisions for a well regulated government were laid down in much detail, and an Alabama paper, commenting upon it, thought the document taken as a whole well "calculated to produce the most happy results. The success of the Cherokees will stimulate other nations to adopt a similar policy; and we may yet live to see one take after another, by dropping the tomahawk and following the example set them rise from savage barbarity to respectability in the civilized world". Three weeks later this constitution had been submitted to the people and ratified. When it went into effect the following year a new era in the history of the Cherokees had begun.

Meanwhile the aged Path Killer, leader of the Conservative party, died and was followed in office by the second chief, Charles R. Hicks, who outlived him less than two weeks. The government then devolved upon Major Ridge, speaker of the Council, and John Ross, president of the Committee, until the regular meeting of Council the following fall.

Major Ridge, at this time one of the most prominent men of the tribe, was a full-blood Cherokee and was undoubtedly one of the most able men the Cherokee Nation has ever produced. Handsome and commanding in appearance, keen and alert in intellect, broad-minded and public-spirited, possessed of great strength of character and personal magnetism, he was a natural leader of men. By the sheer force of his native ability had he forged his way to the front of Cherokee national affairs, where for more than thirty years he exercised a strong influence over the policy of the government. Like Sequoyah, he had had no school advantages and was unable to read or write in English. His signature in the public records is made with a cross. Realizing the advantages of education from his own lack of it he encouraged schools in the nation and sent his son, John Ridge, to be educated at Cornwall, Connecticut. In speaking of the work of the missionaries, he once said that he could never be thankful enough to them for providing a way for his son to receive an education. He wished him to stay at Cornwall until he got a "great education;" he hoped, also, that the Lord would give him "a good heart," so that when he came home he might be very useful to the nation.18 Since 1809, when at the suggestion of Agent Meigs a delegation had been appointed to go to Washington to treat for an exchange of lands, be had stood firmly and consistently opposed to removal. He was at this time a poor, unknown youth and this was his first attendance at Council. Nevertheless, he arose in the presence of the assembled chiefs, an unprecedented thing for a young man to do without invitation, and delivered such a fiery and eloquent appeal to the patriotism of the Indians that the project was promptly abandoned. For John Ross, who was several years his junior, he cherished a strong admiration and attachment and the younger man owed much of his rapid political advancement to Major Ridge.

To fill the unexpired term of Path Killer and Charles R. Hicks, the Council, at regular session in the fall of 1827, appointed William Hicks as principal, and John Rose as second chief. In the regular election however, Ross was made principal chief by an overwhelming majority.

He was now the most prominent man of his tribe, both in the Cherokee Nation and out of it. His quiet, pleasant address, his integrity and sincerity of character, together with his remarkable powers of self-control and discretion, which made him beloved by the Cherokees, won for him also the confidence and affection of the missionaries and the respect of statesmen and philanthropists in the north, as well as of Federal officials with whom he had to deal in the Cherokee Nation. He was a prosperous merchant and planter and lived in the style befitting his position. His wife, a full-blood Cherokee, known by her Indian name of Quata, was a woman of much intelligence and native ability, possessing race prejudice and considerable influence with the tribe. From Ross's Landing he had moved to the head of the Coosa River where he had built a commodious two-story house and furnished it with some degree of luxury and refined taste. Here he had for neighbors Major Ridge who lived two miles away on the Coosa in a substantial and comfortable home. John Ridge, whose Connecticut bride had insisted upon casting her lot with her husband's people, had built a home not far distant on the Two Run, a few miles east of Oostinahleh. Elias Boudinot, cousin of John Ridge, also educated in Connecticut and the first editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, lived at New Echota. The treasurer of the Cherokee Nation, Major Jack Martin, had a handsome residence with carved mantels and marble hearths at Rock Springs. It is still standing. James Vann had built a two story brick mansion at Vann's Spring Place. These were some of Ross's friends among the wealthy and progressive men of the tribe.

As a delegate to Washington a good many winters, Mr. Ross had come in contact with some of the greatest statesmen and politicians of his time. He was a close and keen observer of men and things and possessed, to a remarkable degree, the power of interpreting what he saw and heard and adapting it to his own and his nation's need. At the national capital he had gained much knowledge and inspiration which he was eager to put into practice for the benefit of the people of his tribe. The United States had practically recognized the Cherokee Nation as an independent nation; the Cherokee delegates had been accorded diplomatic courtesy in Washington; the tribe had an alphabet, a printing press, a newspaper and a written constitution; industry and prosperity were in evidence throughout the length and breadth of their domain. Patriotism was at the full tide. Is it any wonder that the young Scotch Cherokee chief, fired with patriotic ardor and ambition, should begin to dream dreams and see visions of a greater Cherokee Nation, a republic of civilized Indians that should be the wonder and admiration of the world? Whether he could have made his dreams come true, had he been left to work out the plan unmolested, will never be known.

Georgia thought it was high time she was taking a hand when an independent republic was being set up with the intent to perpetuate a distinct community within her ancient and chartered limits. The legislature, December 27, passed a resolution reassuring that the title of the Cherokees to the land was temporary, and that they were tenants at the will of the state which was now at full liberty to possess herself, by any means which she might choose, of the lands in dispute and extend over them her authority and laws. Georgia would give the Federal government one more chance to rid the state of Indians. If this failed, the next legislature was urged to extend the jurisdiction and laws of the state over their territory. Governor Forsythe sent a copy of these resolutions to the President and included one of the "presumptuous" constitutions just adopted by the Cherokee Nation, asking what he proposed to do about the erection of an independent government within the limits of the state. In March, the House of Representatives took up the question and instructed the judiciary committee and later the Indian committee, to inquire into the circumstances of the new Cherokee republic and report upon the expediency of arresting its designs.

But since the War Department was negotiating a treaty with the Arkansas Cherokees, whereby their territorial limits were to be readjusted, and their boundary lines permanently settled, it was hoped that sufficient inducement might be held out to the Eastern Cherokees to emigrate. The Indian appropriation bill contained a specific grant for $50,000 for carrying into effect the compact of 1902. This appropriation stimulated the Federal Government to renewed effort and Colonel Montgomery, the Indian agent, was given order to provide transportation, rifles and blankets for such Cherokees as were ready to go west. Confidential agents were sent into the Cherokee Nation to induce cession or emigration.

When the Cherokee Council met in October, 1828, it immediately took up the contentions of Georgia and answered them so ably that any sentiment for removal which might have existed among the members of the tribe was neutralized. Colonel Montgomery was ordered to leave his office in charge of a sub-agent and go out among the Indians to persuade them to enroll for emigration. He reported such strong and bitter opposition, however, both towards the agents and towards the Indians who were enrolling,25 that those who knew the situation in the Cherokee Nation most intimately were now convinced that the policy of voluntary removal, advocated and ably defended by President Monroe, and taken over by President Adams, was a lost issue. Removal, if accomplished at all, must be accomplished by coercion. In the presidential election of 1828 the south and the west rallied to the support of a presidential candidate from whom they had every reason to expect a change of tactics if he should come into power as the chief executive of the nation.


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