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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter XII - Opposition to the Treaty


Mr. Ross remained in Washington until after the treaty passed the Senate, hoping that either sentiment against it, or some technicality, might defeat it. Seeking an interview with President Jackson, he was bluntly informed that the Executive had ceased to recognize any existing government among the Eastern Cherokees.

On March 26, he wrote home advising his people to ignore the treaty but to remain quiet. A copy of this letter falling into the hands of his enemies was exploited as evidence of the Chief's intention to resist the treaty and called forth bitter denunciation from Federal and state officials who persisted in asserting that the majority of the Cherokees were in favor of removal, and that all the trouble was due to Ross's efforts to arouse them to resistance. Rumors of a brewing insurrection, supported by an anonymous letter warning white men in the nation, alarmed the administration and horrified the neighboring states. "When white men fight for home and country they are lauded as the noblest of patriots," says Miss Abel; "Indians doing the same thing are stigmatized as savages. What a fortunate and convenient excuse the doctrine of manifest destiny has proved.

But, as a matter of fact, the Indians had no intention of resorting to arms, as they attempted to prove by a meeting of representatives of the mountain districts held at Hiwassee in the summer of 1836, where they drew up resolutions stating the condition of their people and showing the futility of armed resistance. They had no military system, they said, no military supplies. The scalping knife and tomahawk had been buried half a century, while the love of war and the practice of it had become obsolete. A number of their old men still survived who had spilled their blood and had seen their brothers fall beside the Chief Magistrate of the United States; but their young men had never known war, had never heard the war whoop, nor "viewed the pitiless carnage of battle which wrings with hopeless agony the hearts of mothers, sisters and friends."

His protest, with others of like tenor from different parts of the Cherokee country, failed to restore public confidence and General Wood with an army of seven thousand men was sent, late in July, to overawe the Indians and to "frown down opposition to the treaty." In two meetings held soon after his arrival in North Carolina, where dwelt the least civilized portion of the tribe, he found the people peaceable but firmly opposed to the treaty. When they evaded the question of whether they would remove willingly he issued the ultimatum of peace or war, remove or fight. When they expressed the wish to consult John Ross the privilege was denied them on the ground that Ross had lead them astray from their interests and happiness too long by his pernicious counsels. General Wool, they were told, was hereafter the most proper person to advise them. No decisive action having been taken when the meetings broke up, he sent out and overtook the chiefs, held them prisoners over night and released them only after they had promised to obey the treaty and send their young men in to surrender their arms. He reported to the Secretary of War that nineteen-twentieths, if not ninety-nine out of every one hundred of the North Carolina Cherokees were opposed to the treaty and would not comply with it unless compelled to do so by military force, and asked that additional troops be sent to his assistance.

Jackson's second term was now nearing its close and the Cherokee's encouraged by friends in Congress, entertained some expectation of relief from the next administration. In the summer of 1836 Mr. Ross had written a friend that if Mr. Clay and Mr. Frellinghuysen were elected it would be a godsend to the country at large as well as to the poor Indian.8 Trusting to this forlorn hope the Indians held on, and removal came almost to a standstill. Announcements posted throughout the Cherokee Nation that a handsome steamboat stood ready to transport them in ease and luxury to the new country aroused no enthusiasm. Published addresses, describing in the most alluring terms all the delights which the Cherokees could secure by removal and offering advantages the most exciting, made no impression. Garbled documents, attempting to prove that Chief Ross himself had consented to remove, were unheeded. Complaints went up to Washington again and again that the Cherokees "would not come in."

The Council of 1836 adopted resolutions denouncing the motives of the United States commissioner in making the treaty, declaring the treaty null and void, and asserting that it could never in justice be enforced upon the nation. In a memorial to the President, praying for an impartial statement of the negotiations of the treaty, they piteously invoked the "God of truth to tear away every disguise and concealment from their case, the God of justice to guide the President's determination, and the God of mercy to stay the hand of their brothers uplifted for their destruction." A copy of this memorial and the resolutions transmitted to the Secretary of War by General Wool so enraged President Jackson that he expressed his surprise that an army officer in the army should have received or transmitted a paper so disrespectful to the Executive, the Senate and the American people; declared his settled determination that the treaty should be carried out without modification and with all consistent dispatch, and directed that, after a copy of the letter should have been transmitted to Ross, no further communication by mouth or writing should be held with him concerning the treaty. It was further directed that no council should be permitted to assemble to discuss the treaty. The Cherokees kept up a vigorous campaign against the treaty. In order to enlist the help of their western Cherokees and unite the efforts of the two nations, the Council of this year had appointed a delegation, to visit the western nation. The United States agents had no intimation of this action until the delegation had already set out for the west. Major Curry, furious at being outwitted, communicated with the commissioner of Indian affairs who promptly sent strict orders to Fort Gibson to have the members arrested if they should appear there and begin inciting the Indians to oppose the treaty.

Chief Ross, a member of the delegation, with rare tact and diplomacy, paid a friendly visit to Agent Stokes of the western nation at Bayou Menard and completely disarmed the old man with his amiable, quiet manner, won over the chief, John Jolly, succeeded in gaining the promise of the western nation to oppose the treaty and secured the appointment of a delegation to Washington to protest against it. This done, he and his party quietly departed and reached home, having eluded and outwitted the United States authorities much to their anger and chagrin.

Having secured the cooperation of the western nation a delegation went on to Washington to see what effect their combined forces might have upon the new administration. On March 16 they addressed a communication through Secretary Poinsett to the President asking for a hearing, requesting that their claims might be investigated, that the rightful authorities be dealt with and that the results of the investigation be submitted to the Cherokee Nation. The Secretary of War replied that the treaty of New Echota had been ratified constitutionally, but that any measures suggested by them would receive candid examination if inconsistent with the treaty.

President Van Buren granted the delegation an interview at which he treated them politely, even cordially, but told them frankly that nothing could be done to alter or amend the treaty.

Meanwhile the condition of the Indians had been growing steadily worse. General Wool describes the whole scene in the Cherokee country as heartrending and such a one as he would be glad to get rid of as soon as circumstances would permit. The white men were hovering like vultures watching to pounce upon their prey and strip them of everything they had. He predicted that ninety-nine out of every hundred would go penniless to the west. "I am surprised," he said, "that the Cherokees have not risen in their might and destroyed every resident white man in the country." General Dunlap in command of the East Tennessee troops called out to quell the rumored insurrection in 1836 soon found that the Indians, not the whites, needed protection, in furnishing them which he excited the hatred of the lawless rabble of Georgia who, he declared, had long played the part of petty tyrants. He finally decided he would never dishonor the Tennessee arms in a servile service by aiding in carrying into execution, at the point of a bayonet, a treaty made by a lean minority against the will and authority of the Cherokee people; disbanding his brigade he went home in disgust.

Even the members of the Treaty party, to whom the government was deeply indebted, did not go scathless. Returning from Washington after the final arrangements of the treaty had been completed, they found their plantations taken and suits instituted against them for back rents on their own farms. They were in danger day and night from the rabble who flogged Indian men, women and children with hickories and clubs, even constables and justices of the peace being concerned in the mistreatment. Major Ridge in a letter to the President declared that unless given protection by the United States the Indians would carry nothing with them to their new homes but the scars of the lash on their backs. Through all their afflictions and tribulations, however, the Indians remained so consistently opposed to emigration that not one of them who attended the meeting called by General Wool in January, 1837, would receive rations or clothing from the United States for fear they might compromise themselves, preferring rather, to live upon the roots and the sap of trees. Thousands of them had no other food for weeks.

John Mason, who was sent in July, 1837, as a confidential agent of the War Department to investigate conditions among the Indians, was convinced that opposition to the treaty was unanimous, irreconcilable and sincere. The Cherokees claimed that they did not make the treaty and it could not bind them; that it was made by a few unauthorized individuals and the nation was not a party to it. With all his influence with them, and Mason believed that the mass of the nation, especially the mountain Indians, would stand or fall with their chiefs, Ross could not stem the tide of sentiment against removal. If he had advised the Cherokees at this time to acknowledge the treaty he would have forfeited their confidence and probably his life. His influence was constantly exerted to preserve peace, the reports of his enemies to the contrary notwithstanding. Opposition to the treaty was sincere and sprang from a love of country and was not a political game played by Ross to maintain his ascendency in the tribe. When Colonel Lindsay, who succeeded General Wool, was given authority, in the summer of 1837, to arrest Ross and turn him over to the civil authorities if he did anything further to encourage the Cherokees in their hostilities to removal, he sought in vain for some excuse to carry out his instructions.

Regardless of threats a council was called for July 31, to which Mr. Mason was dispatched with instructions to traverse and correct any misstatements that might be made by John Ross and his followers, and, if need be, prohibit the assembling of the Council.

Mr. Ross met these trying situations with a quiet dignity of manner, a strength of purpose and a clearness of brain that could not but inspire with confidence the minds of the harassed multitude of Indians who came to rely upon him with a respect and affection akin to reverence. To the white men whose plans and schemes he had so often thwarted, Ross appeared in an entirely different guise. Major Curry regarded him with hatred beyond expression and treated him with a contempt that would have been unendurable to one of less self-control. The agent's attempts, through dark and devious courses, to alienate the Indians from their leader were notorious, and his methods of dealing with the aborigines without the shadow of honor. No one was more cordially hated and thoroughly feared by them. Congressman Peyton, of Tennessee, denounced him and Schermerhorn in the House, in 1836, as "the two worst agents that could have been selected in all God's creation." His death in December, 1836, caused a sence of relief throughout the Cherokee Nation. It was the opinion of General Wool that if he had lived long enough he would have been killed by the Indians. Nathan Smith, who succeeded him, was a man of honor and integrity who finally overcame much of the prejudice which he at first entertained towards Mr. Ross.

With Governor Lumpkin it was a different story. He naturally had no love for the Indians who encumbered the soil of Georgia, saw no good in them and believed that the only good Indian was the dead Indian. All his racial antipathy seems to have become concentrated against Mr. Ross, whose character he assailed, whose motives he misrepresented and whose acts and conduct he distorted for the purpose of discountenancing him before the Federal Government. He refused to recognize his chieftainship and urged the government to do so, not on the ground of justice, but of policy, acknowledging that if Ross and his party were recognized the validity of the treaty could be called in question. He even went so far as to say that Mr. Ross ought to be "put in strings and banished from the country; that although a large slaveholder he was well qualified to fill a prominent place amongst the New England abolitionists, or in the Repubic of Hayti, and that to one of these places he wished to see him emigrate. He considered Ross the soul and spirit of the whole opposition. To the Georgian this Scotch Indian was a "subtle and sagacious man" who, under the guise of an unassuming deportment, concealed an unsurpassed arrogance, and by his dignifed, reserved manner, "acquired credit for talents and wisdom which he never possessed."

Fearing some change of Indian policy from the Van Buren administration, Mr. Lumpkin hastened to redouble his energies in fortifying the mind of the new executive against the strategems of the wily chief. Writing the Secretary of War in the summer of 1837, he warned him that Mr. Ross was the master spirit of opposition to the execution of the treaty, on whose movements he would keep a watchful eye so far as circumstances would allow. For he was a reserved, obscure and wary politician. It is not strange therefore that the President became more and more reluctant to hold intercourse with Mr. Ross and his party.

Pressure for removal under the supervision of Mr. Luinpkin became more constant and uniform, but when the end of the year approached without any indication of an intention, on the part of the Indians, to go west, the United States commissioners and agents issued a proclamation stating that, according to the treaty, they now had only five months in which to remove, and they were not to be deceived by the hope that a longer time would be given them. The treaty, it declared, would be executed without change or alteration and another day beyond the time named would not be allowed to them. They were warned to rely no longer upon John Ross and his friends who had been misleading them and subjecting them to pecuniary losses. The executive had declined all further intercourse with Mr. Ross and an end had been put to all negotiations upon the subject. To which the Cherokee delegation then in Washington replied in a memorial that the New Echota treaty was an outrage on the primary rules of national intercourse, as well as of the known laws and usages of the Cherokee Nation, and was therefore destitute of any binding force upon them.

"For adhering to the principles on which your great empire is founded, and on which it has advanced to its present elevation and glory, are we to be despoiled of all we hold dear on earth?" they asked. "Are we to be hunted through the mountains like wild beasts, and our women and our children, our aged, our sick, to be dragged from their homes like culprits and packed on board loathsome boats, for transportation to a sickly clime?

Cherokee removal and the New Echota treaty called forth strong remonstrance from some of the greatest statesmen of the country who denounced the policy of the administration in vigorous terms. Webster and Everett, of Massachusetts, Frelinghuysen, of New Jersey, Sprague of Maine, Storrs of New York, Crockett, of Tennessee and Clay of Kentucky protested strongly against it. It became almost a party question, the Democrats supporting Jackson, the Whigs condemning him. Henry Clay considered that the chief magistrate had inflicted a deep wound on the American people. Webster remarked in the Senate in May, 1838, that there was a growing feeling that great wrong had been done the Cherokees by the treaty of New Echota. "Speeches in Congress," says Benton, "were characterized by a depth and bitterness of feeling such as have never been excelled on the slavery question." Calhoun of Tennessee did not regard the New Echota treaty as a binding contract at all, since only about twenty out of eighteen thousand assented to it. Wise declared that it was not a bona fide treaty; the Cherokee Nation had never agreed to it and now almost unanimously protested against it. The whole proceedings in relation to the negotiations he declared a fraud upon the Indians. Schermerhorn, he stigmatized as a "raw head and bloody bones" to the ignorant Indians while their chiefs were at Washington, and he had made what he called a treaty with a very small portion of the Cherokees. Henry A. Wise, with eloquent words in a speech in the House, paid high tribute to John Ross as the man who swam the river at the battle of the Horse Shoe and, at the risk of his life, had brought away the canoes which enabled the Jackson forces to gain the victory over the Creeks. "And now he is turned out of his dwelling by a Georgia Guard and his property all given over to others. This is the faith of a Christian nation. John Ross is known by many members of the House to be an honest, intelligent man worthy to sit in the councils of the nation, let alone the councils of an Indian tribe." His objection to the treaty, Wise considered an honest one, and declared that Ross, the Indian chief from Georgia, would at any time compare favorably in intellect and moral honesty with Forsythe, a member of Van Buren's cabinet, from the same state.

A memorial of the Cherokee delegation, in the winter of 1838, was laid on the table in the Senate by a vote of 36 to 16, and others from citizens of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey requesting an inquiry into the validity of the New Echota treaty, met a similar fate in the House. Discussions of these memorials brought out expressions of sympathy for the Indians and admiration for their principal chief, but took no practical form for their relief.


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