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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter XV - A Triple Tragedy


The great body of the emigrants, arriving in the west in the winter of 1839, went into camp on a small river, called the Illinois, to await the opening up of spring. The purpose of the encampment was twofold. It furnished headquarters and a community of interest for the newcomers until they could look about for suitable locations, for homes, so that disbanding and taking up the burden of adjustment and the business of making a living in an unfamiliar economic environment would be attended with fewer hardships than if each had been thrown at once upon his own resources. It also kept them within reach of the governing body until their political status could be established upon a permanent basis in the new country.

Barely had they pitched their camp, when they found themselves confronted with a situation scarcely less distressing than the one from which they had just escaped. Coming to the west as a nation driven into exile, bearing with them their Lares and Penates, they found themselves not only strangers in a strange land, amid surroundings and conditions new and unfamiliar, but among a people with a political organization of their own, who were jealous of their rights and prerogatives, and who naturally looked askance upon so large a number, even of kinsmen, arriving in their midst with claims to all the rights of a sovereign nation. Here, too, they came face to face with the group of men at whose door they laid the blame of their expatriation and the suffering still fresh in the mind of a race which has always boasted of never forgetting a benefit conferred, nor an injury inflicted.

There had been two parties in the eastern nation. In the west there were three, the Emigrants or Nationalists, as the followers of Mr. Ross called themselves, the Treaty party and the Old Settlers. The Treaty men, who had preceded the Emigrants, took advantage of thel situation by promptly making friends with the Old Settlers, or Cherokees West, comprising approximately a third of the tribe, and set to work to build a strong party of opposition to Mr. Ross and his friends. The conditions in the western rcation at this time were most favorable to the success of the plan.

Of the early westward migrations and the negotiations which led, in 1817, to the assignment of land in Arkansas to the Cherokees something has already been said. The tract upon which they settled belonging to the Osages whose claim the United States had not taken the trouble to satisfy. So, for more than a decade, the history of the western band is chiefly a story of Osage raids and Cherokee retaliations. Delay in surveying the lines and taking the census, and the withholding of annuities until the census should be taken in the hope that the whole tribe might soon be induced to emigrate, all worked great hardship upon the Indians, hindering both political and economic development.

Meanwhile there was a growing demand on the part of Arkansas to rid her soil of Indian occupancy. When, therefore, a delegation from the Western Council went up to Washington, in the winter of 1828, to urge the settlement of their claims such pressure was brought to bear upon them by the War Department as to practically force consent to the exchange of their lands in Arkansas for a tract of seven millions of acres lying farther west, with a perpetual outlet as far west as the sovereignty of the United States might extend. The treaty was bitterly opposed by the tribe and the delegation on returning home barely escaped with their lives. The Council pronounced them guilty of fraud and treason and declared the treaty null and void. Before they could do anything to prevent it, however, the treaty had been ratified by Congress and they found protest of no avail. Thus "barely ten years after they had cleared their fields in Arkansas they were forced to abandon their claims and plantations and move once more into the wilderness."

Progress under such disheartening conditions was slow and difficult. And yet considerable advancement was made. Thomas Nuttall, who made a journey up the Arkansas river in 1819, described their farms as "well fenced and stocked with cattle," while the houses were decently furnished, a few of them evenly handsomely and conveniently. A year alter a mission school was built at the Cherokee agency near the mouth of Illinois Creek by the Reverend Cephas Washburn who did good service for religion and education until the treaty of Washington made removal necessary. The missionaries followed the Cherokees in their exodus from Arkansas and rebuilt their mission of Dwight in the new country at the mouth of the Illinois river. Here also was located the new capital named in honor of the venerable chief Takattoka.

The civil affairs of the Cherokees West had been continually confused and disturbed, not only by the indifferent policy of the Federal Government, but by the almost constant arrival of emigrants from the old nation. At the head of the tribal government from 1813 to y818 was Takattoka, an aged chief of the conservative type. Upon the arrival of a considerable delegation under the treaty of 1817, a contest for leadership ensued between him and Tollunteeskee, the chief recognized, not only by the emigrant, but the United States. The older chief was forced to yield to the newcomers and take second place even after his rival died leaving the chieftainship to John Jolly, a descendant of Tollunteeskee.

In a reorganization of the government a few years later, a plan was adopted similar to the one in use in the east at this time. They had no constitution in the truest sense of the word and but few written laws, although the government on the whole was very well suited to the condition of the people and the times. It seems, however, that it was administered in a rather vague manner, and the alws were more indifferently enforced than in the older community.

In the fall of 1838 John Jolly, principal chief, died. As his first assistant chief, John Brown, had previously resigned, John Looney, second assistant chief, whose term of office expired in October of the next year, was left the nominal head of the government. The general conditions of the country naturally led to doubt and uncertainty on the part of the people, particularly since they were not sure on what footing they really stood with the United States in regard to the adjustment of territorial rights with their eastern tribesmen who were arriving in such multitudes as to outnumber them two to one.

While the mass of the people showed no hostility towards the newcomers, the leaders, backed up by the Treaty men and remembering how a large party of emigrants twenty years before had proved usurpers, determined to hold on to the reins of government at all hazards. Encouraged by some of these, John Brown, repenting of his resignation a few months before, called an informal meeting of the Council to which eight members responded. These eight members appointed Brown to fill the unexpired term of Chief Jolly and made John Looney first assistant, and John Rodgers second assistant chief.

The newly appointed principal chief, responding to a request from the National Council at the Illinois camp ground, called a meeting "for the purpose of bringing about a union and consolidation of the whole nation."" Each party now began laying its plans for controlling the convention. For sheer strength of ability and numbers the advantage was clearly to the emigrants who, in all probability, would manage the meeting so as to give themselves the upper hand in the proposed adjustment. But, as the Old Settlers and Treaty men were not lacking in resourcefulness, the outcome held enough uncertainty to arouse the keenest interest among the people, long accustomed to taking an active part in settling their questions of national importance.

The convention which met at Takattoka, the Old Settler capital, was attended by the chiefs and legislative councillors of both Eastern and Western Cherokees and about six thousand members of the tribe besides. After a formal reception given by the western to the eastern chiefs, the councils convened separately, the Old Settlers meeting behind closed doors. Communication between the two bodies was conducted in writing. The negotiations began by the Old Settlers requesting of the Nationalists a formal statement of their wishes in regard to the proposed union. The answer was a proposition that the adjustments of their relations be left to a joint committee of equal members from each side and the principal and assistant chiefs of both nations.

The Old Settlers Council, now boldly, declared that they considered the two nations already virtually united. The Emigrants had accepted the welcome of the western chiefs, had taken their hands in friendship, an act which they regarded as acceptance of them as rulers. The government and laws of the Cherokees from the east could not be admitted in the west; nor could two governments be tolerated in the same region; therefore the Eastern Emigrants must take the organization they found already in operation when they arrived. The Emigrants vehemently denied that the two people were already united and that the chiefs of the minority had any right, from prior residence in a place set apart for emigrant Cherokees generally, to claim allegiance to themselves and their laws from a body of newcomers so greatly outnumbering them. They reminded them that in removing from the east it had been proclaimed and understood by Cherokees both sides of the Mississippi that they, had not relinquished a single law, but had emigrated in their national character with all the attributes which had belonged to them from time immemorial as a distinct community. But for all that, notwithstanding they constituted so large a majority, they had not come to make any but just and equitable demands.

On receiving this communication, the Old Settlers Council without further formalities adjourned and notified the people that the meeting was broken up. The people, both Emigrants and Old Settlers, promptly resolved themselves into a national convention in which they declared that, since their representatives had failed to accomplish a plan of union, a National Assembly should meet July 1, at the Illinois camp ground to "recast the government upon a system applicable to their present conditions, providing equally for the peace and happiness of the whole people." They adjourned after sending an express to notify General Arbuckle of the failure to effect a union and the determination to hold another convention in July, and to request him that no disbursements of moneys due the Eastern Cherokees, nor any other business of a public character affecting their rights, be made or transacted by the government agent with any other Cherokee authority until a reunion of the peole be effected.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the discussions, the men of the Treaty party had abruptly left the council ground just before the Old Settlers Council had delivered its ultimatum, but not before their presence had aggravated the old grievances up to the danger point. Feeling against them ran high and threats were heard that it was not yet too late for them to pay the penalty of the law they had broken by signing the Schermerhorn treaty. Heretofore the opposition of Mr. Ross had been so decided that all attempts to carry it into execution had been held in abeyance. Now they were decided to proceed without his knowledge. Consequently about three hundred full-bloods, every one of whom had suffered some harrowing experience from forcible removal, banded themselves together, pledged to stand by each other to the last extremity. Of the three hundred, forty were chosen to perform the work of execution. They were completely disguised and acted with such promptness and unity of purpose that in two days after the breaking up of the meeting their plan had been carried out to the latter.

About daybreak of June 22, a band of armed men entered the house of John Ridge, dragged him into the yard and brutally murdered him before the eyes of his family. Major Ridge, attended by a servant, had started the day before to visit a friend at Van Buren, Arkansas. He was travelling down the Line Road19 in the direction of Evansville. A runner, sent with all possible speed to inform him of his son's death, returned with the information that Major Ridge himself had been shot to death from ambush on the evening of the fateful twenty-second. The third victim was Elias Boudinot whose assassination was most savage and treacherous. While helping to build a house near his home at Park Hill he was called out by three men who said they wanted medicine. He started to accompany them to the house of Dr. Worcester, the missionary, about three hundred yards distant. When they had gone nearly half way two of the men seized and held him while the third stabbed him. The three of them then fell upon the wounded and helpless man with knives and tomahawks and cut him to pieces in a most barbarous fashion. The deed unquestionably was one of revolting brutality. Mr. Boudinot was a young man, as was John Ridge, in the prime of life; he was intelligent, well educated, an earnest Christian and devoted to the welfare of his people. His untimely taking off was the more deplorable from the fact that along with other important literary efforts he was engaged in missionary work and in assisting Dr. Worcester in interpreting and translating the Bible and printing it in Cherokee. It is not discounting the importance of the tragedy of the Ridges, therefore, to say that his loss at this time meant more to his people than the loss of any other man of the tribe could have meant, with the possible exception of Chief Ross himself. The missionary, upon reaching the side of his murdered friend exclaimed, "they have cut off my right hand," and at the open grave fearlessly declared him to be as true a patriot at heart as ever lived, the signing of the treaty being the only act of his life which anyone could condemn.

The blow, long deferred, had fallen with a heavy, a brutal hand. While it was a shock to the whole nation and an act greatly to be deplored from all points of, view it could not possibly have been a complete surprise to the friends of the victims. For, as has been suggested before, they were but paying the penalty of a law which the Ridges, both father and son, had been instrumental in placing on the statute books ten years before, and which Boudinot had been the first to put into print.

The fact that the murderers were of the National party, and that Boudinot was killed within two miles of Ross's home, lent color to the story that he had instigated the deed. News of the affair, reaching the remotest corner of the nation in an incredibly short time, aroused the greatest excitement. The Treaty men, regarding their murdered friends as martyrs to their cause, vowed that the price of their lives should be paid with the blood of John Ross, around whom centered the storm of bitterness and hostility which raged for weeks and months in the new country, and who was made the object of threats and plots by the friends of the murdered men.

Meantime Treaty men and some Old Settler chiefs, among whom was John Brown, had taken refuge at Fort Gibson and sought protection from the commandant, in whom they found a ready sympathy, as they did with the great majority of government officials whose obligations to President Jackson had prejudiced them against Mr. Ross. They were in favor of instant war and consulted some of the chiefs of the wild tribes, who happened to be present at the fort, to know what assistance they could furnish them in "putting down the strangers." Assured of the support of three or four thousand well armed allies from the neighboring nations they made their plans to rush suddenly upon the Illinois camp ground, disperse and pursue the men, not one in ten of whom was armed, and massacre every one of them, sparing only women and children. Before trying to carry the plan into execution, however, they revealed it to General Arbuckle, who advised them to postpone their vengeance and appeal to Washington for a settlement of the difficulty, and upon sober second thought they decided to act upon his suggestion.

During the last ten days of June, therefore, when political adjustment should have been going on smoothly, and the people given every opportunity to settle down to work, planting crops, and building houses, a civil upheaval was in progress such as the tribe had never experienced, and the country was torn from center to circumference by the bitterest factional strife it had ever known. The Federal Government promptly accused John Ross of being the cause of all the trouble. Not for a moment does it seem to have recognized its own responsibility for the state of affairs in the Cherokee Nation, where its secret agents by dark and devious methods had started a train of events which threatened to blot a nation out of existence and which actually caused its people to retrograde in civilization for three decades. Even in the fourth and fifth generations there are still traces of the old factional prejudice which three-quarters of a century have been unable to entirely obliterate.


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