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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter XVII - Political Readjustment, Concluded


The National Council selected for the location of its capital the site of an old Ute Indian village, abandoned more than half a century before, situated in a narrow valley overlooked by oak-clad ridges. The place commended itself to them partly on account of its sheltered position and salubrious climate, and partly, no doubt, from the fact that the lay of the land and the character of the country round about bear some slight resemblance to their ancient nation. On the north, a rocky prominence smooths out into an open prairie which, after a few miles, merges in a heavy forest. To the southward the broken ridges, interspersed with forests and fertile valleys, at length give place to rugged hills beyond which rise more rugged hills until they lose themselves in the dimness of the purple distance. A little creek, bearing the accumulated waters of many hillside streams, flows over a stony bed down through the town and, together with a number of nearby springs, furnished an abundant supply of water for man and beast In many ways it was an ideal spot for the purpose for which it was chosen. They named it, not New Echota, but Tahlequah, for the ancient village of Talikwa or Tellico which held less tragic associations for the tribe than their former capital.

Here they laid out the council ground in the form of a square of the dimensions of a city block and enclosed it with a rude fence, within which a temporary shed sheltered the first meeting of the Council. A log cabin served as executive office. During the next year the shed was replaced by log houses built on two corners of the capitol square, one for the accommodation of the legislature, the other for the judiciary. Several years later the log houses, in turn, gave place to a two-stock brick council house, built in the center of the square.

The first Council met between September nineteenth and October twelfth, and in quick succession passed laws for punishing criminal and other offenses, regulating settlement on the public domain, the adjustment of certain cases by arbitration, prohibiting the vending of ardent spirits, granting permission to locate new mission stations, establishing a school system and a judiciary. In addition to these there was various other legislation necessary for putting the machinery of government into motion. Just as in the old nation, the country was divided into eight districts, for the purpose of apportioning representation in the Council and the Committee, and for greater ease in administering the school system and the local affairs of the different sections.

By the compromise arranged at Fort Gibson in the summer of 1840, it was hoped and confidently believed that peace and harmony had been permanently restored. According to the agreement one-third of the officers elected under the new constitution promptly resigned, and Chief Rodgers, representing the Old Settler government, appointed Western Cherokees to fill the unexpired term with the distinct understanding that thereafter each one, regardless of party affiliation, was to take his own chance at election. When Council convened in October, 1840, therefore the new officers appeared and took their places after having pledged themselves to support the constitution.

A delegation sent to Washington the previous winter returned home in October, after having been absent for almost a year. The news they brought, was far from encouraging to a community embarrassed to the point of individual starvation and national bankruptcy. The unsettled condition of the country and the conflicting claims of rival parties had given the administration some excuse for evasion and delay, not only in turning over the annuities, but in carrying out the terms of the treaty. The real reason for the latter, however, is not to be sought in the wilds of the southwest but in the treaty itself, whose Delphic vagueness began to grow embarrassing enough to the Senate and the Executive when time came to ,'settle up" the financial end of the bargain.

Even the Senate, which had approved the document, could shed no light upon it, nor was the President nor the Secretary of War able to reconcile its contradicting statements as to whether the expense of removal should be subtracted from the five million to be paid for the old nation, or whether it should be borne by the United States.

To add to the complication, the Old Settlers now claimed that, if they were to be forced to share their country with the newcomers, they should share with them in the per capita payment which was to be made of all the moneys remaining from the sale of the eastern lands after expenses were paid. Also, the Treaty men claimed that, since they had been allowed only twenty dollars per capita for removal while the Emigrants had been promised three times as much, they should be reimbursed for the difference. These conflicting claims added to the complication, and the Van Buren administration, now nearing its end, took no definite step towards reducing it to order and harmony. The delegations at Washington in the winter of 1840-1841, appealed in vain for a final interpretation of the treaty and a complete execution of all its terms. The Indians and their troubles were too remote, cut no figure in the present political situation, and the future was not yet to be reckoned with. It seemed impossible to attract any intelligent attention at this time and affairs drifted on into the next administration, while the Cherokee government was bankrupt and many of the people were in want of the necessaries of life.

With the accession of the Whigs, who had loudly denounced Jackson's force policy, high hopes were entertained of a change of attitude towards the Cherokees. But weeks passed into months before the Indians succeeded in gaining the ear of the executive. Finally in September President Tyler addressed to the delegation a letter in which be deplored the injustice they had suffered at the hands of the Federal Government and promised that, as far as lay in his power to prevent it, no Cherokee should even again petition in vain for justice. A new treaty was then promised, giving the Cherokees indemnity for all their wrongs, establishing upon a permanent basis the political relations between them and the United States, and guaranteeing their lands in fee simple. In closing, President Tyler prophesied that a new sun would soon dawn upon the Cherokee people, in whose brightness their permanent happiness and true glory might be read by the whole world. "And I shall rejoice to have been the President under whose auspices these great and happy results shall have been produced."

With a view to carrying out this promise, the President instructed the Cherokee agent, through the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to procure all the information possible upon the subject of the injustice done the members of the tribe, to the end that amends might be made them as far as possible. The Secretary of War, acting upon this report, went so far as to prepare the draft of a new treaty, but it was so far from satisfactory to all parties that the effort at adjustment came to naught.

Meantime the possibilities suggested by Mr. Tyler's letter had been working sad havoc among the newly reconciled parties at home. Should investigation prove that large sums of money, to be paid per capita, were rightfully due the tribe, would members of all parties share and share alike, or would the Emigrants claim, and by their superior numbers and political strength, secure the lion's share? These were questions which began to agitate the minds of the opposing factions. Lawyers, thinking they saw rich fees in contesting claims, were not slow to lend a hand at setting in motion a train of influences which soon produced a repetition of all the old party wrangling and bitterness. Old Settlers and Treaty men put forward separate claims, conflicting with those of the Cherokee National government. Some of the Western Cherokees seceded and attempted to establish their government at the mouth of the Illinois River. The Cherokee National authorities tried to suppress the movement on the ground of treason, and the opposition, angry and resentful, appealed to Washington to have a certain section of the nation set apart for them, complaining that they could not live in peace and harmony with the Ross government. The administration at loss to know what to do took refuge, as usual, in inaction.

Meanwhile Chief Ross and the Cherokee Council were not idle. After having failed in the attempt to restore harmony and unity at home, they dispatched a delegation to Washington, in the winter of 1843-44, to head off the secession movement by arranging a new treaty. Armed with President Tyler's letter, they appeared at the National Capitol and presented to the Secretary of War a statement of the salient points on which they desired to negotiate a new agreement. Representatives of the other two factions were also present and their hostility to the Ross party caused the President to decide that the cause of turbulence in the tribe must be obtained, and responsibility for it fixed, before a new treaty could be considered. Charges had been brought against the dominant party, claiming that grievous oppressions were practiced by them, insomuch that their opponents were not allowed to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that the act of union was never authorized or sanctioned by the legal representatives of the people. The Nationalists contended that the Western Cherokees and the Treaty party enjoyed the same degree of security and the same fullness of rights enjoyed by any other part of the nation, and counter charged that the alleged dissatisfaction was confined to a few restless spirits whose motto was "rule or ruin."

Unable to reconcile these contradictions, President Tyler appointed a commission to inquire into the disturbances and the grievances of the weaker parties. This commission, composed of General R. Jones, Lieutenant Colonel R. B. Mason and Mr. P. M. Butler, the Cherokee agent, arriving at Fort Gibson in the early winter, issued a proclamation stating their business with the Cherokees and inviting them to come in and register any complaints which they might have against the party in power. Conferences held at different places were well attended, over nine hundred being present at one meeting, and a thorough investigation was made, lasting over several weeks.

Based on this investigation, the commission made its report which stated that, after an impartial examination of the facts in the case, the committee was thoroughly convinced that the authority for the proceedings on either side at Fort Gibson in July, 1840, was adequate, since the representatives of the Western Cherokees who had attended and taken part in the deliberations were regarded by both Eastern and Western Cherokees as authorized agents; that the stipulations in regard to office were at once carried out, and many of those now denying the validity of the compact had taken office under it, and consequently had taken the required oath; and while the proceedings were never referred back to the people there was probably no intention that they ever should have been—at any rate, the reason that they were not, seemed to have been not the fault of the Ross party. Chief Rodgers and others had received money from the new government for claims under the old. The complaining party had acquiesced in the new government and, in the succeeding election, party lines seem to have been obliterated and the Western Cherokees had received the majority of the offices. As to the moot question of per capita payments, the committee held the opinion that all parties stood on an equal footing. It further reported that the complaint of oppression against the Ross party since the act of union was unfounded and that no life had been endangered by them, except in the administration of wholesome laws; but there was great danger to life from frequent and stealthy incursions of a desperate gang of bandit half-breeds, notorious in the nation as wanton murderers, house burners and horse thieves, but whose fraternity was not of the dominant party; among the mass of the people there was no discontent, the bitterness and hostility to the dominant party being confined to only a few. The commission concluded its report by recommending a new treaty on the basis of President Tyler's letter.

It would seem that there was no occasion for further delay, but that the time for action had arrived. Justice to all parties demanded it. When the report of the commission reached the President, however, the country had just emerged from the throes of another presidential election, resulting this time in the final overthrow of the Whigs. Mr. Tyler, with an eye single to the annexation of Texas, was willing to leave the much vexed Cherokee question to the tender mercies of his successor, who, during the first months of his administration, was too concerned with important foreign relations and domestic affairs to trouble himself much about distracted Indians.

Seeing no probability of adjustment, and having become satisfied that it would be impossible for them to maintain a peaceful and happy residence in the Cherokee Nation while John Ross and his party remained dominant, some Old Settlers and members of the Treaty party, in the fall of 1845, resolved to seek a new home in Mexico. An exploring party of forty was sent out to find a suitable location. On their return, a meeting was held at which it was decided to ask the United States to provide them a home in the Texas country upon the relinquishment of all their interests in the Cherokee Nation; or, to assign a section of the Cherokee Nation to them with the privilege of adopting their own form of government and living under it without molestation. General Arbuckle and the Governor of Arkansas approved the measure and urged upon the authorities at Washington the necessity of legislation to carry it into effect. Nothing ever came of it however.

The National party resented this recommendation and vigorously objected to any Federal interference with their internal affairs, particularly to having their country divided and the authority of the United States courts extended over them, regarding it as a distinct violation of the article in the New Echota Treaty, which promised the Indians protection in the laws which they should make, providing only that these laws should not be inconsistent with those of the United States. While the project of separation was not carried out, it served to keep the factional spirit keyed to the highest pitch. Personal and party feuds resulted in a series of murders which led to the organization of bands of all factions for the purpose of depredation, retaliation, or protection; and the country was again plunged into a reign of terror.

The situation in the summer of 1846 became so serious that all parties recognized the necessity of the immediate settlement of the trouble. Accordingly, at the suggestion of the three factions whose representatives were in Washington, a commission was appointed with power to examine into the cause of the controversy and adjust them if possible. As a measure of precaution, a memorandum of agreement was drawn up which bound all parties to abide absolutely by the decision of the commission and to sign such agreement as should be necessary to insure the execution of a treaty. The result was the treaty of August 6, 1846.

It stated that "The lands now occupied by the Cherokee Nation should be secured to the whole Cherokee people for their common use and benefit," the United States to issue a patent for the said land which, in case the Cherokees became extinct or abandoned the country, should revert to the United States; it was agreed that difficulties and party differences should cease; a general amnesty for all offenses was declared, and laws were to be passed for the equal protection of all; the United States agreed to reimburse the Cherokees all sums unjustly deducted from the five million dollars under the treaty of 1835, and to distribute what remained of that amount according to the treaty. As to the claims of the Old Settlers to sole ownership of the lands of the western nation, it was decided that they had no exclusive title as against the Eastern Cherokees who, by the treaty of 1885, had acquired a common interest in the western lands. On the other hand, the Old Settlers were to be given one-third interest in what remained of the five millions received for the eastern nation, which was to be paid per capita. The Treaty Party was to be indemnified to the amount of $115,000. The sum of $2,000 was allowed for the printing presses seized by the Georgia Guard in 1835, and $5,000 was to be equally divided among those who had been deprived of their arms by General Scott. The treaty left to the Senate to decide whether the amount of subsistence was to be chargeable to the treaty fund, and whether interest should be allowed, and at what rate and from what time. A clause also provided that the treaty should not take away from the Cherokees, still living in the east, their right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.

After all the years of bickering and delay, confusion and bloodshed, there was at last a treaty. What could have been more welcome to the distracted tribe than the adjustment of their standing with the United States and the establishment of peace and harmony at home? The treaty did not bring the long expected and much needed financial relief to the country, however.

The elucidation of the document was not work of days or weeks, but of months and years. After two years' study and deliberation Commissioner Medill expressed it as his opinion that the five million dollars was in full for the entire session of the eastern land, and nothing more should be paid for removal, subsistence or any other purpose. Against this interpretation the Cherokees entered a vigorous protest, and disagreement and contention on the part of both sides delayed a settlement; the question in all its perplexity drifted on for another couple of years. It was not until August, 1850, that the Senate Committee, to whom the treaty had been referred, reached a conclusion. Their decision upheld the claim of the Cherokees that the charge for subsisting the emigrants during, and a year after removal, ought to be borne by the United States, and that the expense of removal agents was not rightfully chargeable to the Cherokees, but should be borne by the Federal Government. Their award for these things, however, was very conservative, and far from what the Cherokees had a right to expect.

After the amount of the reward had been fixed there was further delay in securing the necessary appropriation by Congress. The last item was provided for by an act of February 27, 1851. This was done with the requirement that it should be in full settlement for all claims and demands of the Cherokee Nation against the United States under any treaty heretofore made by them. Instructions were finally issued in September to John Drennan, Superintendent of the Southern Division, to proceeded without delay to make the payment. Thus Georgia had been in full possession of the eastern lands of the tribe for thirteen years before the original owners had received any compensation.

Neither the Old Settlers nor the Emigrants were satisfied with the decision of the Senate. The former received what was paid to them under protest, lest their acceptance of it should be so construed as to prevent them, in the future, from urging claims which they considered just, but which were not admitted by the treaty. Before accepting the money and complying with conditions prescribed by Congress, the National Council registered its disapproval by a set of resolutions solemnly protesting against the injustice its people had suffered through the treaties of 1835 and 1846, copies of which they sent to both Houses of Congress.

The per capita payment brought a short period of individual prosperity which showed itself in improved farms and farming implements, better buildings, and larger herds of cattle and horses. The Cherokee government, unfortunately, did not share this prosperity. With no revenue other than the small income derived from the invested funds in the United States, and with the heavy expenses incurred by the establishment and maintenance of schools and the carrying on of the government, the national debt increaser year by year until it assumed embarrassing proportions. The district schools began to languish for lack of funds and the high schools, in which they had taken such pride, were finally closed for the same reason.

To add to the perplexity, there swept over the southwest, in the summer of 1854, a blasting south wind accompanied by a drought which blighted the promising crops, parched the vegetation and caused a partial water famine. Taken utterly by surprise, the people were unprepared for such an emergency, and before the end of the year many of them had been reduced to destitution amounting almost to starvation. In this situation, in the fall of 1854, they determined to send a delegation to Washington for the purpose of arranging, if possible, the sale of some of their surplus detached lands as a measure of relief from the burden of their public debt, and to replenish their exhausted school fund. A large part of the winter was spent in fruitless negoiations, and the delegation was at least forced to return home empty handed, much to the disappointment and dissatisfaction of their people.

The only point gained was the removal of the garrison at Fort Gibson, which was not actually accomplished, however, until three years later. In 1857 Chief Ross in his message to the Council authorized the site of the abandoned post to be laid off into town lots and sold to Cherokee citizens, the proceeds to go into their national treasury. Provision was made for the preservation of the burying grounds which contain the remains of several United States officers. The sale of the lots netted the nation the sum of $20,000, not a large amount, to be sure, but it was of some help. Notwithstanding civil unrest and financial embarrassment, together with other handicaps and annoyances, the Cherokees continued to gain ground slowly but surely, showing administrative ability of no mean order and a real capacity for Anglo Saxon civilization.


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