Digital History
Introduction: Removal and the Trail of Tears
Digital History ID 692


Document: Two early 19th century Native Americans followed different paths, one assimilation, the other resistance. Both ended in tragedy. James L. McDonald, a Choctaw, was to serve as a model for the Indians' capacity for full integration into American society. As a boy, he was raised by Thomas L. McKenney, the nation's first commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and learned to read Greek and Latin. Later, he studied law under John McLean, a future Supreme Court justice, and became the country's first Indian lawyer. But he began to drink, and after a white woman spurned his marriage proposal, he fell off a cliff to his death. McKenney would later claim that McDonald's sad story would make him an advocate of removing eastern Indians west of the Mississippi River.

John Ross, a Cherokee chief, led his peoples' resistance to removal from their homelands. The son of a Scottish trader and a Cherokee woman of mixed background, he, like McDonald, was exceptionally well educated, first by a tutor and later in a white academy. During the War of 1812, he took part in the battle of Horseshoe Bend, assisting Andrew Jackson to defeat the Creek Indians. A planter who owned some twenty slaves, he owned a plantation worth $20,000 and served for a time as a U.S. postmaster. Ross's dream, however, was to establish a separate Cherokee nation or state within the United States. In 1827, he led the effort to draft a Cherokee constitution modeled on the United States Constitution. When Andrew Jackson tried to remove his people from their homelands, he organized staunch resistance, leading a series of legal battles against the policy. But he found himself thrown in jail and in 1839 he and his family were forced to walk the "Trail of Tears," with his wife, Quatie, dying along the way. He served as his peoples' principal chief until his death in 1866.

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