The Trail of Tears
Digital History ID 240
The alternative to the assimilation policy was Indian removal. First suggested by Thomas Jefferson as the only way to ensure the survival of Indian cultures, the removal policy sought to encourage Native Americans to migrate westward to lands where they could live free from white harassment. In 1825, President James Monroe set before Congress a plan to resettle all eastern Indians on tracts in the West where whites would not be allowed to live.
Under Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), federal Indian policy emphasized removal. A dispute between the Cherokee nation and the state of Georgia encouraged the shift toward removal. After the Cherokees adopted a constitution asserting sovereignty over their land, the state of Georgia abolished tribal rule and claimed that the Cherokees fell under its jurisdiction. The discovery of gold on Cherokee land triggered a land rush and the Cherokees sued to keep whites from encroaching on their territory. In two important cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831 and Worcester v. Georgia in 1832, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not pass laws conflicting with federal Indian treaties and that the federal government had an obligation to exclude white intruders from Indian lands. Angered, Jackson is said to have exclaimed: "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it."
Emboldened by the Supreme Court decisions, the Cherokees resisted Jackson's efforts to get them to sell all tribal lands in exchange for new lands in Oklahoma and Arkansas. The federal government bribed a faction of the tribe to leave Georgia in exchange for transportation costs and $5 million, but most Cherokees held out until 1838, when the army evicted them from their land. (Both before and after removal, traditionalists assassinated a number of Cherokees who cooperated with white missionaries and government officials).
In this letter, John Ross (1790-1866), the principal leader of the Cherokee Nation, and other Cherokees, petition President Van Buren for claims against the government during the removal of Cherokee from western Georgia to Oklahoma. Nearly 4,000 people, a quarter of the Cherokee population, perished of malnutrition, exposure, and cholera on the 800-mile trek from Georgia to the newly established Indian territory west of the Mississippi.
We will not occupy the time of the President...to hear our nation speak of the injuries under which they suffer from the course pursued toward us, their representatives, and themselves, from the time of the formation of our new constitution of Government up till the present moment.
Yet we cannot forbear to say, in sorrow and not in anger, that while information has been constantly received from those either at enmity with us and gross officers of the U.S. whose previous course was not that of friends, we have been denied the privilege of conference or representation in the exclusion of our principal delegates from the chambers of the Secretary of War and hence have been prevented from giving these explanations and establishing facts which would have relieved us from the imputations so harshly cast upon us....
We beg the President, "the Great Father of the Cherokee," to hear us patiently. Many hundreds of moons have passed since the Cherokee and the white man first began to speak with one another, and we call upon the "talking leaf," the record of your nation, to show that ever the chief of our nation told a lie about money. We have been stubborn, as you may call it, and irreconcilable to our removal from the consecrated and "lonely beds" of our fathers. We have the bitter anguish of a "wounded spirit" longing to drop a burning tear on our desecrated hearth stone--ere we passed away to an unknown land, but who until now has ever accused us of fault....
On the 3d Sept. Genl Scott aware of the uncommon drought--the impossibility of getting water--the suffocating dust of the road. He said to John Ross "how in the name of God Mr. Ross do your people expect to get along?" Mr. Ross replied "General, that is not for us to hesitate about--we are under a pledge and will fulfill it, trusting to God to protect us"--The response of General Scott was one which called for the heartfelt gratitude of the nation. "Mr. Ross I have not been sent here to be a murderer of the Cherokees. I call a halt, a halt, until there is such time as your people can get water....
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: John Ross to President Martin Van Buren. Co-signed by W. Shorey Coodey, John Loony
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