In preparation for our trip to Georgia, I knew we would have an opportunity to visit numerous Civil War sites as well as memorials to the Cherokee Trail of Tears. We had read about each of these events in our history book, Story of the World, and were excited to see them for ourselves and to hear the stories (first person accounts as recorded in written form and brought to life in the museum placards) from those who had taken part in these events in our nation’s history. One of the stories that touched us the most profoundly was that of Major Ridge and the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee Nation, largest of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast, is a people of Iroquoian lineage. By 1650, they commanded more than 40,000 square miles in the southern Appalachians with a population estimated at 22,500. Similar to other Native Americans of the Southeast, their nation was a confederacy of towns, each subordinated to supreme chiefs. When encountered by the Europeans, they were agrarian people who lived in log houses and observed sacred religious practices.
The only hostilities by the Cherokees against white settlers occurred around the time of the American Revolution. The Cherokees, as well as the Creek and Choctaw, supported the British and made several attacks on the revolutionaries’ forts and settlements. The result of their British alliances was a drastic reduction of tribal land holdings. After 1800, the Cherokee quickly assimilated European culture in their dress, farming, and building methods. They adopted a government patterned after the United States. Their culture continued to flourish with the invention of the Cherokee alphabet by Sequoyah in 1821, producing rapid literacy and thereby leading to the creation of the Cherokee Constitution, the spread of Christianity, and the publication of the only Native American newspaper.
Sparked by the discovery of gold in 1828, Georgia passed a law proclaiming Cherokee laws null and void after June 1, 1830. The Cherokees filed numerous lawsuits in protest, and in 1832 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokees in the landmark case Worcester v. Georgia. However, President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling, leaving the Cherokees at the mercy of settlers and prospectors armed with the new Georgia law. Their lands and homes were entered into a lottery system and redistributed to European settlers. Ironically, the Cherokees had fought alongside Andrew Jackson against the Creeks (who continued to align with the British) in the War of 1812.
|Major Ridge’s home as it appears today. Over the years there have been several expansions and remodels. Plans are underway to return the home to the way it was when Ridge resided here.
Seeing the situation as hopeless, a small band of Cherokees led by Major Ridge (who had adopted the name Ridge after his role in the War of 1812) signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, dooming the “Principal People” to removal. According to this treaty, the Cherokees would forsake their land east of the Mississippi and move to Indian Territory for $5 million.
I am one of the Native Sons of these wild woods.I have hunted the deer and turkey here, more than fifty years.I have fought your battles, defended your truth and honesty, and fair trading …I know the Indians have an older title than the Georgians.We obtained the land from the living God above.They got their title from the British.Yet they are strong and we are weak.We are few, they are many …We can never forget these homes, I know.But an unbending, iron necessity tells us we must leave them.I would willingly die to preserve them.But any forcible effort to keep them will cost us our lands, our lives, and the lives of our children …Give up these lands and go over beyond the great Father of Waters.~ Major Ridge 1836
In 1838 the brutal execution of the Treaty of New Echota began. More than 4,000 U.S. Army troops under the direction of General Winfield Scott rounded up 15,000 Cherokees into internment camps then herded them along the 2,000 mile march. The 116-day “Trail of Tears” began in October 1838. More than 8,000 Cherokees died as result of the march.