A Forgotten Episode
THE movement for the admission of an Indian State will recall a tragic episode in American history, now almost forgotten. Taken in connection with the events of twenty-five years ago, and with events which are occurring to-day, the tragedy deserves remembrance. Caution is always in order in suggesting retribution for territorial crimes ; but if, as the historian of Georgia intimates, there be such a thing, if
Returns th’ ingredients of our poisoned chalice To our lips,”
there must appear in this tragic affair and its sequel something marvelously like retribution. Granting this, the ominous reappearance, in the same region, of the very spirit which wrought that tragedy may call for its recital as a warning. The repression of a weaker race just rising into civilization is as much a crime to-day as it was a half century ago.
It is something over fifty years since the Indian nations now knocking at the door of the Union first aspired to statehood. The home of what was then the most enlightened tribe, the Cherokees, was in northern Georgia, and they had left behind them their primitive barbarism as far as the more intelligent blacks of that region have advanced beyond the ignorance of slave days. They seemed, indeed, upon the verge of sovereignty, their future even better assured than that of their emancipated and enfranchised successors. But the race which ruled said, No, and they were turned back for a half century and more of sufferings and hopes deferred.
That turning backward of an uprising race is known to history as the “ Spoliation of the Cherokees,” a crime the mention of which once made the ears of Americans tingle with shame. A few years ago, the public was greatly agitated over the compulsory removal of the little Ponca tribe of Indians from their home along the Upper Missouri to the Indian Territory. Honorable Senators as well as noble women espoused their cause, and the outcome is likely to be in full justice to that long-abused race. But these philanthropists are not the first whose hearts have burned over the wrongs of the red men. Over against those few hundred Poncas are to be numbered the Cherokee nation with its sixteen thousand souls. Over against the meetings which were roused to indignation by the appeals of Bright Eyes and Standing Bear are to be recalled the great gatherings in Boston and Hartford and Philadelphia, which denounced in ringing tones the proposed removal of the Cherokees. The memorial of one such meeting, held at the State House in Boston, was prepared by men like Rufus Choate, Leverett Saltonstall, Samuel Hoar, and Jeremiah Evarts. It recited the immemorial occupancy of their lands by the Cherokees, and showed that their title to the same had been conceded by the government, and had been guaranteed to them forever. It also set forth the progress of the nation in civilization, in which they had been encouraged by the earlier Presidents, and showed how these improvements would he hazarded by removal. At the meeting where this memorial was finally adopted, it was urged that similar meetings be held throughout the commonwealth, and that petitions be sent to Congress from every quarter, since " there was never an occasion since the Declaration of Independence on which it more became the people of the United States to speak their minds than at present.”
Stout friends of the Indians were found in Congress, who battled earnestly, but in vain, for their rights. Against them was a power which was bound to rule or to ruin our federal government. Chief representative of that power at this time was the State of Georgia. She boasted herself the principal in the matter of the removal of the Indians, and claimed to have compelled the United States to do her bidding. So generally acknowledged was the claim that in this transaction Georgia had overridden the will of the nation that, in 1861, the State was complimented upon it by Jefferson Davis. On his way to Montgomery to be inaugurated President of the Southern Confederacy, Mr. Davis spoke thus, at Cartersville : “ Georgians, — for by no higher title could I address you,—your history, from the days of the Revolution down to the time that your immortal Troup maintained the rights of your State and of all the States, in his contest with the federal usurpation, has made Georgia sacred soil.”
Surely no one cares, at this day, to take from the “ immortal Troup ” the honor of having forced the United States government to deal as it then did deal with the Indians.
But to tell the story of the crime. The Cherokees, as has been said, were the most advanced of the Southern Indian tribes, which have since become known as the five civilized nations. Perhaps the earliest notice of them by white men is that of Father Roger, a Catholic missionary, who landed with the Spaniards at St. Helena in 1566. He speaks of them as quite above the coast Indians, physically, intellectually, and morally.
The original Cherokee country was an imperial domain, stretching from Virginia to the watershed of the Gulf, and embracing a part of Kentucky, all eastern Tennessee, and the highlands of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama. Mrs. Jackson, the Indian’s friend, describes it: “ Beautiful and grand, with lofty mountains and rich valleys, fragrant with flowers and fruits of magnolia and pine, filled with the singing of birds and the melody of streams, rich in fruit and nuts and wild grains, it was a country worth loving, worth fighting, worth dying for, as thousands of its lovers have fought and died, white men as well as red, within the last hundred years.” This broad territory was gradually diminished by legitimate cessions under treaties, until, in 1825, it embraced only that part of Georgia north and west of the Chattahoochee River, and small adjacent parts of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama. So far there was no occasion for complaint on the part of the Cherokees. However aggressive the whites had been, they had at least respected the acknowledged law of nations, which recognized the ownership of the Indians, and their supreme jurisdiction over their unalienated lands. In that year, 1825, the greed of possession overcame all scruples, but it operated first against the Creek nation. At the urgent solicitation of Georgia, President Monroe bad appointed a commission to treat with the Creeks for their lands. The nation refused, and voted to put to death any one who should vote to sell more land; but after the council had broken up, the commissioners negotiated with a few chiefs what they called the treaty of Indian Spring. By this compact all the Creek lands were to be given up, for four hundred thousand dollars. At once Governor Troup claimed the lands for Georgia, and set up a lottery to dispose of them. Fortunately, however, the early traditions as to justice still obtained with the general government. President Adams’s ideas of Indian rights had been inherited from Washington and Jefferson. The kindly attitude of the former is well known, while Mr. Jefferson, who was yet living at the time of this transaction, declared that he “ was decidedly opposed to the Georgia claims.” He said also that Georgia was “ the most greedy State in the Union ; ” that the Indians were under no obligations to sell their lands; that they had an original title to them; that we had guaranteed that title; and that the Indians were indisposed to sell them. In line with this opinion, President Adams ordered an investigation of the Indian Spring matter. It being found that forty-nine fiftieths of the Creeks repudiated the treaty, it was annulled, and General Gaines was ordered to prevent any trespass on the Indian lands. Upon this, Governor Troup stormed and threatened, demanding arrogantly “ if the President of the United States would hold himself responsible to the State of Georgia.”
Although another treaty was finally made, by which the Creeks fairly ceded all their Georgia lands, this did not satisfy Mr. Jefferson’s greedy State.” The Cherokee country must be had, by fair means or by foul. The obstacle to such acquisition, in the way of an oldfashioned statesman in the White House, was soon to disappear. In 1828, General Jackson, whose ideas of Indians would seem to have been those of the average frontiersman, was elected President. No sooner was the result of the election known than the legislature of Georgia (December 20, 1828) passed an act incorporating the Cherokee country with the State, dividing it up and attaching it to the several adjoining counties. Following are two sections of the act: —
“ Sec. 8. That all laws, usages, and customs made, established, and in force in the said territory, by the said Cherokee Indians, be, and the same are hereby, on and after the first day of June, 1830, declared null and void.
“ Sec. 9. That no Indian, or descendant of Indian, residing within the Creek or Cherokee nations of Indians shall be deemed a competent witness, or a party to any suit in any court enacted by the constitution or laws of this State, to which a white man may be a party.”
And who were these Cherokees thus summarily outlawed by the State of Georgia ? They were a civilized nation of above twenty thousand souls, a people whose progress from barbarism to civilization had been more rapid than that of any other historic nation. As soon as the diminution of their lands called for a change in their habits of life, the chiefs determined to make them a people among the peoples of the earth. In due time they hoped to gain a place for the Cherokee State as a constituent part of the nation. In their efforts to this end, the chiefs were not only counseled and encouraged, but they were materially aided, by all the early Presidents. It was at the suggestion of Mr. Jefferson that they adopted a form of government not unlike that of one of the States. The legislative authority was vested in a General Court, composed of a national committee of thirty-two members besides the speaker, and a council of thirteen members. The executive power was given to two chiefs, to be exercised during good behavior. The judiciary consisted of a superior court of appeal, held at the seat of government, and of eight district courts, presided over by four circuit judges. Trial was by jury, and there was the usual complement of sheriffs and court officials.
Speaking of the prospective relations of this little nation to the United States, one of the Cherokees said, “ She will become, not a great but a faithful ally of the United States. In time of peace, she will plead the common liberties of America. In time of war, her intrepid sons will sacrifice their lives in your defense.” That this was not simply a civilization on paper is amply certified. Colonel McKenney, in a report to Congress, after speaking in the highest terms of their progress, said, “ In view of the preceding facts, it is perceived that none would hesitate to admit that the Cherokees are a civilized people.”
This advancement had not, of course, been made without help. In 1817, the American Board had established a mission among them, and other missionaries had followed, as a result of whose labors the nation had become Christian. But while thus stimulated from without, there had been a surprising internal development. This is witnessed by an original invention of letters among them. Sequoyah, the son of a Cherokee maiden and a strolling white trader, had devised a series of eighty-six characters, by which every syllable in the Cherokee language could be expressed, — this wholly out of his own resources, Sequoyah not being able to read at the time of his invention. After much incredulity on the part of the chiefs, he at last convinced them that it was a practical means of communication, and awakened such an enthusiasm for the scheme that the whole nation set about learning to read. The missionaries, who at first distrusted this native learning, came in time to appreciate it highly. So simple yet so complete was the system that in a few years an actual majority of the nation could read, and many of them could write. In 1828, five years after the acceptance of Sequoyah’s alphabet, a newspaper, the Cherokee Phœnix, was established at New Echotah, the seat of government. It was founded by an order of the state council, and one fourth part of it was printed in Sequoyah’s characters.
From an address given in 1826 by Elias Boudinot, a full-blooded Cherokee, we learn that his people then had 2488 spinning-wheels, 2943 ploughs, ten saw-mills, twenty-one grist-mills, sixtytwo blacksmith shops, eighteen schools, eighteen ferries, and a number of public roads.
It would be of interest to quote from the many eloquent passages of this address, but we content ourselves with a single reference. " And here,” says Mr. Boudinot, “ let me be indulged in the fond hope that she will thus become [one of the garden spots of America] under those who now possess her, and ever be fostered, regulated, and protected by the generous government of the United States.” “The generous government of the United States ” ! There is no reason to think that the speaker used those words in irony, for in 1826 the government was still friendly.
Against the pressure from Georgia which Jackson’s election invited, and even against his administration, the Senate showed a strong disposition to uphold the Indians. In his first message to Congress, the President had said that he had told the Indians that their pretensions would not be sustained. This was the signal for action. A bill was introduced into the Senate for facilitating the removal of the Gulf Indians to the west of the Mississippi. Not Congress only, but the whole country was profoundly agitated. It was then that the great meetings mentioned above were held, to persuade Congress to defeat this injustice. In both Houses a brave fight was made. Never were more eloquent appeals uttered for a maltreated race. In a speech of May 15, 1830, Mr. Storrs, of New York, said : “ But the Cherokees and Creeks have declared that they will not leave their country. They positively refuse to go over the Mississippi. Why, then, have the laws of the State been extended over them at this particular time? We are told that this bill is only to come in aid of their voluntary emigration. But you have had their answer to that for years. Your table is covered by their memorials and protests against it. . . . Is there not reason to believe that they are to be removed against their real consent and inclination, though no force is meditated in any quarter ? ... Is that the protection which you have promised ? Is that the execution of your solemn guarantee ? Is that your dealing with your plighted faith and national honor ?”
The only attempt at a reason for the removal of the Cherokees was the claim that they were a barbarous and roving people, who could make no proper use of their lands. Let the facts alreadystated answer that claim ; or let a comparison be made between those Naboths, branded as barbarians, and the Ahabs who appropriated their vineyard. At that time, less than ten years after the invention of their alphabet, more than half the Cherokee nation could read. A whole generation later, in 1860, the census of the four central counties of the Cherokee country — Cherokee, Cobb, Gordon, and Carr — showed forty-three per cent. of their inhabitants unable to read.
But argument and appeal were alike unavailing. The Senate yielded by a majority of one, and passed the bill.
This was a second license to Georgia, whose legislature this year authorized surveyors to go on and divide up the Cherokee lands, to be distributed by lottery among the people of the State. The more effectually to cut off friends from the Indians, white persons were excluded from the territory, except as they were licensed by the governor and took the oath of allegiance to the State of Georgia. The governor was also authorized to station an armed force within the territory, to protect the gold mines ; and it was made an offense, punishable with four years at hard labor in the penitentiary, for an Indian to work those mines.
These laws were not dead letters. Two Northern missionaries among the Indians, Messrs. Worcester and Butler, were arrested and confined in the penitentiary. The United States Supreme Court pronounced the law under which they were imprisoned unconstitutional, and their release was ordered. Georgia refused to obey, and President Jackson, instead of compelling obedience, is reported to have said, “ John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”
The Indians suffered greatly. Cherokees were tried by Georgia juries and hanged, without even a motion in their behalf by the government whose Supreme Court had declared these things unlawful. The trend of events from the passing of the removal bill was inevitably towards the expatriation of the people. They would not as a nation make any treaty consenting to emigrate. When efforts to this end failed, treaties were negotiated by United States commissioners with irresponsible individuals, like the Indian Spring treaty with the Creeks, annulled by President Adams. Such a treaty, made in 1834, was promptly repudiated by thirteen thousand Cherokees. An official delegation was then sent to Washington, headed by John Ross, the principal chief. In their absence, the United States agent, Rev. Mr. Schermerhorn, by withholding annuities, by arbitrary arrests, and by threats that " the screws would be turned upon them till they would be ground to powder,” induced sixty individuals, without a chief among them, to consent to a treaty. The acquiescence of even these few was obtained only upon the solemn promise of the reverend commissioner that the treaty should not be binding until it had received the assent of the Ross delegation. Not only did this delegation repudiate the treaty, but the whole nation rejected it. Their protests, however, were in vain. The so-called treaty was ratified by the Senate, and a military force was sent out under General Wool to secure the submission of the helpless people. Upon Ross’s return home. General Wool asked him to advise the people to go. “ I assured him,” said the patriotic chief, “ that I would pledge my life that the Cherokees would never assert their rights by bloodshed, but that I could not, as an honest man, advise their assent to a spurious treaty. They might be persuaded to remove, and would be better reconciled to their fate, if the United States would only show them the fairness formally to recognize the removal as the compelled submission of the weaker to the stronger ; but they would not in the face of Heaven put their hands and seals to a falsehood.” The nation made one last effort, by sending to their brethren in Arkansas, and getting them to join with themselves in a delegation to Washington to ask for an investigation. President Van Buren declined to interfere, and it only remained to submit.
At the time fixed for the removal of the Cherokees, the great mass of the people had made no preparation for departure, clinging to their homes with the proverbial tenacity of mountaineers. In the mean time, fortifications had been erected in commanding places, and in May, 1838, the soldiery began driving the families together at the point of the bayonet. Sixteen thousand were gathered in three great bands. From June to September the march was delayed by the heat, then two months more by drought. It began in November, and occupied five weary months. The details of its sufferings need not be given. Suffice that four thousand, or one fourth part of the whole company, died on the way. The rest found themselves, crushed and hopeless, in a strange land.
We have now but to quote the pathetic and prophetic words of John Ross, uttered when the last hope had disappeared : —
“ We distinctly disavow all thought, all desire, to gratify any feeling of resentment. That possessions acquired and objects attained by unrighteous means will sooner or later prove a curse to those who have sought them is a truth we have been taught by that holy religion which was brought to us by our white brothers. Years, nay centuries, may elapse before the punishment may follow the offense, but the volume of history and the sacred Bible assure us that the period will certainly arrive. We would with Christian sympathy labor to avert the wrath of Heaven from the United States by imploring your government to be just.” And now, in suggesting a possible fulfillment of this prophecy of retribution, the writer would emulate the kindly spirit of John Ross. The spoliation of the Cherokees was a national act, and as such the whole nation assumed its consequences. True, hundreds of thousands of our people protested against the outrage, just as hundreds of thousands protested against slavery ; but the judgment that comes upon nations knows nothing of individuals. From the St. Croix to file Colorado were felt the strokes of the sword that told of the blows of the lash. So from the St. John’s to the Columbia, the nation, in that scourge of war, may have been paying penalty for its robbery of the Cherokees, New Englander sharing with Georgian. Still, there was a sense in which that spoliation was the peculiar crime of Georgia, and more especially of the people who profited by the robbery. The sober sense of mankind agrees with John Ross that some power, call it fate, call it Providence, call it what we will, seems to visit wrong-doing upon localities which profit thereby.
And how has it been with the country of the Cherokees? Georgians claim that their State suffered more, proportionally, than any other in the Confederacy. She poured out her blood and treasures without, stint. She contributed twenty thousand more soldiers than her whole voting population at the beginning of the war ; and of these her loss was in the very highest proportion. .She had two thousand square miles of her territory ravaged. She lost three fourths of her entire wealth. But the portion of Georgia which was scourged beyond all comparison with the rest was the land of the Cherokees, the territory bounded by the silvery Chattahoochee, and watered by the golden Etowah and the beautiful streams that fill the Oostanaula. Geographically and historically, this region includes the valley of the Tennessee about Chattanooga. Through and through this region trampled hosts gathered from every State in the Union. Here armies closed in a death-grapple more awful than was elsewhere known, unless in that desperate struggle in the Virginia Wilderness. Here was Chickamauga, called the bloodiest battle of the war. Here were Missionary Ridge, and Dalton, and Resaca, and Alatoona, and New Hope Church, and Kenesaw, not to speak of the seventy-four distinct engagements fought among these hills and valleys from September, 1863, to October, 1864.
As to the effect of this fearful carnage upon the region itself, let me quote the words of one of its own people, Colonel Avery, already alluded to as suggesting something peculiar in its local history to account for such suffering. “This favored section of the State,” he says,
“ rich, healthy, beautiful, was a continuous ruin. It exemplified the horrors of war. . . . The arena of contending armies for a long period, it was desolated in its entirety.”“Left for months outside the protecting ægis of both governments, the hiding-place of guerrillas of both armies, the theatre of the worst of all strifes that exist between inimical local factions, it realized in all its malignancy the miserable suffering conveyed in the realization of anarchy. The melancholy condition of this section is the saddest picture of all the sad ones of the late war. Those able to flee fled. Those unable to get away stayed in armed despair, ever present peril, and subject to daily rapine and death. Courts were silent, schools empty, churches desolated1 Dwellings were burned and fences destroyed, until the civilizing demarkations of home and farm were lost in indistinguishable ruin. Strolling bands of deserters and robbers herded in the mountain caves, made predatory incursions from their fastnesses, and in their inhuman collisions and murderous orgies kept up a reign of terror. It was once a smiling country, peaceful, prosperous, and happy, converted by the fell Moloch of war into a bloody scene of utter desolation. And to these awful horrors, unusual and unmitigable, the possibility of starvation was superadded. No crops could be raised in this hideous time, and charity could not penetrate this wilderness of desolation.” 2
As a slight suggestion of the poverty and distress, Colonel Avery says that in the four counties of Cherokee, Gordon, Gilmer, and Paulding, over one fourth of the inhabitants were left absolute paupers. Relief by the people of the State was for a time impossible, though General Wofford, under the appointment of Governor Brown, did all that could be done. In this extremity the national government came to the rescue, Congress passing an act for the relief of the region through the Freedmen’s Bureau. As one feature of this aid, thirty thousand bushels of corn were given to the inhabitants to plant for their new crop.
It would be of interest, had we space, to note the fortunes of particular localities. The two principal centres of civilization in the old Cherokee country were at Brainard, where the first missionary station was founded, and at New Echotah, the seat of government. Within a few miles of the latter place was fought the bloody three days’ battle of Resaca. Near the former were Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge, the latter so called from the proximity of the old mission station.
But what is the peculiar thing which Colonel Avery traces in the history of this desolated Cherokee country? He finds, forsooth, that the region voted against secession. It behooves any but a Georgian to speak with modesty and reverence of this awful visitation. To most men, however, a more unique feature in the history of northern Georgia, and one more suggestive of crime than any vote of loyalty to the Union, was the spoliation and expatriation of its original inhabitants. Rather than shouts for the old flag, most men will recall the wails of those thousands of despoiled Cherokees, driven by the bayonet from their ancestral homes. Up through the booming of the cannon and the bitter cries from desolated homes many impartial listeners will hear rising the plaintive tones of those dusky mountaineers, saying, as they did in their last appeal to the nation, “ We shall submit our cause to an all-wise and just God.”
Let us assume now that Colonel Avery is right in associating the horrors endured by the region in question with something peculiar in its history; but let us assume too that that unique thing was not its love for its country, but its gross injustice to a rising race.
What is suggested? Shades of color are nothing, a half century of time is nothing, in a matter of principle. The nation admires a brave and chivalrous people when they turn aside to weep, and to lay wreaths upon the grave of one of their representative men, as the people of northern Georgia have so recently done. Its admiration is greater when the eloquence of that man has charmed and delighted the whole land. But the nation is wiser and firmer for the rights of manhood than it was fifty years ago. With all fraternity of feeling, therefore, towards this once-suffering region, it may well cry out in warning, “ Give no occasion for any future conspirator to allude again, mutato nomine, to the ‘ immortal Troup.' ”
George A. Jackson.