Removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma

At the conclusion of the colonials' war for independence from Britain, during which the Cherokee had fought alongside the British, a treaty was signed in 1786 establishing the boundaries of Cherokee territory. As always, encroachments by European-American settlers continued in violation of this written agreement. A second treaty and another cession of territory was forced on the Cherokee people, sanctioning both existing encroachments as well as anticipated land hunger. In the War of 1812, however, the Cherokee refused to join with Tecumseh and the Creek-dominated southern confederacy of tribes, choosing instead to come to the aid of the European-Americans; they were, in fact, instrumental in assisting Andrew Jackson's forces against the Creek at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Georgia. Their loyalty to the Union brought no benefit or protection once the conflict ended.

With peace once again returning to the frontier, the encroachments by new settlers continued. John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War in James Monroe's cabinet, called for the wholesale removal of the remaining tribes from the states. Monroe agreed, believing the only chance for the tribes was to resettle them far beyond the existing frontier. For the Cherokee, this meant having to give up not just hunting grounds but a well-developed system of agriculture and established towns. The tribe dispatched its chief, John Ross, and a delegation to meet with Monroe in Washington, D.C. in February 1816. Although promised protection by Monroe from further land grabbing, the Cherokee soon came under tremendous pressure from Andrew Jackson to relinquish a large portion of their territory and agree to relocation. Some 700 Cherokee accepted Jackson's terms and prepared to leave, and in 1819 a new treaty was signed transferring one-quarter of the remaining Cherokee territory to the Union.

Monroe, who had become extremely fearful of what would happen to the remaining Cherokee, delivered a speech before Congress on December 2, 1817 that, although distinguished by his intent, echoed the earlier hope of assimilation expressed by Jefferson:

[T]he earth was given to mankind to support the greatest number of which it is capable, and no tribe or people have a right to withhold from the wants of others more than is necessary for their own support and comfort.

This was the same year that Andrew Jackson, upon instructions from Monroe, waged war against the Seminoles in Spanish Florida. To be sure, there were few similarities between the Seminoles and the Cherokee, except for the fact that each was in possession of land the European-Americans wanted for settlement, speculation and profit. Recognizing the futility of further resistance against encroachments by Union forces and settlers, Spain relinquished its Florida possessions in 1821 to the Union for $5 million. Despite all that was going on around them, the Cherokee held to the unrealistic hope that they could peacefully live alongside the European-Americans and remain on the land of their birth.

A second visit by a Cherokee delegation to Washington, D.C. resulted in a declaration by James Monroe before Congress in support of the Cherokee claim to sovereignty. The position of the President and, ostensibly the national government, ignored the fact that the boundaries of the State of Georgia encircled the Cherokee nation. Moreover, only 15,000 Cherokee remained to stand in the way of the final removal of all indigenous tribes from the eastern portion of North America. In Georgia alone nearly 500,000 European-Americans eagerly awaited the opportunity to displace them.

In 1827 the Cherokee formed a republic, adopted a written constitution and elected John Ross as president. The next year, Andrew Jackson was elected to the presidency of the Union, and the wholesale removal of the tribes was accelerated. Unfortunately for the Cherokee, in the same year as Jackson took office gold was discovered in Cherokee territory and the pressure increased for their removal. Even a decision by the Supreme Court (Worcester v. Georgia) declaring the State of Georgia had no authority in the territory of the Cherokee failed to protect their property and territory from being confiscated. With regard to the Court's decision, Andrew Jackson is quoted as having remarked: " John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

By 1835 the Cherokee people had become divided over what course of action to take. John Ross had once more gone to Washington, D.C. to plead their case, but in his absence other leaders agreed to terms that directed the Cherokee to abandon all claims to their territory. Those who signed the treaty and six hundred others departed in 1837. When Brigadier General John Wool, the Union officer sent by Jackson in mid-1836 to oversee the Cherokee removal, reacted sympathetically to their cause and attempted to protect them from abuse by state officials and settlers in Georgia and Alabama, Jackson had Wool brought up on charges of insubordination. Winfield Scott was dispatched by the new president, Martin Van Buren, in 1838 to hasten events to the desired result. Nearly 4,000 Cherokee -- more than one quarter of the tribe -- died on their forced march across the Mississippi and into the region that eventually became of the State of Oklahoma.

Remarkably resilient, the Cherokee people adopted a new constitution and rebuilt their nation in this new territory. John Ross, elected Principal Chief, once again traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1846 to negotiate a new treaty with the Union. During the war between the states, however, the Cherokee joined with the Confederacy; and, in the battles to come, much of what the Cherokee had built was destroyed. After the war their lands were reduced to a small reservation in northeastern Oklahoma.