SAVAGE NOBLE OR NOBLE SAVAGE?
No one knew exactly how many Cherokees had perished in the ordeal. The
trail was especially hard on babies, children, and the aged. Four thousand,
nearly one fifth of the entire Cherokee population, is the estimate usually
cited, one made by Dr. Butler the Missionary, who said: "From the first of
June I felt I have been in the midst of death."
The road the Cherokees had followed was truly a "trail where they
cried." And the shock of the roundup, the tedium of the detention camps, the
miseries of the march to the West had generated a hatred so terrible it could
hardly be contained. (Wilkins 315)
The story behind the "trail of tears" is a story of misery and shame.
What forces could cause this tribe of proud Indians to abandon their beloved
homeland in the fertile hills and valleys of Georgia to seek a land they knew
very little of and cared less about? It is a story of intrigue and
manipulation in a nation formed on supposed Christian principles - a nation
whose "noble" people and leaders proved to be the savages and whose presumed
"savages" proved to be truly noble.
The forming of the new nation was by all accounts a complicated
process. As early as 1754, the struggle of authority between the individual
colonies in America and the federal government was under way - the relations
with the Indians being a central issue in this power struggle (Prucha 29).
In 1776, the statement, "The United States in Congress assembled shall
also have the sole and exclusive right and power of . . . regulating the trade
and managing all affairs with the Indians, not members of any of the States"
(qtd. in Prucha 30), was recommended as part of the Articles of Confederation.
Advocates of state sovereignty, however, were opposed to federal control.
Consequently, the final draft accepted into the Articles of Confederation
added the clause, ". . . provided that the legislative right of any State
within its own limits be not infringed or violated" (qtd. in Prucha 30). This
revision rendered the entire statement so ambiguous it lay the foundation for
the atrocities that would follow for the next century.
When the colonists finally defeated the British in their war for
independence, they were faced with an enigmatic decision - how to deal with
the native Americans. Many reasoned that, as most Indians had sided with the
British during the war, they should be treated as a conquered nation with no
rights whatsoever. However, a committee report submitted to Congress on
October 15, 1783, wisely pointed out the new nation had neither the money nor
the power to risk war with the Indians (Prucha 32-33).
The first treaties with the Cherokee Indians predated the new nation.
Reaffirming these treaties, a new pact was enacted in 1785, acknowledging the
Indians' rights to their lands. It stated, in part, Congress is now the
sovereign of all our country which we now point out to you on the map. They
want none of your lands, nor anything else which belongs to you; and as an
earnest of their regard for you, we propose to enter into articles of a treaty
perfectly equal and conformable to what we now tell you. (qtd. in H.H. 263)
To the credit of George Washington, his dealings with the Indians were
characterized by compassion and fairness, having had a deep understanding of
the complex Indian problem. In an address to the Senate on August 22, 1789,
he reminded them that their treaty with the Cherokees had been entirely
violated by the white people living in North Carolina. White settlers were
moving in on the Indian lands, claiming them as their own. One Indian chief,
questioning Congress' authority and power, wondered that the same leaders who
had defeated the King of Great Britain could not remove these intruders (H. H.
The Cherokees finally agreed to accept payment for the lands occupied
by the whites. A new treaty was drawn in 1787, redefining their boundaries,
but also adding a clause protecting Indian lands. It clearly declared that
any citizen who attempted to settle and claim Cherokee land would forfeit the
protection of the United States government; the Indians could punish him as
they saw fit (H. H. 266). Many of the "atrocities" the Cherokees were later
accused of committing were actually fair provisions under this treaty,
resulting from the federal government's failure to carry out its
responsibility in defending the rights of the tribe.
By 1801, it had become apparent the provisions of this treaty were
inadequate. The white settlers continually ignored the boundaries of the
Cherokees, inviting retribution from the Indians, which in turn caused
retaliation by the whites. The increasing bloodshed prompted President Thomas
Jefferson to seek peace by asking the Cherokees to cede more land to the
settlers. To persuade the Indians of his good intentions, emissaries were
instructed to assure the Indians they could always rely upon the friendship of
the United States, that the President would never abandon them or their
children. At first, the Indians absolutely refused to give up more of their
land, but their desire for peaceful coexistence led them, in 1805, to do just
that. The pattern continued, as the Cherokees, under pressure, ceded
additional land in 1816 and again in 1817 (H. H. 269-270).
Many white men considered the Indians irreversibly savage. In their
thinking, the Indian would never be capable of any semblance of a civilized
people. Their view was one of removal - the inferior culture must make room
for the superior. Andrew Jackson, the personification of this way of
thinking, fought many battles against the Indians of the Southeast (Jehoda 41-
42). The ideal plan in his mind was to remove these savages from the path of
appointed progress of civilization. This attitude was also reflected in a
report submitted to the House of Representatives by the Committee of Indian
That the greatest portion, even of the poorest class of the Southern
Indians, may, for some years yet, find the means of sustaining life, is
probable; but, when the game is all gone, as it soon must be, and their
physical as well as moral energies shall have undergone the farther decline,
which the entire failure of the resources of the chase has never failed to
mark in their downward career, the hideous features in their prospects will
become more manifest. (qtd. in Boudinot 114) The committee further reported:
The intelligent observer of their [the Cherokees] character will
confirm all that is predicted of their future condition, when he learns that
the maxim, so well established in other places, "that an Indian cannot work,"
has lost none of its universality in the practice of the Indians of the South;
. . that the condition of the common Indian is perceptibly declining, both
in the means of subsistence and the habits necessary to procure them; and that
upon the whole, the mass of the population of the Southern Indian tribes are a
less respectable order of human beings now, than they were ten years ago.
(qtd. in Boudinot 115)
On the contrary, however, the Cherokees had a strong desire to embrace
the white man's culture. And they succeeded to a degree that is surprising.
Within a span of two years, they developed their own written language (Van
Every 11-12). Within three years, many of them had learned to read and write;
in 1828 they began publication of a bilingual newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix
Educationally, the Indians had no reservations in sending their
children to schools run by missionaries. In 1811, a young Cherokee, Buck
Watie, attended a Moravian mission school in Georgia. In 1817, he renamed
himself Elias Boudinot, (after the founder of the American Bible Society),
entered the American Board School in Connecticut and completed his education.
An extremely intelligent and eloquent man, Boudinot became the editor of the
Cherokee Phoenix when publication began in 1828 (Boudinot 5-6).
In an address to the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1826,
Boudinot boasted of the advances that the Cherokee nation had made. He
specifically pointed out the advances materially: 22,000 cattle, 7,600
horses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 2,488 spinning wheels, 172
wagons, 2,943 ploughs, 10 sawmills, 31 gristmills, 62 Blacksmith shops, and a
variety of other possessions that indicated a high degree of civilization
(Boudinot 72). Quite a few of the wealthier Cherokees owned plantations and
black slaves. In fact, thinking that "civilization" was the primary
requisition of the whites and knowing that they could not oppose the United
States militarily, the Cherokees' ambition was to meet the Americans on their
Great moral change swept the Cherokee nation. They abolished polygamy,
honored and protected female chastity by law, observed the Sabbath, banned the
killing of aged persons suspected of practicing witchcraft, and declared
murder a crime (Boudinot 75).
The Cherokee fate as a nation, however, was totally dependent, not on
their own advancement, but on the people and the leaders of the powerful
nation in which they now lived. Some of the tribe, wishing only to be away
from the inscrutable whites, began to emigrate to Arkansas, but the majority
thought the whites had honorable intentions in their dealings with the
Cherokees (Hudson 449). On the contrary, the moment George Washington left
office, a change began to evolve in the attitude of the federal government
toward the Cherokee Indians.
Thomas Jefferson's reign, (1801-1809), was characterized by a
superficial benevolence toward the Indians. His philosophy was to help the
Indians by encouraging intermarriage with the poorer whites and thereby
absorbing them slowly into white society (Collier 46). Jefferson also enacted
a scheme to "acquire" lands from the Indians, probably as a result of pressure
put on him by state governments. He placed trading posts among the Indians,
extended credit to them, allowing them to fall hopelessly in debt in order to
force them to cede their land to the government (Hudson 452).
During James Monroe's presidency, (1817-1825), the concept continued to
develop that it was inevitable the Indians would have to be moved west of the
Mississippi River. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 had opened this vast area
of land; friends and foes of the Eastern Indians saw this as a solution to the
dilemma of coexistence. Monroe's secretary of war, John C. Calhoun, held the
position that the Indians were not legally nations and should not be treated
as such. He felt they should be treated under the law as any other American
citizen. He did not wish to force the Indians to emigrate, but he also made
it clear to them, if they stayed, they would be destroyed by the individual
states (Hudson 453).
The Indian emigration had begun in Monroe's administration, but gained
much of its momentum in John Quincy Adam's, (1825-1829). Many of the tribes
began to realize their only hope for cultural survival was to remove
themselves as far from the whites as possible. Therefore voluntary emigration
began in earnest. The Cherokees absolutely refused to move, defending their
rights to the lands on the basis of treaties and guarantees made to them by
the federal government.
Elias Boudinot, in refuting the policy of removal, wrote in the
"It appears that the advocates of this new system of civilizing the
Indians are very strenuous in maintaining the novel opinion that it is
impossible to enlighten the Indians, surrounded as they are by the white
population, and that they assuredly will become extinct, unless they are
removed. . . . What proof have they that the system which they are now
recommending, will succeed. Where have we an example in the whole history of
man, of a Nation or tribe, removing in a body, from a land of civil and
religious means, to a perfect wilderness, in order to be civilized. We are
fearful these men are building castles in the air, whose fall will crush those
poor Indians who may be so blinded as to make the experiment." (96)
The state of Georgia vehemently opposed the presence of both the
Cherokees and the Creeks, whose combined land comprised fully one third of the
state. In 1827, the state surveyed the Indian lands in preparation for
division and take over. President Adams warned Georgia that her actions
violated treaties between the United States and the Indians, and threatened
military force to uphold those treaties. Georgia responded by calling up its
own militia and occupying some of the Creek lands, in absolute defiance of
President Adams. The federal government, wishing to avoid a confrontation,
backed down (Hudson 453-454).
In the background of these conflicts was a man who had fought many
battles against various tribes, especially the Creeks. He was a man of
influence, a man of blunt forthrightness, a man of convictions. Andrew Jackson
made his opinions known throughout the early nineteenth century, influencing
both thinking and policy-making.
The largest single event that determined the future of the American
Indian was the election of Jackson to the office of President in 1829. His
opinions in Indian policy-making were influential before, his position would
now become policy. All the latent frustrations he had had with past
administrative policies would now be his to change. And change they did.
Realizing that at last they had a President who was concordant with
their view, the Georgia legislature passed laws incorporating large areas of
Cherokee land. They declared all laws, ordinances, and regulations of the
Cherokee nation to be null and void. The law further stated that any Indian
who sought to induce another to reject emigration would be imprisoned. Worst
of all, the legislature decreed "that no Indian . . . shall be deemed a
competent witness in any court of this state to which a white person may be a
party." (Foreman, Indian Removal 229)
Recognizing Jackson's total backing of Georgia, Elias Boudinot
commented in the Cherokee Phoenix:
"It is to be regretted that we were not undeceived long ago . . . It
appears now . . . that the illustrious Washington, Jefferson, Madison and
Monroe were only tantalizing us, when they encouraged us in the pursuit of
agriculture and Government, and when they afforded us the protection of the
United States." (108)
Jackson's death blow to the Eastern Indians in general and to the
Cherokees in particular was the introduction of the "Indian Removal Bill" to
Congress. It was the first forthright approval of the complete removal of all
the Indian tribes east of the Mississippi. The bill did not in itself
authorize the enforced removal of the tribes, but it set a precedent in
official federal policy toward removal. Many tribes began an exodus to the
west, fearing that their options were quickly narrowing (Foreman, The Last
The next eight years for the Cherokees were among the darkest years in
American history. A very small number of them left voluntarily, but the great
majority were determined never to give up their homeland.
White missionaries, living with the Cherokees, were strong vocal
supporters. On December 22, 1830, Georgia passed a law making it illegal for
white men to live in Cherokee lands without a license -the requirement for the
license was a sworn allegiance to the state of Georgia. Refusing this
allegiance, the missionaries were thrown in prison. Some were beaten, and
when two of them still refused to meet the state's demands, they were
sentenced to four years of hard labor. The case eventually reached the Supreme
Court, which upheld the missionaries rights and further declared that certain
Georgia laws were unconstitutional. Andrew Jackson, in utterly refusing to
back the court's ruling, replied, "John Marshall [the Chief Justice] has
rendered his decision; now let him enforce it" (Hudson 462-463).
It was at this time that Elias Boudinot and other progressive leaders
in the Cherokee nation began to see that justice would never be done.
Apparently, his confidence in the federal government was crushed when the
executive office could so easily ignore a ruling by the judicial branch. Upon
returning to the Cherokee Nation in the spring of 1832, he began to advocate
removal - a complete reversal of his pleadings and arguments for many years
There was, however, a strong majority of leaders who continued to
oppose removal under any circumstances. They were traditionalists who,
according to Boudinot, failed to see the absolute hopelessness of their cause.
In December of 1835, the Cherokees were informed by the federal
government of a meeting they would be required to attend, for the purpose of
negotiating a new treaty. They were further instructed that failure to attend
the meeting would indicate favor for the treaty. Choosing to ignore the
meeting, only three to five hundred out of seventeen thousand Indians attended
(Hudson 463). Nevertheless, a removal treaty was drawn and signed by twenty of
the "party of civilization", including Elias Boudinot (Boudinot 26).
Some saw Boudinot as a traitor, but many recognized his conscientious
ambitions for his people. He himself stated:
"I know that I take my life in my hand, as our fathers have also done.
We will make and sign this treaty. Our friends can then cross the great
river, but Tom Foreman and his people [who violently opposed removal] will put
us across the dread river of death. We can die, but the great Cherokee Nation
will be saved. They will not be annihilated; they can live. Oh, what is a
man worth who will not dare to die for his people? Who is there here that
will not perish, if this great Nation may be saved?" (Boudinot 27)
Most of the Cherokees refused to recognize the validity of the treaty.
In fact, they refused all aid from the federal government so they could not be
accused in any form of approval of it. For two more years they clung to their
lands, the maximum time allowed under the treaty. By May, 1838, there were
still fully 15,000 Cherokees in the Southeast. The government then sent about
7,000 United States Army soldiers, state militia men and volunteers, arrested
the Cherokees and forced them into stockaded concentration camps. Many of the
soldiers looted homes and even dug up graves to steal jewelry from the corpses
A few thousand Indians were taken west on steamboats, but the great
majority, about 13,000, were divided into smaller groups and herded west on
overland routes that took from three to five months. The toll on the Indians
was great, especially on the very young and old. Statistics are unclear, but
it is reasonably stated that over 4,000 Cherokee Indians never lived through
the arduous journey to see the Mississippi (Foreman, The Five 281-282). To
this day, that infamous journey forced on unwilling emigrants is known as the
"trail of tears".
The federal government was actually proud of their handling of the
removal of the Cherokees:
"The general and enlightened policy evinced in the measures adopted by
Congress toward that people during the last session was ably and judiciously
carried into effect by the general appointed to conduct their removal. The
reluctance of the Indians to relinquish the land of their birth in the East,
and remove to their new homes in the West, was entirely overcome by the
judicious conduct of that officer, and they departed with alacrity under the
guidance of their own chiefs . . . . Humanity no less than good policy
dictated this course toward these children of the forest; and in carrying out
in this instance with an unwavering hand the measures resolved upon by the
Government, in the hope of preserving the Indians and of maintaining the peace
and tranquillity of the whites, it will always be gratifying to reflect that
this has been effected not only without violence, but with every proper regard
for the feelings and interests of that people." (H.H. 284-285)
The effect of the removal on the Cherokee people was devastating. Many
in the tribe felt utterly betrayed; for years dissensions rent the Cherokee
Nation. The fate of Elias Boudinot was foretold in his own writings. On June
22, 1839, he was murdered by a group of Cherokees who felt that he, indeed,
was the betrayer (Wilkins 323). The man who loved his nation so much, who
defended her time after time, and signed a treaty only in an attempt to save
his people from the tyranny of a "Christian" nation, sacrificed his life for
the salvation of the people he loved.
Compare for yourself the evidence of history. Who were the civilized
people? The whites first contact with the Indians found them to be friendly
and obliging (Debo 38). The Indians first contact with the whites found them
to be friendly and beguiling.
Chief Joseph, a famous chief, claimed that talk was only as good as the
actions that backed it up. He stated he was sick of ". . . good words and
broken promises . . ." (Armstrong 116). Red Jacket, a Seneca, replied he
would not embrace the white man's religion until he saw it make a difference
in his white neighbors. "If we find it does them good, makes them honest, and
less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again what you have
said" (Rosenstiel 112). And stating the truth as clearly as it can be seen in
the history of Indian affairs in the United States, the Delaware chief,
Pachgantsilias replied, "I admit there are good white men, but they bear no
proportion to the bad; the bad must be the strongest, for they rule"
On May 26, 1826,in the very address that boasted of the great strides
his Cherokee nation had been making toward civilization, Elias Boudinot
"There is, in Indian history, something very melancholy, and which
seems to establish a mournful precedent for the future events of the few sons
of the forest, now scattered over this vast continent. We have seen every
where the poor aborigines melt away before the white population. . . . We have
seen, I say, one family after another, one tribe after another, nation after
nation, pass away; until only a few solitary creatures are left to tell the
sad story of extinction."
"Shall this precedent be followed? I ask you, shall red men live, or
shall they be swept from the earth? With you and this public at large, the
decision chiefly rests. Must they perish? Must they all . . . go down in
sorrow to their graves?"
"They hang upon your mercy as to a garment. Will you push them from
you, or will you save them? Let humanity answer." (79)
"Humanity" has answered.
Only one question remains . . . how long before the same fate befalls
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