One of the most shameful instances in United States history centers around the treaty to remove the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral lands. The significance of the Treaty of New Echota lies in the unjust treaty signed and enforced by the US government, leading directly to the deadly Trail of Tears.
For centuries the Cherokee Nation was a large and powerful native group primarily located in western Virginia, the western Carolinas, eastern Tennessee, and northwestern Georgia. From the very beginning of European settlement in the Americas the Cherokee had to deal with encroaching colonists on their lands.
This conflict continued following the American Revolution and resulted in many treaties between the United States and the Cherokee Nation resulting in ceded lands in return for federal protection and/or annuities. The Cherokee were to be disappointed after each when the US government failed to deliver on its promises.
The United States led a more concerted effort to remove the Cherokee Nation from its land following the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. After growing frustrated with slow negotiations, the federal government signed the Treaty of New Echota with a minority party among the Cherokee that ceded all its lands east of the Mississippi River for $5 million.
Despite protests from a majority of the Cherokee that the Treaty of New Echota was invalid, the Senate ratified the treaty in 1836. Two years later the US army would force the Cherokee to vacate their lands at gunpoint.
The resulting atrocity known as the Trail of Tears is largely regarded as one of the most shameful moments in US history. The Treaty of New Echota is but one more significant milestone in a long line of failed US promises to native Americans.
Background on the Cherokee Nation
During the early years of the American republic the Cherokee Nation was one of the largest and most powerful Native American nations in the southeastern United States.
The Cherokee occupied a large portion of territory that land hungry settlers craved. As settlers encroached on Cherokee territory, conflicts inevitably broke out.
The early United States was too weak to continually fight Native Americans on the frontier. Instead it turned to diplomatic means and encouraged tribes to assimilate into American culture.
The Cherokee and the United States signed no less than sixteen treaties between 1784 and 1836. Typically the Cherokee ceded land while the United States supplied the payment of annuities or goods.1
The Cherokee Nation was one of the few that recognized assimilating into American culture could be in its best interest. The Cherokee became known as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes.”
Key attributes of this included the centralized government and written Constitution of the Cherokee, the development of its own writing system, and its participation in the market economy. Many Cherokee converted to Christianity and some even owned African slaves.2
Despite their best attempts, racial prejudices of the time led to increased calls for Native American removal. The Louisiana Purchase opened up vast tracts of land to the west. Thomas Jefferson was the first President to suggest Native American removal to the west, and future Presidents more or less agreed with the idea.1
When Andrew Jackson ascended to the Presidency in 1828, he promised to address the “Indian problem.”
Signed in 1830, the Indian Removal Act was largely seen as the precursor to the forced removal of Native Americans to the west.
Despite the federal judiciary siding with Native American nations and their rights (such as in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia), Jackson neglected to enforce the rulings and continued to negotiate with the nations to cede all their lands.
Jackson grew impatient as the Cherokee negotiations stalled and sent a delegation to the town of New Echota on Cherokee lands to meet with a minority faction of the Cherokee people.
What is the Treaty of New Echota?
The Treaty of New Echota was a treaty signed between the United States and a minority faction of the Cherokee Nation that ceded all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for $5 million. The treaty gave the Cherokee people two years from the date of ratification to move off their lands to new lands west of the Mississippi.
The treaty also stipulated that the federal government would pay for the costs of relocation, reimburse Cherokee for improvements made to the land, and provide subsistence for the first year out west while the Cherokee rebuilt their lives.1
Members of the so-called “Treaty Party” among the Cherokee were the only ones to sign the Treaty of New Echota. These men included Major Ridge, who fought with Jackson at the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend, his son John, and nephew Elias Boudinot.
The “Treaty Party” was primarily composed of the wealthiest Cherokee from mixed ancestry that represented the views of fewer than 5% of all Cherokee people. These members firmly believed that resisting white encroachment was futile and the only way to survive and coexist was to move west.2
The Treaty of New Echota was signed on December 29, 1835 and the Senate ratified it by a single vote over the necessary two-thirds majority, 31-15, on May 18, 1836. Andrew Jackson signed it into law on May 23, 1836, beginning the two year countdown for the Cherokee to vacate their lands.
To enforce the treaty terms and prevent a potential uprising, the federal government sent agents and General John Wool to oversee the removal effort. Rumors of an uprising proved unfounded and the government agents displayed extreme ineptitude in preparing for the eventual relocation.3
Nearly 20-1 Cherokee did not favor the Treaty of New Echota, primarily because they thought it was invalid.1
Why the Treaty of New Echota was Invalid
A majority of the Cherokee Nation argued that the Treaty of New Echota was invalid as the United States signed the treaty with a minority party that was not recognized as the leaders and voice of the Cherokee people.
Principal Chief John Ross, the elected leader of the Cherokee Nation, and the National Council (or legislative body) did not approve of or recognize the authenticity of the treaty.
In fact, Chief John Ross was traveling to Washington, DC to further negotiate potential removal when the Treaty of New Echota was fraudulently signed. The deceit of the Treaty Party members in signing the treaty betrayed the will of the Cherokee people.3
The federal government knew that the Treaty Party was a minority faction, but it did not matter. Despite a resistance campaign led by Ross and a petition protesting the treaty bearing nearly 15,000 Cherokee signatures (of roughly 16,500 total Cherokee), the Senate ratified the fraudulent treaty.2
Many Cherokee refused to follow stipulations resulting from the treaty and did not accept federal aid in preparation for removal. The widespread belief was that by accepting federal aid, the Cherokee were tacitly approving the Treaty of New Echota.3
In addition, there was widespread hope that the treaty would eventually be nullified. The annulment of a similar fraudulent treaty signed by the federal government with the Creek Nation ten years prior gave the Cherokee hope.1
Confusion over the treaty terms and slow implementation of the claims process plagued efforts to meet the two year deadline of removal. By early 1838, just months before the deadline, only ~2,000 Cherokee had departed and nearly 14,000 claims remained to be processed.3
The federal government lacked coordination and supplies for a forced removal, leading to the disastrous outcome now known as the Trail of Tears.
The Significance of the Treaty of New Echota
The Treaty of New Echota holds great historical significance for its contribution to the horrific event known as the Trail of Tears.
When the two year deadline arrived for the Cherokee to vacate their lands, the federal government sent in General Winfield Scott and the military to force the Cherokee to leave at the threat of annihilation.
Once again the Cherokee protested, but it was too late. The federal government completely bungled the removal by refusing to hear all Cherokee claims for monetary payment and failing to adequately supply and pay for the relocation costs to the west.3
Martin Van Buren’s administration refused to extend the relocation deadline despite knowing the unpreparedness of the military and that certain catastrophe loomed. The Panic of 1837 helped lead to massive supply issues as contractors refused to accept any other paper money aside from specie (gold).
The Cherokee were devastated at this news after receiving signals from the administration that a delay was possible.
During the forced march west, thousands of Cherokee perished due to inadequate food, clothing, and medical attention. There were only two doctors per thousand people in the groups marching west. It’s estimated that of the ~14,000 remaining, nearly 4,000 died in transit west.1
Some Cherokee were able to remain east and stay on their lands so long as they submitted to state and federal laws per the terms of the Treaty of New Echota. Some 600 Cherokee from North Carolina opted to stay, though it took the federal government over 15 years to pay them their compensation owed per the treaty.4
Native American removal to the west would pave the way to open vast amounts of land primarily in slave-holding states. Ironically, the Treaty of New Echota required northern votes to pass the Senate’s two-thirds majority at a time when the important Missouri Compromise reignited the slavery debate. It would seem as though northerners ignored the implicit expansion of slavery at the expense of the Native Americans.
Even though the Cherokee Nation adopted American culture, negotiated in good faith with the federal government, and adopted a well-formed moral and constitutionally-grounded plea, nothing was to stop the insatiably land-hungry slave holders from unjustly taking their land.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Davis, Kenneth Penn. “The Cherokee Removal, 1835-1838.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 4, Tennessee Historical Society, 1973, pp. 311–31, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42623406.
2) Conser, Walter H. “John Ross and the Cherokee Resistance Campaign, 1833-1838.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 44, no. 2, Southern Historical Association, 1978, pp. 191–212, https://doi.org/10.2307/2208301.
3) Vipperman, Carl J. “The Bungled Treaty of New Echota: The Failure of Cherokee Removal, 1836-1838.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 3, Georgia Historical Society, 1989, pp. 540–58, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40582016.
4) Harmon, George D. “THE NORTH CAROLINA CHEROKEES AND THE NEW ECHOTA TREATY OF 1835.” The North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 6, no. 3, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1929, pp. 237–53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23515791.