The Trail of Tears and Life in the West

Chief John Ross

Henry Inman’s Lithograph of Charles Byrd King’s original portrait of John Ross in The Indian Tribes of North America by McKenney and Hall. From the Georgia Historical Society Rare Collection.

In 1834, much of the land Cherokees still claimed in Georgia was auctioned off in a land lottery.  After returning from a delegation in Washington, D.C., Principal Chief John Ross discovered his elegant mansion was no longer his own.  In spite of this, Chief Ross continued to encourage the Cherokee to negotiate with the American government.  In March 1835, Major Ridge, John Ridge, and U.S. officials made secret arrangements at the New Echota (by then, no longer the Cherokee capital) home of Elias Boudinot to negotiate terms for the final removal of the Cherokee.  Despite Chief John Ross’ objections, a small number of Georgia Cherokee (later known as the Treaty Party) met later in the year to formally accept the Treaty of New Echota in which remaining Cherokee land was ceded for territory in the west for five million dollars, along with some provision for supplies for the journey west and a year’s worth of Federal support for those who moved.  The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, and President Jackson immediately signed it, giving the Cherokee until May 1838 to leave.

As a result, almost 16,000 Cherokee and other Native tribes were forcibly moved from their eastern homeland.  Beginning in June 1838, approximately 2,800 Cherokees were loaded on flatboats at Ross’s Landing, Georgia, and sailed down the Tennessee River.  The boats were described as being so crammed that they nearly sank.  Some rode the train, while others traveled on foot.  Over 4,000 died on the long trek to the Oklahoma territory.  Survivors arrived exhausted, sick, grief-stricken, and degraded.  Many had lost wives, husbands, children, and other loved ones.

Chief Ross and his supporters in the National Party encountered another problem: the construction of a new, combined Cherokee government in the West.  In June 1839, approximately 7,000 Cherokees assembled at Takatoka Campground to resolve the problems between the new arrivals (the eastern Cherokee) and the Old Settlers (those who had gone to Oklahoma earlier, usually as a result of earlier treaties and land cessions).  The eastern Cherokees had drafted a constitution modeled after the United States, but the Old Settlers created a system based on traditional Cherokee laws.  Unable to come to a compromise, Sequoyah, an Old Settler, and Jesse Bushyhead, an eastern Cherokee Baptist minister, made a suggestion for the parties to meet again in July and let the people determine the form of government they preferred.


Henry Inman’s Lithograph of Charles Byrd King’s original portrait of Major Ridge in The Indian Tribes of North America by McKenney and Hall. From the Georgia Historical Society Rare Collection.

Before that meeting took place, a group of Cherokee (probably about 150 men of the National Party) plotted to take revenge on those they felt most responsible for signing the Treaty of New Echota.  Secretly, they made a list of people they felt deserved the ultimate penalty of death.  Of these, three men were killed at approximately the same time:  Major Ridge was killed while traveling the road in Washington County, Arkansas; Elias Boudinot was attacked by a group of men claiming they needed medicine; and John Ridge was dragged from his bed and stabbed to death.

In spite of this, Ross proceeded with plans for the July 1 meeting.  John Ross’ National Party, with the most representatives in attendance, hurriedly made pardons for those responsible for the murders of the Ridges and Boudinot and declared anyone an outlaw who tried to take vengeance.  Amnesty was offered to those responsible if they made a confession by a certain date. They were also banned from office for five years.On July 12, 1839, John Ross and the few representatives of the Old Settlers signed an act of union.  On September 6, a compromise was made to accept a constitution similar to the one created in the East.  The Treaty Party remained embittered, sending their own delegates to Washington, D.C., to seek government protection and justice for the murders of Boudinot and the Ridges.  Under the new government, John Ross was elected as principal chief and an Old Settler as second principal chief.

Life in the West

For the next several years, the Cherokee Nation underwent a series of internal conflicts (sometimes violent) as the Old Settlers, the Treaty Party, and the Latecomers (or National Party) adjusted to life in the federally allotted Indian Territory.  Sequoyah worked with John Ross to try and bring peace between the two factions.  This civil war ended with a treaty between the factions brokered by the United States Government on August 6, 1846. Signed by delegates from each faction, the 1846 treaty promised the lands ceded to the Cherokee would be available for all members of the Cherokee Nation and offered a general amnesty for crimes committed against the nation or individuals.

“All difficulties and differences heretofore existing between the several parties of the Cherokee Nation are hereby settled and adjusted, and shall, as far as possible, be forgotten and forever buried in oblivion. All party distinctions shall cease, except so far as they may be necessary to carry out this convention or treaty. A general amnesty is hereby declared. All offenses and crimes committed by a citizen or citizens of the Cherokee Nation against the nation, or against an individual or individuals, are hereby pardoned.”

Sequoyah did not live to see the treaty signed. He died in 1843 while traveling in Mexico looking for Cherokee settlements. The trip was part of his continued mission to bring the Cherokee Nation together.

Continue to Sequoyah Additional Resources