Defining "Civilized"

The Cherokee, Creek, and several other native peoples were known as the "civilized" tribes. They had decided, that is, to adopt key features of white culture and to abandon many of their own traditions. One way to help students see what this involved is to have them analyze the following letter from John Ridge to Albert Gallatin. John Ridge was a Cherokee whose Indian name was Kahmungdaclegeh or the Man Who Walks on the Mountaintop, which he Anglicized to Ridge. He attended several mission schools, spoke English fluently, became a Christian, and married a white woman. He owned a farm and several slaves. Albert Gallatin, former Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson, was seeking to collect systematic and authoritative information about native peoples. He employed Ridge, who was twenty-three at the time, to help him.

Ridge's letter recounts the transformation of the Cherokee, in the space of a single generation, into a so-called "civilized" tribe. The excerpts below detail several of the distinguishing marks of "civilization" as Ridge understood it and as the Cherokee sought to realize it.

The Cherokee Nation is bounded on the North by east Tennessee & North Carolina, east by Georgia, south by the Creek Nation & state of Alabama, & west by west Tennessee. The extreme length of the Nation must be upwards of 200 miles & extreme breadth about 150. At a rough conjecture, it has been supposed to contain about 10,000,000 of acres of land. . . . A census of the Nation was taken last year (1825) by order of the [Nation's] Council to ascertain the amount of property and Taxable persons within the Nation. The correctness of this may be relied on, and the population proved to be 13,583 native citizens, 147 white men married in the Nation, 73 white women, and 1,277 African slaves . . . . There is a scanty instance of African mixture with the Cherokee blood, but that of the white may be as 1 to 4, occasioned by intermarriages which has been increasing in proportion to the march of civilization. . . . I take pleasure to state, tho' cautiously, that there is not to my knowledge a solitary Cherokee to be found that depends upon the chase for subsistence and every head of a family has his house & farm. The hardest portion of manual labor is performed by the men, & the women occasionally lend a hand to the field, more by choice and necessity than any thing else. This is applicable to the poorer class, and I can do them the justice to say, they very contentedly perform the duties of the kitchen and that they are the most valuable portion of our Citizens. They sew, they weave, they spin, they cook our meals and act well the duties assigned to them by Nature as mothers as far as they are able & improved. The African slaves are generally mostly held by Half breeds and full Indians of distinguished talents. In this class the principal value of property is retained and their farms are conducted in the same style as the southern white farmers of equal ability in point of property. . . . They have their regular meals as the whites, Servants to attend them in their repasts, and the tables are usually covered with a clean cloth & furnished with the usual plates, knives & forks &c.

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Superstition is the portion of all uncivilized Nations and Idolatry is only engendered in the Brain of rudeness. The Cherokees in their most savage state, never worshipped the work of their own hands-neither fire or water nor any one or portion of splendid fires that adorn heaven's Canopy above. They believed in a great first cause or Spirit of all Good & in a great being the author of all evil. These [were] at variance and at war with each other, but the good Spirit was supposed to be superior to the bad one. These immortal beings had on both sides numerous intelligent beings of analogous dispositions to their chieftains. They had a heaven, which consisted of a visible world to those who had undergone a change by death. This heaven was adorned with all the beauties which a savage imagination could conceive: An open forest, yet various, giving shade & fruit of every kind; Flowers of various hues & pleasant to the Smell; Game of all kinds in great abundance, enough of feasts & plenty of dances, & to crown the whole, the most beautiful women, prepared & adorned by the great Spirit, for every individual Indian that by wisdom, hospitality & Bravery was introduced to this happy & immortal region. The Bad place was the reverse of this & in the vicinity of the good place, where the wretched, compelled to live in hunger, hostility & darkness, could hear the rejoicings of the happy, with out the possibility of reaching its shores.


Witches or wizards were in existence and pretended to possess Supernatural powers & intercourse with the Devil or bad Spirit. They were supposed capable of transforming themselves into the beasts of the forest & fowls of the air & take their nocturnal excursions in pursuit of human victims, particularly those suffering from disease, & it was often necessary for their friends to employ witch shooters to protect the sick from such visitors. Such characters were the dread of the Country, & many a time have I trembled at the croaking of a frog, hooting of an owl or guttural hoarseness of a Raven by night in my younger days. After the people began to be a little more courageous, these witches had a bad time of it. They were often on suspicion butchered or tomahawked by the enraged parents, relatives or friends of the deceased, particularly if the sickness was of short duration. The severity of revenge fell most principally on the grey hairs of aged persons of both sexes. To stop this evil, it was necessary to pass a law considering all slaughters of this kind in the light of murder, which has effected the desired remedy. There [are] yet among us who pretend to possess powers of milder character, Such as making rain, allaying a storm or whirlwinds, playing with thunder & foretelling future events with many other trifling conjurations not worth mentioning, but they are generally living monuments of fun to the young and grave Ridicule for those in maturer years. There [are] about 8 churches, where the gospel is preached on sabbath days with in the Nation. They are missionary stations supported by Moravians, Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists and each of these churches have a goodly number of pious & exemplary members and others, not professors, attend to preaching with respectable deportment. I am not able to say the precise number of actual christians but they are respectable in point of number & character. And many a drunken, idle & good for nothing Indian has been converted from error & have become useful Citizens: Portions of Scripture & sacred hymns are translated and I have frequently heard with astonishment a Cherokee, unacquainted with the English take his text & preach, read his hymn & sing it, Joined by his audience, and pray to his heavenly father with great propriety & devotion. The influence of Religion on the life of the Indians is powerful & lasting. I have an uncle, who was given to all the vices of savagism in drunkenness, fornication and roguery & he is now tho' poorer in this world's goods but rich in goodness & makes his living by hard labor & is in every respect an honest praying christian.

In respect to marriage, we have no law regulating it & polygamy is still allowed to Native Cherokees. Increase of morality among the men, the same among the women & a respect for their characters & matrimonial happiness is fast consuming this last vestige of our ignorance. We attempted to pass a law regulating marriage, but as nearly all the members of our Legislature, tho' convinced of the propriety, had been married under the old existing ceremony, [and] were afraid it would reflect dishonor on them, it failed. Time will effect the desired change in this system & it is worthy of mention, even now, that the most respectable portion of our females prefer, tho' not required by law to be united in marriage attended by the solemnities of the Christian mode. Indians, tho' naturally highminded, are not addicted to as much revenge as they have been represented, and I can say this, much it is paid for them to endure an intended Insult but they are ready to forgive if they discover marks of repentance in the countenance of an enemy. In regard to Intemperance, we are still as a nation grossly degraded. We are however on the improve. Five years ago our best chiefs during their official labors would get drunk & continue so for two or three days. It is now not the case & any member who should thus depart from duty would now be expelled from the Council. Among the younger class, a large number are of fine habits, temperate & genteel in their deportment. The females aspire to gain the affection of such men & to the females we may always ascribe the honor of effecting the civilization of man. There are about 13 Schools established by missionaries in the Nation and may contain 250 students.

They are entirely supported by the humane Societies in different parts of the U. States. The Nation has not as yet contributed to the support of these Schools. Besides this, some of our most respectable people have their children educated at the academies in the adjoining states. Two cherokee females have recently completed their Education, at the expense of their father, at a celebrated female Academy in Salem, North Carolina. They are highly accomplished & in point of appearance & deportment; they would pass for the genteel & wellbred ladies in any Country.

I know of some others who are preparing for an admission in the same institution. I suppose that there are one third of our Citizens, that can read & write in the English Language. George Guess, a Cherokee who is unacquainted with the English has invented 86 characters, in which the cherokees read & write in their own Language and regularly correspond with their Arkansas friends. This mode of writing is most extensively adopted by our people particularly by those who are ignorant of the English Language. A National Academy of a high order is to be soon established by law at our seat of Government. The edifice will be of Brick & will be supported by the Nation. It is also in contemplation to establish an English & Cherokee printing press & a paper edited in both languages at our seat of Government. In our last Session, $1500 was appropriated to purchase the press and regulations adopted to carry the object into effect. We have also a Society organized called the "Moral & Literary Society of the Cherokee Nation." A library is attached to this Institution... — Major John Ridge to Albert Gallatin, February 27, 1826

You can ask students to highlight key terms that indicate what changes Ridge endorsed. Alternatively you can ask them to list the key details (eg., use of silverware and tablecloths) that Ridge chose to indicate Cherokee progress in becoming more civilized. One mark of civilization, along with literacy, temperance, and Christianity, was slavery. You can ask students to discuss how it fit with the others. And you can ask them to comment on the role of whites, especially of missionaries, in the process of change.