The Cherokee Indians Speak to the U.S. Government


Background Notes

Excerpt from a letter from a Cherokee delegation to John C. Calhoun, Sec. of War, during Pres. James Monroe’s Administration.

Transcription of Primary Source

City of Washington, February 11, 1824

SIR: We have received your letter of the 30th ultimo, containing the answer which the President directed you to communicate to us, in reply to a particular subject embraced in the letter which we had the honor of laying before him on the 19th ultimo.

In this answer we discover new propositions for the extinguishment of Cherokee titles to lands for the benefit of Georgia. We beg leave to say to the President, through you, the Cherokee nation are sensible that the United States are bound, by their compact with Georgia, to extinguish, for the use of that State, the Indian title to lands within the limits claimed by the State, “as soon as it can be done peaceably and on reasonable conditions;” and are also sensible that this compact is no more than a conditional one, and, without the free and voluntary consent of the Cherokee nation, can never be complied with on the part of the United States. And, having been duly authorized to make known to the Government of the United States the true sentiments and disposition of the nation on the subject, the President has been informed that the Cherokees have come to a decisive and unalterable conclusion never to cede away any more lands. And as the extinguishment of the Cherokee title to lands can never be obtained on conditions which will accord with the import of the compact between the United States and Georgia, it is desirable that the Government should adopt some other mans to satisfy Georgia, than to remain any longer under anticipation of being enabled to accomplish the object of purchasing the Cherokee title. The United States now possess an extensive territory in the Floridas; why not extend the limits of Georgia in that section of country, if her present bounds be considered too small? The Cherokee nation have never promised to surrender at any future period, to the United States, for Georgia, their title to lands; but, on the contrary the United States have, by treaties, solemnly guarantied to secure to the Cherokees forever their title to lands which have been reserved by them: therefore, the State of Georgia can have no reasonable plea against the Cherokees for refusing to yield their little all to the United States, so that her own aggrandizement may be raised upon their ruins.

You express a wish “to have a free communication with us on this subject, and to appeal to the good sense and to the interest of the nation, as pointed out by their own experience, and by that of their ancestors, for near two centuries back.” In accordance with your wishes, we will speak frankly, and with all the good sense we may possess, and, keeping strictly in view the interest of our nation, look back to circumstances which have transpired, and endeavor to trace the causes which produced them; and also to observe the present state of things, and look forward to such objects as may be practically attainable for the best interest of the Cherokee people.

By tracing the situation of our ancestors for two hundred years back, we see nothing desirable, but much to deplore. The happiness which the Indians once enjoyed, by a quiet and undisturbed ease, in their primitive situation, before the face of the white man was seen on this continent, was now poisoned by the bad fruits of the civilized tree which was planted around them. Tumultuous wars arose, and the mountains and plains were covered with carnage, and the Elysian valleys drenched with blood; and many noble tribes, whose unfortunate doom it was to have been overshadowed by the expanded branches of this tree, drooped, withered, and are no more. Such are the scenes brought to our view by looking back to the situation of our ancestors at the period to which you have called attention. Let us now, for a moment, seriously reflect on the true causes which have universally produced the extinction of Indian tribes, when they became merged into the white population; and we doubt not that it will be admitted at once that, by ambition, pride, and avariciousness of the civilized man, the untutored sons of nature became a prey. Defrauded out of their lands; treated as inferior beings, on account of their poverty and ignorance, they became associated with the lowest grade of society, from whom the habits of intemperance, debauchery, and all the vices of degradation peculiar to that class, were by them soon imbibed. Their lands having been swept from under their feet by the ingenuity of the white man and being left destitute of a home, ignorant the arts and sciences, and possessing no experience in the employment of a laborious and industrious life to obtain a living, they became straggling wanderers among strangers; and, by oppressions, their spirits were depressed, and considering themselves degraded, they were induced to hurry away their troublesome existence by inhaling the noxious vapors of intemperance (a fatal remedy) to settle their doom of extinction. Such have been the circumstances and causes which have swept into oblivion the names of many tribes of Indians that once possessed and inhabited the soil of these United States; and such must be the fate of those tribes now in existence, should they be merged into the white population before they become completely civilized and shall have learned the arts and sciences; and such would be the fate of a large portion of the Cherokee nation, were they to cede away all their lands, and now become incorporated with the whites.

You say that “we must be sensible that it will be impossible for us to remain, for any length of time, in our present situation, as a distinct society or nation, within the limits of Georgia, or of any other State; and that such a community is incompatible with your system, and must yield to it; and that we must either cease to be a distinct community, and become, at no distant period, a part of the State within whose limits we are, or remove without the limits of any State;” and that “it remains for the Cherokee nation to decide for itself, whether it will contribute most to their own welfare and happiness for them to retain their present title to their lands, and remain where they are exposed to the discontent of Georgia and the pressure of her citizens; or to cede it to the United States, for Georgia, at a fair price, to be paid either in other lands beyond the Mississippi, or in money.” Sir, to these remarks we beg leave to observe, and to remind you, that the Cherokees are not foreigners, but original inhabitants of America; and that they now inhabit and stand on the soil of their own territory; and that the limits of their territory are defined by the treaties which they have made with the Government of the United States; and that the States by which they are now surrounded have been created out of lands which were once theirs; and that they cannot recognise the sovereignty of any State within the limits of their territory. Confiding in the good faith of the United States to respect their treaty stipulations with the Cherokee nation, we have no hesitation in saying that the true interest, prosperity, and happiness of our nation demand their permanency where they are, and to retain their present title to their lands. In doing so, we cannot see, in the spirit of liberality, honor, magnanimity, equity, and justice, how they can be exposed to the discontent of Georgia or the pressure of her citizens. An extent of territory twice as large, west of the Mississippi, as the one now occupied by the Cherokees east of that river, or all the money now in the coffers of your treasure would be no inducement for the nation to exchange or to sell their country. It rests with the interest, the disposition, and the free consent of the nation to remain as a separate community, or to enter into a treaty with the United States for admission as citizens, under the form of a Territorial or State Government; and we can only say, that the situation of the nation is not sufficiently improved in the arts of civilized life to warrant any change at present: therefore, the subject must be left for our posterity to determine for themselves, whenever the whole nation shall have been completely and fully civilized, and shall have possessed the arts and sciences.

With considerations of high respect and esteem, we have the honor to be, sir, your very obedient, humble servants,

MAJOR RIDGE, his X mark.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
American State Papers, Indian Affairs, Vol. 2
Walter Lowrie and Walter S. Franklin, eds.
Gales and Seaton
Place of Publication: 
Washington, D.C.
Old Sturbridge Village