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Major Ridge in Native American History

Major Ridge (1771-1839) was a Cherokee leader instrumental in reforming the Cherokee government and drafting its constitution during the 1820s. He is best remembered for signing the Treaty of New Echota surrendering Cherokee lands to the federal government in 1835. Born in Tennessee, Kah-nung-da-tla-geh ("the man who walks on the ridge") received a traditional upbringing as a hunter and warrior. But as a young man he joined a faction of nationalist reformers intent on modernizing certain aspects of Cherokee life while preserving Cherokee political autonomy. He urged reform of the blood law and the adoption of farming; he himself established a prosperous farm. Largely in order to protect the Cherokees from western expansionists, he led the efforts to centralize Cherokee governance leading to the adoption of a national constitution in 1827.

Ridge supported Cherokee attempts to win legal protection in the US courts against Georgia's efforts to win control over Cherokee lands. But ultimately convinced that the cause was hopeless, he led a tiny minority agreeing to sell tribal lands to the federal government in return for cash and new lands in Oklahoma. After signing the Treaty of New Echota, he led a small group west to these lands. Ridge was vilified as a coward by the vast majority of the Cherokees who rejected this treaty and persisted in efforts to win recognition of their historic claims to their land in Georgia. When, three years later, this majority was forced to migrate west along the Trail of Tears, Ridge was labeled a traitor and "executed" in 1839.

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