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Politics in Native American History

Three "Traitors" are Executed

At dawn, the young Cherokee John Ridge was pulled from his bed and stabbed to death while his wife and children looked on in horror. A few hours later, his father, Major Ridge, was shot and killed while out for a morning ride. Almost simultaneously, Elias Boudinot, the Ridges' relative, was attacked by three men and clubbed to death with hatchets.

The assassins were never identified, but everyone knew that the three victims had been "executed" for their "treasonous" signing of the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. Part of President Andrew Jackson's campaign to remove all Indians east of the Mississippi River, this treaty arranged for the relocation of the Cherokee, the last large tribe remaining in the Southeast. But the agreement was not easily reached or universally accepted. In fact, the great majority of Cherokees rejected the government offer of money and land in faraway Oklahoma. Instead, they dug in their heels and stood fast to principle. The government would dislodge them only at the point of a gun… which happened three years later, in 1838. To the end, most Cherokees denounced the Treaty of New Echota and had to be force-marched down the "Trail of Tears"—where almost a quarter of them died.

The "treaty party," led by the Ridges and Boudinot, thus represented a tiny and unpopular minority within the Cherokee community when they surrendered to the federal government and sold off their ancestral lands. Their decision to accept the government's offer of $5 million and close to 14 million acres along the Arkansas River was labeled treason. In 1839, they paid the price.

The Making of a "Traitor"

Major Ridge was born in Tennessee in 1771. His mother was of mixed ancestry. Her father was a Scot, but Ridge's father was full-blooded Cherokee, and the young Ridge received a traditional Cherokee upbringing. He became a skilled hunter; he earned his name, Kah-nung-da-tla-geh ("the man who walks on the ridge") from his hunting exploits. At seventeen, he joined his first war party, killing a white man during a raid against settlers and soldiers near Knoxville. But it was not his last campaign. Ridge fought in many of the skirmishes that filled the Tennessee frontier before a general peace was established under President George Washington in 1794.

At some point during these years, "The Ridge," as English-speakers called him, began to question some of the traditional Cherokee ways. In 1796, he proposed in council that changes be made in the nation's blood law. According to Cherokee custom, when one man killed another, the victim's clan was entitled to compensatory revenge. The law was unforgiving; even if the death was accidental, a price was to be paid. And if the killer (or accidental killer) fled, the life of a relative could be taken in his place. With great eloquence Ridge convinced the council that this ancient code should be revised. Murder required malice and intention, an accidental death was not a crime, he argued. Furthermore, he said, only the killer's life should be taken; a relative's should not be substituted in his absence.

Ridge and his wife also abandoned hunting and embraced many of the lessons in "civilization" taught by federal agents. Susanna learned to spin and weave. The Ridge learned how to farm. During the 1790s, he cleared land for corn and cotton, planted an orchard, and built a log cabin with a stone chimney. He even bought slaves to work his lands.

Ridge also passed his reformist ways on to his children. He sent his son John and nephew Elias Boudinot to study at the Mission school in Cornwall, Connecticut. There, the two men met and married white women.

Ridge may have challenged certain Cherokee traditions, but there was no questioning his political loyalties. Ridge was a Cherokee nationalist, and in 1807, he proved it by joining in the "execution" of Doublehead, a corrupt Cherokee chief. Doublehead was among the most prominent Cherokee leaders. He carried the title of "speaker for the nation" and was a principal negotiator in many of the Cherokees' dealings with the American government. But he was also a crook; he sold away Cherokee lands for low prices and received bribes of horses, slaves, and land in return.

Ridge and other Cherokee leaders decided Doublehead must be punished for his crimes against the nation, and so they assigned Ridge and two others to follow the chief when he left in August to collect the tribe's annuity from the federal government. At Hiwassee, Ridge shot Doublehead through the jaw. Ridge's partner, Alexander Saunders, smashed Doubletree's skull with a hatchet.

The following year, Ridge led the opposition to removal schemes proposed by the federal government and embraced by some Cherokee chiefs. Denouncing these schemes and the chiefs seduced by them, he was elected to the delegation charged with traveling to Washington, D.C. to negotiate with President Thomas Jefferson. There, Ridge made clear the Cherokees' intention of remaining on their historic homelands, but he also told Jefferson that the Cherokees wished to progress further on the path toward civilization by adopting a formal government and laws.

Cherokee Nation Building

Over the next twenty years, Ridge was among the most influential leaders driving this process of government-building among the Cherokees. The process proceeded slowly at first. Cherokee reformers began by transferring tribal police powers from the clans to "lighthorse patrols." Early on they also convinced the federal government to grant the Cherokee council more control over the roads, mills, and trading stations on their territories. But during the 1820s, institution-building proceeded rapidly, and by 1825, the Cherokees had established a bicameral legislature and a judicial system; a written legal code had replaced ancient oral traditions and a government bureaucracy administered a complex body of economic and social regulations. In 1827, the Cherokees took a final step in this nation-building process by drafting a constitution formalizing the governmental reforms of the previous years.

In the new government, Major Ridge served as First Councilor to the new president, John Ross. The new government was clearly progressive and non-traditional. Care had been taken to weaken the towns, the traditional center of political power and the stronghold of conservative resistance to change, by drawing regional electoral districts that bypassed town boundaries. The constitution also incorporated language that was Christian-like. The overarching purpose of the constitution and new government, however, was essentially nationalistic. To advance Indian ownership of the mills and trading posts on Cherokee lands, white traders were charged much higher licensing fees. Traditional ideas about property were also retained; that is, land was to be held collectively by the nation. Individuals could own improvements to the land but not the land itself, and even these improvements could be sold only to other Indians, not to whites.

The fiercely nationalistic purposes of the new government were reflected perhaps best in the law authored by Major Ridge on unauthorized land sales. Indians that sold away the nation's property without the approval of the national government would be put to death.

The Cherokees vs. Georgia

Ridge and other reformers among the Cherokees believed that their new government would deter white expansionists intent on their removal. But in many ways, the achievements of the Cherokees served only to frighten American expansionists and accelerate efforts in Georgia to remove the Indians before they became even more entrenched. Expansionists also recognized that with every new governmental reform, the Cherokees were becoming philosophically invulnerable to removal. How could expansionists justify removal if the Cherokees were so responsive to government efforts to civilize them? How could expansionists claim that only they served the forces of progress if the Cherokees built farms, businesses, and democratic institutions?

Georgia's attempts to open up Cherokee lands before the Indian nation grew any stronger led to a series of legal battles between 1828 and 1832. These culminated in a ringing victory for the Cherokees in Worcester v. Georgia, a landmark Supreme Court case. (That story is told more fully here.) But the short version of that story is that even though the Cherokees won the case, they were unable to exploit their victory largely because even their former supporters in the white community abandoned them. The Presbyterian missionaries who had launched the suit against Georgia refused to petition the Supreme Court to enforce its ruling because they feared a constitutional crisis between southern states claiming states' rights and federal authorities insistent on enforcing federal power. With South Carolina already threatening secession in response to unrelated recent tariff legislation, and Georgia threatening to join their ranks if pushed too hard over Indian policy, most of the Cherokees' white supporters withdrew from the legal fight.

Astute observers of the debates in Congress over Andrew Jackson's removal proposal similarly came to realize that many of the Indians' defenders were suspiciously soft in their support—more political than principled, more concerned with the details of removal than the fundamental question of justice lying underneath. For example, Henry Clay opposed removal, but he was planning a race against Andrew Jackson for the presidency and was looking for a wedge issue to exploit. William Wirt opposed removal—in fact, he served as a lawyer on the Cherokee cases heard by the Supreme Court––but he also nursed political ambitions and believed that a confrontation between Jackson and Chief Justice Marshall would hurt the president (an ally) at the polls. Other critics were less transparently political in their opposition, but for the most part they quibbled with the logistical details of the proposal: how the Indians would be moved, how carefully the western lands had been selected, and how much this all would cost.

In short, by the mid 1830s, despite the nation-building achievement of the Cherokees and their legal victory in the nation's highest court, their prospects for staying in Georgia looked dim. The vast majority of the Cherokees resolved to fight on. But Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot decided the situation was hopeless. Moreover, further resistance, they concluded, was counterproductive. Jackson was intent on removal. The missionaries and politicians who supported the Cherokee in the past had abandoned them. Georgia was rapidly surveying and selling off Cherokee lands and white settlers were pouring across the old border. "We all know that we cannot be a nation here any longer," The Ridge said, "I hope we shall attempt to establish it somewhere else."19

And so Ridge and his small group of followers signed the Treaty of New Echota. They accepted the government's money and land in Oklahoma, along with mandatory removal to these new territories, as the only way to preserve the nation they had so carefully built. Elias Boudinot, a newspaper editor and translator educated in Anglo-American schools, offered one perspective on the decision: "An intelligent minority has a moral right, indeed a moral duty, to save a blind and ignorant majority from inevitable ruin and destruction." The Ridge may have agreed, but he was less philosophical in his comments. "I have signed my death warrant," he supposedly said after signing the Treaty of New Echota. He was right. But he did not really possess gifts of foresight, just a good memory of what had happened to Doublehead a generation earlier; he was not really a prophet, just a historian.20

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