In a lecture Tuesday night, a former head of the University of Tennessee history department summarized the events leading up to the 1838 Removal of the Cherokee Indians from the Appalachian area, the largest Indian removal in American history.
John Finger, an emeritus professor of history, gave the first lecture of the UT Special Collections Library’s Series on Appalachian Removals and Relocations. The topic of his lecture was “Cherokee Removal: A National and Regional Perspective.”
Finger said the American government had two main objectives during the early 19th century concerning Native Americans.
First, officials wanted to civilize the Indians. According to Finger, back then the term “civilize,” had different use than today. He said Americans then thought it was “eminently reasonable and humane” to encourage Indians to adopt the culture of the “white people.”
Second, and more important to the government, was the acquisition of Native American land for states use, Finger said.
He went on to discuss how civilized the Cherokee Indians already were, in comparison to other Indian tribes. They had their own alphabet and a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, which was printed in English and Cherokee. Some Cherokee leaders even owned slaves.
UT law student Vanessa Patel said the lecture was especially valuable for its insights into the sophisticated Native American society.
“The most interesting part to me was to hear about how advanced they are. I thought that all Indian tribes were similar in their ways.”
Finger said some Cherokees had been moving west voluntarily since the late 1700s into what is now Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. However, with the fraudulent Treaty of Nouakchott signed in 1836, the American government mandated Cherokee Indians in the Appalachia leave their land and move west of the Mississippi River in the span of two years.
Many do not know of the Cherokee reaction to this legal treaty, Finger said. The Indians, unwilling to leave their land, resorted to a form of passive resistance. Their case is one of the earliest uses of passive resistance, predating Martin Luther King Jr.’s policy of civil disobedience. Finger said the Cherokees used no violence.
As the two-year deadline approached, the U.S. government realized the Cherokees would take no action and thus sent in U.S. troops in the spring of 1838. This army forcefully removed around 16,000 Cherokee Indians by the fall of 1838.
Their forced displacement west is now known as the Trail of Tears. About 4,000 Indians, roughly 25 percent of the population, died before and during this period.
Though this was a very trying time for the Cherokee Indians and it took them years to recover and settle in the new land, Finger said that, between 1846 and 1861 when the Civil War began, the Cherokee nation had revitalized and was starting to thrive in the land of present-day Oklahoma.
During the Civil War, the Cherokees were forced to make alliances. Being surrounded by Confederates on three out of four sides, Finger said the Cherokees had no choice but to side with them. With the Confederates’ defeat in the war, the U.S. government punished the Cherokees by taking away their land.
By the early 20th century, the American government had taken almost all Cherokee land and sold it to various individuals, some Cherokee but most not.
Finger said that an insult to the Cherokee today is the assumption that after the 1838 removal, there was no significant Cherokee presence left in the eastern United States. Many Cherokee were able to evade the move and others later returned to Appalachia, Finger said.
Today, 60,000 acres of Cherokee reservation land resides east of the Mississippi, mostly in North Carolina.