Cherokee Memorials

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Among most Native American nations east of the Mississippi, an esteemed quality of political leadership has historically been a leader's ability to convince community members of the rightness of her or his ideas. Persuasion is valued above coercion; a bullying leader generally loses the mandate of leadership. The eloquent body of political literature from eastern Native American nations is a testament to this social and rhetorical ethic, for these speeches, letters, laws, and petitions often place a fundamental value on bringing audiences and writers and speakers to a middle ground of mutual respect and understanding, even when simultaneously challenging racism, land theft, and political oppression. The nineteenth-century Cherokee memorials to the U.S. Congress—diplomatic petitions that invoked this reciprocal relationship through ethical, legal, and empathetic appeals—are insightful illustrations of the political concepts and values of the Cherokee Republic and powerfully contrast the difference between Cherokee and U.S. articulations of nation-to-nation relationships and their associated obligations and responsibilities.


While Cherokees had long defended their lands against a wide range of interlopers, from indigenous nations such as the Choctaws, Shawnees, and Chickasaws to European powers, it was the aggressive and diplomatically immature United States that posed the greatest challenge to the Cherokee Nation in clearly and concisely communicating a mutually intelligible language of sovereignty and diplomacy. It was also a time of extraordinary internal cultural change that included the codification of a written syllabary of the Cherokee language, the political centralization of autonomous towns to a republican form of government, the eclipsing of women's formal political influence, the increasingly economic dependence on black slavery among wealthy Cherokee planters, and the growing influence of Euro-Western social mores. Some of these changes, such as the syllabary and the political unification, were adopted to ensure that Cherokees throughout the Nation could more effectively and efficiently communicate with one another, especially in the face of ever-increasing oppression. Other changes, however, worked toward the economic and political benefit of a small group of privileged Cherokee men, thus distancing the clan-based authority of women and the human struggles of African Americans from the public sphere.

The dangers of the time emerged from a long history over Cherokee land rights in the southern Appalachian Mountains, which include parts of present-day Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, West Virginia, and Virginia. The American Revolution had devastated the Cherokees. Much of the colonists' anger toward Great Britain was rooted less in unfair taxation than in antagonism to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which, prompted in part by a bloody war against the Cherokees, affirmed the crown's recognition of Native American claims to the lands west of the Appalachians, with the intent of placing a permanent barrier to the westward flood of settlers. Many U.S. leaders—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among them—were land speculators, and their revolutionary ambitions were motivated as much by land hunger as by desire for freedom from British authority. When the battle lines were drawn, many Cherokee towns were on the side of the British, who, while always unreliable allies, made overtures toward respecting Native American territorial integrity. Yet when the war was over and most Cherokee towns were in ruins, the terms of the nation's first formal agreement with the fledgling United States—the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell—set the stage for later troubles.

Although the Cherokees had lost vast tracts of land during the long resistance, the Treaty of Hopewell was concerned less with taking more lands than with establishing a recognizable boundary for Cherokee land title that was to be protected by the United States and its citizenry. This boundary, however, included lands that were claimed by the state of Georgia, and Georgians flouted the treaty protections. The wave of white squatters continued in spite of numerous Cherokee protests and was exacerbated by the inability (or unwillingness) of U.S. agents to intervene. In an 1802 deal with the federal government Georgia gave up some lands through assurances that the United States would work to vacate the Cherokee title to other lands within Georgia's claimed boundaries, and this further emboldened the state's increasing aggression against Cherokee sovereignty.

The Cherokees were not passive victims—they responded forcefully and eloquently. Though overwhelmingly outnumbered in their own homelands, the nation in 1827 adopted a written constitution that affirmed the Cherokees' unwavering determination to remain on their ancestral lands and to fully exercise both cultural and political self-determination. The year 1828 saw the launch of the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual national newspaper that included powerful editorials by Elias Boudinot (1800–1839) and others that publicized the Cherokee fight for sovereignty. These actions enraged Georgia authorities, who responded by extending state law over the contested lands and declaring all Cherokee legal authority extinguished.

In 1830, under the active encouragement of the Indian fighter turned president Andrew Jackson, Congress narrowly passed the Indian Removal Act, under which terms Cherokees and other tribal nations in the East were to be expelled from their lands and relocated to the "Indian Territory" in what is now Oklahoma. Emboldened by Jackson's hard-line stance and the discovery of gold in the Cherokee mountains, Georgia increased its campaign of land seizures, political harassment, censorship of the press, and ultimately, state-sponsored terrorism that encouraged brutal attacks on individual Cherokees (including beatings, rapes, and murders) and threatened the national leadership and white allies with injury and imprisonment. In 1838, after U.S. treaty commissioners arranged for a fraudulent land cession treaty with a small group of self-appointed Cherokee representatives (the 1835 Treaty of New Echota), the majority of the sixteen-thousand-strong nation was driven by federal troops, members of the Georgia militia, and lawless white squatters into concentration camps, from which they were moved onto the thousand-mile journey westward. This expulsion, commonly known as the Trail of Tears, resulted in the deaths of up to a third or more of the nation from disease, abuse, hunger, exposure, exhaustion, and despair. Although the Cherokee Nation ultimately survived, the removal remains one of the most devastating events in Cherokee history.


The Cherokee memorials provide a striking picture of the peoples' struggle to maintain their nationhood during this traumatic period. Cherokees submitted a number of memorials to the U.S. Congress, each with the express intent of convincing U.S. political leaders to reverse the Indian Removal Act and its conditions (and after 1835 to repudiate the illegitimate Treaty of New Echota), to recognize Cherokee sovereignty, and perhaps most pointedly, to honor the United States's own avowed political and religious ideals. These documents were written firmly within the communal context of Cherokee diplomatic rhetoric, highlighting the necessity of empathy and reason in creating harmonious relations between Cherokees and whites.

There were many memorials over the decade-long removal struggle, and most followed a similar rhetorical pattern of nation-to-nation engagement, affirmation of higher principles, and invocations of accountability. As official governmental petitions, the documents clearly represent the Cherokee position that they are engaged in a strong and mutually respectful government-to-government relationship and that they firmly comprehend the political rights and responsibilities implied by such a treaty-protected relationship.

Each memorial begins with an address to the U.S. Senate and House that acknowledges the memorialists' position as official representatives for the Cherokee Nation. The petitions then generally move into a brief account of the abuses and outrages being experienced by the Cherokee Nation, along with a reminder to the U.S. lawmakers that they are responsible for maintaining a legal and moral relationship of protection to the Cherokees, as in an 1834 memorial:

They [the memorialists] respectfully represent that their rights, being stipulated by numerous solemn treaties which guaranteed to them protection, and guarded, as they supposed, by laws enacted by Congress, they had hoped that the approach of danger would be prevented by the interposition of the power of the Executive, charged with the execution of treaties and laws, and that when their rights should come in question, they would be finally and authoritatively decided by the Judiciary, whose decrees it would be the duty of the Executive to see carried into effect. For many years, these their just hopes were not disappointed. (Ross, p. 290)

Similarly, in an 1836 memorial and protest of the nation to Congress, the memorialists assert that there has been a long relationship between the two governments, and it is one that the United States has repeatedly affirmed, to the cultural benefit of Cherokees:

It would be useless to recapitulate the numerous provisions for the security and protection of the rights of the Cherokees, to be found in the various treaties between their nation and the United States. The Cherokees were happy and prosperous under a scrupulous observance of treaty stipulations by the Government of the United States, and from the fostering hand extended over them, they made rapid advances in civilization, morals, and in the arts and sciences. Little did they anticipate that when taught to think and feel as the American citizen, and to have with him a common interest, they were to be despoiled by their guardian, to become strangers and wanderers in the land of their fathers, forced to return to the savage life, and to seek a new home in the wilds of the far west, and that without their consent. (Ross, pp. 427–428)

The leaders of the Cherokee Nation of this time placed great faith in the promises of Euro-Western "civilization," which included education in the English language, familiarity with a classical education, and conversion to Christianity, but they did not do so in order to surrender their nation's sovereignty or identity. Rather, their embrace of Euro-Western values was to more effectively protect and affirm Cherokee distinctiveness in a way that was recognizable to their most powerful and aggressive neighbors. As Maureen Konkle observes, "The claim to 'civilization' and 'progress' must be understood in context—as a material but also temporal claim, a claim to history on their own terms" (p. 77). If, as international law of the time asserted, "savages" had no claim to the land, then the Cherokees would join the ranks of "civilized" nations and draw on the rights implied therein.

The memorials, as both chronicles of facts and analyses of principles, generally move into discussions of moral and legal philosophy regarding the exact relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the United States, specifically regarding the inherent rights and responsibilities of Cherokee nationhood and the illegitimate claims of the state of Georgia over Cherokee territories, interspersed with examples of outrages committed against both the Cherokee government and individual Cherokee citizens. These examples generally include names of both victims and perpetrators, giving a deeply human dimension to their struggle that highlights the drafters' intimate awareness of their people's difficulties. Throughout the memorials are appeals to the basic good nature of white Americans and numerous biblical allusions to justice and fairness, each located in such a way as to emphasize as much as possible both the necessity and the practicability of reversing the brutalizing policies.

The closing words of the memorials are particularly poignant appeals to the fundamental nobility and human sympathies of their American neighbors, thus representing the most cherished founding ideals of the United States as the primary barrier between Cherokee survival and destruction. In one of numerous 1835 memorials, the drafters end this way:

They respectfully pray that measures may be adopted by your honorable bodies to vindicate the faith of treaties, to preserve to them their rights guaranteed by those treaties, to arrest the hand of rapine now stretched forth to despoil them of their homes and possessions, and to save them from being driven out to perish from starvation and misery, if not condemned even to a speedier death, by the ruthless spoiler. (Ross, p. 317)

In 1836, when the Cherokees had become significantly more imperiled, the memorial is even more impassioned in its closing appeal:

The Cherokees cannot resist the power of the United States, and should they be driven from their Native American land, then will they look in melancholy sadness upon the golden chain presented by President Washington to the Cherokee people as emblematical of the brightness and purity of the friendship between the United States and the Cherokee nation. (Ross, p. 444)

Although the memorials ultimately did not sway enough political or public opinion to prompt a reversal of U.S. removal policies, the documents were not failures. Many included long lists of signatures of Cherokee citizens (the 1835 memorial above included 15,546 names), demonstrating a communitywide familiarity with the issues and endorsement of the documents' positions. They explicitly engaged the concept of Cherokee nationhood from within; they did not simply react to ideas imposed from without. Though generally drafted by a small group of delegates, the memorials represented, as much as possible, the collective voice and position of the Cherokee people, most of whom were literate in either English or Cherokee and were well aware of their nation's struggle through the editorials and articles published in the Cherokee Phoenix.

These documents were thus as much about bringing the community together as they were about advocating the community's concerns to outsiders. They were oriented toward sharing the political struggles of all Cherokees and demonstrated an awareness of a leader's obligations to his or her people. It was a principle of leadership that encompassed more than just the Cherokee delegates: as the United States had taken upon itself the responsibility of leadership and protection, its representatives too were held to a high standard of accountability to the Cherokee people. The memorials, then, stand as more than simply documents of protest: they are eloquent testaments to the covenant of trust, respect, and responsibility between nations and a poignant reminder of the need for principled attention by all parties to the terms of that covenant.

See alsoIndians; Indian Wars and Dispossession; Native American Literature; Trail of Tears


Primary Works

Ross, John. The Papers of Chief John Ross. Vol. 1. Edited by Gary E. Moulton. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

U.S. Congress, House of Representatives. "Memorial of a Delegation of the Cherokee Tribe of Indians." 9 January 1832. 22nd Cong., 1st sess., doc. no. 45. U.S. House of Representatives.

Secondary Works

Konkle, Maureen. Writing Indian Nations: Native Intellectuals and the Politics of Historiography, 1827–1863. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green, eds. The CherokeeRemoval: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Daniel Heath Justice