Cherokee Nation v. Georgia 1831

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Cherokee Nation v. Georgia 1831

Plaintiff: Cherokee Indian Nation

Defendant: State of Georgia

Plaintiff's Claim: That the U.S. Supreme Court, using its constitutional powers to resolve disputes between states and foreign nations, stop Georgia from illegally and forcefully removing the Cherokee Nation from its lands.

Chief Lawyer for the Plaintiff: William Wirt

Chief Lawyer for the Defendant: None

Justices for the Court: Henry Baldwin, William Johnson, Chief Justice John Marshall, John McLean

Justices Dissenting: Smith Thompson, Joseph Story (Gabriel Duvall did not participate)

Date of Decision: March 5, 1831

Decision: Ruled in favor of Georgia by finding that the Supreme Court had no legal authority to hear the dispute because Indian tribes are "domestic dependent nations," not foreign nations.

Significance: By refusing to hear the case, the Court left the Cherokees at the mercy of the state of Georgia and its land-hungry citizens. In late 1838 the Cherokee were forcefully marched under winter conditions from their homes in northwest Georgia to lands set aside in Oklahoma. Four thousand died in military detention camps and along the infamous "Trail of Tears." The forced removal of Indian tribes from the Southeastern United States was completed by 1858.

"T he whole scene since I have been in this country has been nothing but a heart-rendering one . . . I would remove every Indian tomorrow beyond the reach of the white men, who, like vultures, are watching, ready to pounce on their prey and strip them of everything they have . . . " U.S. General John Ellis Wood in charge of the Cherokee removal quoted in "The Time Machine." American Heritage, September/October 1988.

Before settlement by European colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Cherokee Indians lived along much of North America's southeastern coast. By the 1780s, war, disease, and starvation had killed most American Indians living along much of North America's eastern coastline. The Cherokee population shifted further inland and negotiated treaties with the U.S. government to protect their remaining homelands. Based on a treaty signed with the United States in 1791, the Cherokee were settled on traditional lands in the hills of northwest Georgia and western North Carolina.

As U.S. settlement pressed further inland in the early nineteenth century, many surviving Indian groups forcefully resisted further land loss. Some even sided with Britain against the United States in the War of 1812 (1812–1814). However, the United States won the war in 1814 and General Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) promptly led the U.S. military to victory over the Creeks and other Indian groups who had actively opposed the United States.

In contrast to the Creeks, the Cherokee had early accepted U.S. presence as inevitable and adopted a more peaceful policy of coexistence. In dealing with European intrusion into their lands, the Cherokee sought to hold their ground by adopting many of the white ways. During the early 1800s the Cherokee went through a remarkable period of cultural change. They adopted a farming economy including cattle-raising in place of traditional hunting and gathering. Some Cherokee even became plantation owners with slaves. Others became involved in commerce, managing stores, mills and other businesses. Cherokee children were sent to American schools and mixed marriages with non-Indians were allowed. Seeing the benefits of reading and writing, a Cherokee silversmith, Sequoya, created a Cherokee alphabet that was quickly adopted. They became the only Indian nation in North America with a written language. By the 1820's, the Cherokee had established written laws, a constitution, and a capitol at New Echota.

As the Cherokee became a flourishing independent nation within Georgia's state boundaries, resentment grew among white settlers. Already eager to grab the rich agricultural lands of the Cherokee, the discovery of gold in Cherokee country in 1828 further escalated the greed for land and wealth. In addition, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that provided funds for removal of eastern Indians to the west beyond the Mississippi River.

The state of Georgia began enacting laws declaring all Cherokee laws void and seeking to remove the Cherokee from their lands. In reaction to Georgia's actions, the Cherokees hired white lawyers led by William Wirt to defend their interests. With the state's antagonism toward the tribe, Wirt clearly did not want to have to defend the Cherokee case in Georgia state courts. Noting that Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the U.S. Supreme Court original jurisdiction (the geographic area over which a government or court has authority) in cases for which a state is a party, Wirt took the Cherokee case straight to the Court. He requested an injunction (a court order stopping an action) forbidding Georgia from removing the Cherokees. A complicating factor was that all Indians including the Cherokee were not recognized as U.S. citizens. Section 2 restricts Supreme Court jurisdiction only to cases involving American citizens by stating that it may only hear disputes "between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States . . . " Since the Cherokee Nation was not a state and the Cherokees were not U.S. citizens, Wirt decided to take the position that the Cherokee Nation was a foreign nation, thus placing the case under the Court's jurisdiction.

On the other side, the state of Georgia believed the federal courts had no business judging their state laws. They believed so strongly in states' rights that they refused to send anyone to legally represent them before the Supreme Court.

In arguing for foreign nation status on March 5, 1831, Wirt stressed that the Cherokee's "boundaries were fixed by treaty, and what was within them was acknowledged to be the land of the Cherokees. This was the scope of all treaties." On a more human level, Wirt pleaded that,

The legislation of Georgia proposes to annihilate [the Cherokee}. As its very end and aim . . . If those laws be fully executed, there will be no Cherokee boundary, no Cherokee nation, no Cherokee lands, no Cherokee treaties . . . They will all be swept out of existence together, leaving nothing but the monuments in our history of the enormous injustice that has been practised towards a friendly nation.

Responding that very same day, Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the Court's 4–2 decision. Attempting to finally resolve the legal status of Indian tribes within the United States, Marshall stated that tribes such as the Cherokee are "domestic dependent nations," not foreign nations. Marshall wrote that through the doctrine of discovery applied by European nations when exploring North American lands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tribes had partially lost their sovereignty as nations when the European nations had laid claim to their lands. Consequently, tribes were no longer fully independent foreign nations. The Indians had essentially become wards (dependent subjects) of the federal government for whom the United States held a special legal responsibility to protect, a trust responsibility. Marshall concluded that since the Cherokee were not a fully independent nation, the Supreme Court holds no jurisdiction to hear the Cherokee claims.

Tragic Consequences

Unable to gain legal support from the American court system, the Cherokee were at the mercy of the state of Georgia and Jackson's removal policy. After years of harassment and antagonism, a small group of Cherokee in 1835 led by Major Ridge and his son ceded by treaty all Cherokee lands. The Cherokee peoples were given two years to leave their traditional lands and move to a special Indian territory created by Congress in 1834 in what latter became Oklahoma. By 1838 the Cherokees were stripped of all their lands in the Southeast.

Under watch of 7,000 U.S. troops, the Cherokee peoples were forced from their homes and marched a thousand miles during the winter of 1838 and 1839 to the Oklahoma territory. Thousands died as it became known in history as the "Trail of Tears." During their removal, a thousand or more Cherokee fled into remote areas of the East, including the Great Smoky Mountains. They later gained federal recognition as the Cherokee of the North Carolina Qualla Reservation. The massive relocation still stands as one of the saddest moments in U.S.-Indian relations.


M any Cherokee resisted the government's efforts to remove them from their lands. As the deadline for removal approached in 1837 President Martin Van Buren (1837–1841) ordered federal authorities to force the Cherokee from their homes and place them in temporary detention camps. They remained in the camps through 1838 during a typically hot sweltering Southern summer. Diseases began to spread. Suffering from dysentery, measles, and whooping cough, some two thousand died in the camps.

That October, over fifteen thousand men, women and children began a six month thousand mile journey to the very unfamiliar country of Oklahoma. Most marched overland from northwest Georgia, across central Tennessee, western Kentucky, southern Illinois, southern Missouri and northern Arkansas to eastern Oklahoma. A smaller number were taken by flatboat down the Tennessee River to the Mississippi River and then up the Arkansas River. Lacking adequate food, shelter, and clothing while en route, another two thousand died from exposure, disease, and exhaustion. The Cherokee buried their dead along the route that became known as the Trail of Tears. The forced march became one of the most tragic events in U.S.-Indian relations. The Trail of Tears was later designated a National Historic Trail by Congress.

Following their tragic journey, the Cherokee reestablished their farming society in the hills of northeastern Oklahoma. They quickly setup a new government and signed a constitution in 1839. Tahlequah, Oklahoma became the capital for the displaced peoples.

Removal of the Cherokee Nation left behind only scattered Indian groups in the Southeast. By 1842, most of the Five Civilized Tribes' peoples of the Southeast, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole, had been taken from their prosperous farms and plantations and resettled to government-assigned lands in Oklahoma. The last of the Seminoles of Florida were removed in 1858.

The Cherokee's forced removal dramatized the fate of Indian peoples in the face of U.S. expansion. The tide of U.S. expansion eventually overwhelmed even those tribes with peaceful policies and firmly established economies.

Suggestions for further reading

Gilbert, Joan. The Trail of Tears Across Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

McLoughlin, William G. After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees' Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839-1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Rice, Horace R. The Buffalo Ridge Cherokee: A Remnant of a Great Nation Divided. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1995.

Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People, Second Edition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.