[Note: This began as my contribution to my school’s interdisciplinary examination of Native American culture, but I had another reason for offering to present something on the Cherokee tribal newspaper: the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia was a significant part of my ongoing research project, and, though I had located an online version of the Cherokee Phoenix, I had not yet read through it. Thus, preparing this essay allowed me to kill two scholarly birds at once: participate in another interdisciplinary project; and further my own research agenda. A list of sources for the essay will be appended to Part II.]
In 1802, the state of Georgia ceded its western land claims, comprising the present-day states of Alabama and Mississippi, to the federal government for $1,250,000 and, more importantly to Georgia, for the national government’s promise to extinguish remaining Indian land claims in the state as soon as that could be done on “reasonable and peaceful” terms. This agreement became known as the Compact of 1802.
The federal government did its best to fulfill the terms of the Compact, but Native American land cessions were neither frequent enough nor large enough for land-hungry Georgians; when complaints to federal officials proved unavailing, Georgia struck off on its own. By 1826, using a combination of corruption, state rights rhetoric, and even the threat of civil war, Georgia officials finally secured the ouster of the Creeks.
When it became clear that Georgia had won the tussle over Creek lands, the editor of a Milledgeville newspaper crowed that the time of the Cherokees had come. The Cherokees had made several cessions of land to the federal government since 1802. By 1819, they still had about five million acres left and refused to cede any more, so Georgia authorities called upon the federal government to remove them by force.
Ever since the creation of a new, stronger American government under the Constitution of 1787, the general approach of the United States toward Indians was to encourage “civilization,” that is, to convince Native American tribes to emulate the “superior” culture of the whites. The theory was that, if they became “white” in all but skin color, then they could be assimilated within the larger, white population over time. Of all the native tribes remaining east of the Mississippi River, the Cherokees had taken this “civilization” policy most seriously.
The Cherokees abandoned hunting for farming, and some even began to produce crops for the market, instead of just for subsistence. In the early 1820s, they adopted the syllabary created by Sequoyah (George Guist), which formed the basis for a written language, laws and, eventually, a tribal newspaper. In 1827, a convention created, and the Cherokees adopted, a written, republican constitution modeled on that of the United States. So, the Cherokee Nation did what the federal government expected of them: they became “civilized,” even to the point that the largest Cherokee planters aped neighboring white plantation owners by employing the labor of Negro slaves. Thus, the whites should have been tickled pink, right? Not exactly. . . .
The policy of “civilizing” the “savage” tribes was grounded in the Enlightenment notion of the perfectibility of man. The differences between Indians and whites were believed to be cultural, in other words, and could be eliminated if Native Americans tried hard to adapt to the “superior” white civilization. Unfortunately, by the 1820s, that theory had changed, at least in the South. Southerners had begun to see differences between Indians and whites as racial, not cultural, and to believe those differences could not be eliminated through “civilization” and assimilation.
Moreover, the creation of a republican government in the Cherokee Nation in 1827 outraged Georgians, who saw it as an attempt to create a “state within a state” and therefore as an unacceptable attack on Georgia’s sovereignty. To Georgians, the imperative duty of the federal government was to fulfill the Compact of 1802 by securing Cherokee lands for Georgia, or else the state would be forced to act unilaterally, as it had against the Creeks. Georgia would win this campaign as well, but it would do so in the glare of a spotlight shone on its actions by a tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix.
In 1828, several events combined to bring into the open the question of Indian removal. One was the discovery of gold in the Cherokee Nation. Another was the election to the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who was known to sympathize with Georgia in the dispute with the Cherokees. Following Jackson’s election, Georgia decided to extend its sovereignty over all Cherokee lands within the state. As one scholar puts it, “Georgia’s legislature added, by fiat, Cherokee lands to the northwestern counties of Georgia, forbade Cherokee gold mining, nullified all Cherokee laws, and prohibited Indians from testifying against whites in court.” (Herschberger, p.21)
The Cherokees protested Georgia’s actions to the federal Indian Agent, who procured a force of U.S. troops to police the Nation. Moreover, in 1829 the Cherokee National Council passed a law making further cessions of tribal land without Council permission a capital offense. In December 1829, Georgia reasserted its sovereignty over Cherokee territory, annexing it; extending Georgia laws over the area; prohibiting the Cherokee National Council from meeting within the boundaries of Georgia (except to cede lands); forbidding Indians from mining gold found on Cherokee lands; and requiring an oath of allegiance to Georgia from all whites living in the Cherokee Nation, in an effort to weaken the influence of Christian missionaries there. These provisions were to go into effect in June 1830. It was against this background of increasing tension between the Cherokees and their white neighbors that, on February 21, 1828, the first issue of the Cherokee Phoenix appeared.
Elias Boudinot, founding editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, could have served as the poster child for the “civilization” policy. He had attended a missionary-run boarding school in Connecticut; converted to Christianity; and, in 1826, married a white woman, Harriet Gold. In the Fall of 1825, the Cherokee National Council authorized Boudinot to embark on a tour to raise funds to establish a Cherokee newspaper. In the speech he delivered at each stop on this tour, Boudinot sketched a glowing vision of what an Indian newspaper could be:
Such a paper, comprising a summary of religious and political events, &c. on the one hand; and on the other, exhibiting the feelings, disposition, improvements, and prospects of the Indians; their traditions, their true character, as it once was and as it now is; the ways and means most likely to throw the mantle of civilization over all tribes; and such other matter as will tend to diffuse proper and correct impressions in regard to their condition—such a paper could not fail to create much interest in the American community, favourable to the aborigines, and to have a powerful influence on the advancement of the Indians themselves. (Perdue, ed., Cherokee Editor, p.76)
In that same speech, Boudinot also hinted at an appropriate name for the paper. If the national government continued to protect Native Americans, he said, and if that policy had the support of the American people, then, Boudinot predicted, “the Indian must rise like the Phoenix after having wallowed for ages in ignorance and barbarity.” (ibid., pp.78-79)
In an editorial in his inaugural issue, Elias Boudinot set forth several editorial principles. (CP,Feb. 21, 1828) First, the purpose of the Phoenix was to inform the Cherokees of their national laws and other public documents, which would be published in English and in Cherokee. Boudinot promised to conduct the paper with civility, though he admitted that the controversy with Georgia would “frequently make our situation trying.” The Cherokee editor also insisted that a large majority of his people opposed removal to the West, and so would the Phoenix. Boudinot asserted that Indians could be “reclaimed from a savage state,” and in the area where they were presently located. Finally, he pleaded with white “friends of the Cherokees,” whose financial assistance had helped establish the paper, to subscribe to it so that it could thrive and, along with it, the Cherokee cause.
On his money-raising foray, Boudinot had found that audiences responded well to specific evidence that the Cherokee had indeed made “progress” on the road to “civilization.” He repeated this tactic in the early issues of the Phoenix, deluging readers with statistics showing the increase since 1810 in the Cherokee Nation of livestock, spinning wheels and looms, plows, saw mills and grist mills, blacksmith shops, cotton gins, schools, and other accoutrements of “civilization.” (Boudinot, “Address to the Whites,” in Perdue, p.72; CP, May 14, June 18, 1828) He also printed, in English and Cherokee, the Cherokee constitution and laws, as well as correspondence and treaties between tribal leaders and federal officials going back forty years. Clearly, Boudinot hoped to demonstrate both Cherokee “progress” and the support offered those efforts by the federal government since the Administration of George Washington.
As Georgia began to tighten the screws on the Cherokees, Elias Boudinot put his faith in the willingness of the national government to defend Cherokee rights. If the federal administration would not protect the tribe’s title to lands guaranteed them by past treaties, the Cherokee editor warned, then the Indians could not trust any promises made by the national government in future treaties. When eager Georgians began moving into Cherokee territory, and the Jackson Administration did nothing to stop them, an angry Boudinot asked editorially whether white Georgians actually believed it was “agreeable to [the Cherokees’] nature to have their rights trampled upon by a horde of robbers and vagabonds (we mean our intruders) and to have every avenue of justice closed against them?” (CP, May 27, 1829)
In an editorial on July 1, 1829, Boudinot took issue with an editor in the Georgia capital of Milledgeville who predicted that, once the state acquired the Cherokee lands, its population would double in ten years and triple in twenty. According to Boudinot, the Cherokee territory was not large enough to sustain such growth, since only about 1/6 of it was fit for cultivation. Moreover, Boudinot added, there was one other major obstacle Georgia would have to overcome if she hoped to develop into a great state, and that was slavery. What Boudinot did not mention was that “The Cherokees also owned slaves, and their legislature passed laws to protect and regulate the institution of slavery.” (Perdue, p.149, note 46)
By the middle of 1829, thanks largely to the documents and editorials published in the Cherokee Phoenix, public opinion outside the South had largely swung against Georgia’s heavy-handed Indian policy and President Jackson’s willingness to support it. This gave Boudinot plenty of fresh ammunition for his columns—accounts of meetings in northern cities to protest Georgia’s treatment of the Cherokees; congressional records highlighting the angry debate over the Indian Removal Bill and the outraged responses of Georgia congressmen to pro-Cherokee petitions; and the long-running “William Penn” essays arguing that “tribal sovereignty was superior to the claims of the states.” (Perdue and Green, The Cherokee Removal, p.103)
Once Congress, at the urging of President Jackson, passed the Indian Removal Act in May 1830, aligning two branches of the national government with Georgia and against the Cherokees, the tribe’s last chance seemed to lie with the judiciary. That hope soon died, however, because Georgia’s governor refused to recognize the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in the matter and simply ignored the court’s decisions. And, when the Marshall court finally came down on the side of the Cherokees in the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia ruling, President Jackson refused to enforce it.
The movement of what Boudinot called “white intruders” into the Cherokee Nation kept increasing, especially after June 1830, when Georgia’s laws were officially extended over the territory. At the same time, President Jackson ordered U.S. troops withdrawn, leaving to the newly created Georgia Guard the task of keeping order in the Nation. The state legislature also approved a lottery to distribute Cherokee lands to fortunate whites. All this proved too much for Elias Boudinot, who angrily informed his readers that Georgia had taken away their “rights as freemen” and replaced them with “Christian laws, placed before you in a language you cannot understand, and which withhold from you the last particle of right.” (CP, June 26, 1830)
[To Be Continued]
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)