Letter to John C. Calhoun

Image: John Ross of the Cherokee, Wikimedia Commons.
Native Americans
n 1802 the federal government signed a compact with the state of Georgia. In exchange for Georgia giving up its claims to western lands, the government committed to removing all remaining Indians from within the state’s borders. John Ross and his fellow Cherokee wrote to the Secretary of War in opposition to the agreement. How did they state their objections? The letter made a novel proposal that would have given Georgia more land. What was it? Was it reasonable? What were the inherent impediments to Ross’ proposal?
How do the arguments in this letter resemble those of the Cherokee women in their three petitions?

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The Articles of Confederation had two related problems when it came to Indian affairs. First, the Articles gave Congress authority over only those Indians “not members of any of the states.” A related issue concerned the “landed states”—states on the eastern seaboard that claimed territory of unknown extent to the west. Pennsylvania claimed land out to the Ohio Valley, Georgia to the Mississippi River, and Virginia all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Which Indians, then, were not included in an existing state?

The Constitution (Article I, section 8, clause 3) and Supreme Court decisions from Johnson v. McIntosh (1823) made clear that Congress and the federal government had sole authority in Indian affairs. As president, George Washington made it a priority to extinguish states’ western claims. Most of these were resolved in the 1790s. Georgia remained the last holdout.

In 1802 the general government negotiated a compact with Georgia whereby the state agreed to surrender its claim to western lands that would become the states of Alabama and Mississippi. In exchange, the federal government promised to remove all Indians within the state’s new borders. It did not say, however, when and how that would be done. All the U.S. government did was encourage individual Indians and families to move voluntarily to the trans-Mississippi West, hoping that this would individualize Indians and “break up the tribal mass.” The Cherokee in general were opposed to leaving their homeland.

By 1824, when little had been done, Georgia wanted action. In this letter to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, who was responsible for Indian affairs, John Ross and a group of other Cherokee leaders made the case that the Cherokee should remain on their land.

—Jace Weaver

John Ross, [Letter] to John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, February 11, 1824, https://dlg.usg.edu/record/dlg_zlna_tcc152#item.

Honorable, John C. Calhoun
Secretary of War


We have received your letter of the 30th [January] containing the answer, which the president directed you to communicate to us, in reply to a particular subject embraced in the letter which we had the honor of laying before him on the 19th [January]. In this answer, we discover new propositions for the extinguishment of Cherokee title to lands for the benefit of Georgia. We beg leave to say to the president, through you, the Cherokee Nation are sensible that the United States are bound by its [1802] compact with Georgia “to extinguish for the use of that state, the Indian title to lands within”
the limits claimed by “the state, as soon as it can be done peaceably, and on reasonable conditions,”1 and we are also sensible that this compact is no more than a conditional one and, without the free and voluntary consent of the Cherokee Nation, can never be complied with on the part of the United States; and having been duly authorized to make known to the government of the United States the true sentiments and disposition of the Nation on the subject, the president has been informed that the “Cherokees have come to a decisive and unalterable conclusion, never to cede away any more lands.”2 And as the extinguishment of Cherokee title to lands can never be obtained on conditions which will accord with the import of the compact between the United States and Georgia, it is desirable that the government should adopt some other means to satisfy Georgia, than to remain any longer under the anticipation of being enabled to accomplish the object of purchasing the Cherokee title.

The United States now possess an extensive territory in the Floridas; why not extend the limits of Georgia in that section of country, if her present bounds be considered too small? The Cherokee Nation have never promised to surrender at any future period to the United States, for Georgia, their title to lands, but to the contrary, the United States have by treaties solemnly guaranteed to secure to the Cherokees forever their title to lands which have been reserved by them. Therefore the state of Georgia can have no reasonable plea against the Cherokees for refusing to yield their [title] all to the United States so that her own aggrandizement may be raised upon their ruins.

You express a “wish to have a free communication with” us on this subject and “to appeal to the good sense and to the interest of the nation, as pointed out by their own experience and by that of their ancestors for two centuries back.” In accordance with your wish we will speak frankly, and with all the good sense we may possess, and keeping strictly in view the interest of our nation, looking back to circumstances which have transpired and endeavor to trace the causes which produced them, and also to observe the present state of things and look forward to such objects as may be practically attainable for the best interest of the Cherokee people. By tracing the situation of our ancestors for two hundred years back, we see nothing desirable but much to deplore. The happiness which the Indians once enjoyed, by a quiet and undisturbed ease in their primitive situation before the face of the white man was seen on this continent, was now poisoned by the bad fruits of the civilized tree which was planted around them—tumultuous wars arose and the mountains and the plains were covered with carnage, and the elysian valleys drenched with blood, and many noble tribes whose unfortunate doom it was to have been overshadowed by the expanded branches of this tree, drooped, withered, and are no more. Such are the scenes brought to our view by looking back to the situations of our ancestors at the period to which you have called our attention.

Let us now for a moment seriously reflect on the true causes which have universally produced the extinction of Indian tribes, when they become merged into the white population and, we doubt not, that it will be admitted at once that by ambition, pride, and avariciousness of the civilized man, the untutored sons of nature became a prey. Defrauded out of their lands, treated as inferior beings on account of their poverty and ignorance, they became associated with the lowest grade of society, from whom the habits of intemperance, debauchery, and all the vices of degradation peculiar to that class were by them soon imbibed. Their lands having been swept from under their feet by the ingenuity of [the] white man, and being left destitute of a home, ignorant of the arts and sciences, and possessing no experience in the employment of a laborious and industrious life to obtain a living. They became straggling wanderers amongst strangers, and by oppressions their spirits were depressed, and considering themselves degraded, they were induced to hurry away their troublesome existence by inhaling the noxious vapors of intemperance, a fatal remedy to settle their doom of extinction. Such have been the circumstances and causes which have swept into oblivion the names of many tribes of Indians that once possessed and inhabited the soil of these United States; and such must be the fate of those tribes now in existence, should they be merged into the white population before they become completely civilized and shall have learned the arts and sciences; and such would be the fate of a large portion of the Cherokee Nation were they to cede away all their lands and now become incorporated with the whites.

You say that we “must be sensible that it will be impossible for [us] to remain, for any length of time, in our present situation, as a distinct society, or nation, within the limits of Georgia or of any other state”; and that “such a community is incompatible with [your] system and must yield to it”; and that we “must either cease to be a distinct community, and become at no distant period a part of the state within whose limits [we] are, or remove without the limits of any state.” And that “it remains for the Cherokee Nation to decide for itself whether it will contribute most to their own welfare and happiness, for them to retain their present title to their lands, and remain where they are exposed to the discontent of Georgia and the pressure of her citizens, or to cede it to the United States for Georgia, at a fair price, to be paid either in other lands beyond the Mississippi or in money.” Sir, to these remarks we beg leave to observe, and to remind you, that the Cherokees are not foreigners but original inhabitants of America, and that they now inhabit and stand on the soil of their own territory, and that the limits of their territory are defined by the treaties which they have made with the government of the United States, and that the states by which they are now surrounded have been created out of lands which were once theirs, and that they cannot recognize the sovereignty of any state within the limits of their territory.

Confiding in good faith of the United States to respect their treaty stipulations with the Cherokee Nation, we have no hesitation in saying that the true interest, prosperity, and happiness of our nation demands their permanency where they are, and to retain their present title to their lands. In doing so, we cannot see, in the spirit of liberality, honor, magnanimity, equity, and justice, how they can be exposed to the discontent of Georgia or the pressure of her citizens. An extent of territory twice as large, west of the Mississippi, as the one now occupied by the Cherokees east of that river, or all the money now in the coffers of your treasury would be no inducement for the nation to exchange or to sell their country. It rests with the interest, the disposition and free consent of the nation to remain as a separate community or to enter into a treaty with the United States for admission as citizens, under the form of a territorial or state government, and we can only say that the situation of the nation is not sufficiently improved in the arts of civilized life to warrant any change at present. Therefore the subject must be left for our posterity to determine for [ourselves] whenever the whole nation shall have been completely and fully civilized and shall have possessed the arts and sciences.

With consideration, of High Respect and Esteem, We have the honor to be, Sir, your very [obedient servants].

  1. 1. Quoting the 1802 agreement between Georgia and the United States.
  2. 2. A quotation from the letter sent to the president, January 19, 1824, American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton, 1834), 473.
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