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The Cherokees’ tragic saga commenced ironically on a note of progress. The new national government in 1789 that George Washington presided over was determined to reframe the nation’s relationship with native peoples. The federal government, Washington insisted, would no longer treat Indians as conquered enemies without any legal rights to their ancestral lands. Washington’s secretary of war, Henry Knox, could not have been clearer: “The Indians being the prior occupants, possess the right to soil. It cannot be taken from them unless by their free consent.… To dispossess them … would be a gross violation of the fundamental laws of nature, and of that … justice which is the glory of a nation.”1 Having just concluded a difficult and costly war for independence, Washington and Knox believed that the nation could ill afford a belligerent approach to the Native Americans on its frontiers. The Revolutionary War had also dislocated many Indian nations. The Cherokees were left reeling from the devastations of war, with more than fifty towns destroyed, fields decimated, livestock slaughtered, and population loss due to exposure and starvation from military incursions. The war had depleted more than twenty thousand square miles of valuable hunting grounds for their deerskin trade.2
Empowered by the newly ratified Constitution, the United States government determined to redefine its relationship with its Indian neighbors. Guided by federal policy, Indian tribes were to be viewed as sovereign, independent nations entitled to respectful treatment by the new American government. Aggressive encroachment upon Indian lands that had often sparked bloody frontier warfare was to end because the national government promised protection against troublesome white intruders—or so the nation’s first president expected. Not only did Washington foster peace with Indians; his federal government would protect Native Americans from extinction, though most thought it inevitable, when “uncivilized” people confronted “civilized” ones.3
There was a catch: upon taking office, President George Washington made it clear that Americans wanted peace with their Indian neighbors once they were remade as “red citizens” of a white republic. The first condition was that hunting and trading in furs—the principal livelihood of most tribes, especially those in the Southeast—would be replaced by the more “civilized” occupation of raising crops and livestock. Abandonment of huge Indian hunting grounds for small farming plots guaranteed whites the strategic advantage of freeing up enormous tracts of Indian land—land that whites (from President Washington down to the smallest subsistent farmers on the frontier) coveted. Washington and Knox drew on the prevailing Enlightenment notion that all people can learn and have the ability to reason. They and other Americans also subscribed to the white belief that ultimately Indians would have to surrender their lands to the expanding white population. For reasons never articulated, the founding fathers expected this could happen without conflict or harm to the Indian population. After all, Washington and Knox contended, Indians led “uncivilized” lives not because of some inherent inferiority but because they had not yet been able to imagine a better future for themselves and their children. Ignorance, not race, then, had made them “uncivilized” heathens. But with the right education and proper training they could become respectable citizens, in a fully assimiliated (excluding black slaves) American society. Thus one of the early treaties of the Washington administration with the Cherokees, the 1791 Treaty of Holston, called for precisely this sort of give and take between the “civilized” and the “uncivilized”: “That the Cherokee Nation may be led to a greater degree of civilization, and to become herdsmen and cultivators, instead of remaining in a state of hunters, the United States will, from time to time, furnish gratuitously the said nation with useful implements of husbandry.” Americans would trade draft animals, plows, and spinning wheels for Indian willingness to abandon the hunt and chase after white civility.4
To carry out the new national Indian policy, federal agents were sent out as middlemen between the chiefs and the policy makers in the federal government. The agents were deployed to protect Indian boundaries and set up trading posts where Indians would exchange their furs and skins for seed and hoes, horses and plows.
Just as significantly, missionaries in the late 1790s began arriving as well, armed with the religious values and domestic tools for remaking Native Americans. Beginning in 1799, evangelical Protestants—Moravians, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—fanned out into Indian country, setting up schools and missions where Indian boys were taught to become farmers and artisans and Indian girls learned to sew, weave, and cook. And most important, missionaries hoped to introduce Christianity—the telltale mark, whites believed, of a “civilized” people. The Federalists’ Indian policy under Washington and Knox imagined a prosperous world where whites and enlightened Indians would guide their people according to “civilized” principles and eventually produce a nation that included assimilated Indians as full citizens.5
If Washington and Knox believed they could transform Native Americans with federal Indian agents and Protestant missionaries, Thomas Jefferson, by the time he became president in 1801, pointed to scientific grounds for the prospects of such hopeful assimilation. Since a backward life in the forest was responsible for the Indians’ ignorance, a more “civilized” environment would significantly improve them. And once that happened, Jefferson argued, “we shall probably find that they are formed in mind as well as in body, on the same module with the ‘Homo sapiens Europaeus.’”6
Jefferson viewed Africans as inferior to whites, but as early as 1785 he observed, “I believe the Indian … to be in body and mind equal to the whiteman.”7 Indians’ “vivacity and activity” of mind, he believed, was the equal of whites, and physically Indians were brave, active, and affectionate—the full equal to whites. The orations of Demosthenes and Cicero, he observed, did not surpass the speech he quoted from Iroquois chief Logan. Once they exchanged the hunter state for agriculture, once they gave up the wandering life of the chase for the stable existence rooted in industry and thrift, Indians, he argued, would make fully acceptable American citizens. The steps were simple: “1st, to raise cattle, etc., and thereby acquire a knowledge of the value of property; 2d, arithmetic, to calculate that value; 3d, writing, to keep accounts, and here they begin to enclose farms, and the men to labor, the women to spin and weave; 4th, to read ‘Aesop’s Fables’ and ‘Robinson Crusoe’ are their first delight.”8
This more positive, “enlightened” approach to Indian-white relations may have offered hope to Cherokees—but it was meant to feel like their last hope. It could not have been lost on the Cherokees—or any other tribe subject to the civilization program—that becoming “civilized” was their only alternative to destruction. Becoming “civilized” was not, of course, a two-way street; for whites, “civilized” Indians were those willingly submerged into white culture. Early on Jefferson made this point: “Incorporating themselves with us as citizens of the United States, this is what the natural progress of things will, of course, bring on, and it will be better to promote than to retard it. Surely it will be better for them to be identified with us, and preserved in the occupation of their lands, than be exposed to the many casualties which may endanger them while a separate people.”9
Thinly disguised behind Jefferson’s enlightened rhetoric about the malleability of native peoples stood the bedrock determination to acquire their lands. As he noted in 1803 in a letter to an Indian agent: “In keeping agents among the Indians, two objects are principally in view: 1. The preservation of peace; 2. The obtaining lands.” For Jefferson, like most white leaders, civilizing the Indians became simply a means for gaining access to their lands. Hence the emphasis he placed on converting Indians from hunters to small-scale farmers. “The Indians,” Jefferson wrote, “being once closed in between strong settled countries on the Mississippi & Atlantic, will, for want of game, be forced to agriculture, will find that small portions of land well improved, will be worth more to them than extensive forests unemployed, and will be continually parting with portions of them, for money to buy stock, utensils & necessities for their farms & families.” Hunting, Jefferson believed, had already become inadequate for the Indians’ self-sufficiency. So he was intent on promoting agriculture and household manufacturing among the Indians—and he was “disposed to aid and encourage it liberally.” As Indians learned “to do better on less land,” Jefferson predicted, the expanding population of white settlers all around them would soon take over Indian lands.10
And Jefferson made good on his plan: during his presidency, he obtained some two hundred thousand square miles of Indian territory in nine states—mostly in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri—an acquisition of territory that far exceeded the needs of white settlers or interest of Indians willing to surrender hunting grounds as a step toward becoming “civilized.” Jefferson’s policy was in part a military strategy aimed at clearing out Indians from the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, compressing them into an ever-shrinking region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.
At its heart, Jefferson’s Indian policy viewed as hopeless all Indians who clung to their “savage” ways as nomadic hunters: their game was becoming extinct, and their peoples were demoralized and depopulated by war, liquor, and disease. Their only hope, he insisted, came from selling their lands, accepting white values, intermarrying with whites, and becoming respectable yeoman farmers and U.S. citizens.11
White political leaders from Washington to Jefferson may have had hope for the civilization program, but out West it was a different matter. Most frontiersmen thought Indians could never become the equal of whites. In fact, some westerners feared that once Indians became farmers they would never get rid of them. To most frontier settlers, Indians were simple, backward, ignorant, and lazy, prone to lying, begging, and stealing. The two races were never meant to live together. And some Cherokees felt the same way. As one federal agent to the Cherokees, Return J. Meigs, observed, “Many of the Cherokees think that they are not derived from the same stock as whites, that they are favorites of the Great Spirit, and that he never intended they should live the laborious lives of whites.”12
Those who implemented the civilization program out West often spoke just as bluntly about the challenge they were facing. Lewis Cass, who lived with the Indians on the Northwest frontier as governor of the Michigan Territory, 1813–31, looked on Indians as primitive savages driven by passions, self-interests, and fears. They lacked all proper sense of enterprise, industry, and thrift that had informed Cass’s Puritan background. “Like the bear, and deer, and buffalo of his own forests,” Cass wrote in 1827, “an Indian lives as his father lived, and dies as his father died. He never attempts to imitate the arts of his civilized neighbors. His life passes away in a succession of listless indolence, and of vigorous exertion to provide for his animal wants, or to gratify his baleful passions. He never looks around him, with a spirit of emulation, to compare his situation and that of others, and to resolve on improving it.”13 And the only hope for the “improvement” of Indians, Cass believed, lay with their youth. The adults and tribal elders simply could not change enough to meet white needs. But perhaps the missionary effort, he speculated, would bear fruit with the rising generation.
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Whereas the federal agents who fanned out into Indian country in the 1790s brought Indians a new political and economic message of how they could best assimilate into the new republic, the missionaries following them into the Southeast offered natives nothing less than a cultural transformation. That transformation, of course, was to be conducted strictly in the image of white, “civilized” Protestants. But their attempt, both heroic and arrogant, served notice on the Cherokees that they were facing a very new world, one that offered them ever-shrinking choices about what it meant to be a patriotic Cherokee or an American.
The earliest missionaries arriving in the Southeast were Moravians from Salem, North Carolina, who entered the Cherokee Nation and established a mission at Springplace in 1801. Presbyterian ministers came into eastern Tennessee in 1804; after the War of 1812, Methodists and Baptists moved into Cherokee country. The most organized missionary effort, though, came courtesy of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), who moved into Cherokee country in the 1810s. Headquartered in Boston, the American Board was an interdenominational organization, composed mainly of Congregationalists and Presbyterians, that gained strength from the revival fires sweeping the country in the early nineteenth century. Funded by wealthy merchants and textile manufacturers in New England, the board sought to “elevate the aborigines” in the South, starting with the Cherokees. The American Board set up ten mission schools among the Cherokees, while the Baptists established three schools, and the Moravians and Presbyterians two each. Methodists funded six to nine circuit riders per year and ran a handful of “itinerating” schools.14
Regardless of denominational connection, all the mission schools focused on two goals with their Indian students (mainly children six to sixteen years old): (1) teaching Indian boys to become farmers and artisans and Indian girls domesticity (sewing, weaving, and cooking); (2) converting Cherokees to Christianity. In their larger goal of conversion, the missionaries mostly failed. By 1830 the Moravians had produced roughly 45 converts, the Baptists 90; the American Board 219, the Presbyterians nearly 200, and the more permissive and egalitarian Methodists 850. (Unlike other denominations, the Methodist missionaries intermarried with the Cherokees, raised families with them, and became adopted members of the Cherokee Nation.) All told, though, fewer than 10 percent of Cherokees left their own native religion for Christianity.15
But in the world of education, the missionaries tapped into a far more willing spirit among the Cherokees. The American Board built Brainerd Mission in 1817, in present-day Chattanooga, and sent missionaries there to inculcate Cherokee children in the fundamentals of English, the precepts of Christianity, and the essentials of a “civilized” life.16 Many of the Cherokee leaders understood early on that their future in the new American nation required English and familiarity with the white man’s culture. According to one missionary, in 1818 Cherokee second principal chief Charles Hicks supported his people’s need for the training and education offered by the mission schools. “Mr. Hicks says many of the people are very anxious to receive instructions & their anxiety is increased from the conviction that their very existence as a people depends upon it.” Hicks approved as well the value of replacing hunting with agriculture, which, he said, “has convinced them [the Cherokees] that they can live much more comfortably by tilling their land & raising stock than they can in their old way.”17
Little of this cultural transformation, however, came easily. Much of what the missionaries tried to inculcate in Cherokee children flew in the face of their native upbringing and values. The mission regimen itself required more discipline than the Cherokee students’ own parents usually imposed. “We are not allowed to do bad things,” one Cherokee girl at Brainerd reported. “When we get angry, we have to stand in the middle of the floor before all the scholars and say the 29 verse of the 14 chap in Prov. When we tell lies, we say the 22 verse of the 12 chap of Prov.” How to spend the Sabbath led to puzzlement and punishment. One student noted, “I try to tell them how to spend the Sabbath day and tell them where they will go when they die if they are not good. When they first enter school if they are asked these questions, they often say they don’t know.” Another student remarked, “When we break the Sabbath, we say the 4 commandment I wish to be a good girl while I live in this world and when I die to go and be where God is.”18
Brainerd, like Springplace, was designed as a model farm, where after school the boys learned to raise cattle, use the plow, plant cotton, grind corn, chop wood, and become blacksmiths. Cherokee girls, like their white counterparts, focused on cooking and making clothes so they could stay by the hearth. The missionaries also brought radically new values to sex and family life: it was immoral to have sex beyond marriage; men should have only one wife; abortions were not allowed; women who labored in the fields while their men idly hunted in the forest were “uncivilized”; all the witchcraft, tribal rituals, and power of medicine men were simply heathen practices that needed to be replaced by Christianity and Western science.19
Such training and schooling turned on its head everything Cherokees had come to know in their own households and villages. Brought up in a matrilineal society—where lineage was traced through the mother, not the father—girls, like their mothers, worked the fields while boys hunted and grew up to be warriors. Most Cherokee girls, then, had they remained home with their mothers, would have learned the story of Selu, the first woman, who taught her people to plant crops, like all other women in the fields. In this radically different, patriarchal world of white missionaries, Cherokee children and their parents had to confront a disturbing reversal of gender roles. With men now expected to take over agricultural work from women, natives of both genders sometimes viewed this as a disgrace to masculinity. One Quaker missionary noted that among the Senecas, “if a man took hold of a hoe to use it the women would get down his gun by way of derision & would laugh to say such a Warrior is a timid woman.”20
This conflict of culture in Indian country revealed itself early on in the civilization program. When President John Adams in 1798 was pushing for a right of way through the Cherokee Nation and a new road-building program, the Cherokee Council fought the very idea of road construction. In fact, the council censured one of its own, James Vann, a prosperous mixed-blood, simply for building a wagon. Their concern? “If you have a wagon,” the council noted, “there must be wagon roads—& if wagon roads, the whites will be in amongst us.”21
Early on, much of the resistance to the civilization program came from the more traditional elements in the Cherokee Nation. These more conservative Cherokees saw the double-edged quality of the missionaries’ Christianity: while it offered hope to some, it also denigrated Cherokee traditions, created conflict with the more ambitious Cherokees eager to acculturate, and served to confuse the notion of Cherokee identity. And from the missionaries’ standpoint, there was no question but that they were biased against “uncultivated” traditionalists. Full-bloods were frequently seen by missionaries as “essentially slovenly, dirty, smelly people.”22 Thus when a new Cherokee student, a full-blood named John Arch, entered Brainerd in 1819, his missionary teachers could not help but point to his “wild and savage aspect [that] seemed to mark him as one unfit for admission to the school.” To make matters worse, “he had the dress and dirty appearance of the most uncultivated part of his tribe.” But he spoke English, and “his countenance indicated a mind, that might admit of improvement.”23 Arch’s tenacity for education turned him into a successful student; indeed, he soon became one of the mission’s most trusted interpreters.24
Disdain for traditional, “unenlightened” Cherokees grew more prominent by the 1820s as the missionaries made headway with their students and the acculturated mixed-bloods in Cherokee country. Elizabeth Taylor’s contemptuous perspective on the behavior of her traditionalist brethren must have brought smiles of approval from her missionary supervisors. “The unenlightened parts of this nation,” she noted, “assemble for dances around a fire.” Such “dances” and belief in conjurers “who will throw a black cat into the water, hang up a serpent &c” were juxtaposed against the far more civilized world under construction at Brainerd. “Many about this station are more civilized,” Elizabeth observed. “Some come to meeting and appear as well as white people. Others dress in the Indian manner with maucassins for shoes, and handkerchiefs round their heads for turbans. But I have learned that the white people were once as degraded as this people; and that encourages me to think that this nation will soon become enlightened.”25
In truth, the missionaries’ holy war against heathenism and “uncivilized” behavior extended beyond race. Savagery, they believed, while primarily an Indian trait, could sometimes also afflict whites. The missionary watchfulness against such a fall from grace was made apparent in a revealing encounter at Brainerd in the fall of 1818:
We had this evening a melancholy proof of mans proneness to degenerate into the savage state, & loose the knowledge of the truth as it is revealed in the scriptures. A mother advanced in life & a son apparently about 25, who would not from their appearance or their language, be suspected to have one drop of Indian blood in their veins, tarried with us for the night. The[y] said they were part Cherokee, though the son could not speak the language at all, & the mother but poorly. They were free to converse, & manifested almost a total ignorance of every thing relating to religion or a future state, & differed in nothing but colour & speech from the sons of the forest.26
Such moments, while showcasing the difficulties missionaries confronted, also seemed to galvanize their religious efforts in Indian country.
Dealing with reluctant parents of mission children constituted yet another challenge for the missionaries. Since a key part of their strategy was to break the powerful—and, to their minds, heathen—hold that Cherokee parents had over their children, it became especially worrisome to ministers when the children they were trying to transform fell back, even briefly, into the control of their excessively attached parents. For example, “Brother Hoyt” was pleased that “the Lord is sending so many of the children of this ignorant people to receive instruction from us,” but as he noted in October 1819, “we have to lament that the education of many of them is greatly retarded by their frequent & long visits at home … their attachment to their children is so strong, & their desire to have them with them so great, that most of the parents will devise means to get their children home too frequently, & then retain them too long.”27
To these evangelical missionaries, any absence from their enlightened Protestant message fell like a dark curtain of ignorance and heathenism around their benighted Indian children. After speaking through an interpreter about religion with a Cherokee who arrived at the mission to put his son under the school’s care, the missionaries could only lament the degrading ignorance of this Cherokee regarding matters of faith—like so many others they encountered. It was, they noted, “a frank statement of the darkness of their minds.… How deplorable must be the state of an immortal mind” who has “not one correct idea” about the next life “or what constitutes a happy preparation for it. Thousands of these are in the bosom of the United States, surrounded on every side by a white population, called Christian.” It simply was not true that they could not be civilized, he argued: “They are willing to be taught—they ask for instruction—& if we do not teach them, their blood may justly be required at our hands.”28
Sometimes it was the missionaries’ own blood that was at issue. The anti-mission sentiment that prevailed among some Cherokee traditionalists was occasionally tinged with violence. On a dark night in October 1824, an inebriated Cherokee armed with a gun charged the home of the Reverend Moody Hall, a missionary at the American Board’s mission at Carmel. “His purpose, he said, [was] to kill me,” Hall insisted. The intruder was disarmed, but months later another armed Cherokee was found prowling outside Hall’s house. Hall was now certain that Carmel’s heathen wanted him dead and the gospel gone. “Missionaries,” he later noted, “will not long be safe in this land unless the government of the United States interferes.” In October 1825, two Cherokees threatened Hall’s life again. He left Cherokee country and never returned.29
More often, Cherokees who disapproved of missionaries and their teachings expressed themselves with mockery, not violence. After Reverend Isaac Proctor repeatedly preached against the Cherokee traditional sport of ball playing as a sinful practice, many of the young men from the mission school “assembled in plain sight of the Mission house, stripped themselves entirely naked, and for some time played Ball.”30
Despite these cultural conflicts and occasional resistance among the traditionalists, most Cherokees actively participated in the civilization program. As early as 1796, Colonel Benjamin Hawkins, a federal Indian agent journeying to western Georgia, visited Cherokee towns and came away impressed with what he saw. Hawkins reported that the Cherokees he encountered had made huge advances in planting cotton and using spinning wheels. Hawkins, a kind of “secular missionary” to the Indians, observed orchards inside fenced fields, and profitable raising of all manner of livestock—cattle, chickens, hogs, and horses—along with successful crops of corn, peas, and potatoes.31 A few years later in Tellico, Tennessee, Presbyterian minister Gideon Blackburn built a boarding school that quickly drew students. In 1804 the school began taking in students, and by the following year Blackburn celebrated the graduation of his first class in a ceremony with “little Cherokees, dressed in white clothing, [who] demonstrated their ability to read from books and sing hymns in English.” Like other missionaries, Blackburn insisted on a regimen of rigorous study habits, good table manners, hygiene, and obedience to strict deadlines. By 1815 he claimed he had taught some five hundred Cherokees to read English, making the Cherokees he trained more advanced “than any other nation of Indians in America.”32
More visible was the mission school at Brainerd. Even though Brainerd’s church could produce only fourteen Cherokee members in 1821, over one hundred lived and worked at the mission school and showcased a successful effort at educational and cultural assimilation. Brainerd was a small village that included—besides the school—two teachers, a preacher, a doctor, a gristmill, sawmill, blacksmith shop, grain warehouse, barns, stables, and livestock. Both its students and teachers pointed to the encouraging progress of “civilized” labors that were essential to the mission’s daily regimen. One Cherokee girl boasted of how the girls had made “fifty hunting frocks, besides hemming a number of handkerchiefs & some other sewing,” along with doing their usual milking and washing and ironing—just like the domestic chores that white women performed.33 Others at Brainerd voiced the same sort of pride in Cherokee advancement. “I will tell you how the Cherokees live,” wrote Lucy McPherson. “They generally live in log houses and cabins; though some have framed ones. Some of our neighbors go to the seat of government and to the neighboring states and see how civilized people build houses and they begin to live a little as they do. They have gardens and cultivated fields. Some of them have oxen, sheep, horses, and a great many swine.” For Sally Reece, another Brainerd student, the civilization program was an unqualified success. “First I will tell you about the Cherokees. I think they improve. They have a printing press, and print a paper which is called the Cherokee Phoenix. They come to meeting on Sabbath days. They wear clothes which they made themselves.”34
The missionaries grew more certain that they were making inroads in civilizing the Cherokees. Brainerd school officials in 1818 took heart that Second Principal Chief Hicks expressed “universal satisfaction” in the work they were doing at the school. They also clearly detected support from their students, citing their “increasing confidence in our integrity.” And when President James Monroe visited the school in May 1819 and inspected the buildings and farmland, he displayed “approbation of the plan of instruction … He thought this the best & perhaps the only way to civilize & Christianize the Indians: and assured us he was well pleased with the conduct & improvement of the children.”35
Other white political leaders, of course, adopted a much more explicitly patronizing tone regarding expectations for Cherokee advancement. Around the time that Monroe was visiting Brainerd, his secretary of war, John C. Calhoun, was meeting with a Cherokee delegation to remind them that the government envisioned only two options for them: acculturation or removal. “You are now becoming like the white people,” he told them. “You can no longer live by hunting but must work for your subsistence.” If they continued to work toward private landholding and live like their “white neighbors,” they had a future in the new nation. “Without this,” he insisted, “you will find you have to emigrate, or become extinct as a people. You see that the Great Spirit has made our form of society stronger than yours, and you must submit to adopt ours.”36
Earlier, Jefferson himself joined in the admiration for the Cherokees’ successful adoption of the civilization program. He told a Cherokee delegation visiting Washington in 1806 that their self-improvement was “like grain sown in good ground, producing abundantly. You are becoming farmers, learning the use of the plough and the hoe, enclosing your grounds and employing that labor in their cultivation which you formerly employed in hunting and in war; and I see handsome specimens of cotton cloth raised, spun and wove by yourselves.… Go on, my children, in the same way and be assured the further you advance in it the happier and more respectable you will be.”37
As if in response to such admonitions, the Cherokee people over the next twenty years developed an increasingly visible bourgeois culture that looked for all the world just like the southern white planter class that surrounded them. By the mid-1820s the Cherokee economy had become self-sufficient, trading profitably in cotton, corn, livestock, and poultry with merchants in New Orleans, Charleston, and Augusta. They managed this economic growth in part on the backs of black slaves who worked cotton plantations just like their white brethren in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. While only a modest number of Cherokee planters could afford black slaves, the number of Cherokee-owned slaves nearly doubled from 583 in 1809 to 1,038 in 1825. The Cherokee population itself expanded notably in this period as well, growing by seven thousand. The 1827 census showed that all families had plows and spinning wheels; in the Cherokee Nation there were thirty-one gristmills, fourteen sawmills, six powder mills, eighteen ferries, and nineteen schools.38
By the mid-1820s a number of wealthy Cherokee planters and slaveholders had become prominent—men like James and Joseph Vann who lived in an elegant two-story mansion with thousands of acres and scores of slaves, along with large herds of cattle, sheep, and hogs. But two other figures, John Ross and Major Ridge, symbolized the powerful allure of both the civilization program and the desire among the Cherokee elite for acculturation.
John Ross, who would become principal chief, and his brother Lewis Ross owned lucrative mercantile establishments and credit services. The grandson of a Scots Tory agent among the Chickamaugas, John Ross was only one-eighth Cherokee and had been raised and educated by whites. To most whites, Ross appeared to be one of them; strangers he met in Washington were nearly always surprised to learn he was Cherokee. But he was determined to maintain his popular identity as the relentless supporter of the Cherokee people. He helped cement that identity by his marriage to his full-blood wife, Quatie, and by his decision to join the Methodists in October 1829.39 The American Board had hoped to get his conversion—especially given the organization’s strong stand with the Cherokees over the looming removal crisis—but instead the Rosses opted for the Methodists out of a different political calculation. The Methodists in 1829 appeared to be the dominant denomination in the Cherokee Nation and had a more egalitarian approach to “civilizing” Cherokees. It was this religious populism, the Methodists’ effective identification with the masses among the Cherokees (not any sort of theological affinity), that appealed to Ross’s instincts for galvanizing popular support behind his leadership.40
Major Ridge, a distinguished war hero and prominent public figure in the Cherokee Nation, lived, as did most other Cherokee elites, like the plantation gentry of the upland South: he owned several plantations worked by black slaves. In present-day Rome, Georgia, he lived on a 1,500-acre estate in an elegant, two-story home with four brick fireplaces, hardwood paneling, and verandas on the front and back. Nearby there was a smokehouse with stables and sheds and cribs, peach and apple orchards, and in the distance slave cabins where his thirty slaves lived. The entire estate, valued at over $22,000 (not counting his slaves), was shaded by huge oaks, sycamores, and a road leading down to a ferry.41
Except for Major Ridge, these rising Cherokee planters and merchants were highly acculturated Indians who were raised to read and write English, don the clothing and manners of white men, send their children to mission schools, adopt the trappings, if not always the spirit, of Christianity, and embrace individual property accumulation and competition. While not large in numbers—this bourgeois middle class probably never exceeded 10 percent of the Cherokee population—its members sat comfortably atop the political and economic power structure.
More traditional values could sometimes also contribute to the Cherokee embrace of “civilization.” This was nowhere more evident than in the remarkable efforts of the conservative, traditional Cherokee George Guess, otherwise known as Sequoyah. The son of a Cherokee mother and a white German father who had deserted the family, Sequoyah was left to grow up among the full-bloods in the Lower Town region. He neither spoke nor read English.42 A poor, middle-aged man with a shrunken leg who smoked a long-stemmed pipe, Sequoyah had long been fascinated with how whites could communicate by writing. So when he told the head men one day that he could “make a book” by writing down signs connected to individual sounds, they laughed at him. Soon, though, he successfully devised a written language, a syllabary, consisting of individual characters in Cherokee for each distinct sound (totaling eighty-five) that could be combined into written words. Sequoyah wrote down the signs and sounds on bark with pokeberry juice and showed them to his six-year-old daughter. She quickly learned the system. Sequoyah would often showcase this apparently magical world of written language by sending his daughter far down the road with a stranger while back at the house visitors would give Sequoyah a sentence known only to those inside the house with him. His daughter would return and view the marks Sequoyah had made on the paper—and immediately speak the secret sentence.43
Sequoyah desperately hoped this new written language would safeguard Cherokee traditions, religion, and history. Sacred myths and rituals were now written down by Cherokee conjurors and medicine men—which, in effect, helped preserve the Cherokee worldview. In 1822 Sequoyah left the Cherokee Nation in the East for the Arkansas Territory, where he spent many years teaching Cherokee children to read and write with his syllabary. He later returned briefly to the East with letters from those children, proving that Indians “could talk at a distance.” Preferring the life he found out West to the acculturated, white-dominated world in Cherokee country, Sequoyah moved to Arkansas.44
Not only did Sequoyah’s remarkable achievement testify directly to the “civilized” status of the Cherokee people—they were now the only native people with their own written language—his syllabary became a powerful tool in the missionaries’ hands: Congregationalist missionaries such as Samuel Worcester and Daniel Butrick used it effectively in translating the Bible and other Christian books. And the syllabary would prove critical for the establishment of the Cherokee Phoenix, a biweekly newspaper set up in October 1827, which printed laws, public documents, and articles promoting literature, civics, and religion among the Cherokees—both in Cherokee and English. The Cherokee Phoenix not only served to inform the Cherokee people but also clearly showcased to white readers everywhere the impressive achievements of the Cherokee Nation. Not the least of Cherokee accomplishments in their journey toward “civilization” also came in the same year: in 1827 the Nation ratified a constitution modeled on that of the United States.
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Two of the most promising young men in this increasingly acculturated Cherokee Nation were John Ridge and Buck Watie. Cousins—their fathers were brothers Major Ridge and Oo-watie (also known as David Watie)—John and Buck could not have better symbolized what the civilization program was all about. Oo-waite and his white wife, Susanna Reese, had left the town of Hiwassee, after the American Revolution destroyed much of the region, for Oothcalooga near Rome, Georgia. There, along with his brother Major Ridge, he cleared and fenced fields, built a log cabin, and planted orchards, just as the federal Indian agents had urged Cherokees to do. Life in the Oothcalooga Valley differed radically from what their families had experienced years before in Hiwassee. The communal, clan-based village life had now been replaced by isolated, self-sufficient patriarchal households. By taking on Watie as the surname for all nine of his children, Oo-watie clearly aligned his family with the repudiation of matrilineality and the old ways of the Cherokee people.45
Determined to take advantage of the benefits of the civilization program, Oo-watie in 1811 enrolled the six-year-old Buck in the Moravian school at Springplace Mission, east of present-day Chatsworth, Georgia—the same mission school his cousins John and Nancy Ridge, along with other Indian children, were attending. Except for a brief, unsuccessful experience with a private tutor hired by Major Ridge for him and his cousin John, Buck remained at Springplace until 1817. A Cherokee with a sensitive demeanor, Buck was from the beginning a remarkable, gifted student.
Meanwhile Buck’s cousin John, under the ambitious guidance of his father, Major Ridge, who could neither speak nor read English, moved from Springplace to Brainerd, where he quickly developed a reputation as the best student at the school. John was a slim, sensitive young man with a frail constitution and an inquiring spirit. By all accounts a brilliant student, he could sometimes seem arrogant. For example, in July 1817, after his class had been troubled with their spelling, Ridge’s teacher decided to give them a shorter lesson. The fifteen-year-old John Ridge, his teacher noted, then piped up, “in a hasty & petulant manner, that he would not have such short lessons, but would get his usual number of columns. This was spoken in such a way that it could not be passed over. Some remarks were made to shew [show] the ingratitude of schollars treating their teachers with disrespect; especially when teachers had labored & done so much for them as we had done.” After being reprimanded, John burst into tears and apologized.46
The incident prompted a quick visit to the school from an “agitated” Major Ridge. “‘I hear,’ said he, ‘that my children were so bad that you could not manage them, & had just to let them go wild. I came to see if it was true.’” The teachers told him the story was much exaggerated and they were “generally pleased with the conduct of his children. He clasped his hands, & raising his eyes to heaven in a kind of involuting adoration, expressed with strong emotions the gratitude of his heart. He appeared overjoyed at the happy disappointment, exclaiming ‘Never was I so glad!’” His final comments as he departed the school suggest that ambitious fathers like Major Ridge joined hands with missionaries in pressing young Cherokees toward a more “civilized” future: “I now leave you with these people [meaning the missionaries] they will take care of you, & you must obey them as you would me.”47
Later that year larger forces beyond Cherokee country beckoned John and Buck to far more challenging and revealing encounters with “civilized” white America. In 1817 the Reverend Elias Cornelius of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions invited Buck and several other young Cherokee scholars to continue their studies at the new American Board School at Cornwall, Connecticut. Oo-watie quickly said yes, and Buck, along with a young Cherokee named Redbird, left with Cornelius and American Board treasurer Jeremiah Evarts for New England.
The Reverend Cornelius had also wanted John Ridge to join the group headed for Cornwall and went to Major Ridge’s house to ask permission. But Ridge was away fighting Seminoles in Florida alongside General Andrew Jackson. And John, suffering from a scrofulous condition at the time, was not well enough to make the long trip to Connecticut. When Major Ridge returned from Florida and discovered that John had remained at home with his mother, he became upset at his son missing such an opportunity to go with Buck and the others. John’s health improved a few months later, so Major Ridge arranged with another visiting missionary, Daniel Butrick, who was headed back to New England, to take John with him to Cornwall.48
Both Oo-watie and Major Ridge sensed a new and important future was at hand for the Cherokee people. And they fully expected their sons to play powerful roles in that new world. Already as young teenagers, Buck Watie and John Ridge had proven themselves eager and able for the journey that would bring white and red together. And the first step was Cornwall.
Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Blake Smith