Cherokee Phoenix


Published September, 23, 1829

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From the National Intelligencer


In my first number I prepared the way to inquire what right have the Cherokees to the lands which they occupy? This is a plain question, and easily answered.

The Cherokees are human beings, endowed by their Creator with the same natural rights as other men.- They are in peaceable possession of a territory which they have always regarded as their own. This territory was in possession of their ancestors, through an unknown series of generations, and has come down to them with a title absolutely unincumbered in every respect. It is not pretended, that the Cherokees have ever alienated their country, or that the whites have not been in possession of it. If the Cherokees are interrogated as to their title, they can truly say, 'God gave this country to our ancestors. We have never been in bondage to any man. Though we have sold much land to our white neighbors, we have never bought any from them. We own the land which we now occupy, by the right of the original possessors; a right which is allowed in all countries to be of incontestible validity. We claim therefore, that no human power can properly compel us to leave our lands.'

If the Cherokees are correct in their statement of facts, who can resist their conclusion? We might as well ask the Chinese, what right they have to the territory which they occupy.- To such a question they would answer. 'God gave this land to our ancestors. Our nation has always been in possession of it, so far as history and tradition go back. The nations of Europe are comparatively of recent origin the commencement of ours is lost in remote antiquity.'

What can be said to such a statement as this? Who can argue so plain a case?

It has been said, indeed, that the savage of the wilderness can acquire no title to the forests through which he pursues his game. Without admitting this doctrine, it is sufficient to reply here, that it has no application to the claims of the Cherokees. They are at present neither savages nor hunters. It does not appear that they ever were mere wanderers, without a stationary residence. At the earliest period at which the whites became acquainted with their condition, they had fixed habitations, and were in undisputed possession of a widely extended country. They were then in the habit of cultivating some land near their houses, where they planted Indian corn, and other vegetables. From about the commencement of the present century, they have applied themselves more and more to agriculture, till they now derive their support from the soil, as truly and entirely as do the inhabitants of Pennsylvania or Virginia. For many years they have had their herds, and their large cultivated fields. They now have in addition, their schools, a regular civil government, and places of regular Christian worship. They earn their bread by the labor of their own hands applied to the tillage of their own farms and they cloth themselves with fabrics made at their own looms from cotton grown in their own fields.

The Cherokee did not show themselves unwilling to sell their lands as long as an adequate motive was presented to their minds. During every administration of our national Government, applications were made to them for the purpose of obtaining additional portions of their territory.--The same applications were urged, not only, nor principally, by the consideration of the money or presents which they were to receive in exchange, but often and strongly by the consideration that they would become an agricultural people, like the whites.- that it was for their interest to have their limits circumscribes so that their young men could not have a great extent of country to hunt in; and that when they became attached in the soil, and engaged in its cultivation, the United States would not ask them to sell any more land. Yielding to these arguments and to the importunities of the whites, the Cherokees sold at different times between the close of the Revolutionary War and the year 1820 more than three-quarters of their original inheritance. That the reader may have some definite idea of the territory in question, he should pursue the following delineation by the aid of a good map:

It would seem that the Cherokees possessed land within the following limits, if not beyond them viz: From the mouth of Duck River, in Tennessee, on the West to the waters of French Broad in North Carolina on the East; and from the head waters of the Holston, in Virginia, on the North, to some distance down the Occonee, in Georgia, on the South; comprising what is now more than half of the State of Tennessee, the Southern part of Kentucky, the Southwest corner of Virginia, a considerable portion of both the Carolinas, a large portion of Georgia, and the Northern part of Alabama. This tract probably contained more than 35,000,000 acres of which a large proportion is extremely fertile, and some of it not inferior to any land in North America, or perhaps in the world. The country is also generally healthy, and the climate delightful. Of all this vast and beautiful tract, watered by numerous rivers, which find their way to the ocean some of them circuitously by the Mississippi, and others more directly to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, the Cherokees now retain less than 8,000,000 acres of a quality far below the average quality of what they have sold Georgia claims 5,000,000 acres of this remnant, as falling within the map of that State. Alabama claims nearly 1,000,000 of the residue. The portion which, in the general division, will fall to Tennessee and North Carolina, seem hardly worth inquiring about; for, if the other portions are given up or taken by force, there will no motive for retaining these.

To every application made for their lands within the last ten years, the Cherokees have said, 'We are not disposed to sell any more. We have betaken ourselves to an agricultural life. We are making progress in civilization. We are attached to our schools and our Christian teachers, to our farms, to our native rivers and mountains. We have not too much land for our own comfort and for affording us a fair chance in the experiment we are making.' This language has been repeated in many forms and with every indication of sincerity and earnestness.

The assertion of the Cherokees that their present country is not too large for a fair experiment in the work of civilization, is undoubtedly correct. The wisest men, who have thought and written on this subject agree in the opinion, that no tribe of Indians can rise in real civilization and to the full enjoyment of Christian society, unless they have a community of their own; and can be so much separated from the whites, as to form and cherish something of a National character. If the limits of the Cherokee country were much smaller than they are, this would be impracticable.

Thus stands the case; and it is now my intention to inquire how the Government of the United States has regarded the Indian title, and how it has been regarded by the several States in the vicinity of the Cherokees.

Before this inquiry is commenced, however, it is proper to say that the title of one party cannot be safely decided by the mere claims of another party. If those claims are founded in justice, they ought to prevail: if not, they should be set aside. Now what ever doctrines the Government of the United States may have held and promulgated on this subject, they cannot be binding upon the Indians unless acknowledged by them to be binding or unless founded in the immutable principles of justice.

Let us suppose the Kings of Great Britain had issued annual proclamations from the time of the discovery of America between 30 and 50 degrees north latitude, and declaring that all the nations, tribes, and communities then residing on said lands were subject to the laws of Great Britain, and that the title to all these lands was vested in and of right belonged to the crown of that realm and let us further suppose, that the Government of the United States had issued an annual proclamation from the date of the Declaration of Independence to the present day, applying the same doctrine to our advantage, and declaring that all the Indian nations within the limits proscribed by the peace of 1783, were subject to the laws of the United States, and that the lands, of which they were in possession belonged of right to the United States. So long as the Indians did not acknowledge the binding nature of these claims, the mere claims would have amounted to nothing. It was the practice of the King of England, during several centuries to declare himself, ( as often as he issued a proclamation on any sub (sic)- whatever.) King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland. Was he therefore King of France? What if he were now to declare himself King of Great Britain and China? It would be a cheap way, indeed of acquiring a title, if merely setting up a claim would answer the purpose.

By what right do the People of the United States hold the lands which they occupy? The People of Ohio, for instance or of Connecticut? By the right of occupancy only, commenced by purchase from the aboriginal possessors. It would be folly to plead the charters of Kings, or the mere drawing of lines of latitude and longitude. The Powers of Europe have indeed acknowledged our right to our country. But what if they had not? Our right is not at all affected by their claims, or acknowledgements. The same doctrine is applicable to the condition of the Cherokees. They have a perfect right to their country,- the right of peaceable, continued, immemorial occupancy;- and although their country may be claimed by others, it may lawfully be held by the possessors against all the world.

The Cherokee need not fear, however, that their rights are in danger, as a consequence of any principles sanctioned by the National Legislature of the United States. The coordinate branches of our Government have not yet declared, that Indians are tenants at will. On the other hand, the whole history of our negotiations with them, from the peace of 1783 to the last treaty to which they are a party, and of all our legislation concerning them, shows, that they are regarded as a separate community from ours, having a national existence, and possessing a territory, which they are to hold in full possession till they voluntarily surrender it.

I now proceed to the examination of treaties between the United States and the Cherokee Nation. And here I would apprize the reader, that the case can never be fairly and fully understood, without a reference to every material article in every treaty which has been made between these parties. Unless such a reference is had, no reader can be sure that he has a view of the whole ground; and a caviller might object, that there had been omissions, in order to conceal a part of the case. This is a subject, too, which the People of the United States must have patience to investigate. When measures are in progress, which have a bearing on the permanent rights and interests of all the Indians, it must not be thought tedious to read an abstract of the solemn engagements by which we have become bound to one of these aboriginal nations.

In the revolutionary contest, the Cherokees took part with the King of Great Britain, under whose protection they then considered themselves, just as they now consider themselves under the protection of the United States. After the peace of 1783, it does not appear that any definite arrangement was made with this tribe until the year 1785. In the course of that year, the old Congress appointed four Commissioners Plenipotentiary, men of distinction at the south, to meet the head men and warriors of the Cherokees, and negotiate a treaty of peace.

The parties met at Hopewell, now in York District, S.C.; and, on the 29th November, executed an instrument, which is usually cited as the Treaty of Hopewell. The abstract of this instrument, with some remarks upon it, will be given in my next number.