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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
- Cherokee Memorials
- Louise Amelia Smith Clappe
- James Fenimore Cooper
- Corridos
- Caroline Stansbury Kirkland
- Nat Love
- John Rollin Ridge
- Catharine Maria Sedgwick
- Walt Whitman
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Cherokee Memorials

[6823] F. W. Greenough, Se-Quo-Yah [Sequoiah] (c. 1836), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-4815].

Cherokee Memorials Activities
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At the end of the eighteenth century, the Cherokee tribe was living in the mountain areas of northern Georgia and western North Carolina, on land guaranteed to them by the United States in the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell and the 1791 Holston Treaty. The Cherokee Nation had its own government, governing council, and by 1827 its own constitution, making it an independent sovereign nation. Increasingly, however, white settlers refused to respect Cherokee sovereignty and began encroaching on Cherokee land--especially when gold was discovered there in 1829. These illegal incursions by white settlers and prospectors were the basis for a series of ongoing disputes among the Cherokee Nation, the state of Georgia, and the federal government of the United States. In 1830 the United States Congress, with the support of President Andrew Jackson, attempted to legislate a permanent solution to the dispute by passing the Indian Removal Act by a narrow margin. The act stipulated that the government could forcibly relocate Native Americans living within their traditional lands in eastern states to areas west of the Mississippi designated as "Indian Territory." With this stroke, the federal government officially sanctioned the prevalent racist view that Native Americans had no valid claims to their homelands and should be moved westward to make way for white settlers and white culture.

During the debates over the Indian Removal Act, many Cherokee writers penned impassioned letters, pamphlets, and editorials to defend their tribe's right to its sovereignty and its land. Drawing on a long tradition of eloquence and a high rate of literacy and fluency in English among tribe members, the Cherokee produced articulate and compelling defenses of their position. In some cases they appealed to Congress and the courts directly with their letters and memorials--the nineteenth-century equivalent of petitions. The Cherokee Council, which was the official leadership body of the tribe, composed its own memorial to send to Congress, while also submitting twelve other memorials written by Cherokee citizens who, as the council put it, "wish to speak of their wishes and determination... themselves."

John Ridge (the father of John Rollin Ridge), who held the position of council clerk, probably authored the Council's official memorial with the help of the other council members. The document uses formal, polished, legalistic language to articulate its claim that the forced removal of the Cherokee would be unnecessary, contrary to established agreements, and immoral. In its efforts to appeal to its white audience, the memorial stresses the Cherokees' commitment to "civilization" and their wish to "pursue agriculture and to educate their sons and daughters in the sciences," thus implying that the Cherokees' willingness to assimilate with white culture should strengthen their claim of sovereignty. At the same time, the memorial also insists on the Cherokees' separateness from the United States and on their historical claim to their land--a claim that long predates the arrival of Europeans in America. Perhaps most powerfully, the memorial skillfully employs American republican ideals of independence, natural rights, and self-government to point out the hypocrisy of nineteenth-century American policy and to support the Cherokees' claims. The citizens' memorials use many of the same rhetorical strategies, but are generally characterized by less formal language than the document composed by the council. The Cherokee memorials provided a model of rhetoric for subsequent Native American protest literature, such as William Apess's "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man" (featured in Unit 4).

Tragically, for all their eloquence, the memorials were not effective. The state of Georgia, backed up by the federal government, continued to exert pressure upon the tribe to remove. Eventually, Ridge and some other leaders came to believe that resistance was futile and signed the Treaty of New Echota, agreeing to cede Cherokee lands to the state of Georgia. Most of the tribe, however, did not agree with the treaty and did not want to vacate their lands. In 1838, the United States government enforced the treaty by sending in federal troops and private contractors to compel the Cherokee to move west to what is now Oklahoma. One-third of the tribe died on the forced westward march, along what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

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