What happened at the Red Clay Councils?

a guest post by Rev. Chuck Swann, a member of the Faith Presbyterian Church community in Canton, GA

Red Clay Council Grounds

Indian removal was a nineteenth century policy of the government of the United States to relocate Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to lands west of the river. The Indian Removal Act, part of a United States government policy known as Indian removal, was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson (D) on May 26, 1830.

In the first four decades of the nineteenth century, the United States cajoled, bribed, arrested, and ultimately removed at bayonet point approximately seventy thousand American Indians out of their ancestral lands in the American South. Although President Andrew Jackson is often deemed the architect of this program, the removal of the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole (commonly referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes) began years before the 1830 Indian Removal Act and Jackson’s subsequent use of the US Army to relocate the Indians.

In 1802 the State of Georgia agreed to cede its westernmost lands to the federal government, and in return the government promised to extinguish the Indian title to lands within Georgia as soon as possible. In the following years the United States made only a few serious efforts to live up to that promise. After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson pressured the Cherokee and other Indian nations to exchange their eastern domains voluntarily for regions in the newly acquired western territory. Only a few tribes accepted the offer.

Finally, in the 1820s, land-hungry Georgians began to demand that the federal government extinguish the Indian title to lands within their state. President James Monroe determined that arranging the exchange of acreage in the East for areas in the West was the best means to accomplish this goal. While the federal government tried to create inducements to convince the Southeastern Indians to leave their homes, the discovery of gold in Georgia led to more aggressive demands for immediate Indian removal.

 

The historically significant Council Grounds at Red Clay, commonly referred to as the Red Clay Council Ground, was the site of the last seat of Cherokee government from 1832 through 1838. It was at Red Clay that Chief John Ross learned that the Cherokee were to be forced off their ancestral land and driven west in what would later be known as the Trail of Tears. From this site a delegation was sent to Washington in an attempt to dispel the false treaty, and from where fire from the last great council flame would be preserved for future generations who settled in the west.

 

By 1832, the State of Georgia had stripped the Cherokee of their political sovereignty and had prevented Cherokees from meeting together. They were prohibited from holding council meetings in Georgia for any reason other than to sign away their land. As a result, the Cherokee capital was moved from New Echota, Georgia, to Red Clay, Tennessee, just over the Georgia-Tennessee border.

 

The events that made Red Clay famous happened between 1832 and 1838. Red Clay served as the seat of Cherokee government from 1832 until the forced removal of the Cherokee in 1838 (see Indian Removal). It was the site of 11 general councils, national affairs attended by as many as 5,000 people. Those years were filled with frustrating efforts to insure the future of the Cherokee. One of the leaders of the Cherokee, Principal Chief John Ross, led their fight to keep Cherokees’ eastern lands, refusing the government’s efforts to move his people to Oklahoma. Controversial treaties, however, resulted in the surrendering of land and their forced removal. Here, at Red Clay, the Trail of Tears really began, for it was at the Red Clay Council Grounds that the Cherokee learned that they had lost their mountains, streams, and valleys forever.

 

Many of the Cherokee people who met at Red Clay had made remarkable advancements and lived much like the dominant culture. Many of the Cherokee had adopted the Christian religion, and their political and judicial systems were similar to that of the United States. Sequoyah (George Guess) had developed a syllabary that made it possible to read and write the Cherokee language. The Cherokee published the Phoenix, a bilingual paper from 1828 to 1834. In spite of the social and political advancement made by the Cherokee, Red Clay proved to be the Cherokee’s last refuge-their capital in exile-before being moved westward from their homeland in the southeastern United States.

 

A U.S. Department of War removal treaty was presented at two council meetings at Red Clay in 1832. After the council unanimously rejected the treaty, they adopted a resolution to send a delegation to Washington to attend to the business of the Cherokee nation. For five years at meetings at Red Clay, the council heard reports from various delegations, and agreement or disagreement with the actions of these delegations divided the Cherokees into factions.

Not only did the Cherokees send delegations to the president and to Congress, but they also took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1833, they hoped for support from the president or Congress because the Supreme Court had decided in favor of the Cherokee nation remaining in its ancestral land (Worcester v. Georgia).

In 1834, the treaty party led by John Ridge, Major Ridge, and Elias Boudinot began formal efforts for acceptance of a Cherokee treaty with the United States. Principal Chief John Ross led the Cherokee fight to keep their eastern lands and not to emigrate. By 1835, two rival delegations were in Washington to negotiate a treaty, and the factions held separate council meetings. Seemingly a compromise was made in October 1835, but while Chief Ross was in Washington, the Ridge faction signed the Treaty of New Echota.

During the last council meetings at Red Clay, after protests to this New Echota treaty and all views were heard, the council appointed another delegation. A regular council session was scheduled for 1838, but due to the collection and removal activities that meeting never happened. As many as seventeen thousand Cherokees were rounded up and kept in holding stations until the government was ready to move them to Indian Territory. The Cherokees endured great hardships in these camps, and they suffered during the trek westward. It is estimated that over four thousand died in the camps and on the trail. Today, Red Clay State Historic Park is a certified interpretive site on the Trail of Tears.

 

“We are despoiled of our private possessions, the indefeasible property of individuals. We are stripped of every attribute of freedom and eligibility for legal self-defense. Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family! We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own. And this is effected by the provisions of a compact which assumes the venerated, the sacred appellation of treaty. We are overwhelmed! Our hearts are sickened, our utterance is paralyzed, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed, by the audacious practices of unprincipled men, who have managed their stratagems with so much dexterity as to impose on the Government of the United States, in the face of our earnest, solemn, and reiterated protestations.” – Principal Chief John Ross, Cherokee Nation, Red Clay Council Ground, Sept. 28, 1836

 

The Council Grounds at Red Clay are located within the Red Clay State Historic Park in the extreme southwest corner of Bradley County in Tennessee, just above the Tennessee-Georgia state line. The site contains a natural landmark, the Blue Hole Spring, which arises from beneath a limestone ledge to form a deep pool. The spring was used by the Cherokee for their water supply during council meetings. Red Clay State Historic Park is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a certified site and interpretive center on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, and is honored by today’s Cherokees as sacred ground.

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