The Cherokee, New Echota, and the Treaty of New Echota
In 1825, New Echota was established as the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Originally called New Town (or Newton), the name was changed in honor of Echota (also Chota), an ancient capital on the Little Tennessee River. The town was a community planned and surveyed by the Cherokee, themselves. It is near present day Calhoun, Georgia.
It was part of an attempt to create a capital and government by and for the Cherokee people. The Nation had established a constitutional and basically democratic government (both the government and the constitution were modeled after that of the United States). They also had elected officials (a Principal Chief, Assistant Principal Chief, Treasurer), and a Senate and House of Representatives. The town had stores, a ferry, a printing shop (where the Cherokee Phoenix, the Nation's newspaper was printed), a Council House, a Supreme Court, and numerous private residences.
Along with the constitution, government, newspaper, and capital, the Cherokee Nation had also established its own schools and courts, sawmills, farms, and plantations making them in the eyes of the "whites" one of the Five Civilized Tribes (the others being the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Seminole) for having adapted to and adopted the European way of life more and faster than any other Native American tribe.
In 1828, gold was found in Georgia (including on Indian land), increasing the desire by settlers, miners, and the state to effect the removal of the Cherokee. The state outlawed the Cherokee government, confiscated some of their land, took away their legal rights, and required any white men living among the Indians or on their territory (including missionaries, who were probably the main target of the legislature) to swear an oath of allegiance to the state of Georgia. It was even made illegal for the Cherokee to mine gold on their own land. Then the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830 which authorized the United States Government to give tribes unsettled land (west of the Mississippi River) in exchange for their territory. This further stepped up pressure to persuade or force the Cherokee to move.
By 1832, Georgia was already surveying and parceling off land (some occupied by Cherokee families) by lottery. Even Principal Chief John Ross returned to his home in 1833 to find it occupied (his family had been allowed to temporarily live in two rooms of the house). He left and moved across the river to Tennessee. Also in 1832, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Georgia legislation was unconstitutional and that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign. This ruling, unfortunately, was ignored in favor of President Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy. In response to the ruling, Jackson reportedly said "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it if he can." (This may be apocryphal but seems to display Jackson's general attitude.)
Some members (including some of the best educated) of the Nation decided that the end was inevitable and that the choice was between peaceably resettling, being forced out, or destruction. The Creek, who had earlier signed a treaty allowing white settlement on some of their land while letting them remain, ended up being cheated, swindled, and harassed out of their land and possessions. They retaliated and the military was brought in to forcibly remove them. This is one of the outcomes the leaders of the removal group hoped to avoid. Not all tribal members agreed, including John Ross. This rift between those who felt removal was best and those against it caused great dissension within the tribe and there were some incidents of violence, including beatings and some deaths (generally the victim was a member of the pro-removal faction).
This minority group, in 1835, signed the Treaty of New Echota which ceded their land for around five million dollars and land in what is now Oklahoma. The numbers vary but the pro-removal faction was only around 500 people. John Ross submitted a petition with an estimated 16,000 signatures opposing the treaty to no avail. The numbers were inflated since there weren't 16,000 Cherokee there at the time and about half were children. Regardless, the group who signed the treaty had not the popular support nor the authorization to do so. In Congress, the treaty ran into opposition but eventually passed in the Senate (by one vote).
By signing the treaty, the pro-removal group had also signed their death warrants as it was in their constitution that the death penalty be given for those giving up tribal land with no authorization:
...if any citizen or citizens of this nation should treat and dispose of any lands belonging to this nation without special permission from the national authorities, he or they shall suffer death...any person or persons who shall, contrary to the will and consent of the legislative council of this nation...enter into a treaty with any commissioner or commissioners of the United States, or any officers instructed for that purpose, and agree to sell or dispose of any part or portion of the national lands...he or they so offending, upon conviction by [the Cherokee Supreme Court] shall suffer death
Further, anyone persons who refused to appear at trial to answer for the charges or ran would be "hereby declared to be outlaws; and any person or persons, citizens of this nation, may kill him or them so offending in any manner most convenient...and shall not be held accountable for the same." But this was not the concern of those who signed. They truly believed they were doing the right thing in order to save the Nation from far worse than relocation. Elias Boudinot, one of the pro-removal leaders and founding editor of the Cherokee Phoenix
, said in a speech
I know I take my life in my hand, as our fathers have also done. We will make and sign this treaty.... We can die, but the great Cherokee Nation will be saved. They will not be annihilated; they can live. Oh, what is a man worth who will not dare to die for his people? Who is there here that would not perish, if this great nation may be saved?
A few years later, Boudinot and several others of the group were indeed killed.
While the Nation resisted, there was little hope. In 1838, General Winfield Scott and 7000 soldiers entered Cherokee territory and set up the process to gather and remove the Cherokee to the land set aside for them in the treaty. This forced removal, harsh treatment, and terrible conditions of the people on the relocation became known as the "Trail of Tears" or in Cherokee "Nunna daul Tsuny" ("The Trail Where They Cried").
John Ehle's 1988 book Trail of Tears: the Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation was an invaluable source and the quotes are taken from it. Various websites on the history of the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears were also used.