[Note: We conclude the story of the Cherokee Phoenix begun in a previous post. Both the passage by Congress of the Indian Removal Act (1830) and President Jackson’s refusal to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Worcester v. Georgia (1832) increased pressure on the Cherokees to leave Georgia. Meanwhile, Georgia had extended its laws over the Cherokee territory; white “intruders” were moving into the area in search of land; and President Jackson’s withdrawal of federal troops left maintenance of law and order in the Cherokee territory to a state body, the Georgia Guard.]
The Georgia Guard harassed missionaries working in the Cherokee Nation who refused to take an oath of loyalty to Georgia as required by a recently passed law. Editor Elias Boudinot gave the Guard’s anti-missionary campaign, and the brutal treatment that accompanied it, prominent play in the columns of the Cherokee Phoenix. Naturally, this brought upon him the wrath of the Guard’s commander, Col. Charles Nelson, who threatened to shut down the paper and to chastise Boudinot physically.
More significant than Nelson’s bluster was President Jackson’s order that the Cherokee tribal annuity be paid to individual Cherokees, instead of in a lump sum to the tribal treasury. This move both crippled the Cherokees’ efforts to mount a legal defense of their claims and threatened the future of the Cherokee Phoenix. So, in December 1831, Elias Boudinot set off on another fund-raising tour and was absent from his editorial labors for more than six months. (His brother, Stand Watie, edited the paper in his absence.) Boudinot was joined on this trip by his cousin, John Ridge, who served on the tribal delegation that lobbied on behalf of the Cherokees in Washington.
In recent months, John Ridge had heard from numerous Cherokee supporters in the nation’s capital, including one Supreme Court Justice, that there was no longer any hope the Cherokees could stave off emigration; he also had seen editorials in northern newspapers that had formerly defended the tribe, conceding that the time had come to give up their fight. President Jackson himself had told Ridge that, while the Cherokees were certainly free to remain in the East, the national government could do nothing to aid them. As a result, John Ridge concluded that removal to the West was inevitable, and so the Cherokees must arrange for a treaty on the best possible terms.
The cousins surely discussed this between speaking engagements, and, by the time he returned to Georgia in June of 1832, Elias Boudinot had become a supporter of Indian removal. Boudinot wanted to defend the need for a removal treaty in the columns of the Cherokee Phoenix, but Principal Chief John Ross would have no defeatist talk in the Nation’s newspaper, so Boudinot resigned in August. He was replaced as editor by Ross’s brother-in-law, Elijah Hicks.
The new editor was loyal to Ross, and during his tenure the Phoenix demanded a united front against emigration, in the face of continuing white pressure. At the same time, however, Hicks publicly criticized John Ridge, Ridge’s father Major Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and the other leaders of the so-called “Treaty Party” as traitors to their people.
The Cherokee Phoenix also became more overtly political after Hicks’ arrival, reprinting a raft of anti-Jackson material from the papers of the opposition Whig Party. Only by defeating Jackson’s bid for re-election and choosing Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay could the Cherokees be saved, the new editor contended. Hicks also echoed the charges of hypocrisy aimed at Jackson by the southern state rights press, because the President opposed South Carolina’s effort to nullify the federal tariff law while he supported Georgia’s move to “nullify” the Supreme Court’s Worcester decision.
John Ross and the Cherokee National Council continued to reject all suggestions of removing to the West, even after Jackson was triumphantly re-elected in November 1832. Nevertheless, the handwriting was clearly on the wall, especially once the formation of the Treaty Party gave the Administration a group to work with who supported emigration. On November 23, 1833, Elijah Hicks published pieces on both sides of the question, but this did not mean he was ready to concede. Hicks claimed that last-minute intervention, either by Congress or, failing that, by God Himself, would sustain the Cherokees’ rights.
Georgia’s campaign of harassment against the Phoenix continued unabated. By early 1834, the paper’s white printer had been ordered by Georgia authorities to leave the Nation; mail service was frequently disrupted; Hicks was being sued for libel by a local white sheriff; and the paper was once more in perilous financial straits. On May 17, 1834, the print shop in the all but deserted Cherokee capital of New Echota published what would turn out to be the last issue of the Cherokee Phoenix.
A year later, when it appeared that the Treaty Party would sign a removal treaty, Principal Chief John Ross decided to revive the Cherokee Phoenix in order to continue his fight against emigration. The Georgia Guard heard rumors of Ross’s plan and, aided by Elias Boudinot’s brother Stand Watie, went to New Echota and raided the newspaper office, scattering type, removing the press, and burning the building. The final act of the Cherokee removal crisis would play out with no further commentary from a tribal newspaper.
In December 1835, the Treaty Party signed the Treaty of New Echota, exchanging Cherokee lands in Georgia for new lands west of the Mississippi River. Even though the Treaty Party represented a minority of the Cherokee people, both the Jackson Administration and the government of Georgia accepted the New Echota agreement as legitimate (what a surprise!). Despite further efforts by John Ross either to abort the treaty or to secure better terms, the end finally came in the winter of 1838-1839. Most remaining eastern Cherokees were moved to the West along the infamous “Trail of Tears,” in a process supervised by Chief Ross himself, during which an estimated 4000 to 5000 of them died. And, as a bloody epilogue to the removal drama, on June 22, 1839, several groups of Cherokees, loyal to John Ross but purportedly acting without his knowledge (Can you say “plausible deniability”? Sure you can!), killed (or “executed,” or “assassinated,” take your pick) Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot for their part in arranging the Treaty of New Echota.
So, what conclusions should we draw about the role of Elias Boudinot and the Cherokee Phoenix in the crisis over Indian removal? In significant ways, the Cherokee Phoenix resembled the newspapers published by and for white Georgians. Those journals, at least since the 1790s, had been vigorously—and sometimes viciously—partisan. By the early nineteenth century, Georgia newspaper editors were no longer simply “ink-stained wretches” skilled at setting type. Increasingly, they were educated, articulate professionals, frequently attorneys, who were adept at interpreting current events through the prism of the views held by a particular political party. Letters, essays, and editorials were printed only if they supported the principles of the political party that controlled the paper.
The same was true of the Cherokee Phoenix. It was launched in 1828 to spread the views of the Cherokee National Council, usually as the tribe’s Principal Chief, John Ross, articulated those views. Ross was only 1/8 Cherokee, fluent in English but not in the Cherokee tongue, yet he served for forty years in his post as the chief defender of the tribe and its traditions. From its inception, the Phoenix opposed the idea of removing to the West. When the paper’s founding editor, Elias Boudinot, decided in the summer of 1832 that emigration was the only way to preserve the Cherokees and their traditions, he had no choice but to resign his post.
At its peak, the Phoenix had a circulation of perhaps two hundred copies a week. Many of those were mailed out of state, either to individual subscribers or to editors who sent copies of their papers in exchange. Boudinot regularly translated New Testament passages and Christian hymns into Cherokee and published them in the Phoenix, along with other items of a religious nature. Apparently he did so in an effort to further the work of Christian missionaries living among the Cherokees. Boudinot was a very devout Christian (only health problems derailed his plan to study for the Christian ministry and become a missionary to the Cherokees), but his approach was misleading, to say the least.
Between 1826 and 1835, the percentage of Cherokees who had converted to Christianity rose from less than 5% to about 9%. (Perdue, ed., Cherokee Editor, p.80, note 9) Likewise, perhaps recognizing the antislavery sensibilities of his northern and mid-western readers, Boudinot recorded, but did not comment on, the number of Negro slaves in the Cherokee Nation (1,217, in a reported Cherokee population of 13,563 in the East in 1825). And, while the regular appearance of columns in Cherokee reinforced the notion of Cherokee “progress,” in 1835 the tribal census revealed that almost 40% of the households in the Cherokee Nation included no literate members. (ibid., p.28)
In other words, it is possible to see Boudinot, for much of his editorial career, as little more than a Cherokee propagandist, trying to put the best face possible on the tribe’s “progress” in order to win white support for their efforts to hold on to their lands in Georgia. This vision of the new, improved Cherokee Nation proved so alluring to Elias Boudinot that he was unable to accept the much less glamorous reality. As one biographer wrote, while “Boudinot hoped to save a Nation,”
his “Nation” of literate industrious farmers, nuclear family homesteads, English schools, Christian churches, and a republican government that would reach all levels of society had little basis in reality. It was a vision, a fantasy, a dream few of his people shared. Elias Boudinot was a tragic figure not just because he made a serious error in judgment or because he paid the ultimate price but because he could not accept his people, his heritage, or himself. (ibid., p. 33)
And yet, there is another way to see him—like his cousin John Ridge, Elias Boudinot became convinced that, in the face of Georgia’s intransigence and the unwillingness of President Andrew Jackson to lift a finger to help the Cherokees, the only realistic chance to preserve the tribe and its traditions lay in moving beyond the Mississippi. Boudinot and the other leaders of the Treaty Party signed the Treaty of New Echota knowing full well that, in doing so, they might also be signing their own death warrants.
Whichever view of Boudinot one accepts, what can be said with certainty about him and the Cherokee Phoenix is that, over the four years of his editorship, the newspaper spoke its version of truth to the power brought against the Cherokees by Georgia and, increasingly, by the federal government as well. It was a valiant effort, in a noble cause, and deserved a better fate.
Davis, Kenneth Penn. “Chaos in Indian Country: The Cherokee Nation, 1828-1835,” in Duane H. King, ed., The Cherokee Indian Nation: A Troubled History (Knoxville, Tenn., 1979), pp.129-147.
Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (New York, 1988).
Garrison, Tim Alan. The Legal Ideology of Removal: The Southern Judiciary and the Sovereignty of Native American Nations (Athens, Ga., and London, 2002).
Herschberger, Mary. “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle Against Indian Removal in the the 1830s,” Journal of American History 86 (June, 1999), 15-40.
Hicks, Brian. Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears (New York, 2011).
Lamplugh, George R. Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (Newark, Del., 1986).
______________. In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (Bloomington, Indiana, 2015).
______________. Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (Lanham, Md., and other cities, 2015)
Langguth, A. J. Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War (New York, 2010).
Perdue, Theda, ed. Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot (Athens, Ga., and London, 1996).
Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears (New York, 2007).
Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd Edition (Boston and New York, 2005).
Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars (New York, 2001).
Smith, Daniel Blake. American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears (New York, 2011).
Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People (Norman, Okla., 1983).
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)