[Note: The first post in this series discussed the Yazoo land fraud and its consequences between 1795 and 1815 or so. This part carries the story through the late 1830s, when Georgia, strongly supported by President Andrew Jackson, finally realized the oft-delayed promise in the controversial “Compact of 1802,” which transferred the Yazoo lands to the federal government: the removal of the Creeks and the Cherokees from Georgia.]
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A more tragic legacy of the Yazoo fraud grew out of the state’s cession of its disputed western territory to Congress in the “Compact of 1802.” As cotton culture spread across Georgia, federal officials proved either unwilling or unable to extinguish quickly enough for land-hungry Georgians the claims of the Creeks and the Cherokees to lands within the state. Angered over this delay in fulfilling the terms of the “Compact,” throughout the 1820s and 1830s Georgia’s leaders regularly prodded Washington to complete the process of Indian removal. By the late 1830s, this process was complete, after one of the ugliest campaigns in the nation’s history.
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In 1814, in the Treaty of Ft. Jackson, the Creeks ceded 22 million acres of land in the southeastern United States, including a large swath, but not all, of their lands in Georgia. To help nudge the Creeks towards complete removal, Secretary of War William Harris Crawford, a long-time power in Georgia politics, convinced President James Madison to appoint Georgia Governor David Brydie Mitchell as federal agent to the Creeks, a position he held from 1817 to 1821. When he accepted this appointment, Mitchell clearly believed that his main task was to secure additional lands from the Creeks.
Despite pressure to cede tribal lands exerted on them both by Agent Mitchell and the government of Georgia, the Creeks dug in their heels. The Compact of 1802 was irrelevant, the Creek National Council argued in 1824, because its provision that the United States could acquire Indian land only “peacefully and on reasonable terms” meant that the Creeks were within their treaty rights to refuse to sell the lands. Therefore, the Creeks insisted, “we must positively decline the proposal of a removal beyond the Mississippi, or the sale of any more of our territory.”
And yet, in 1825, Georgia concluded a flagrantly corrupt treaty at Indian Springs with a small group of Creeks led by Chief William McIntosh, who–wait for it–was Governor George Troup’s cousin. This pact transferred all remaining Creek lands in Georgia to the state.
Although the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, when newly-inaugurated President John Quincy Adams learned of the corruption involved in securing it, he disavowed the agreement. Governor Troup angrily insisted that the treaty was valid and threatened that, if challenged by Adams, the state would meet force with force. This hasty threat of civil war blew over, but only after the Adams Administration negotiated new treaties, in 1826 (Washington, D.C.) and 1827 (Ft. Mitchell), that finally procured the last Creek lands in Georgia, this time without the rank odor of corruption that had accompanied the Indian Springs pact.
(William McIntosh’s role in signing the Treaty of Indian Springs cost him his life, because the Creek National Council earlier had voted that any tribal member who disposed of Creek territory without permission was guilty of treason, a capital crime. Governor Troup and the Georgia authorities claimed that McIntosh had been “assassinated”; tribal officials termed McIntosh’s death a legally-mandated “execution.”)
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In the aftermath of Troup’s—and Georgia’s—triumph over the Adams Administration, Georgians who shaped public opinion clearly indicated the next step: with the Creeks vanquished from Georgia, the turn of the Cherokees had come. Once again, the Compact of 1802 reared its head.
Moreover, the creation of a republican government by the Cherokee Nation in 1827 outraged Georgians, who saw it as an attempt to create a state within a state, and, thus, as an unacceptable attack on Georgia’s sovereignty, a violation of Georgia’s “state rights.” To Georgians, the federal government’s duty remained fulfillment of the Compact of 1802: Washington must secure Cherokee lands for Georgia, or the state would be forced to act unilaterally, as it had against the Creeks.
George Troup’s gubernatorial successors, John Forsyth, George Gilmer, and Wilson Lumpkin, had cut their teeth in Congress defending Troup’s approach to Indian affairs, so, once they entered the Governor’s office, none of them could afford to be less demanding than Troup. And, beginning in 1829, Georgia had a powerful, unswerving ally in Washington, President Andrew Jackson, who shared the state’s views on the need for Indian removal and encouraged Georgia to ignore efforts by the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the rights of the Cherokees in the cases of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). (Claiming, on state rights grounds, that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over the state’s dealings with the Cherokees, Georgia’s governors refused even to appoint a lawyer to represent the state before the Court.)
Like the Creeks before them, the Cherokees enacted a law (1829) making further cessions of tribal land without their National Council’s permission a capital offense. By June 1830, however, sure of President Jackson’s backing, Georgia had annexed Cherokee territory; extended state laws over the area; prohibited the Cherokee National Council from meeting within the boundaries of Georgia (except to cede lands); forbidden Cherokees from mining gold found on their lands; and required an oath of allegiance to Georgia from all whites living in the Cherokee Nation, in an effort to weaken the influence of Christian missionaries there.
By 1831, John Ridge, a member of the Cherokee delegation of lobbyists in Washington, had heard from supporters that there was no longer any hope the Cherokees could stave off removal. He also had seen editorials in northern newspapers that had once defended the tribe, now conceding that the time had come to give up their fight. President Jackson himself told Ridge that, while the Cherokees were certainly free to try to remain in the East, the national government would do nothing to aid them.
Consequently, John Ridge, his father Major Ridge, and his cousin Elias Boudinot, editor of the tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, concluded that removal to the West was inevitable. They would form the core of the so-called “Treaty Party” that shortly organized to negotiate a Cherokee removal treaty on the best possible terms.
The Cherokees’ Principal Chief, John Ross, and the National Council continued to reject the idea of leaving Georgia, but, in December 1835, the Treaty Party signed an agreement at New Echota exchanging Cherokee lands in Georgia for new territory west of the Mississippi River. Even though the Treaty Party represented only a small minority of the Cherokee people, both the Jackson Administration and the government of Georgia accepted the agreement as legitimate.
Principal Chief John Ross worked strenuously to abort the new treaty or to secure better terms, to no avail. The Compact of 1802, the federal government’s recognition of the success of James Jackson’s effort to overturn the Yazoo Land Fraud in 1796, had at last been fulfilled, at least to the satisfaction of white Georgians.
The end of the Indian removal campaign came in the winter of 1838-1839. Most eastern Cherokees moved West along the infamous “Trail of Tears,” during which an estimated 4000-5000 of them died. And, in a bloody epilogue to the drama, in June 1839 several groups of Cherokees, loyal to John Ross but purportedly acting without his knowledge, killed Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot for their part in arranging the Treaty of New Echota.
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Georgia politicians continued to use the “Yazoo” label to discredit their political opponents for decades following the 1814 congressional settlement. For instance, Troup party members employed “Yazoo” as a partisan club to bludgeon supporters of opposition leader John Clark, who had received some of the Yazoo lands. In 1821 and 1825, Troup newspapers published detailed accounts of the Yazoo Fraud to inform readers who had no personal memory of that infamous transaction of what had occurred, and why those long-ago events should lead them to vote for George Troup instead of John Clark for Governor. (Clark defeated Troup in 1821; in 1825, though, with the popular Treaty of Indian Springs in his pocket, Troup was elected.)
The use of “Yazoo” to discredit opponents did not end in 1825. There are references in Georgia newspapers to the Fraud and its perpetrators during political campaigns as late as 1835, forty years after the original sale! That virtually all of those actually involved on both sides of the Yazoo question had either retired or died by 1835 evidently made no difference.
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Moreover, by the late 1830s, the political landscape in Georgia had changed almost beyond recognition: Indian removal was all but complete; the low country had become a political backwater; what had been referred to, sometimes sneeringly, as the “upcountry” was now the center of economic and political influence in the state; and there was a new frontier, this one wrested by whites from Georgia’s original inhabitants.
Georgia’s infamous Yazoo Land Fraud proved an almost perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. The sale was conceived and executed by avaricious speculators and their enablers and fought by angry white Georgians and their allies, using George Troup’s concept of “state rights.” Once the lands were transferred to the national government in the “Compact of 1802,” Georgia’s–and eventually the nation’s–focus shifted to the removal of the Creeks and Cherokees from within the state’s borders. The eventual, but ignoble, success of this long campaign opened the way for the further expansion of slavery in Georgia and in Alabama and Mississippi, states created from the Yazoo lands. Finally, the expansion of slavery in the southeast, and the increasingly bitter, bloody effort to push it into lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and the war with Mexico, strengthened the importance of the region’s “peculiar institution” to the nation’s economy as well as to the idea of “state rights” that helped sustain it; this sparked the cry that “Cotton was King,” which underlay most of the incidents on the long “road to the Civil War” between 1848 and 1861.
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SOURCES (Parts 1 and 2):
Hobson, Charles F. The Great Yazoo Lands Sale: The Case of Fletcher v. Peck. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2016.
Lamplugh, George R. Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1986.
______________. Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2015.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: