"How would you feel," asked Chickamauga Battlefield education coordinator Chris Young during a recent presentation about the Cherokee Land Lottery of Georgia, "if you came home one day to find your family gone and your house taken over by strangers?"

That's what happened to Cherokee Chief John Ross. "He was in Washington, D.C., trying to work out a deal with the U.S. government to protect his people," Young explained, "and while he was gone, the state of Georgia sold his property in a lottery and kicked his family out."

When Ross returned, the new owners of his house agreed to rent him a room until he could find his family and another place to stay. The situation the Cherokee found themselves in could not have been brought home to Ross in a more chilling way.

Young is passionate about keeping the Cherokee history of the area alive.

The 1830s Cherokee of Georgia

To understand Young's passion and the deep interest of the folks who filled benches and sat on the floor at the visitor center to hear him talk about it, a little backstory about the Cherokee way of life just before they lost everything is helpful.

The Cherokee Nation extended into Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, but most of it existed in Georgia.

The Georgia part of the Nation consisted of 6,000 square miles of land in the mid-1830s. According to the Cherokee census of 1835, 8,936 Cherokee, 776 African-American slaves and 68 intermarried whites lived on that land.

The Cherokee owned 80,000 head of livestock. They cultivated 63,000 non-native fruit trees, including peach, apple, pear, quince and plum.

Cherokee Indians owned nearly 6,000 buildings, everything from homes to smoke houses, potato houses, corn cribs, barns and grist mills. They farmed 20,000 acres of land that produced, among other things, 269,000 bushels of corn in 1835.

When the federal government made an arrangement with the Cherokee to run roads through their land, the Cherokee opened businesses along the routes to serve travelers.

Cherokee family and community ties were strong and full of tradition and fun.

The Cherokee did not make up a perfect nation, as the census indicates – the wealthier among them often owned slaves. Historical documents and journals reveal that, like all peoples, they sometimes fought and exploited one another and there was hate and murder in their midst.

But they were also a people trying hard to adjust to rapid encroachment on their way of life and their right to exist as a nation, making compromises, giving up land and autonomy, changing some of the most basic aspects of their lives to blend in with the people working to take away their land.

Cherokee land and the state of Georgia

In the early 1800s, a large portion of North Georgia – over 25 counties, including Catoosa and Walker – made up the major part of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee capital, New Echota, was located near what is now Rome in Floyd County.

Georgia claimed that the Cherokee land rightfully belonged to the state, based on an 1802 deal with the U.S. government to give it some of the state's western territory in exchange for part cash and part Cherokee land in the northern part of Georgia.

"No one consulted the Cherokee about the deal," says Young.

But gaining ownership of the Cherokee land promised by the federal government took many years.

In the meantime, Georgia imposed laws to try to weaken the Cherokee Nation. Cherokee government was forbidden to meet for legislative purposes, and it became a crime for white citizens to live within Cherokee territory without permission from the state.

When a number of whites, including missionary Samuel Worcester, were arrested for living in the Cherokee Nation and sentenced to four years of hard labor, Worcester took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court ruled that because the Cherokees were a sovereign nation, the state of Georgia had overstepped its authority. This affirmation of Cherokee sovereignty seemed hopeful at first, but the court's ruling was rendered useless when President Andrew Jackson refused to uphold it.

Chief John Ross

John Ross was born to a part-Cherokee mother and a Scottish father. He was educated in both cultures. He married a Cherokee woman and rose up through the ranks of Cherokee government, eventually becoming Principal Chief of the nation. Ross was also a successful businessman. He owned a tobacco farm and established a trading post and ferry service – Ross's Landing – which he sold in 1826 in order to focus more on his work as a Cherokee leader.

"The Cherokee went to great lengths to assimilate and adjust to the white man's culture," says Young. "They adopted a form of government based on the U.S. Constitution. They had a bi-cameral legislature, a judicial system. They had their own newspaper. Their literacy rate was estimated to be as high as 90% -- greater than among whites."

One thing the Cherokee wouldn't do is give up their sovereignty and the land that represented it. John Ross became the main spokesman for his nation, thanks to the rigorous education his father had insisted upon and to his bilingual skills. He fought for Cherokee sovereignty, and when that wasn't possible, he fought to help preserve the nation as much as possible.

But not all Cherokee leaders supported Ross's views. John Ridge, Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot, also leaders within the Cherokee Nation, had their own plans regarding the future of their people.

The Lottery

The state of Georgia, emboldened by President Andrew Jackson's disdain for the Supreme Court's sovereignty ruling, moved in on the Cherokee.

In 1832, the Cherokees' land was surveyed and split into 160-acre lots, says Young. "Draws" were sold at $18 each for a chance to win a lot. Over 85,000 people bought chances for 18,000 lots. Some people qualified for two draws – veterans of earlier wars, widows and orphans of veterans, families of three or more illegitimate children. Some were excluded from participating – people who had been convicted of a felony in the state, previous winners in land lotteries, people who had been living in Cherokee territory.

As winners were announced, Cherokee families were forced from their homes. "Forts had been built throughout Cherokee territory," says Young, "and that's where most of the Cherokee were sent until arrangements could be made for removal from the state."

Fort Cumming, which was situated in LaFayette, was temporary quarters to around 500 Cherokee who had been rounded up and removed from their land. "The Indians didn't live in the forts," says Young. "They camped around the outside of them. Inside was for the militia."

"If you look at a map of the land divisions for the lottery," Young says, "you see that the Battlefield is part of it. It starts in the northwest corner with Lot 118 and encompasses around 35 lots. At one time, this land was part of the Cherokee Nation."

The Trail of Tears

On December 29, 1835, the minority group of Cherokees headed by John and Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot signed the Treaty of New Echota, ceding the land that had just been stolen from the Cherokee by way of the lottery to the state of Georgia in exchange for various types of compensation, including some money, and agreeing to the removal of all Cherokee from the state by 1838. The treaty was ratified by one vote in the U.S. Senate.

Chief John Ross, as well as most of the Cherokee, opposed the treaty. Rev. Daniel Butrick, a missionary to the Cherokees, wrote in his journal that all the Cherokees at Fort Cumming "resolved to have nothing to do with the treaty money."

"In the summer of 1838," says Young, "the Fort Cumming prisoners were marched by Georgia militia up Lafayette Road, which was called Crawfish Road at the time. They were taken to Ross's Landing to await the next leg of their journey to the new "Indian Territory" established by the federal government in what is Oklahoma today. Their journey took them straight through the presentday Chickamauga Battlefield."

"The first three groups of Cherokee to travel from Ross's Landing during the military removal to the reservations in the west did not fare well," Young says. "John Ross was able to arrange with the government to allow the Cherokee to take charge of their own removal."

Young says Ross bought a steamboat to ease the move of his family, but he lost his wife, Quatie, to pneumonia in Arkansas.

Thousands of Cherokee Indians died along the trails and waterways as they moved away from their homeland.

Lafayette Road recognized

On October 6, 2016, says Young, "Lafayette Road through Chickamauga Battlefield was finally recognized and marked as part of the Trail of Tears. If you drive along the road, you're driving where Cherokee Indians walked as they left behind the land that had been stolen from them and sold off for $18 lottery draws. It was a sad time in our history, and the repercussions of it are still reverberating today."

Suggested reading: Cherokee Removal from Georgia Final Report by Sarah H. Hill at nps.gov/trte/learn/historyculture/upload/Georgia-Forts.pdf.


Recommended for you

Thank you for reading!

Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase a subscription to read or post comments.