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Georgia, Indian Removal, and the Compact of 1802
By Stephen Neal Dennis
February 8 2011

One thing continues to puzzle me in the version of the Cherokee Removal that is often summarized. It is also a problem with the DVD The Trail of Tears, Cherokee Legacy. There is a persistent unwillingness to refer in any manner to the 1802 compact between the Administration of President Thomas Jefferson and the State of Georgia. Whatever the legal status of the compact might be in the eyes of today’s Cherokees, or in the previous eyes of John Ross and other Cherokee leaders in the 1830s, it was certainly considered by successive presidents and a line of Georgia governors and congressmen to be an agreement binding on the federal government.
The compact was the agreement whereby Georgia ceded to the federal government any claim it might have that its lands ran west from the Alabama state line to the Missisippi River. The ceded land became the states of Alabama and Mississippi. By 1820, deliberate steps were being taken to attempt to meet the federal government’s assumed obligations. Congress appropriated $30,000 on April 11, 1820 “for the extinguishment of the Indian title to all lands within the state of Georgia,” pursuant to the compact. President James Monroe had sent a message to Congress on March 17, 1820 requesting such an appropriation.
The Secretary of War sent Congress on January 22, 1822 a report on how this initial money had been spent, and Congress then appropriated an additional $30,000 on May 7, 1822 “for the purpose of holding treaties with the Cherokee and Creek tribes of Indians, for the extinguishment of the Indian title to all lands within the state of Georgia.” Both in 1820 and again in 1822, Congress specifically referred to the 1802 compact.
On February 15, 1823, President James Monroe sent a report to Congress estimating how much land in Georgia which had been held by Indian tribes had already seen the Indian title extinguished, and how much additional land was still held by Indian tribes and needed to have its Indian title extinguished, with an estimate of the likely cost.
The issue came up repeatedly in Congress during the 1820's. On January 31, 1825, Representative John Forsyth of Georgia moved that the House Committee on Indian Affairs be instructed to inquire into the expediency of making an appropriation for the purpose of extinguishing by purchase any remaining Creek or Cherokee title to lands within the state of Georgia. The Committee decided this was not feasible, as Representative John Cocke of Tennessee made a report adverse to such an appropriation on February 18, 1825. Representative Forsyth then made a second attempt on March 3, 1825, apparently responding to arguments that some tribes with land both in Georgia and elsewhere might be unwilling to sell all their lands.
There was a new appropriation of $50,000 on May 9, 1828 for the purpose of attempting toextinguish Cherokee claims to land within the State of Georgia. As before, the legislation specifically referred to the 1802 compact.
Tracking the Senate and House Committees on Indian Affairs is another quick way to see just how badly the deck started to be stacked against the Southeastern Indian tribes. I have done this, year by year, for both the Senate and the House. The first Senate Committee on Indian Affairs seems to have been created in 1820, and had five members, from Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama and Pennsylvania. By the late 1820's, the Committees generally had a core membership from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and sometimes North Carolina. Great political pressure was building up. Watching the actions of these Committees is like watching a volcano preparing to erupt.
There is much more possible detail on this issue, with page citations, as I spent a good part of October and November last year tracking the Indian removal issue through Congressional debates from 1820 onward, especially as it appears in the printed Senate and House Journals or the various published Congressional debates.
What is very clear is that well before the discovery of gold in Georgia the issue of Indian removal was extremely alive in Milledgeville and in Washington. Yet the old mythology that the discovery of gold in Georgia led to hordes of invading white settlers and generated the push for Indian removal continues to be accepted. What President Andrew Jackson accomplished by advocating the Indian Removal act of 1830 was merely the final push of a campaign that went back already a good ten years. The two Supreme Court decisions in the early 1830's that considered whether the Cherokee Nation might have a status as a sovereign nation within the boundaries of Georgia inflamed political sentiments in the state and probably led to Georgia’s bold step of proceeding to survey the Cherokee lands and distribute them by lottery in late 1832 and early1833.
This had all taken place well before the Treaty of New Echota ever emerged, and the Treaty simply became the excuse many in Congress had been searching for, a “valid” means whereby the federal government might meet its obligations under the 1802 compact. To ignore the antecedent facts is to promote spurious history. Summaries of the events in Georgia leading up to the Cherokee Removal that fail to consider the compact are misleading because they leave out some of the most salient background facts. It’s all too easy to blame everything on one powerful President, Andrew Jackson, and ignore the obvious track of previous Administrations which had attempted their own solutions to what they viewed as a lingering federal political debt.
Obviously Congress had been willing to ignore the federal government’s obligations under the 1802 compact for a number of years, and then for a few years longer took only half-hearted measures to meet those obligations. There were probably some members of Congress who would have been willing to amend the compact, except that Georgians knew they had relinquished the land which comprised two entire states in order to secure the written promise of the federal government to “remove” the state’s remaining Indians.

Stephen Neal Dennis

Stephen Neal Dennis is a Washington, D.C.-based independent scholar and writer who has been working for several years on a new history of LaFayette, Georgia calledA Proud Little Town, which will be available for sale soon. The book covers the first 50 years of the town’s history, 1835-1885, “the very period about which we knew the least,” according to Henry Gilbert, chairman of a committee of LaFayette residents who have overseen the research for the new release. A fire which destroyed the Walker County Courthouse in 1882 burned almost all county records at that time, but many documents had already been lost during the Civil War.
“We knew that LaFayette was older than either Atlanta or Chattanooga, and hoped that important new information might emerge from this project,” said Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heisekell, whose office helped underwrite the research. “But no one realized, for instance, that the founder of the Atlanta Journal had grown up in LaFayette.”
Dennis found a forgotten railroad project from the 1850's, a female Union spy during the Civil War who reported to Union scouts sent out from Chattanooga, and abundant information about the Cherokee Removal in Walker County. The military accounting records for the Cherokee Removal, which previous historians had simply overlooked, turned up at National Archives in the records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury. These records made it possible to write five very detailed chapters about activities at Fort Cumming, a military post and stockade which had been located near Big Spring, northwest of the tiny 1838 village. “These new records are going to change how Georgia historians can write about the Cherokee Removal,” Dennis said.


The following communication is from a source entitled to the highest confidence. It is copied from the hand writing of the witness & agrees with all that we have heard of Mr. Jefferson's opinions on the subject to which it relates.-N. Y. Obs.
On the morning of the 31st of May, 1824, I spent about an hour with the late Thomas Jefferson, at his own Monticello. Having then recently been in Georgia and heard much said on the Cherokee question. I delicately inquired his opinions on that subject. In my journal I find the following memorandum of our conversation about it. He is decidedly opposed to the Georgia claim, says she is the most greedy state in the Union, that the Indians are under no obligation to sell their lands, that they have an original title to them, that we have guarantied this title, and that the Indians are indisposed to sell them.
"I well remember the emphasis with which he remarked: She has always been the most greedy of land of any state in the Union."
"I inquired respecting the obligation intended to be imposed on the federal government, by the compact of 1802. He replied, in substance, that when he signed that compact, he had no idea that this government was any farther obligated thereby, than to purchase the Cherokee lands when the Indians became disposed to sell them at a reasonable price."

(From the Cherokee Phoenix and Indians' Advocate, Wednesday, March 3, 1830m Vol. II, no. 46m, Page 4, col. 3b)