Tensions were high following the arrival of the last contingent of Cherokees into Indian Territory during the spring of 1839. If events that occurred prior to the infamous “Trail of Tears” hadn’t already incited tribesman to hatred of the “treaty signers,” the indescribable suffering on that journey did. Now, after obtaining their meager government rations and constructing shelter, the recent immigrants were prepared to mete out their version of justice.
A meeting of the Eastern and Western Cherokee or Old Settlers who relocated in 1828, occurred on June, 10 1839 to consider consolidation of the two governments. Subsequently, Eastern Chief John Ross presented a draft of a constitution which was rejected by the old settlers who, having occupied the region for the past 20 years, saw no need in a more formal structure. During those negotiations, several “treaty signers” were seen talking to Western leaders, infuriating many of the recent arrivals. The timing of the meeting, attended by over 6,000 Cherokee, a large majority of them Eastern tribesman, the rejection of the proposal and, what appeared to be collusion became an invitation to violence. And, violence soon occurred!
Immediately following the meeting, a second occurred involving more than 100 members of the Ross faction invoking blood law, vowing to kill the leaders of the Treaty Party. Wooden chips, 14 bearing an “X” indicating executioner, were placed in a hat. The targeted victims were John Bell, George Adair, James Starr, Stand Watie, John Ridge, his father Major Ridge and Elias Boudinet. The assassinations were to occur simultaneously on June 22.
The Treaty of New Echota had been signed by twenty Cherokee citizens, but the seven targeted were thought to be the leaders. There were mixed results. Bell, Adair and Starr escaped unharmed, although Starr was killed later in 1843. Stand Watie, living near Honey Springs, also escaped, warned by a Choctaw Indian who overheard plans for the assassination. Much later in 1842, Watie would confront and kill one assassin, James Foreman, and during a military career in the Civil War that resulted in his being promoted to brigadier general, proved to be almost bullet proof.
John Ridge was an early morning victim at his home in Honey Springs. Born in 1802, he contracted an illness as a teen-ager that left him crippled in one leg. Educated in Connecticut, Ridge returned home, became a leading member of the Cherokee National Council and joined several delegations to Washington. But in 1837 he left Georgia, purchased two farms on Honey Creek and established a trading post. Ridge had just recently returned from a buying trip to New Orleans and New York when early in the morning of June 22nd, assassins entered his home and bedroom. When a pistol held by one assailant mis-fired, he awoke, was overpowered and drug out of the house. Ridge was stabbed multiple times, kicked and stomped on and died shortly after.
Major Ridge was killed along the Line Road that divided Arkansas and Indian Territory. He was a Cherokee leader in Georgia and, while participating under the command of General Andrew Jackson during the Creek War of 1813, was promoted to major, adopting the rank as his first name. Ridge was no stranger to “blood law.” In 1806 he participated in the killing of Cherokee Chief Doublehead for ceding lands in Georgia to the government. He also was aware of the risk taken in signing the Echota Treaty. Earlier, in 1829, it was Ridge that introduced legislation calling for death as a treasonous act if a Cherokee sold land. On June 23rd his body was discovered near a bridge over White Rock Creek with five bullet holes in the head.
Elias Boudinet, the third victim, was born Buck Watie in 1802, he was a brother of Stand Watie. However, while he was attending preparatory school in the northeast, he was asked by New Jersey congressman Elias Boudinet, who had no sons, to take his name. Following graduation, upon returning to the Cherokee Nation he collaborated with Reverend Samuel Worcester on translating the Bible into Sequoyah’s new Cherokee language and later became editor of the Cherokee Phoenix. He moved to Park Hill in 1837 to rejoin Worcester in their efforts. Early in the morning of June 22nd, he was approached by several men requesting medicine and, while accompanying them was hacked to death with knives and tomahawks.
Although the assassinations were brutal and continued sporadically until 1845, they were not unexpected. Cherokee tradition still dictated that land, like sunlight, could not be bought or sold, that the Nation’s land belonged to everyone. The twenty who signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 had been well aware of that tradition, violating it at their own risk. Even after the Dawes Act was implemented in 1887, many traditional Cherokee still refused to accept land allotments in the belief that land was sacred. But this tradition, like their land in Georgia, would also soon be taken from them as the tide of European culture swept through what would soon become Oklahoma.
Note: Pathfinders, 19th Century Pioneers of Cherokee Territory is available on Amazon.com and BARNES AND NOBLE.com
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.