The Treaty of New Echota was contentious even before the New Treaty Council first met during November of 1834. After several years of failed negotiations with the federal government, some Cherokee citizens were ready to move west. But they were in the minority and resistance was fierce. Clashes between the two factions, even murder had occurred and when a small minority signed the treaty in December of 1835, the flames of hatred burned even brighter. When removal of the tribe was finally achieved in 1839, nothing had changed to diminish that attitude.
Many supporters of the treaty began leaving almost immediately after the signing and, by 1838, nearly 2,000 had relocated to the new nation joining the Western Cherokee, the “Old Settlers,” who preceded them. They built homes, developed ranches and generally adapted to the region. But retribution struck quickly soon after the last detachment of Eastern Cherokee arrived in March of 1839. Their anger was fed by the horrific 800 mile journey where nearly 2,000 were known to have died and others just simply unaccounted for. Wasted by disease and starvation, survival had been on their mind, now it was retribution.
The new arrivals overran the Illinois campgrounds near Fort Gibson in order to receive their scant rations and, in the process, further complained about the Echota Treaty. It wasn’t long before some organized into bands of assassins, targeting seven “treaty signers,” John and Major Ridge, Stand Watie, Elias Boudinet, John Bell, James Starr and George Adair. They were partially successful, on June 22, 1839 the Ridge’s and Boudinet were killed, but for one reason or another the others escaped. Treaty signers wanted mass retaliation, but their leader, Stand Watie, considered the odds and ultimately did nothing. But time would see a continuation of the hatred and, periodically a member of one or the other faction would be found dead. To compound matters, while the Old Settlers were not motivated to kill anyone, they were quite dissatisfied with the way Ross and the multitude of Eastern Cherokee arrived and took charge of governing the Nation. The result was an alliance between Treaty Party advocates and Old Settlers, a situation that encouraged Stand Watie to appeal to Washington to divide the Nation into two parts. But then, in 1842, he also became involved in an assassination when James Foreman, thought to have been the leader of the group that killed Major Ridge in 1839, attempted to take Watie’s life at Maysville, Arkansas. Watie killed Foreman and later was found not guilty of murder by an Arkansas jury.
Murders related to the treaty issue continued sporadically but one incident in particular sparked a renewal. George West, a friend of the James Starr family was found guilty of killing a Ross loyalist and was hung. James Starr, a treaty signer, had escaped assassination in 1839 and now his son Tom was infuriated by West’s death, and vowed to retaliate. This was no idle threat. Tom Starr was six foot five, his eyelashes were plucked out and he wore a necklace around his neck allegedly composed of the dried earlobes of previous victims. He had a reputation that led some to declare, “most people would rather meet the devil himself ” when Starr became angry. With several members of his family, Tom Starr embarked on a rampage of death and destruction. In September of 1843, the gang shot a Ross spy named Kelley, then attacked the home of another Ross sympathizer, Benjamin Vore, killing him and his wife, and setting their home on fire. When a 5 year old boy fled from the burning home, Tom Starr picked him up and threw him back into the burning inferno.
Outraged, the National Council posted a reward and sent some lighthorse troops in pursuit of the Starr gang. In retaliation several Ross men killed Stand Watie’s brother Thomas, bashing his head in with a tomahawk. Recognizing they were outnumbered, Watie gathered about 60 men at Fort Wayne for protection. The Starr’s continued their rampage and since Ross was heavily protected, sought to kill his daughter Jane Meigs. She escaped but her home was burned to the ground. As the Starr’s left they encountered two Ross loyalists, chased them down, killed one, captured and stripped the other, then disemboweled him before cutting his throat. To retaliate, since the lighthorse couldn’t capture Tom Starr and his gang, they went after his father James Starr and killed him. The retributions continued.
In the meantime, in Washington, Watie’s proposal of a divided Cherokee Nation was gaining traction and resulted in what was termed “the Treaty of 1846” containing 13 articles that covered every area of dispute, financial settlements as well as amnesty for both sides. Finally convinced by what could result in the division of the Nation, Ross accepted the terms. When all had signed the agreement, Watie and Ross shook hands in a gesture of good faith, then worked together. Finally, peace came to the Nation resulting in a period of prosperity in the 1850s often called “the golden years.” Unfortunately, war clouds were building in the East.
Author's note: 1806, Settling the Cherokee Nation, available on Amazon.com/ BARNESANDNOBLE.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.