In This Episode
A Cherokee leader is murdered in 1839 for signing a treaty with the United States, but the promise he died for was broken.
Rebecca Nagle: It’s June 21st, 1839. Under the darkness of night, a group of men meet in a small cabin. They pass around a hat and each draw a piece of paper, some papers are blank, others marked with an X. The men with an X are given assignments. They split into groups and before the sun comes up, they mount their horses and ride off to different places in Cherokee Nation to carry out the plan. At daybreak, 25 men arrive at the house of Cherokee leader, John Ridge. John is asleep inside with his family. Three men barge through the front door and find John in bed. They drag him outside. His wife tries to run after him, but some of the men hold her back. The men have been warned that John is very persuasive and not to let him speak, to drown out his pleas, they shout over him. John struggles, but he knows what’s going to happen. He knows he’s living on borrowed time, and now comes the inevitable. Who was John Ridge and why does his story matter? Let me tell you. You’re listening to This Land, a podcast about broken promises, tribal land and murder.
Rebecca Nagle: This year, the Supreme Court will change the future of five Native American tribes in the U.S., including mine, when it answers one question: is half the land in Oklahoma Indian country? I’m your host, Rebecca Nagle, citizen of Cherokee Nation. In this episode, we’re going to go way back. I’m going to tell you the story of how my people came to Oklahoma and how this land became our land in the first place. It’s also the story of my family, the decisions they made and the price they paid for it.
Rebecca Nagle: Growing up, my grandmother often told me stories about John Ridge and his father, Major Ridge, our ancestors. Major Ridge is my great great-great-great grandfather. Before I was old enough to know about things like U.S. presidents or treaty rights, I knew my ancestors had been leaders of Cherokee Nation. And in their lifetime, they fought and died for our tribe. The way my grandma told the story, they were heroes. But that’s not how everyone sees it. I didn’t understand the whole story until I was nine years old. That summer, my family took a road trip to Georgia to see where our ancestors had lived before removal. We stopped at a museum about the Trail of Tears. Major Ridge and John Ridge’s portraits were on the wall. I recognized them immediately. Copies of the same paintings were on the wall of my grandma’s house. At the museum, there was text next to their images explaining their connection to this history. But there was a new word in their story, one I had never heard my grandma say: traitors.
Catherine Gray: Oh, gosh, it’s still a huge debate. It’s still lives on today.
Rebecca Nagle: This is Catherine Gray.
Catherine Gray: I’m a History and Preservation Officer with Cherokee Nation. I’m a Cherokee Nation citizen.
Rebecca Nagle: She’s spent a lot of time untangling the story of the Ridges.
Rebecca Nagle: I don’t want people to agree or disagree with me and my job isn’t to tell you how to feel one way or another about our history. I just want people to have all of the facts and love or hate the Ridges, that’s on you.
Rebecca Nagle: And by the end of the story, you, too, can decide what you think.
Adrienne Keene: [speaking in Cherokee]
Rebecca Nagle: Doctor Adrienne Keene, a Cherokee citizen, writer and activist, likes to say settlers have colonization stories and indigenous people have creation stories. Settlers know the stories of how they came to this land. But as indigenous people, we know how this land was formed, because we have been here since the beginning of time. In our Cherokee creation story, the buzzard Suli, flew for seven days and seven nights. When he got tired, his wings fell into the mud and formed valleys. And every time he lifted his wings, it formed the ridges and mountaintops. My great great-great-great grandfather walked along these ridges, and that’s where he got his name: Guana got Ligi, which means the man who walks along the top of the mountain. In English, it was shortened to Ridge. Later in life, he would take the first name Major. This was John’s father. He was known as a great hunter, warrior and public speaker. He drew crowds and held people and awe as he spoke, all in Cherokee. He did not come from a prominent family, but he would become one of the most powerful leaders in Cherokee Nation.
Catherine Gray: He was very well respected as a military leader.
Rebecca Nagle: During his lifetime, Major Ridge witnessed one of the largest migrations in U.S. history, one that isn’t taught in school. Millions of white settlers moved from the Atlantic coast, west onto Native land after the Revolutionary War. This migration was really a land grab. Tribes found themselves fighting more and more white settlers.
Catherine Gray: There’s just so much rapid change that’s happening within one to two generations. And he’s a part of that. He’s witnessing that firsthand.
Rebecca Nagle: Major Ridge fought against the theft of Cherokee lands, at a time when the United States was taking advantage of the way our government was decentralized.
Catherine Gray: You would have found hundreds, if not thousands, possibly at one time, Cherokee towns that were scattered throughout the southeastern United States. All of these towns had their own chief.
Rebecca Nagle: In other words, there wasn’t one representative who could push back against white encroachment. So the United States manipulated individual chiefs into giving up Cherokee land. And there was one chief, a man named Doublehead, who was particularly easy to exploit. By 1807, he had already signed away Cherokee land to the U.S. three separate times and he was about to do it again. But Major Ridge was determined to stop him and to send a message to others. With two other men in tow, Major Ridge hunted down Chief Doublehead and killed him. It was a brutal murder, but he believed it was necessary to protect Cherokee land. Years later, he pushed Cherokee Nation’s council to pass a law that made giving land to the United States a crime punishable by death. He didn’t know it yet, but that decision would seal his fate. Major Ridge grew up before the United States even existed. But his son, John Ridge, born around 1803, grew up with the United States surrounding Cherokee Nation and affecting their everyday lives. John’s generation had to figure out how to get along with white society. Here’s historian Catherine Gray again:
Catherine Gray: You know, we realized that the United States, these people are not going anywhere. Like we’re going to have to deal with them, we’re going to have to maintain a relationship with them. I mean, we’re going to have to fight for our lands in the United States court. That’s one of the reasons why we start viewing assimilation as the way that we’re going to be able to preserve our lands.
Rebecca Nagle: The push for assimilation did not come from a belief that the white world was somehow better than the Cherokee world. It came from the reality that if our people were going to survive, they would have to operate in both and that involved learning English. Major Ridge made a point to never learn it. He traveled to Washington, met with presidents, became a famous diplomat, but never learned the colonizers’ language. But he wanted something different for his son, John.
Nancy: He wanted him to be able to live in the present time, in their present time, and, you know, be able to deal with the things that were happening then.
Rebecca Nagle: So John went to the first Indian boarding school in the United States. It was named the Cornwall Mission School, but most people called it the Heathen School. John learned English and built his life in both worlds. While he was at school, John got very sick and became bedridden. The headmaster’s daughter, Sarah, helped take care of him, and over time they fell in love. Both their families objected, but ever so slowly, their parents came around. The white people of Cornwall, Connecticut, however, did not. After John married Sarah, he was nearly killed by an angry mob. The newlyweds had to leave Connecticut immediately. But the outrage they sparked followed them. Papers throughout the Northeast spread news about the young savage Indian marrying a white girl. Crowds confronted them wherever they stopped.
Catherine Gray: All of a sudden, everybody was just, just astounded and appalled that, you know, these white girls would marry Indians, these heathens.
Rebecca Nagle: The local community was so enraged, they forced Cornwall Mission School to close a few years later. But John had already graduated. He went on to study law and he became one of the first Native American lawyers. He used his white education to resist from within.
Catherine Gray: He was a lawyer, he argued before the Congress of the United States. He spoke to presidents. He was a very distinguished looking man and very knowledgeable.
Rebecca Nagle: He was basically a 19th century lobbyist. John went on speaking tours in the Northeast. He met with members of Congress and U.S. presidents about the plight of Cherokee Nation and on behalf of other tribes in the South. Both John and his father were ambassadors for the tribe.
Catherine Gray: And they were able to go out there and prove to the United States and really to the world, that we’re not just these heathens, savage Indians living, you know how we think we are, uneducated, that we’re not capable of doing everything that you can.
Rebecca Nagle: After years of organizing, Cherokee Nation established its first written constitution in 1827. It unequivocally declared Cherokee Nation sovereignty over our land, independent from the United States. It said in plain terms that not one more foot of our land would be given to the US.
Catherine Gray: And this enraged the state of Georgia.
Rebecca Nagle: And that was a problem because Georgia surrounded Cherokee land, and Georgia wanted it. So the state started passing laws telling Cherokees what they could and could not do, on our own land. These laws were known as harassment laws.
Catherine Gray: We were not allowed to mine gold on our own lands. So it was illegal for Cherokees to do that. It was illegal for Cherokees to meet in counsel. What Georgia is trying to do is extend its laws.
Rebecca Nagle: And this fight wasn’t just on paper. The Georgia militia began coming on to Cherokee territory to enforce these laws. Things got violent. Many Cherokees died. The militia seized property, set Cherokee homes on fire, and encouraged white settlers to take over Cherokee land. It was basically a state of undeclared war. Georgia was making life for Cherokees unbearable, to force us to leave. And Georgia had a powerful ally. The man in the White House. Andrew Jackson wanted all Indians kicked off their land and pushed west of the Mississippi. Andrew Jackson rode a wave of populism to the Oval Office, thumbing his nose at Washington elite and political norms. As president, he was known to openly fight with Congress, use his office to enrich himself and his friends, and would ultimately defy an order from the Supreme Court, to carry out genocide. It’s not a coincidence that Andrew Jackson is Donald Trump’s favorite president. And it’s not surprising that a country who continues to praise a man like Jackson would end up electing a man like Trump. If we don’t learn from our history, it’s doomed to repeat itself. Until then, John and Major Ridge had used diplomacy, not force. But now the tribe’s back was up against the wall. Major Ridge decided to take action. He had to stop the onslaught of white settlers pouring into Cherokee Nation. If the United States wouldn’t enforce our treaty rights, Cherokee Nation would. Major Ridge and a band of warriors evicted squatters from a settlement at Cedar Creek, without killing anyone, and then burned the whole town to the ground. But their show of force backfired. Georgia civilians retaliated even more brutally. The bloodshed left Cherokee Nation with even fewer options. Cherokee leaders like Major Ridge didn’t know what to do next, but John Ridge had an idea. His plan was to win this war in the courts of the United States. One of Georgia’s harassment laws had a loyalty requirement for all white people living within Cherokee Nation.
Catherine Gray: The laws stated that they had to pledge allegiance to the state of Georgia.
Rebecca Nagle: But some people in Cherokee Nation refused, including a group of missionaries.
Catherine Gray: They felt that this was going to hurt their reputation with the Cherokee people or, and they ended up being jailed for it.
Rebecca Nagle: Eleven missionaries were arrested. Most eventually caved. But one man, Samuel Worcester, held out. John Ridge worked with Worcester to argue that Cherokee Nation was a sovereign government and Georgia couldn’t enforce their laws on our land. His case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. John Ridge worked with Worcester to argue that the state of Georgia couldn’t arrest him because Georgia’s laws had no authority in Cherokee Nation. Worcester’s defense was that Cherokee Nation was a sovereign government and Georgia couldn’t enforce their laws on our land. John Ridge was in Boston on a speaking tour to drum up support for Cherokee sovereignty when he got the news: Cherokee Nation had won. The Supreme Court ruled what Andrew Jackson and the state of Georgia were doing was illegal. The victory meant they could remain a sovereign nation on their own land. John rejoiced. It was the first win EVER for Native Americans at the Supreme Court. His plan had worked. But within days, John Ridge got word that President Jackson was planning to defy the court’s decision. As my family tells it, a furious John Ridge went straight to the White House to confront the president. But Jackson had already made up his mind. Here is my cousin Nancy telling me what Jackson said:
Nancy: He said, Chief Justice John Marshall has made is made the decision, let him enforce it.
Rebecca Nagle: This was illegal. Justice John Marshall had only a gavel and a podium, while the president had an army. Andrew Jackson was the only one who could make Georgia follow the Supreme Court’s order. But he openly and flagrantly refused. John realized that nothing, not even a Supreme Court victory would protect Cherokee Nation.
Nancy: And all of a sudden all the hope went away, and they saw what was going to happen.
Catherine Gray: As Katherine tells it, President Jackson told Georgia
Catherine Gray: —to light a fire under us and we’ll move.
Rebecca Nagle: And so that becomes Jackson’s illegal and explicit policy. Force the Cherokees to sign a treaty by any means necessary.
Catherine Gray: The harassment becomes even worse and Cherokees are being terrorized in our own homes and it just gets even worse.
Rebecca Nagle: Georgia sent surveyors into Cherokee Nation to measure out the land and divide it up. They made a giant map and opened up a lottery to all white people in Georgia. And in October of 1832, the lottery wheels began to spin. The winners descended on Cherokee Nation, claiming homes and farms and overrunning entire towns. Even John Ridge’s home was awarded to white settlers. At this point, Major and John Ridge were out of options. Here’s Nancy again:
Nancy: The Ridges had been to Washington, D.C. They had talked to the president. They had talked to Congress. They had filed actions with the courts . . .
Rebecca Nagle: But none of it mattered. They knew Cherokee Nation would not win this fight by sword or by pen. And what happens next would change not only the course of my ancestors’ lives, but the history of Cherokee Nation. Major Ridge and his son, John, had no other options left. So they began talking about the unthinkable: signing a treaty, signing away the title to Cherokee land east of the Mississippi in exchange for land out west.
Nancy: They decided after some discussions with the government that it would be in the best interests of a Cherokees to go ahead and leave, rather than try to fight the whole state of Georgia to stay in their homeland. And they knew that there was serious consequences if they signed the treaty, but they felt they were doing it for the good of the Cherokee Nation, so . . .
Rebecca Nagle: Some Cherokee leaders joined the Ridges to form a treaty party, but leaving their homelands for the West was controversial. Here’s Catherine again:
Catherine Gray: It was very unpopular—majority of Cherokees did not support this.
Rebecca Nagle: Cherokees Nation’s Council voted the treaty party down many times over. The Ridges went from respected leaders to being called traitors.
Catherine Gray: It really begins dividing our own people. I feel like it is the fault of the United States government and its ability to be able to divide us.
Rebecca Nagle: Opposing the Ridges was John Ross, the principal Chief of Cherokee Nation. He was also pursuing a treaty with the United States, but on very different terms. Rather than moving west, Ross proposed that Cherokees stay in our homelands but become absorbed by the United States.
Catherine Gray: People were looking into options of becoming of retaining our homelands and but then we would no longer be Cherokee or have our government.
Rebecca Nagle: In other words, there would still be Cherokee people living on Cherokee land, but no tribe, no self-governance, no nation. The Ridges took the opposite position.
Catherine Gray: They had the foresight to really try to maintain the Cherokee government as a whole, and fight for a sovereign Cherokee Nation.
Rebecca Nagle: That’s the difference. That’s what my ancestors sacrificed everything for: sovereignty. In December of 1835, a small group of Cherokees met in the tribe’s old capitol with representatives of the U.S. government, Major Ridge gave a long, impassioned speech. Here’s what he said. Translated into English, “I am one of the native sons of This Land. I have hunted the deer and turkey here more than 50 years. I know the Indian has an older title than theirs. We obtained this land from the living God above. They obtain their land from the British. Yet they are strong and we are weak. We are few and they are many. We cannot remain here in safety and comfort. We can never forget these homes. I would willingly die to preserve them, but any forcible effort to keep them will cost us our lands, our lives, and the lives of our children.”
Rebecca Nagle: On a cold December night, that small unauthorized group of Cherokee leaders signed a treaty that would send tens of thousands of Indians halfway across North America. By candlelight, 20 men wrote their names, unable to speak or write in English. Major Ridge signed his with an X.
Nancy: Now, Major Ridge said that when he signed the treaty, he said: I’ve signed my death warrant.
Rebecca Nagle: Cherokees attempted to reject the treaty with a petition to Congress. The vast majority of our tribe signed it, but Congress never read it. Instead, the treaty was ratified in the Senate. Removal of all Indians from the Southeast was eminent. Cherokees were rounded up at gunpoint, kept in concentration camps, and then forced to march across the eastern half of the United States. Starting from present-day, Georgia or Tennessee, our people walked all the way to Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma. The young, the old, the sick. Everyone walked for 1,000 miles. This was the Trail of Tears.
Catherine Gray: I don’t think people realize either how long people were, were traveling. So we have we have detachments that left in September, October, and they’re not arriving into Indian Territory until March. And you look at the winter that they’re going through when they’re were moving West—one to one of the worst winters ever.
Rebecca Nagle: Before the Trail of Tears, Cherokee Nation had about 16,000 citizens. During the March, one out of every four people died.
Catherine Gray: We don’t even know—I don’t think we’ll ever know really what th,e the actual toll was on that, because there are people who come in to Indian Territory and they’re still continuing to be sick and to die. Because the majority of the deaths on the removal were, were young people and elderly. So, people were angry, people were very angry.
Rebecca Nagle: And they knew who to blame.
Catherine Gray: You know, they get here to Indian Territory and everybody at some point has lost a member of their family, probably, and they placed all of the blame on the treaty party.
Rebecca Nagle: That’s why the Ridges are controversial among Cherokees. Many Cherokee people blame the Ridges for the Trail of Tears. They see the Treaty of New Echota, not as an effort to save Cherokee Nation, but as an act of betrayal. After arriving out west, the Ridges built their home in the new Cherokee Nation and lived in relative peace for a few years. That was until the morning of June 22nd, 1839. That morning, John Ridge was asleep in his house. So were his wife, Sarah, their children and his mother. The sun had just come up and 25 men were standing in his front yard. The men gathered in John’s yard. They weren’t strangers. They were his fellow Cherokees. Some of them were people he had clothed and fed. But today they were there to execute the death warrant john and his father had signed, to avenge the death of their loved ones who had died on the Trail of Tears. After dragging John from his bed into the yard, they stabbed him over and over. 25 times. They split open his throat. Sarah and the children watched as the men threw his body up into the air and let it fall to the ground. They took turns stomping on his chest until it caved in. Sarah screamed from the doorway. And then as quickly as they appeared, the men left. Sarah ran to John, knelt beside his broken body. He tried to speak. I often wonder what, in his final moments, my ancestor was trying to tell his wife. Was he trying to comfort her? Warn her? Maybe he was just saying goodbye. But instead of words, all that came from his mouth was blood. John’s death wasn’t just brutal. It was a message. A message to everyone who signed the Treaty of New Echota. Major Ridge wasn’t home that day. He was traveling to Arkansas. As he crossed the state line, a group of men from that secret meeting the night before tracked him down. From the trees, they ambushed and shot Major Ridge five times. He slumped over on his horse and died. Two generations of my family were killed on the same day.
Rebecca Nagle: It’s a cold, windy day at my family’s cemetery. This place holds a lot of power for me. Walking through the rows of my ancestors, seeing their names, remembering their stories, I think about the sacrifices they made. And I don’t just mean their deaths. My ancestors knew what they were doing wasn’t popular, but their decision wasn’t about their personal legacy. They weren’t thinking about what some museum plaque in the future might say about them. They were thinking about the survival of our tribe.
Nancy: Major Ridge and John Ridge are buried here.
Rebecca Nagle: My cousin Nancy and I are visiting their graves.
Nancy: There was no stone put up for John Ridge.
Rebecca Nagle: John was buried at night because Sarah was worried that more people would be killed. His unmarked grave started our family cemetery.
Nancy: Yes, we have a lot of generations buried in the cemetery.
Rebecca Nagle: Five generations so far. When I am eventually laid to rest, I will be the seventh. My favorite picture of my grandma was taken in the cemetery. In it, she’s wearing a white shirt and jeans and a colorful scarf lit up by the day’s sunshine. She’s kneeling in front of the graves of Major and John Ridge. From a small Tupperware container, she’s taking dirt and spreading it over the ground. She brought this dirt, this land from our tribe’s homeland in present day Georgia, back here to Oklahoma. As you know, by now, Oklahoma is not my tribe’s original homeland, but it is where we have lived for the past 180 years. It’s where we practice our ceremonies, go to church, speak our language, raise our kids. This land is our land. The treaty that the Ridges signed promised Cherokee Nation sovereignty over this land for as long as the waters ran and the grass grew. That promise was not kept. In 1907, six decades after John’s death, the government came back wanting more land. And they came up with a sneaky way to do it, something called allotment. And this land grab is what Oklahoma claims left my tribe and four others without a reservation. And that’s the ultimate question before the Supreme Court: did this early 1900s land grab, end our reservations. Next time on This Land.