Jason Hewitt, Historical Interpreter, dissects the political career of U.S. Congressman George W. Owens of Savannah, Georgia. Owens purchased the home that is now the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, operated by Telfair Museums, in 1830. This series will illuminate the ways in which Owens used his political position to further solidify power for white southern landholders in the 1830s, including mounting barriers to the abolition of slavery and speeding forced removals of indigenous people in the United States.
On December 28, 1835, just three weeks after George W. Owens joined his first legislative session in the House of Representatives, a treaty was drafted between a minority of leaders from the Cherokee Nation and envoys of the U.S. government at the Cherokee capital of New Echota in northern Georgia. The Treaty of New Echota ceded all lands of the Cherokee east of the Mississippi River in exchange for $5 million and title to lands in Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. This initiated the forced removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral homeland, opening new land for economic development and the spread of plantation agriculture by white Southerners.
Image 1: This reconstruction of the Council House at New Echota is located on the site of the former Cherokee capital at New Echota State Historic Site, where the signing of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota took place. The building was the meeting place of the Cherokee Council, the chief governing body of the Cherokee Nation.
As the Treaty of New Echota was signed without a majority of the Cherokee leadership, or the democratic consent of the Cherokee people at large, it was fiercely protested. Multiple petitions and letters to Congress were brought forth between 1836 and 1838. The primary voice of opposition to the treaty was John Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. In a letter addressed to the Senate and the House of Representatives accompanying a petition with over 15,000 signatures from the Cherokee Nation, Ross implored Congress to reconsider the treaty, stating he could not “believe it to be the design of these honorable and high-minded individuals, who stand at the head of the Govt., to bind a whole Nation, by the acts of a few unauthorized individuals. And, therefore, we, the parties to be affected by the result, appeal with confidence to the justice, the magnanimity, the compassion, of your honorable bodies, against the enforcement, on us, of the provisions of a compact, in the formation of which we have had no agency.”
Image 2: John Ross was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828 to 1866 and served longer in that position than any other person. In this depiction Ross holds in his right hand a petition to Congress entitled “Protest and Memorial of the Cherokee Nation Sept. 1836.”
Inquiries into the legitimacy of The Treaty of New Echota were repeatedly voted down by George Owens and other Jacksonian Democrats in the House. Many of them had benefited from previous treaties with Indian nations through the acquisition of property in land lotteries rewarding parcels of confiscated Indian territory. This included several tracts of former Cherokee territory in Habersham County acquired by George Owens in 1832 that were developed as a seasonal residence for the Owens family near Clarkesville, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where many Georgia plantation owners spent the summer months. Gold had been discovered in nearby Lumpkin County in 1828, sparking the Georgia Gold Rush that lasted for over a decade. In Congress, George Owens introduced an amendment to the Mint Act of 1835 establishing a branch of the US Mint at Dahlonega in response to the influx of gold pouring in from the region, which operated from 1838 through the Civil War. There was clearly much incentive for personal economic gain on the part of Owens, and on behalf of his white landowning constituents, to reject further examination of the treaty or delay its enforcement.
Image 3: The US Mint at Dahlonega produced gold coins from 1838 to 1861. After the Civil War the building was home to the newly founded North Georgia College until a fire destroyed the building in 1878.
Although George Owens and his contemporaries desired to see the Cherokee gone from Georgia, there were some efforts made in Congress to ensure their safe passage to Indian Territory. In June 1836, in response to the poor conditions of the remaining Cherokee who had yet to embark on their journey west, Owens addressed the House asking for aid for those who had suffered a loss of crops during the previous year’s harvest due to the early onset of winter and were at risk of starvation. He urged the House to make a motion for an appropriation to be made, stating that he “regarded its adoption not as a matter of policy or political expediency, but as one of humanity.” Despite his endeavors, the resolution was tabled to address “more pressing” issues of infrastructure. Although he failed, this attempt demonstrates George Owens’s ambivalence toward the Cherokee and their plight.
Image 4: This 1830 map of Georgia shows the remaining Cherokee territory yet to be ceded by the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 in the northwestern part of the state. The red star indicates the location of Guinas, the Owens family’s summer retreat in Habersham County, on land that had already been ceded by the Cherokee through previous treaties.
The final push for the removal of the Cherokee began in 1838 with the arrival of federal troops in North Georgia to enforce the terms of the treaty. Approximately 16,000 Cherokee people were expelled to Indian Territory, of which around 4,000 died on what would be known as the Trail of Tears. Writing to his wife Sarah in May of 1838 with the aim of assuring her that there would be no danger to the family traveling to Guinas, their estate in Habersham County, due to the threat of violence with the Cherokee in the region, Owens specified: “The force collected for the removal of the Indians is a very imposing one & cannot be resisted, and the position of the Indians surrounded by five large States and no country like Florida to which they can retreat will render hostility totally useless and unavailable – at all events Habersham is too far removed from the seat of war if they should take plans to produce any alarm.”
Although the Cherokee in Georgia did not resist removal through armed conflict, concurrent events in neighboring Florida and Alabama were beginning to escalate that would lead to full-blown warfare with the indigenous inhabitants of those states, intensifying debates in Congress over the proper management of such clashes with Native Americans.