Red Clay Council

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Red Clay Council Ground

Red Clay Council Grounds and the Red Clay State Historic Park*

Red Clay Council Ground
Red Clay Council Ground.jpg
(Historical Marker)

The historically significant Council Grounds at Red Clay, commonly referred to as the Red Clay Council Ground, was the site of the last seat of Cherokee government from 1832 through 1838. It was at Red Clay that Chief John Ross learned that the Cherokee were to be forced off their ancestral land and driven west in what would later be known as the Trail of Tears. From this site a delegation was sent to Washington in an attempt to dispel the false treaty, and from where fire from the last great council flame would be preserved for future generations who settled in the west.
 
By 1832, the State of Georgia had stripped the Cherokee of their political sovereignty and had prevented Cherokees from meeting together. They were prohibited from holding council meetings in Georgia for any reason other than to treaty away their land. As a result, the Cherokee capital was moved from New Echota, Georgia, to Red Clay, Tennessee.
 
The events that made Red Clay famous happened between 1832 and 1838. Red Clay served as the seat of Cherokee government from 1832 until the forced removal of the Cherokee in 1838 (see Indian Removal). It was the site of 11 general councils, national affairs attended by as many as 5,000 people. Those years were filled with frustrating efforts to insure the future of the Cherokee. One of the leaders of the Cherokee, Principal Chief John Ross, led their fight to keep Cherokee's eastern lands, refusing the government's efforts to move his people to Oklahoma. Controversial treaties, however, resulted in the surrendering of land and their forced removal. Here, at Red Clay, the Trail of Tears really began, for it was at the Red Clay Council Grounds that the Cherokee learned that they had lost their mountains, streams, and valleys forever.

Many of the Cherokee people who met at Red Clay had made remarkable advancements and lived much like the dominant culture. Many of the Cherokee had adopted the Christian religion, and their political and judicial systems were similar to that of the United States. Sequoyah (George Guess) had developed a syllabary that made it possible to write the Cherokee language. (Learn How to Speak, Read, and Write in the Cherokee Language.) The Cherokee published the Phoenix, a bilingual paper from 1828 to 1834. In spite of the social and political advancement made by the Cherokee, Red Clay proved to be the Cherokee's last refuge-their capital in exile-before being moved westward from their homeland in the southeastern United States.
 
A U.S. Department of War removal treaty was presented at two council meetings at Red Clay in 1832. After the council unanimously rejected the treaty, they adopted a resolution to send a delegation to Washington to attend to the business of the Cherokee nation. For five years at meetings at Red Clay, the council heard reports from various delegations, and agreement or disagreement with the actions of these delegations divided the Cherokees into factions.

Not only did the Cherokees send delegations to the president and to Congress, but they also took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1833, they hoped for support from the president or Congress because the Supreme Court had decided in favor of the Cherokee nation remaining in its ancestral land (Worcester v. Georgia).

In 1834, the treaty party led by John Ridge, Major Ridge, and Elias Boudinot began formal efforts for acceptance of a Cherokee treaty with the United States. Principal Chief John Ross led the Cherokee fight to keep their eastern lands and not to emigrate. By 1835, two rival delegations were in Washington to negotiate a treaty, and the factions held separate council meetings. Seemingly a compromise was made in October 1835, but while Chief Ross was in Washington, the Ridge faction signed the Treaty of New Echota.

During the last council meetings at Red Clay, after protests to this New Echota treaty and all views were heard, the council appointed another delegation. A regular council session was scheduled for 1838, but due to the collection and removal activities that meeting never happened. As many as seventeen thousand Cherokees were rounded up and kept in holding stations until the government was ready to move them to Indian Territory. The Cherokees endured great hardships in these camps, and they suffered during the trek westward. It is estimated that over four thousand died in the camps and on the trail. Today, Red Clay State Historic Park is a certified interpretive site on the Trail of Tears.
 
“We are despoiled of our private possessions, the indefeasible property of individuals. We are stripped of every attribute of freedom and eligibility for legal self-defence. Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family! We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own. And this is effected by the provisions of a compact which assumes the venerated, the sacred appellation of treaty. We are overwhelmed! Our hearts are sickened, our utterance is paralyzed, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed, by the audacious practices of unprincipled men, who have managed their stratagems with so much dexterity as to impose on the Government of the United States, in the face of our earnest, solemn, and reiterated protestations.” - Principal Chief John Ross, Cherokee Nation, Red Clay Council Ground, Sept. 28, 1836

Bradley County, Tennessee
Bradley County Tennessee.gif

*The Council Grounds at Red Clay are located within the Red Clay State Historic Park in the extreme southwest corner of Bradley County in Tennessee, just above the Tennessee-Georgia state line. The park encompasses 263-acres of narrow valleys formerly used as cotton and pasture land. There are also forested ridges that average 200 feet or more above the valley floor. The site contains a natural landmark, the Blue Hole Spring, which arises from beneath a limestone ledge to form a deep pool that flows into Mill Creek, a tributary of the Conasauga and Coosa River system. The spring was used by the Cherokee for their water supply during council meetings. Currently, these Cherokee council grounds form the core of this scenic Tennessee state park which includes a museum and outdoor replicas of an 1830s Cherokee Council House, sleeping huts, and a farmstead. Red Clay State Historic Park is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a certified site and interpretive center on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, and is honored by today's Cherokees as sacred ground.

Sources: tennessee.gov; Journal of Cherokee Studies 3 (1978); Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation; Lois I. Osborne, Red Clay State Historic Park; Tennessee Historical Society, Nashville, Tennessee; Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Nation.

Recommended Viewing: The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy (2006), Starring: James Earl Jones and Wes Studi; Director: Chip Richie, Steven R. Heape. Description: The Trail Of Tears: Cherokee Legacy is an engaging two hour documentary exploring one of America's darkest periods in which President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830 consequently transported Native Americans of the Cherokee Nation to the bleak and unsupportive Oklahoma Territory in the year 1838. Deftly presented by the talents of Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Crazy Horse, 500 Nations, Comanche Moon), James Earl Jones, and James Garner, The Trail Of Tears: Cherokee Legacy also includes narrations of famed celebrities Crystal Gayle, Johnt Buttrum, Governor Douglas Wilder, and Steven R. Heape. Continued below...

Includes numerous Cherokee Nation members which add authenticity to the production… A welcome DVD addition to personal, school, and community library Native American history collections. The Trail Of Tears: Cherokee Legacy is strongly recommended for its informative and tactful presentation of such a tragic and controversial historical occurrence in 19th century American history.

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Recommended Reading: The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents (The Bedford Series in History and Culture) (Paperback). Description: This book tells the compelling story of American ethnic cleansing against the Cherokee nation through an admirable combination of primary documents and the editors' analyses. Perdue and Green begin with a short but sophisticated history of the Cherokee from their first interaction with Europeans to their expulsion from the East to the West; a region where Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama connect. Continued below...

The reader is directed through a variety of documents commenting on several important themes: the "civilizing" of the Cherokee (i.e. their adoption of European culture), Georgia's leading role in pressuring the Cherokee off their land and demanding the federal government to remove them by force, the national debate between promoters and opponents of expulsion, the debate within the Cherokee nation, and a brief look at the deportation or forced removal. Conveyed in the voices of the Cherokee and the framers of the debate, it allows the reader to appreciate the complexity of the situation. Pro-removal Americans even made racist judgments of the Cherokee but cast and cloaked their arguments in humanitarian rhetoric. Pro-emigration Cherokee harshly criticize the Cherokee leadership as corrupt and possessing a disdain for traditional Cherokee culture. American defenders and the Cherokee leadership deploy legal and moral arguments in a futile effort to forestall American violence. “A compelling and stirring read.”
 

Recommended Reading: Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. Review from Library Journal: One of the many ironies of U.S. government policy toward Indians in the early 1800s is that it persisted in removing to the West those who had most successfully adapted to European values. As whites encroached on Cherokee land, many Native leaders responded by educating their children, learning English, and developing plantations. Such a leader was Ridge, who had fought with Andrew Jackson against the British. Continued below...

As he and other Cherokee leaders grappled with the issue of moving, the land-hungry Georgia legislators, with the aid of Jackson, succeeded in ousting the Cherokee from their land, forcing them to make the arduous journey West on the infamous "Trail of Tears." Mary B. Davis, Museum of American Indian Lib., New York, Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.
 
Editor's Choice: After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees' Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839-1880. Description: This powerful narrative traces the social, cultural, and political history of the Cherokee Nation during the forty-year period after its members were forcibly removed from the southern Appalachians and resettled in what is now Oklahoma. In this master work, completed just before his death, William McLoughlin not only explains how the Cherokees rebuilt their lives and society, but also recounts their fight to govern themselves as a separate nation within the borders of the United States. Continued below...
Long regarded by whites as one of the 'civilized tribes', the Cherokees had their own constitution (modeled after that of the United States), elected officials, and legal system. Once re-settled, they attempted to reestablish these institutions and continued their long struggle for self-government under their own laws—an idea that met with bitter opposition from frontier politicians, settlers, ranchers, and business leaders. After an extremely divisive fight within their own nation during the Civil War, Cherokees faced internal political conflicts as well as the destructive impact of an influx of new settlers and the expansion of the railroad. McLoughlin conveys its history to the year 1880, when the nation's fight for the right to govern itself ended in defeat at the hands of Congress.
 
Recommended Reading: Trail of Tears (Hardcover). Description: Insightful, rarely told history of Indian courage in the face of White expansionism in the 19th century. Truth-telling tale of the ruthless brutality that forced the Native American population into resettlement camps and reservations, with a look at the few white Americans who fought to help them. This is an amazing book. Continued below...
Tireless research and the author's gift of vision and words produce a magnificently readable narrative of the American Indian Removals. It is very balanced with no point of view overlooked. Include many surprising appearances and plenty of twists which will make you laugh out loud and break your heart. A very human book and an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to learn history through the eyes and ears (and hearts) of those that experienced it. You won't be able to put it down.
 

Recommended Reading: The Cherokee Nation: A History. Description: Conley's book, "The Cherokee Nation: A History" is an eminently readable, concise but thoughtful account of the Cherokee people from prehistoric times to the present day. The book is formatted in such a way as to make it an ideal text for high school and college classes. At the end of each chapter is a source list and suggestions for further reading. Also at the end of each chapter is an unusual but helpful feature- a glossary of key terms. The book contains interesting maps, photographs and drawings, along with a list of chiefs for the various factions of the Cherokee tribe and nation. Continued below...

In addition to being easily understood, a principal strength of the book is that the author questions some traditional beliefs and sources about the Cherokee past without appearing to be a revisionist or an individual with an agenda in his writing. One such example is when Conley tells the story of Alexander Cuming, an Englishman who took seven Cherokee men with him to England in 1730. One of the Cherokee, Oukanekah, is recorded as having said to the King of England: "We look upon the Great King George as the Sun, and as our Father, and upon ourselves as his children. For though we are red, and you are white our hands and hearts are joined together..." Conley wonders if Oukanekah actually said those words and points out that the only version we have of this story is the English version. There is nothing to indicate if Oukanekah spoke in English or Cherokee, or if his words were recorded at the time they were spoken or were written down later. Conley also points out that in Cherokee culture, the Sun was considered female, so it is curious that King George would be looked upon as the Sun. The "redness" of Native American skin was a European perception. The Cherokee would have described themselves as brown. But Conley does not overly dwell on these things. He continues to tell the story using the sources available. The skill of Conley in communicating his ideas never diminishes. This book is highly recommended as a good place to start the study of Cherokee history. It serves as excellent reference material and belongs in the library of anyone serious about the study of Native Americans.

 

NEW! Recommended Viewing: We Shall Remain (PBS) (DVDs) (420 minutes). Midwest Book Review: We Shall Remain is a three-DVD thinpack set collecting five documentaries from the acclaimed PBS history series "American Experience", about Native American leaders including Massasoit, Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, Major Ridge, Geronimo, and Fools Crow, all who did everything they could to resist being forcibly removed from their land and preserve their culture. Continued below…

Their strategies ranged from military action to diplomacy, spirituality, or even legal and political means. The stories of these individual leaders span four hundred years; collectively, they give a portrait of an oft-overlooked yet crucial side of American history, and carry the highest recommendation for public library as well as home DVD collections. Special features include behind-the-scenes footage, a thirty-minute preview film, materials for educators and librarians, four ReelNative films of Native Americans sharing their personal stories, and three Native Now films about modern-day issues facing Native Americans. 7 hours. "Viewers will be amazed." "If you're keeping score, this program ranks among the best TV documentaries ever made." and "Reminds us that true glory lies in the honest histories of people, not the manipulated histories of governments. This is the stuff they kept from us." --Clif Garboden, The Boston Phoenix.

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