Whose Story Is it Anyway? Analyzing Georgia's Cherokee Past through Primary Sources

American Indians have been viewed as a vanishing people. . . . We have been seen as a thing of the past. . . . We all have the responsibility now to restore the dignity that has been denied to us as a people and to breathe life into the cultural objects that have been preserved. - Kathryn "Jody" Beaulieu (Anishinaabe / Ojibwe)

October 27, 2020

Consider the date above. What happened on this day?

The correct answer is . . .

Well, there is no correct answer. It simply depends on who you ask.

History is a multitude of stories made up of many perspectives. There is no universal "story." Understanding history requires an exploration of varied and often contrasting perspectives. We use primary sources and archives as tools to understand the past and its complexities.

Image: Page from the Cherokee Phoenix, 1830. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.

What are primary sources? What are archives?

Primary sources are materials that contain first-hand accounts of an event. These materials were either created at the time of the event or later recalled by an eye witness.

Archives are materials created or received by a person, family, or organization and that are preserved because of their enduring value. In other words, archives are those select primary sources that we choose to keep as records of the past. Archives must have content, context, and structure.

Examples of primary sources and archives include diaries, photographs, personal notes, correspondence, business documents, government records, newspapers, website content, film, audio recordings, social media posts, etc. These records may be analog or digital.

Critical-thinking questions

  1. Describe some primary sources that you've encountered or created during your lifetime. How might someone in the future use these records to understand the past.
  2. Archivists identify, collect, and preserve records of the past. These records are then made available to the public. How might archival practices perpetuate and/or challenge systematic oppression?

Background image: Letter from Robert deTreville Lawrence III Papers, 1895. Courtesy of the KSU Archives.

Why Archives?

Archives and primary sources are history in its rawest form​. We use archives to piece together history​. These materials are. . .

  • complex
  • multifaceted
  • sometimes contradictory
  • have minimal layers of interpretation
  • document voices and experiences

An archival institution (e.g. Kennesaw State University Archives) seeks to preserve an inclusive historical record.

Try your hand at analyzing this archival map

A New Map of the Cherokee Nation, undated. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.

Critical-thinking questions

  1. What is the map depicting, and why is this important?
  2. This map is undated. What are some ways you can determine its approximate date range ?
  3. Who created this map? Conduct some research on this individual. How might this person's identity have influenced the creation of this map?
  4. Consider the difference between records created by a group of people versus records created about them. Why is it important to be aware of this difference?

Documenting Georgia's Cherokee Past through Print

The Department of Museums, Archives and Rare Books strives to document Cherokee history in northwest Georgia through the printed word. These preservation efforts are part of nation-wide initiatives to document the stories of indigenous people in America. In past years, many institutions embarked on these efforts without consulting indigenous people, which further perpetuated instances of theft, silence, disrespect, and oppression in archival spaces. Now, efforts to document the histories of native people are informed by two main guidelines:

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), 1990

  • Signed by President George H. W. Bush​
  • Asked museums to "reexamine catalog, and inform Native Americans about the objects they held in their collections"

Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, 2006

  • Drafted by the First Archivists Circle - a group of archivists, librarians, curators, and cultural heritage professionals representing fifteen Native American, First Nation, Indigenous and Aboriginal groups
  • The Protocols received pushback from many people in the archival community when they were released
  • Endorsed by the Society of American Archivists in August 2018

Background image: Excerpt from the New Testament in Cherokee, 1860. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.

Now, let's use archives to better understand the plight of the Cherokee Nation in early nineteenth century Georgia . . .

The "Cherokee Phoenix," 1830

  • Partially bilingual newspaper of Cherokee Nation published between 1828 and 1834
  • Established by Samuel Worcester (missionary) and Elias Boudinot (Cherokee leader)
  • Written in syllabary developed by Sequoyah in 1821
  • First newspaper published by Native Americans in the U.S.
  • Published at New Echota (former capitol of the Cherokee Nation near present-day Calhoun, GA)
  • Many voices
Cherokee Phoenix, 1830. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.

Critical-thinking questions:

  1. Describe the layout and format of the newspaper. What are some differences you notice between this newspaper and modern-day newspapers?
  2. What does the current state of the newspaper tell you about how it was used?

Read the transcription below and answer the critical-thinking questions.

From the National Intelligencer Extra and Reprinted in the Cherokee Phoenix in December 1830. Extract from the President's Message. Written by President Andrew Jackson

It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements, is approaching to a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted the provision made for their removal at the last session of Congress; and it is believed that their example will induce the remaining tribes, also to seek the same obvious advantages.

The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves. The pecuniary advantages which it promises to the Government are the least of its recommendations. It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments, on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters. By opening the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south, to the settlements of the whites, it will incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier, and render the adjacent States strong enough to repel future invasion without remote aid. It will relieve the whole state of Mississippi, and the western part of Alabama, of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way, and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers; and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government, and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits, and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.

Critical-thinking questions:

  1. Describe President Jackson's tone in this excerpt. Does this surprise you? Why or why not?
  2. How does President Jackson view Native Americans as a people? How can you tell?
  3. What does President Jackson say are the benefits of Native American removal?

Background image: Page from the Cherokee Phoenix, 1830. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.

Read the transcription below and answer the critical-thinking questions.

Present State of the Indian Question: To the Editors of the National Intelligencer [Written by William Penn and reprinted by the Cherokee Phoenix on December 25, 1830]

When the Indian bill had passed, the Cherokee deputies, then at Washington, employed legal counsel . . . . Soon after Mr. Wirt was employed as counsel for the Cherokees, he prepared for their use and guidance a written opinion, embracing all the material points of difference between them and the State of Georgia. . .

  1. That the Cherokees are a sovereign nation
  2. That the territory of the Cherokees is not within the jurisdiction of the State of Georgia, but within the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation.
  3. That, consequently, the State of Georgia has no right to extend her laws over that territory.
  4. That the law of Georgia, which subjects the Cherokees to the jurisdiction of that State is unconstitutional and void.
  5. That improvements, for which individuals among the Cherokees have received a compensation from the United States, in consideration of their emigrating to the country of the Arkansas, do not pass to the United States; much less does the soil, on which these improvements are found, pass to the United States for the use of Georgia; but these improvements and the soil belong to the Cherokee Nation.
  6. And, that the President of the United States has no constitutional power to fix the boundary between the Cherokee Nation and the State of Georgia.

Critical-thinking questions:

  1. The Cherokees refer to themselves as a nation as opposed to a tribe. What connotations do these two words hold, and why do you think the Cherokees chose (and still choose) to use the word “nation”?
  2. Describe the tension between federal laws and state laws that you see represented in this excerpt.
  3. Many groups, communities, and organizations throughout history have made lists of points and/or demands that they brought before the government. Name one of these instances and compare those circumstances to the circumstances that the Cherokee Nation is facing in the 1830s.

Background image: Page from the Cherokee Phoenix, 1830. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.

What does it mean to be "civilized"?

White Americans during the eighteenth and nineteenth century insisted upon "civilizing" native people by forcing them to assimilate within a Eurocentric culture. By the early nineteenth century, the Cherokee Nation had become one of the most assimilated groups of native people, and many of its members were of mixed Cherokee and white ancestry.

How do the printed materials featured below evince assimilation?

Religious materials printed in Cherokee language, circa 1860 - 1940. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.

Losing Land

In the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia case, the Supreme Court validated the Cherokee Nation's right to federal protection against white intrusion. Although many Cherokees celebrated the ruling, it eventually proved powerless to stop the relentless efforts of state governments to remove the Cherokee people. One of the main ways the state of Georgia violated the rights of the Cherokee Nation was through land lotteries. Throughout the early nineteenth century, the state of Georgia implemented land lotteries to redistribute land belonging to the Creek Indians and the Cherokee Nation. White male citizens in Georgia could register to receive a parcel of land through these lotteries.

Land grant for Rueben Goolsby, 1838. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.
Plot of land draw for Reuben Goolsby, circa 1832. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.

Critical-thinking questions:

  1. What can you learn about the state of Georgia in the 1830s?
  2. What can you infer about Reuben Goolsby?
  3. Notice the different dates on which the land was surveyed and distributed. What does this tell you about the conflicting federal and state policies related to the Cherokee Nation?


Despite years of legal battles and assimilation attempts, a group of twenty-two Cherokees betrayed the Cherokee Nation and signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. This treaty sold Cherokee land for five million dollars and authorized the forced removal of Cherokee people from their land to Oklahoma over a period of two years.

The treaty commenced the tragedy that we now call The Trail of Tears, which led to the death of 1/4 of the Cherokee Nation.

Three of the men who signed the treaty - John Ridge, Major Ridge, and Elias Boudinot were murdered by members of the Cherokee Nation. These murders incited a civil war among the Cherokee and a raging family feud that still affects the Cherokee Nation today.

The Bentley Rare Book Museum holds published documents from congressional sessions that show the evolution of "The Indian Question" and the eventual decision to force Native Americans from their land. These documents range in date from 1830 to 1839.

Excerpt from congressional session, "Memorial of The Cherokee Delegation," April 1838.

Moving Forward

In 2019, The Cherokee Nation named Kimberly Teehee as its first ever delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. This right was outlined in the Treaty of New Echota of 1835. For many, Teehe's appointment serves as a reminder that the Cherokee Nation still plays an active and critical role in the United States.

Cherokee history neither begins nor ends with the Trail of Tears. Textbooks, museums, archival institutions, and other mainstream cultural heritage resources often interpret history in a way that reduces Cherokee history to a tragedy that ended in the nineteenth century. The Cherokee Nation is active and alive in the United States. At KSU, our goal is to work collaboratively with the Cherokee community to develop written and printed collections that represent this Nation accurately, authentically, and with respect.

The Bentley Rare Book Museum is currently collecting contemporary fiction works by Cherokee writers like Diane Glancy. These works honor the recent contributions of indigenous people to the body of American literature.

"Pushing the Bear" (1996) and "Flutie" (1998) by Diane Glancy. Courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Museum.

Background Image: Kimberly Teehee [left] and Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. [right], 2019. Courtesy of NPR.

Thank you for completing this module!

To learn more about the Bentley Rare Book Museum and the Department of Museums, Archives and Rare Books, see the links below.