James K. Polk

Special Message

April 13, 1846

To the Senate and House of Representatives:

In my annual message of the 2d of December last it was stated that serious difficulties of long standing continued to distract the several parties into which the Cherokee tribe of Indians is unhappily divided; that all the efforts of the Government to adjust these difficulties had proved to be unsuccessful, and would probably remain so without the aid of further legislation by Congress. Subsequent events have confirmed this opinion.

I communicate herewith, for the information of Congress, a report of the Secretary of War, transmitting a report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, with accompanying documents, together with memorials which have been received from the several bands or parties of the Cherokees themselves. It will be perceived that internal feuds still exist which call for the prompt intervention of the Government of the United States.

Since the meeting of Congress several unprovoked murders have been committed by the stronger upon the weaker party of the tribe, which will probably remain unpunished by the Indian authorities; and there is reason to apprehend that similar outrages will continue to be perpetrated unless restrained by the authorities of the United States.

Many of the weaker party have been compelled to seek refuge beyond the limits of the Indian country and within the State of Arkansas, and are destitute of the means for their daily subsistence. The military forces of the United States stationed on the western frontier have been active in their exertions to suppress these outrages and to execute the treaty of 1835, by which it is stipulated that "the United States agree to protect the Cherokee Nation from domestic strife and foreign enemies, and against intestine wars between the several tribes."

These exertions of the Army have proved to a great extent unavailing, for the reasons stated in the accompanying documents, including communications from the officer commanding at Fort Gibson.

I submit, for the consideration of Congress, the propriety of making such amendments of the laws regulating intercourse with the Indian tribes as will subject to trial and punishment in the courts of the United States all Indians guilty of murder and such other felonies as may be designated, when committed on other Indians within the jurisdiction of the United States.

Such a modification of the existing laws is suggested because if offenders against the laws of humanity in the Indian country are left to be punished by Indian laws they will generally, if not always, be permitted to escape with impunity. This has been the case in repeated instances among the Cherokees. For years unprovoked murders have been committed, and yet no effort has been made to bring the offenders to punishment. Should this state of things continue, it is not difficult to foresee that the weaker party will be finally destroyed. As the guardian of the Indian tribes, the Government of the United States is bound by every consideration of duty and humanity to interpose to prevent such a disaster.

From the examination which I have made into the actual state of things in the Cherokee Nation I am satisfied that there is no probability that the different bands or parties into which it is divided can ever again live together in peace and harmony, and that the well-being of the whole requires that they should be separated and live under separate governments as distinct tribes.

That portion who emigrated to the west of the Mississippi prior to the year 1819, commonly called the "Old Settlers," and that portion who made the treaty of 1835, known as the "treaty party," it is believed would willingly unite, and could live together in harmony. The number of these, as nearly as can be estimated, is about one-third of the tribe. The whole number on all the bands or parties does not probably exceed 20,000. The country which they occupy embraces 7,000,000 acres of land, with the privilege of an outlet to the western limits of the United States. This country is susceptible of division, and is large enough for all.

I submit to Congress the propriety of either dividing the country which they at present occupy or of providing by law a new home for the one or the other of the bands or parties now in hostile array against each other, as the most effectual, if not the only, means of preserving the weaker party from massacre and total extermination. Should Congress favor the division of the country as suggested, and the separation of the Cherokees into two distinct tribes, justice will require that the annuities and funds belonging to the whole, now held in trust for them by the United States, should be equitably distributed among the parties, according to their respective claims and numbers.

There is still a small number of the Cherokee tribe remaining within the State of North Carolina, who, according to the stipulations of the treaty of 1835, should have emigrated with their brethren to the west of the Mississippi. It is desirable that they should be removed, and in the event of a division of the country in the West, or of a new home being provided for a portion of the tribe, that they be permitted to join either party, as they may prefer, and be incorporated with them.

I submit the whole subject to Congress, that such legislative measures may be adopted as will be just to all the parties or bands of the tribe. Such measures, I am satisfied, are the only means of arresting the horrid and inhuman massacres which have marked the history of the Cherokees for the last few years, and especially for the last few months.

The Cherokees have been regarded as among the most enlightened of the Indian tribes, but experience has proved that they have not yet advanced to such a state of civilization as to dispense with the guardian care and control of the Government of the United States.


James K. Polk, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/200837

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