Pruning the Parks: New Echota Marker National Memorial (1933-1950) Commemorated the Cherokee Nation Seat of Government

Cherokee Chief John Ross led the unsuccessful legal battle to get the Treaty of New Echota nullified. Oklahoma State University Digital Library photo.

Congress authorized New Echota Marker National Memorial in 1930, the NPS acquired it in 1933, and Congress abolished it on September 21, 1950. It’s a pity so few have ever heard of the marker, now owned by the state of Georgia, because it commemorates a remarkable place and events that are well worth remembering.

The Cherokee Indians were once a mighty force in the southeastern U.S. At the zenith of their power they occupied or dominated much of the Southern Appalachians region, including parts of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

By the 1820s the Cherokees, one of the Five Civilized Tribes, were doing pretty much what the federal and state governments wanted them to. They did not harass and kill whites that were hunting, farming, and building roads on land that the Cherokee had controlled for many generations. Most of the Cherokee had transitioned to a sedentary, rural-agricultural lifestyle, becoming “civilized” in the sense of adopting many of the cultural and technological practices of the whites and abandoning cultural traits that whites considered primitive or savage. In brief, they were good neighbors trying to fit in.

For a while at least, this “go-along to get-along” acculturation strategy seemed to work quite well. The Cherokee National Council adopted a republican government for the Cherokee nation in 1820. In 1825, the Cherokee nation’s capital was formally established at a location a few miles north of the modern-day town of Calhoun, Georgia. The new Cherokee capital was called New Echota in memory of the abandoned Indian town of Chota, former capital of the Overhill Cherokee. A common English name for New Echota was “New Town.”

New Echota was a remarkable place during its 1825-1838 heyday. The town not only had business establishments, including taverns, furniture shops, and shoe stores, but also a two-story Council House, a Supreme Court, a school, and a newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix. New Echota was, by all accounts, a very going concern.

As things turned out, this was just the calm before the storm. Things went downhill for the Cherokee very quickly in the 1830s.

The New Echota Treaty, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1836 (and which nearly all, of the Cherokees rejected as fraudulent) extinguished all Cherokee claims to lands east of the Mississippi River. In return, the Indians were to get $5 million and “comparable land in the west.” It was a bum deal, but like it or not, the Cherokee would have to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

After the vast majority of the Cherokee refused to leave voluntarily, federal and state troops were sent to forcibly evict them and other members of the Five Civilized Tribes. (There was actually a series of Indian removals during 1833-1839) Many Indians hid, but eventually more than 16,000 were rounded up in 1838 and sent west for resettlement, mainly in eastern Oklahoma. To serve the prisoner assembly needs of this process, an Indian removal fort (Fort Wool) was constructed at New Echota

The conditions of the forced march westward were so deplorable that as many as 4,000 Indian men, women, and children may have died along the way from malnourishment, exhaustion, exposure, and disease. Small wonder that the removal has come to be called the Trail of Tears.

The NPS-administered Trail of Tears National Historic Trail (established 1987) commemorates the primary routes used for the forced removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands to the Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma) during 1838–39.

While the Trail of Tears is well known today, the same can’t be said for the Cherokee capital of New Echota, which was abandoned (except for a few houses) after the removal. In fact, most Americans who consider themselves reasonably well schooled in U.S. history have never heard of New Echota.

Why this is so is not particularly difficult to understand. Just as the Trail of Tears and other removals of the civilized tribes assault our basic sense of humanity (how could our ancestors have treated friendly Indians so cruelly?), knowledge that the Cherokee were principally farmers, and that the Cherokee capital of New Echota was a well–organized urban place forces us to recognize that the victimized Indians were not savages at all. The Indian removals of 1833-1839 were motivated as much by racial bigotry as by lust for the Indian lands, and we Americans didn’t publicly come to grips with this dark corner of our history until the latter third of the 20th century.

This is not to say that New Echota was wholly ignored by earlier generations, just that its commemoration was distinctly underplayed. On May 28, 1930, Congress authorized the establishment of a memorial, under War Department management, on the site of the Cherokee national capital. Known as the New Echota Marker, and consisting of information signage, the memorial was duly erected with Federal funding in 1931.

On August 10, 1933, the New Echota Marker became one of the many Federally-owned battlefields, national cemeteries, and other properties transferred to National Park Service management incident to the agency reorganization.

After being deemed a state park-quality historical resource, the New Echota Marker National Memorial was abolished by an act of Congress on September 21, 1950, and transferred to the state of Georgia. The site is now part of Georgia’s New Echota Historic Site, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

Postscript: If you are really into historical markers, you’ll be pleased to know that there is a cluster of them at or near the site of the original (1931) New Echota Marker. The Georgia Historical Commission erected a New Echota Marker in 1952, and there is a Trail of Tears Marker just a few steps away. Nearby are two other markers, the New Echota Cemetery Marker (about a half-mile away) and the New Echota Ferry Marker (400 feet away).

Comments

This is an interesting site - and New Echota and the Cherokee culture are covered in Georgia public education, or at least they were when I was in school (I graduated in '88). Georgia has lots of interesting Native American sites, including the Etowah Indian mounds (state), Ocmulgee National Monument (federal) and Skidaway Island (state) off of the coast near Savannah.