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Abraham Baldwin and Georgia’s Removal of Native Americans

Athens was on the Georgia frontier in 1800.

“That the United States shall, at their own expense, extinguish, for the use of Georgia… the Indian title to the country of Talassee, to the lands left out by the line drawn with the Creeks… and to the lands within the forks of Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers… and that the United States shall, in the same manner, also extinguish the Indian title to all the other lands within the State of Georgia… ”—Articles of Agreement and Cession… April 24, 1802  

This exclusive 1802 compact between the federal government and the state was the bitter antidote to Georgia’s long illness: anxiety over its vast western territorial claims. Failing to establish counties or colonies anywhere west of the Oconee River and confronted by the legacy of President Washington’s 1790 treaty with the Creek Nation, which defined Georgia’s western boundary at the Oconee River, Georgia aimed to weaken, if not abrogate, the hated U.S.-Creek Treaty of New York. These western claims (including today’s Alabama and Mississippi) had proven more trouble to the state than they were then worth. Georgia’s actions after the Revolution had provoked a war with the Creek nation over the Oconee valley, had caused a diplomatic crisis in Spanish-U.S. relations and had ignited a political war inside the state over attempts to sell these vast claims to private real-estate interests. Meanwhile, in 1795, the federal government had quietly gained, by treaty with Spain, recognition of its authority over the region north of the 31st parallel. South was the Spanish colony of West Florida. As the Adams administration subsequently moved forward to organize a territorial government, Georgia denounced the action as an intrusion on its territorial rights––there was little more that the state could do.

Georgia’s Claims

Congressional legislation to organize the territory was tied to the settlement of Georgia claims. President Adams selected cabinet members to confer with state delegates. Abraham Baldwin, founder and first president of the University of Georgia, was chosen as one of three commissioners to negotiate on behalf of the state. His notes from the first meetings in the spring of 1800 reveal widely divergent views. The Federalist stamp of the U.S. commissioners is obvious from their first proposal to Georgia: Relinquish state claims west of the Chattahoochee River, and the U.S. will withdraw federal claims to the east––the shadow of New York here is apparent. By treaties, both the Creeks and Cherokees held federal land guarantees, which were at odds with Georgia’s claim of sovereignty over lands beyond the Oconee River. Baldwin, knowing his state, rejected the premise on which the offer was based. Negotiations were suspended, while Georgia leaders hoped for a Jefferson victory in the upcoming election.

With Jefferson in power by 1801, negotiations resumed. The new president weighed in with his own private offer, which Baldwin, aware of his state’s tender sensitivities, may have not even shared with his fellow commissioners. Jefferson offered to purchase from the Creek nation (he wrote “repurchase”) the lost county of Talassee––a region south of the Altamaha that the Creeks retained in the New York Treaty––in consideration to the state for ceding west of the Chattahoochee. Joined by James Jackson and John Milledge, Baldwin had better success with Jefferson’s appointees.

The Mississippi territory was conclusively lost to Georgia in this 1802 compact, giving the state its familiar shape today, but leaders took solace in what they attained: money—which both Washington and Adams viewed as ridiculous—and, most importantly, a counterweight to the federal treaties with the Cherokees and Creeks. Although it was not a treaty in the technical sense, the state used this new diplomatic weapon aggressively. 

Over the next 25 years, Georgia’s legislative body made perennial demands on successive administrations to execute its pledge to “extinguish the Indian title to all the other lands within the State of Georgia… ”

Eighteenth Century tensions that had characterized U.S.-Georgia relations over American Indian affairs were generally replaced with 19th Century collusion tied to this singular compact. The old bonds of Indian-Anglo trade unraveled while economic, military and diplomatic options were curtailed. As a consequence, debt, poverty and civil war threatened Native Americans. These were conditions ripe for land cessions, which for Georgia were not occurring aggressively enough.

Emerging from this 25-year crisis, to the horror of Georgia leaders, was a Cherokee nation achieving a political rebirth that launched a direct bid for constitutional reality. Georgia leaders characterized this threat as a late insurgency on their own soil, and they met it with vicious legislative assaults while covering for lawless thuggery against Cherokee families.

These were the contours of conflict as Andrew Jackson was inaugurated president in March 1829. Previous administrations had extended a measure of protection to check Georgia aggressions, but Jackson was the man the state had been looking for. In violation of U.S. treaty obligations, he withdrew federal troops stationed to protect the Cherokee borders. A final solution was in view, which even the weight of constitutional law and a Supreme Court order would not halt. And as the state neared its long goal of a territory without Indians (Georgia today has no American Indian reservations), the more desperate it was to complete the project.

There is no reason to believe that Abraham Baldwin had “forced removal” in mind when he helped broker the 1802 compact, although there is a hint of this thinking in a 1786 letter reporting on the Creek-Georgia war that halted his University of Georgia project that summer. Relinquishing American Indian land titles in the state was the wording of the contract, but in the end, ethnic cleansing was its execution.

Removal and Slavery

It was an odd transformation of culture and land––a crude formula of American Indian removal and African American bondage. And on this issue, as well, the 1802 compact was explicit. Successful lobbying by slave holders and land speculators modified the federal settlement model for the new Mississippi Territory. In contrast to the settlement of federal lands in the Ohio valley and the old Northwest, slavery would not be forbidden in the new territory. Seven consequential words, fiercely debated in Congress, conclude the fifth article that reads: “That the territory thus ceded shall form a state… in the same manner, as is provided in the ordinance of Congress… for the Government of the Western territory of the United States; which ordinance shall, in all its parts, extend to the territory contained in the present act of cession, that article only excerpted which forbids slavery.”

An institution that many Americans had hoped would be restricted to the original Southern states and would fade in time was revitalized by this contract. North and South were further divided, and the nation lurched toward a national crisis and its reckoning.

A thorough accounting of the legislative achievements of Abraham Baldwin will continue to bring to light his significant contributions to Georgia––few would achieve the confidence in which he was held by his fellow citizens. In the context of Georgia’s tumultuous relationship with both the Creek and Cherokee nations, his role, though hidden from Native American leaders, would prove decisive. Abraham Baldwin loaded the legal weapon that Andrew Jackson fired.

In June 1825, as the controversy over Indian removal in Georgia was reaching national and international attention, a message to Andrew Jackson from a Native American elder was published in the Washington Gazette

“Whither must we go now? Must we leave the home of our fathers, and go to a strange land, beyond the great river of the West? That land is dark and desolate––we shall have no pleasure in it. Pleasant are the fields of our youth. We love the woods where our fathers led us to the chase. Their bones lie by the running stream, where we played in the days of our childhood. When we are gone, strangers will dig them up.

“Brother! The Great Spirit made us all. You have land enough. Leave us, then, the fields of our youth, and the woods where our fathers led us to the chase. Permit us to remain in peace under the shade of our own trees. Let us watch over the graves of our fathers, by the streams of our childhood… “

The removal of Native American communities from Georgia triggered a corresponding removal from historical narratives that continues in our day: the active significance of Native Americans in the creation of Georgia. These are the metaphorical bones of American-Indian history buried in the story of Georgia—from its humble beginnings in Savannah to the final gunpoint eviction at New Echota.