Relationships between Tennessee’s Native Americans and the Europeans who came to settle most of the state were regulated by various treaties negotiated between 1770 and 1835. A series of ten treaties defined the areas assigned to both groups and the relationships between the parties and eventually moved Tennessee’s Indian population west of the Mississippi River to present-day Oklahoma.

In 1763 the British government issued the Proclamation Line restricting settlement and fur trading without British licenses to areas east of the headwaters of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1770 British Southern Indian Superintendent John Stuart made the Treaty of Lochabar with the Cherokees that ceded land north and east of a line running along the 36 degree, 30 minute line to Long Island on the Holston River (now Kingsport) and thence northward to the Kanawa River in western Virginia. Though the line was technically the North Carolina-Virginia boundary, it actually included a small portion of what is now Johnson and Sullivan Counties. In 1771, when John Donelson and Alexander Cameron surveyed the line with Cherokee assistance, the Cherokees took pity on the settlers living north of the South Fork of the Holston and agreed to the Little Carpenter modification of the Lochabar line allowing the area north of the Holston to be considered territory for legal settlement. Thus, Sullivan County was part of Virginia until 1779 and was considered a legal settlement area.

The Treaty of Sycamore Shoals was negotiated between Judge Richard Henderson of North Carolina and the Cherokees led by Little Carpenter during March 1775 at Sycamore Shoals (now Elizabethton) on the Watauga River. This private treaty was illegal under both British and later American law. It was, however, one of the most influential in Tennessee history. The treaty transferred the area between the Ohio River and the headwaters of the streams flowing into the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers–central Kentucky and north central Tennessee–to the Transylvania Land Company for 10,000 British pounds of trading goods. Little Carpenter’s son, Dragging Canoe, refused to recognize the sale and vowed to turn Middle Tennessee into a “dark and bloody ground,” a promise he kept through his leadership of the Chickamaugas. Henderson opened the Cumberland settlements as a result of this treaty. The supplementary Watauga and Brown purchases, also made at the 1775 Sycamore Shoals negotiations, transferred ownership of lease rights to Watauga and Nolichucky to the white settlers.

Two treaties acknowledged the Cherokee defeats in 1776 and 1779 in support of the British during the American Revolution. The Treaty of Hopewell, signed on November 28, 1785, officially ended fighting between the United States and the Cherokees and ceded an area south of the Cumberland River for settlement in return for protection of the Cherokee land. Settlers moved into that land, however, and the more definitive Treaty of Holston was signed at Knoxville on July 2, 1791, by Territorial Governor William Blount. For a $1,000 annuity, later raised to $1,500 by Secretary of War Henry Knox, the Cherokees ceded all claims to the area east of the Clinch River and north of a line through Kingston to the North Carolina border.

Further cession of land by the Cherokees came at the First Treaty of Tellico signed October 2, 1798. It granted land that settlers had entered between the Clinch River and the Cumberland Plateau and between the Tennessee and Little Tennessee rivers.

Treaty negotiations often occurred at Tellico Blockhouse. The second treaty did not affect land in Tennessee, but the Third Treaty of Tellico in 1805 did. Indian Agent Return J. Meigs and Daniel Smith obtained from the Cherokees all land north of the Duck River and extended that line due east to the Tennessee River, including all of the Cumberland Plateau. A few days later, an additional payment was made to obtain the rights to operate a mail road from Tellico to the Tombigbee River through Cherokee territory as part of a Knoxville-to-New Orleans route. The same negotiations transferred a small parcel of land around the U.S. garrison at Southwest Point (now Kingston) as a desirable location for the state capital. Subsequently, the capital was moved to that site for one day, September 21, 1807, to fulfill this pledge, making Kingston one of the four official capitals of Tennessee.

The following year, 1806, the claims of the Cherokees and Creeks to the land south of the Duck River to the southern boundary of the state were purchased. Meigs and Smith paid the Creeks $14,000 for their claims, and Secretary of War Henry Dearborn negotiated the Treaty of Washington of 1806 with the Cherokees to obtain their claims for $10,000, a gristmill, a cotton gin, and a $100 annuity for Chief Black Fox.

After the War of 1812 and the subsidiary Creek War, Return J. Meigs began an attempt to persuade the Cherokees to voluntarily remove to the Arkansas area. He was quite successful, but when the Cherokees arrived in Arkansas to take possession of the land, they discovered their ownership disputed by Indians already in the area. This resulted in the 1817 Jackson and McMinn Treaty, which transferred lands along the Sequatchie River to white control along with some land in Georgia in return for secure possession of land along the Arkansas and White rivers. The U.S. government also promised to pay the expenses of Indians emigrating to the west. On October 19, 1818, Andrew Jackson and former Governor Isaac Shelby of Kentucky made the Treaty of Tuscaloosa (traditionally known as the Jackson Purchase) with the Chickasaws. Jackson and Shelby bribed Levi Colbert, who with his brothers had taken over political leadership of the tribe, and obtained the 10,700 square miles of territory between the Mississippi River and the western valley of the Tennessee River. This area, comprising one-fourth of Tennessee, was a Chickasaw hunting area and contained no villages. The Chickasaws traded it for $300,000 to be paid in twenty annual installments. There was an immediate rush of settlement to the area, and Jackson, John Overton, and James Winchester soon founded Memphis. Sixteen counties were established by 1824.

The next year, 1819, U.S. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun negotiated the Calhoun Treaty with the Cherokees and cleared the remaining area between the Little Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers for settlement. The only area remaining in Cherokee hands was the southeastern corner of the state in the area that now comprises Monroe, Polk, Bradley, and most of Hamilton Counties.

The final treaty affecting Tennessee was the Treaty of New Echota signed on December 29, 1835, at New Echota, Georgia. It was signed by representatives of the Treaty Party among the Cherokees, who spoke for approximately 10 percent of the tribe. The leader of the signatories was Major Ridge, a Tennessean from the Sequatchie Valley area. The United States delegates included former Governor William Carroll. The treaty finalized removal plans for the Cherokees. It purchased Cherokee land in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina, appropriated a portion of that money for travel expenses, used other money to purchase land for Cherokee use in what is now Oklahoma, and set aside the rest for the construction of public buildings in the new location. The treaty gave a two-year time limit for removal. John Ross of Ross’s Landing near modern Chattanooga led the other 90 percent of the Cherokees to resist removal. This treaty eventually resulted in the Trail of Tears.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Treaties
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018