In his mother tongue he was Gallegina or "the Buck", the eldest of nine children born to a prominent Cherokee family in northwest Georgia. By the time he was murdered in Oklahoma by fellow tribe members he had a new name - Elias Boudinot - and was considered a traitor to his people, a sellout whose advocacy of assimilation ultimately led to a contrived treaty with Andrew Jackson's government enabling the "The Trail of Tears".
His story still inflames passions today but is far more than a morality tale against appeasement. He was an educated young man of good family with a foot in two incompatible camps, trying to bridge the gulf between tradition and modernity on terms ultimately trumped by race. He failed, with catastrophic consequences for the Cherokee nation, but faced an impossible choice that deserves a fresh historical treatment.
Contrary to the impression given by Paul Revere and the Raider's chart topping "Indian Reservation", the Cherokee people who remained in their ancestral homeland in the early 1800s took away their old ways of life and adopted new ones. The Cherokee were known as one of the five "civilized tribes", a term now considered pejorative but at that time widely applied to the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee of the southeastern United States who had adopted many of the customs of white society - including the ownership of black slaves. Sequoyah's syllabary, at first viewed with skepticism and scorn by his people, was in full use by 1823 and designated the official alphabet of the Cherokee Nation in 1825. Cherokee volunteers under Boudinot's Uncle John Ridge - appointed Major by Andrew Jackson during the Creek War of 1813-1814 - fought with Jackson at Horseshoe Bend and later in the Seminole War of 1818. A thirty year period of rapid acculturation among the eastern Cherokee in the early 1800s established an elected tribal council, a capital at New Echota, Georgia, and a constitution modeled on that of the United States.
These efforts occurred during a period of intense pressure on the Cherokee to relinquish their lands to settlers from the rapidly expanding states of the eastern seaboard and the Gulf coast. Georgia's population increased six-fold between 1790 and 1830 as the frontier moved westward. Despite their adoption of white culture and social organization, the Cherokee were not American citizens and had no rights that American's felt bound to accept. A supreme Court Ruling in 1823 found that a Native American "right of occupancy" was subordinate to the United States' "right of discovery", paving the way for systematic dispossession.
The leaders of the Eastern Cherokee at the time when Elias Boudinot was growing up included many of mixed blood, and in the eyes of white society this carried the unacceptable taint of miscegenation. This proved particularly true for Boudinot, of mixed ancesry himself, who experienced firsthand an American intolerance of marriages between Indian and White. It happened not in Georgia, however, but in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut.
Elias Boudinot's father Oo-watie, the head of a prominent and progressive Cherokee family, educated several of his children, including Boudinot and his half brother Stand Watie (later a Confederate general), at a Moravian missionary school at Spring Place, Georgia. In 1817 Boudinot was among the first students to attend the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions school in Cornwall, Connecticut. The school was established to create potential missionaries out of "heathens" with the sponsorship of Yale's President Timothy Dwight. During the journey north, the Cherokee met the aged founding President of the American Bible Society - Elias Boudinot - whose name Gallegina adopted as his own in a sign of respect.
The Mission School lasted less than a decade and racial prejudice was its undoing. Both Boudinot and his cousin John Ridge converted to Christianity while at the school, but they also became involved with local Cornwall girls. In 1825 Ridge married Sarah Northrop, whose father was the school's steward, in a union that many citizens of this small New England town considered "unnatural." The next year, Boudinot married another Cornwall woman, Harriet Gold, despite her own brother leading a group of citizens that burned the couple in effigy on the town green. The school was immediately pressured to close because of these scandalous weddings.
It would be fascinating to research the later writings and letters of Elias Boudinot to see what impact he ascribed to this experience. He certainly redoubled his efforts on behalf of the Cherokee. He and his wife returned to Georgia, where they worked in a mission and he started a national speaking tour and campaign to raise support for Cherokee progress in the "arts of civilization." He became editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual periodical that quickly became embroiled in the removal crisis that threatened to dispossess the Cherokee from their ancestral lands. Boudinot came out in favor of voluntary removal, a choice that would cost him the editorship of the paper in 1832 and ultimately his life.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 prompted the Cherokee to petition the Supreme Court to recognize their status as a sovereign nation. Remarkably, the court ruled in their favor, declaring unconstitutional Georgia's extension of state law over them. Neither Georgia nor Andrew Jackson, however, recognized or enforced the ruling, but it did mean that to be legal, the Cherokee would have to sign a treaty agreeing to removal.
At this time of extreme crisis, the Cherokee split into two factions. The largest, more than 16,000 under paramount chief John Ross, opposed removal (or as some suggest, wanted to hold out for better terms). Boudinot and Stand Watie, their Uncle Major Ridge and cousin John Ridge, represented perhaps 500 Cherokee who favored voluntary removal. This faction signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 authorizing removal. Despite a formal petition protesting this action as unauthorized and containing more than 15,000 Cherokee signatures, the treaty was ratified by both houses of Congress (passing the Senate by a single vote, with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay among those voices raised in opposition). The Boudinot-Ridge-Watie faction left for Oklahoma ahead of the soldiers, and in 1838 the shameful forced removal and atrocities of the "Trail of Tears" accompanied the eviction of the rest of the tribe. Over 4,000 Cherokee perished during the relocation.
On June 22, 1839, Major
John Ridge, his son John and his nephew Elias Boudinot, were methodically killed by members of the Ross faction. Sarah Northrop watched her husband dragged from his bed and stabbed 25 times out in the yard before their home and children. Major ridge was fired on from ambush and struck by 5 bullets in the head and body. Elias Boudinot's end came as he was directing carpenters at the home he was building. He was approached by four unknown men asking directions to a nearby Doctor's house, and as he turned he was stabbed and tomahawked from behind. Only Stand Watie escaped, and remained a bitter opponent of Ross - and unreconstructed foe of abolition -until the old John Ross died in 1866.
Most histories conclude at this point that Elias Boudinot got what he deserved as the signer of a fraudulent treaty and betrayer of his people. Such an interpretation has the satisfying quality of a Shakespearean tragedy, but it provides an incomplete picture of a complex young man caught in the vice of an expanding America that had no place for his kind, no matter how civilized they might aspire to be. The angry torches of the Whites of Cornwall could not deter him from a missionary zeal to make the Cherokee - and himself - worthy of American acceptance.