8A - Northeast Georgia History Center



8A - Northeast Georgia History Center
Journalism and the First Amendment of Northeast Georgia
Execution of Cherokee named Corn Tassel
was practically ignored by most newspapers
But the Cherokee nation’s
paper had plenty to say
By Jeff Pierce
During the summer of 1830,
North Georgia was a somewhat
tenuous border area between settlers moving from the south and
east and the lands of the Cherokee. Hall County itself, only a
decade or so before, had been
created, in December 1818, out
of lands belonging to those same
The discovery of gold in the
area had only served to heighten
the tensions between the two
“sovereign” nations in the latter
years of the 1820’s. To that end,
the state of Georgia had pushed
its advantage in relations between itself and the Cherokee
nation. In addition to the lure
of gold, the idea of States’ Rights
played heavily into the political
fabric of the day.
Our neighbors to the east,
South Carolinians, led by John
C. Calhoun, had only dipped
their toes into the boiling cauldron of this divisive question.
But it would take a session of
the Hall County Superior Court
to unceremoniously tweak the
nose of the mighty federal government in Washington and begin a course that would not find
fruition until two old West Point
cadets sat down together at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.
The case of Corn Tassel, also
known as George Corntassel, accused of the murder of another
Cherokee at Talking Rock Ford
in today’s Pickens County, Ga.,
came to trial in Gainesville during the September 1830 term of
the Superior Court of Hall County. He was found guilty of murder on Nov. 22 and sentenced to
death. After he was condemned
to be hanged, his counsel asked
him how he liked the sentence.
He answered that he would
“rather go to his own country
and be shot.”
He was told that could not be
done. “Well, then,” he said, “rather than be hung, I will go to Arkansas.”
Corn Tassel appealed the
verdict on the grounds that the
crime, if indeed a crime had been
committed, transpired on land
not under the jurisdiction of the
laws and courts of Georgia. Representing Tassel in his appeal
before the United States Supreme
Court was the Hon. William
Wirt, just freed from his 12-year
appointment as Attorney General of the United States. Only two
years later, he would be the first
person chosen by a formal political convention as a candidate for
President of the United States.
governor, George Gilmer,
fearing that a trial
before a nationally
would find Tassel’s
conviction invalid, refused to have his state
represented before it.
The High Court did
indeed rule in favor of
Corn Tassel and overturned his conviction
on the grounds argued
by Wirt, that Georgia
had no jurisdiction in
lands owned and governed by the Cherokee.
In anticipation of just such a
verdict, a message was sent from
the governor in Milledgeville
to Sheriff Jacob Eberhardt in
Gainesville, directing him, contrary to the decision rendered
by Chief Justice John Marshall
and the court, to move forward
with the execution of Corn Tassel. The assertion of the primacy
of States’ Rights had been made
from the highest level of Georgia’s government.
In the area currently occupied
by the main office of United Community Bank and the traditional
site of the original Mule Camp
Springs, a scaffold was erected
on which the sentence was to be
carried out. In a story published
in the Gainesville Eagle on May
11, 1888, an eye-witness to the
event recorded the account as
“…The day of execution come
(sic) and O! What a day; cloudy,
dark, rain, hail and sleet through
the entire day. Every road leading to the town was thronged at
an early hour with men, women
and children from all parts of the
county and many from adjoining
counties until a vast multitude
had assembled to witness the
death of a human being while
suspended between heaven and
earth. Some three hundred of
the ill-fated man’s friends were
on hand to bid him farewell….
The prisoner (who had ridden to
the site sitting on his own coffin
in the back of a wagon) was ordered by the Sheriff to rise and
stand upon his coffin, on which
for some time he had been sitting.
The arms were tied down, the cap
drawn down over the face, the ox
cart was driven forward leaving
the body suspended in the air.”
Other contemporary accounts
reveal that Tassel spoke with
“great calmness” in a statement
to those assembled for the event.
When he was cut down from the
scaffold, his body was given to
friends and then buried, accord-
ing to some, in the
middle of either Bradford or Main Street.
Another account has
the burial site as the
area behind Harrison Tire Company
on Academy Street.
In any case, the state
“…He also observed that as they could not prosecute us for libel, the only
crossed a line that
way that we could be punished, would be deal with us in their individual and
day that could not be
private capacity, to tie us to a tree and give us an --- whipping.” – Editor of The
retraced of retracted.
Cherokee Phoenix, August 1831, in an editorial citing threats from the ComAccounts in the
mander of the Georgia Militia against him for writing in opposition to governpress of the day were
ment policy toward the Cherokee Nation.
sparse, given the inIf you find it your good fortune to visit James Madison’s Orange, Va., home,
significance afforded
Montpelier, you can tour the private library of our nation’s fourth president.
to the native populaIn a corner, by a small fireplace was the location of his desk, where he sat as
tion at the time. Lohe devised and wrote the foundation of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans,
cal papers were few
the Bill of Rights.
and far between, and
The docent there will direct your attention to several dark stains in the
coverage from a nawide plank floor of the room. These stains are the remnants of the ink that
tional level would
Madison possibly used while putting these basic beliefs – Freedom of Religion,
have been all but unFreedom of Assembly and, yes, Freedom of the Press – to paper, in 1789.
heard of.
As the accompanying quote from The Cherokee Phoenix can attest, MadiGainesville did not
son’s ideas concerning Freedom of the Press were, even 50 years after the fact,
have a viable newselusive, at best. The United States Supreme Court never ruled on the constitupaper until the Eagle
tionality of any federal law regarding the Free Speech Clause until the 20th
began publication in
1865. Any regional
The first real question as to the legality of these ideas came in the form of
coverage would be
the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. These acts quietly expired in 1801, and the
found in papers pubquestion was not revisited by the high court until the early 20th century.
lished in Athens,
Typically, any question or threat of reprisal for speaking freely came at a
or possibly Milledtime of crisis in the nation or when a clear threat to America’s security was
geville. However, we
eminent. The 1830s proved to be a decisive and tumultuous decade for the
do find both coverage
United States and the sovereign nation of Cherokees which existed within its
and editorial comborders.
ment in a source not
Obviously, the concept of free speech during the era of Jackson and Caloften considered by
houn was not as much a reality as it could or should have been in the “more
many today.
Pubperfect union” dreamed of by the founding fathers.
lished at New Echota
by Elias Boudinot,
The Cherokee Phoenix, the stan- lina–at another, they even out- same day in the name of States’
dard paper of the Cherokee na- do the people of South Carolina, Rights – embers that would lead
tion and advocate for Cherokee and authorize their Governor to the nation into a bloody civil war
rights, had plenty to say. As was hoist the flag of rebellion against some thirty years later – would
the case in the early 19th cen- the United States! If such pro- not be quenched.
If the firing on Fort Sumter
tury, much of the information ceedings are sanctioned by the
printed in smaller papers was majority of the people of the U. was the flashpoint that began
a reprint taken from a larger States, the Union is but a totter- America’s Civil War, it can be
one. In this case, the Phoenix re- ing fabric, which will soon fall argued that the events in a small
border town in Northeast Georprinted the following prophetic and crumble into atoms.”
Just as the cold rain and sleet gia a generation earlier were the
editorial from the Milledgeville
Recorder: “The conduct of the that fell on the young village of catalyst.
Jeff Pierce of Gainesville has a
Georgia Legislature is indeed Gainesville, Ga., on Dec. 24, 1830,
surprising–one day they dis- could not halt the execution of a master’s degree in historic presercountenance the proceedings Cherokee by the name of Corn vation. He is president-elect of the
of the nullifiers of South Caro- Tassel, the embers enflamed that Northeast Georgia History Center.
Tests of freedom-of-speech
clause were slow in coming
Northeast Georgia attorneys clashed in case that divided nation
By David Price
Cherokee leader John Ridge was
ecstatic when a Supreme Court
judge ordered that the missionaries be freed.
Samuel Worcester led a group
of 10 Congregationalists who refused to leave the Cherokee territory and sign an oath of allegiance
to the Constitution of Georgia.
William H. Underwood of Hall
County was attorney for Samuel
Worchester and Dr. Elizur Butler.
While the hanging of Corn Tassel in Gainesville (see separate
story) sparked one of the first legal battles leading up to the Civil
War, the extrajudicial lynching
also led directly to another crisis
for the Cherokee Nation, one that
would ultimately lead to their
forced exile in the West. It was a
struggle that captured the attention of the nation and involved a
number of Hall and Habersham
county lawyers.
Five days after Tassel’s execution, groups of Moravian, Baptist,
Congregationalist, and Presbyterian missionaries met at New
Echota, Ga., and drew up a series
of resolutions in defense of the
Cherokee that were published in
Boston in the Missionary Herald.
Livid, the Georgia legislature
fired back with a new law that
made it punishable by four years
of forced labor for any white person to remain in the Cherokee territory after March 1, 1831, without
first signing an oath of allegiance
to the Constitution of the State of
Most of the missionaries took
the hint and left the state. But a
group of 10 Congregationalists,
led by Samuel Worcester, refused.
A tall, thin scholar from
Peacham, Vt., Worcester had
dreamed of serving in the mission
field in India. Instead, the American Mission Board assigned him
to New Echota, where he worked
with Elias Boudinot in establishing a print shop for the Cherokee
newspaper, The Phoenix.
In March, the Georgia Guard
arrested Worcester and nine others at New Echota and marched
them 60 miles to Lawrenceville
for trial. The arrests drew national headlines, and even most
Georgians were appalled that
these men of the cloth were being
treated as common criminals.
Perhaps feeling the heat, but
more likely due to his anti-Jackson leanings, Western Circuit
Superior Court Judge Augustin
Smith Clayton of Athens released
them all on the grounds that some
were postmasters and others
were missionaries who spent federal funds allocated for civilizing
the Indians. As such, they were
agents of the United States and
not subject to the state law, Clayton ruled.
Governor Gilmer asked President Jackson if he considered the
missionaries to be U.S. agents,
and the Jackson said he did not.
The president then instructed the
postmaster general to simply fire
the local postmasters, thus cutting their ties to the federal government.
That summer, Worcester and
the group were re-arrested, along
with another missionary, Dr. Elizur Butler of Rome. This time,
according to John Ridge in The
Phoenix, “These unoffending and
guileless men were ignominiously received like felons–they were
chained with horses’ trace chains
around their necks and fastened,
one to the neck of a horse, the
other to the tail of a cart, and
thus dragged with bleeding feet,
through the rough and tangled
forest, over brake and bush and
bog and fen, at the point of a bayonet, and even in sickness, with
wounded feet, [they were] refused
the privilege of riding their own
At a hearing in Lawrenceville
on July 23, Judge Clayton released
them again, pending trial in September. By the time of the trial,
prosecuted by solicitor Turner H.
Trippe of Clarkesville, nine of the
11 defendants had either signed
the oath or left the state, but
Worcester and Butler, rejecting
all offers of clemency, were convicted and sentenced to four years
hard labor in the penitentiary at
Worcester and Butler’s Hall
County attorney, William H. Underwood, wasted no time in appealing the case to the United
States Supreme Court. In March
1832, Chief Justice John Marshall
ruled that the law by which the
missionaries were imprisoned
was “repugnant to the Constitution, laws and treaties of the
United States,” and he ordered the
men freed.
Cherokee leaders John Ridge
and Elias Boudinot, who were in
Washington, D.C., when the Supreme Court ruling was handed
down, were ecstatic. In New Echota and throughout the Cherokee
nation, the people were overcome
with joy. Runners spread the word
to even the most remote mountain
cabins that their rights had been
restored and the Nation would be
But Georgia’s new governor,
Wilson Lumpkin, responded that
he would hang the missionaries
rather than “submit to this decision made by a few superannuated life estate Judges.” Lumpkin
claimed that the U.S. Supreme
Court had gone beyond the bounds
of its authority, and the state refused to reverse the conviction.
In reaction to Georgia’s defiance, the silence from the White
House was deafening. Jackson
simply chose to do nothing. Newspaperman Horace Greeley many
years later reported that Jackson
dismissed the Supreme Court action with the comment, “Marshall
has made his ruling, now let him
enforce it.”
Whether the president actually
used those words, his intent was
the same. John Ridge demanded
to see the president and asked him
point blank whether he would use
the power of the United States to
enforce the Supreme Court’s authority over Georgia. Jackson told
him that he would not. Instead, he
told Ridge to go home and tell the
Cherokee that their only recourse
was to move to the West.
President Jackson, Northern
politicians, and even many Southern politicians feared that if the
federal government enforced the
Supreme Court ruling against
Georgia in the Cherokee case,
Georgia would cast her lot with
South Carolina and secede. Such
action would undoubtedly have
ignited the Civil War 30 years
Worcester and Butler remained in prison at Milledgeville
until January 1833, when the
American Mission Board urged
them to submit to the Georgia
law and take the oath. The board,
which had been the staunchest opponent of the Removal, also wrote
to John Ross, explaining that “in
the present posture of the affairs
in this Nation, it would conduce
to the best good of the Cherokees
for them to accept terms proposed
to them by the Government of the
United States and remove to the
Country west of the Mississippi.”
One year later, in March 1834,
Major Ridge, John Ridge and
Elias Boudinot signed the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota that
soon led to the expulsion of the
Cherokee from Georgia in the infamous Trail of Tears.
This story is part of a forthcoming book, “A Murder in Clarkesville,” by David Price. Price has
worked for a number of newspapers, including The Times of
Gainesville, The Clayton Tribune
and the former Winder News. He is
now director of public relations at
Piedmont College in Demorest.

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