Chief John Ross

John Ross was born on Oct. 3, 1790 near Lookout Mountain in southeastern Tennessee. His father was Daniel Ross, who had immigrated to America from Scotland prior to the American Revolution. The Scotsman was a trader among the Cherokee and earned a living in a variety of enterprises. He had met and married a quarter-blood Cherokee, who was the daughter of fellow Scotsman John McDonald.
Although only one-eighth Cherokee by blood and bearing no physical features common to Native Americans, John Ross considered himself a full-blood Cherokee and spent his formative years in the nation growing up in the rough-and-tumble environment common to the time. For all intents and purposes, he was regarded as a family member of the tribe and known among them as Tsan-usdi – a Cherokee term meaning "Little John". As he grew into manhood he was called Guwi–sguwi meaning "the egret or swan" – a name that came to be known over the years as "Coowescoowe".
At the time, the land around Lookout Mountain was a vital center of Native American trade. Several major Indian trails met in the region. The Chickamauga Path ran from the mouth of Chickamauga Creek into upper East Tennessee. The Great War Path went over Lookout Mountain and headed South, and the Shawnee Trail led from Williams Island into the Cumberland Valley in Middle Tennessee. The Cherokee, who had first settled in the region under the leadership of Attakullakulla’s son "Dragging Canoe", were regarded as warlike and the excuse given for the numerous expeditions that were launched by northern settlements against them. Through the years, however, the Chickamaugans had resolved their differences and once again were a part of the Cherokee Nation proper and the Ross’ and McDonalds had risen among them as an influential part of the tribal community.

Daniel Ross provided well for his family as a trader and was able to send his son off to Kingston, Tenn. to attend school and obtain an education. "Little John" excelled in his studies and proved to be among the school’s best students. Following the completion of his term in the Kingston school, he returned to his home near Lookout Mountain and began pursuing a career in business. His father was then operating a successful ferry across the Tennessee River in a growing settlement known as Ross’ Landing.
John Ross began learning the trading business from his father, but soon decided he wanted to use his education to help the Cherokee efforts to protect their status as an independent nation.
At age 19, John Ross entered into the service of the Cherokee Nation, when he was sent by Indian Agent Return Meigs on an important diplomatic mission to the Arkansas band of the tribe. Many things were beginning to happen between the Cherokee and the early American government, who were beginning to greatly expand beyond their original territories.
Unknown to the Cherokee, however, was the fact that the State of Georgia had been striking back-room deals with the administration of then-President Thomas Jefferson to strip the Cherokee of title to their North Georgia lands in exchange for secession of their western territories.
While President Jefferson made two speeches to Cherokee delegations affirming their rights as an independent nation, he also began encouraging them to look towards the western lands as a way of avoiding further encroachment on their sovereignty by white settlers. Many Cherokee families did, in fact, move their families to the western lands, which later resulted in a tribal war between the Cherokee and the Osage tribes over territorial rights.
John Ross saw the developments as a representative of the Indian Agent and asserted himself to help avoid the coming problems.
When the War of 1812 began, John Ross was made an officer in the Cherokee Auxiliary. He served as a Lieutenant in the Cherokee Regiment under the command of General Morgan, where they distinguished themselves valiantly under fire at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Following his discharge, he returned to business and worked with the Cherokee to form a republican form of government. He also spent a few years maintaining his business interests and becoming a respected member of the Cherokee Nation in his own right as a businessman. The discovery of gold on the tribal lands in Georgia had also opened up numerous opportunities for the tribe and soon many Cherokee were fast becoming some of the wealthiest people in the region.
In 1817, Ross was elected as a member of the national committee of the Cherokee Council and assigned to prepare a reply to the United States Commissioners trying to negotiate a treaty for the Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River. Ross’ firm resistance to them and their wishes in his reply began setting the stage for future trouble with the federal government, but he remained steadfast in his refusal to surrender any land to the U.S. government.
Ross continued to rise to prominence in the tribe and was elected President of the Cherokee national committee in October 1819.
In that session, Ross also introduced a measure, which provided the introduction into the nation of schoolmasters, blacksmiths, mechanics, and other tradesmen to help educate his people and provide them a source of income.
Ross remained at the helm of the national committee for seven years working to build the Cherokee Nation into a self-sustaining society that required no assistance from the federal government.
Ross’ efforts began to take hold and, in 1826, he assumed the post of Associate-Chief with William Hicks and served as President of the Cherokee Constitutional Convention, which adopted the Constitution later that year – marking the first time in Native American history that a tribe had adopted a form of government with distinct branches and clearly defined separation of powers.
Ross and the convention representatives went beyond ideological passage of the document and immediately put the constitution into effect and established the national form of government, which started putting fear into state and federal officials, who had for years played tribes against each other to gain land treaties and trading rights.
Under John Ross’ leadership, those deals were severely restricted and the Cherokee Nation began a rise to a prominence it had never known. In 1828, John Ross was given the greatest honor from the tribe when was made Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Throughout his career in the post, Ross remained committed to education and the betterment of his people and, as their leader, achieved recognition of rights that earned the respect of numerous American leaders and representatives.
Chief John Ross and his people, however, remained locked into a land battle with the State of Georgia. Ross’ efforts were aimed at trying to hold the U.S. government to the 1802 Treaty, which gave them their principal tribal boundaries in the region, which were supposedly protected from further encroachment.
Although Chief Ross had achieved great things for the Cherokee Nation and continued to legally establish their rights to exist in their ancestral lands, the State of Georgia refused to acknowledge any of it and began an all out campaign to eject them from New Echota in northern part of the state. With "gold fever" sweeping the region and Georgia wanting to lay claim to it, the Cherokee were stripped of their rights of due process, forbidden from collecting debts or testifying against white settlers, tribal members were hanged in defiance of federal court orders to the contrary, and families had their land brutally seized and their homes burned.
Chief Ross had sensed he and his family were in danger and, in 1835, fell back to the refuge of the Red Clay Council Grounds in southeastern Tennessee. The tribe had rejected the illegal treaty negotiated by the Ridge Party in Washington and President Jackson’s administration refused to talk with the official tribal delegation – even though Ross had gathered 16,000 Cherokee signatures on a document to prove to Congress the Ridge Party did not speak for the Cherokee Nation.
The Georgia state government became fearful the Cherokee might be successful and continued to pressure them to evacuate the northern section of the state. In a controversial move and without the knowledge of Tennessee officials, the Georgia Guard crossed over the Tennessee border and seized John Ross where he was returned to the state and jailed. He was later released and the tribe forced to adopt the Ridge Treaty that removed the Nation to the lands in Oklahoma.
John Ross remained defiant throughout the process and even won a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, but then-President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce it. Congressional leaders across the young nation questioned the validity of the treaty and the manner in which it was "passed" with only a handful of votes. With all efforts expended to remain and the national government he had helped forge in ruins, however, Chief John Ross had no other option, but to take a role of leadership in helping his people move to the new territory.
During the brutal journey down the infamous "Trail of Tears" the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation saw his own wife "Quatie" become one of the thousands of casualties who died in the exodus. He buried her near Little Rock, Arkansas and bitterly continued the march west.
Upon arriving in Oklahoma, Chief John Ross started trying to rebuild his government and reinstituting the Constitution adopted by the Nation. He ran into problems with many of the "old settlers" who had removed themselves to the Oklahoma lands years earlier and, by treaty, had developed their own chieftain forms of government. While the civil disagreements were often bloody, the new arrivals handled the problems and went about building new homes and getting their gardens planted. While the Cherokee were reestablishing their lives, Chief John Ross started reestablishing the Nation. He sent out an order to his subordinates to deal with those responsible for the removal. On June 22, 1839, Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, were executed at their homes for breaking the Constitutional amendment, which forbade any Cherokee from negotiating away land without approval of the Council. U.S. officials were surprised and frightened by the action. In the Indian Agent’s report to the Secretary of War about the executions, he stated:
"...This murder (Elias Boudinot) taking place within two miles of the residence of John Ross... At this moment I am writing, there are 600 armed Cherokee around the dwelling of Ross assembled for his protection... The murderers of the two Ridges and Boudinot are certainly of the late Cherokee emigrants and, of course, adherents of Ross, but I can not yet believe that Ross has encouraged the outrage."
Although Elias Boudinot’s brother Stand Watie vowed vengeance on Ross and his friends encouraged him to leave for his own safety, the Cherokee Chief remained and firmly reinstituted the Cherokee government, where in 1839 he began serving as Principal of the new United Cherokee Nation.
The Chief devotedly worked to build schools and develop programs aimed at making the tribe self-sufficient in the new lands. Problems continued to persist with the "old settlers" until Chief John Ross negotiated a treaty with them in 1846, which also dismissed any old charges for offenses within the new Cherokee boundaries.
The Nation overcame many of its other problems as well and soon began to prosper. Ross also maintained close ties with the newly formed Eastern Band of the Cherokee, who had managed to hold on to parts of their ancestral land in the Smoky Mountains and were organizing a like government to retain their own sovereignty.
When the War Between the States began in 1861, the Cherokee, like most Southern Americans found themselves split over which side to join. The Cherokee generally held the same beliefs and ideas of other Southerners and many wanted to immediately join the Confederate cause. Chief Ross and the Kitoowah Nationalist Society, however, supported strict neutrality, but the old Ridge Party led by Stand Watie, who was by then an influential leader, supported the Confederacy and lobbied for the tribe to join the Southern efforts.
On Oct. 7, 1861, Chief John Ross and a Cherokee delegation signed a treaty with Confederate Commissioner General Albert Pike at Tahlequah which brought the Cherokee into the Confederate cause – joining the Creeks, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Osage, Comanche, and several other smaller tribes.
The Cherokee, much like the Will Thomas Legion, performed well under fire and distinguished themselves in combat. When Union forces invaded the Indian Territory in the summer of 1862, Union Colonel Weir sent an offer to Chief Ross ordering him to repudiate the Confederate Treaty, which Chief Ross indignantly refused to do.
When the Union forces pushed into the region, Chief Ross had no other option but to leave the territory and relocate to a safe house in Philadelphia, where he quietly remained until the end of the war. With Chief Ross gone, the old Cherokee factions and new war-time rivals flared into open conflicts and began a self-destructive campaign that destroyed nearly twenty years of industry and improvements. Schools, churches and homes were razed to the ground and the region became a blackened ruin.
On July 19, 1866, a new treaty was concluded at Tahlequah that provided general amnesty and followed the other terms southern states were forced to adopt for readmittance into the United States. More than 7,000 Western Band Cherokee had lost their lives in the four-year struggle.
Once again, the aged Chief returned to help his people start rebuilding. On Aug. 1, 1866 while in Washington, D.C. on business for the Cherokee Nation, Chief John Ross died at age 77.
Upon learning of his death, the Cherokee went into mourning. The National Congress passed a memorial resolution honoring him and renamed a district with his Cherokee name "Cooweescoowee" to honor his service. In that tribute, they also summed up the life of a man who had spent his entire life in their service and, although presented numerous opportunities to enrich himself, had instead gave it to the betterment of his people. In that Congressional tribute, they also stated:
"... A friend of law, he obeyed it; a friend of education, he faithfully encouraged schools throughout the country; and spent liberally his means in conferring it upon others. Given to hospitality, none ever hungered at his doors. A professor of Christian religion, he practiced its precepts. His works are inseparable from the history of the Cherokee people for nearly half a century, while his example in the daily walks of life will linger in the future and whisper words of hope, temperance, and charity in the years of posterity."
Chief John Ross was buried in Washington, D.C., but the Cherokee resolution also called for their leader to be brought back to Oklahoma, where he was laid to rest in ceremonious tribute honoring the man who had overcame numerous challenges to his authority and managed to hold them together as a people through the darkest years in Cherokee history.

Chief John Ross continued to have an impact on Tennessee long after being forced from the region. The ferry and settlement known as Ross’ Landing continued to grow and, in 1839, became what we know today as Chattanooga.
During the forced Cherokee removal from the South, more than 1/3 of the tribe died along the way and the authority of the Cherokee Constitutional form of government was a question mark to both Cherokee and settler alike. The immediate enforcement of it in Oklahoma surprised a lot of American leaders, but gave the tribe a sense of purpose and continuity that allowed them to reestablish their lives and homes.
Chief Ross always maintained his innocence in the deaths of those who had signed the treaty, which force the Cherokee from their ancestral lands. It was apparent, however, that the men had been executed in accordance with the Constitutional amendments of the Cherokee.
Although Stand Watie was a blood brother of Elias Boudinot, he escaped the executions and rose to become a prosperous and influential planter in the new Cherokee Nation. His vow of vengeance against Chief Ross never came to pass because he, like the chief, was involved in numerous civil battles over land and other issues. During the War Between the States, he served as Brigadier General of the Cherokee regiments. In the Battle of Pea Ridge, Gen. Stand Watie, who often employed tactics similar to those of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, distinguished himself and his men at the battle and earned the respect of both Confederate and Union commands. In fact, he is recorded in military history as the last Confederate General to surrender in the war.
Although history texts and encyclopedias record Chief John Ross as a "half-breed" Cherokee, the fact that he possessed only one-eighth Cherokee blood surprises many who see the hundreds of tributes honoring his service. It wasn’t uncommon among Native American tribes to accept outsiders as leaders and the Ross’ had lived among the tribe for a good number of years. Many of the Scots and the Scots-Irish who settled in the region often intermarried and raised families. In fact, many were so frightened by the ease the State of Georgia had in suspending the U.S. Constitution and taking away personal liberty that a large number of them chose to move with the Cherokee to Oklahoma.
Among the many programs Chief John Ross initiated in the Cherokee Nation, was the adoption of Sequoyah’s syllabus. He shared the vision of Sequoyah and assisted him in every way possible to teach the Cherokee how to read and write. When the aged Cherokee died in 1843 seeking a band of the tribe in Mexico to teach them the syllabus, a group was dispatched from Oklahoma to locate him and bring him back. They were not successful and could not find his grave. The dedication of his later wife in seeing that her husband accomplished his goals greatly touched Chief Ross. In fact, the $300 pension – the only literary pension ever bestowed in American history – was continued to his widow.
Chief Ross, whose first wife was a full-blood Cherokee, did eventually remarry a lady by the name of Stapler from Wilmington, Delaware. The marriage took place in Philadelphia, but little is known about her.
Both New Echota in Georgia and the Red Clay Council Grounds in Tennessee, which Chief Ross helped to found, are now parks in their respective states and educate thousands of people each year on the history of the Cherokee Removal.