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 Guwisguwi 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 Attakullakullas 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 schools 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
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
Jacksons 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 Agents 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
Although Elias Boudinots 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
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 wasnt 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 Sequoyahs 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.