Cherokee Chief John Ross


John Ross 1790-1866

John Ross, Cherokee Chief, was born October 3, 1790, in Turkey Town on the Coosa River near Center, Alabama, and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Ross's Cherokee name as a child was Tsan Usdi ("Little John"), and his Cherokee name in adulthood was Coowescoowe or Kooweskoowe (a rare white bird). Ross was fair-skinned, five feet six inches tall, and one-eighth Cherokee. He was the third of nine children of Daniel Ross, who was Scottish, and Mary "Mollie" (McDonald) Ross, who was part Cherokee. In his childhood, Ross had a private tutor; acquired an English education at an academy in Kingston, Tennessee; and was raised in an Anglo-Indian environment. He was a member, but not an avid one, of the Methodist Church.

In his early adulthood, Ross was engaged in several merchandizing ventures and owned slaves; founded Rossville, Georgia; gained lucrative government supply contracts; served as postmaster in Rossville; and established Ross's Landing (now Chattanooga, Tennessee). Ross served under Andrew Jackson against the Creeks in the Creek War of 1812 as a Lieutenant and envisioned the words "one of the great victories of the American frontier" that Andrew Jackson used when referring to the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
After his service in the Creek War, around 1813, Ross married Elizabeth "Quatie" Brown Henley. Quatie had a daughter, Susan Henley (1808-38), by a previous marriage. Ross and Quatie had a child who died at infancy, and had four other children who lived to maturity: James McDonald Ross (1814-64), Silas Dinsmore Ross (1829-72), George Washington Ross (1830-70), and Jane (1821-94).

In the early 1800s, Ross transitioned from his wealth-earning enterprises, from which he acquired great wealth, into an active role in Cherokee political affairs. Ross served as a Cherokee delegate to Washington DC in 1816 and joined the Cherokee National Council in 1817. Ross became president of the Cherokee National Council from 1819-26.

It was at this time in Ross's life that the State of Georgia worked to induce the Cherokee Indians to remove west of Mississippi River. Ross was bribed by William McIntosh, a half-breed Creek and Creek ambassador, to support Cherokee land sales and removal, in return for a $2,000 bribe, which Ross refused. A rivalry between Ross and John Walker, Jr., a Cherokee Chief, led to Walker trying to kill Ross in Washington, D.C. in 1819.
In 1827, Ross moved from Rossville to a region claimed by the State of Georgia that was centrally located by the Cherokees and near New Echota, the tribal seat of Cherokee government. Ross was a very wealthy ferry owner and worked a 200-acre farm. Ross served as a delegate to the Cherokee Constitutional Convention, and in July of 1827 was named president of the constitutional convention that was convened to frame a written constitution for the Cherokee Nation. The Constitution, modeled after the US Constitution, was adopted on July 26, 1827, and placed great importance on maintaining ancestral Cherokee lands.

Ross acquired the position of Associate Chief of the Eastern Cherokee in 1827, and was elected to the high position of Principal Chief by an overwhelming majority in 1828, a position he held until 1839. The new Cherokee government worked to maintain Cherokee lands that had been promised to the State of Georgia under the Compact of 1802 and prevent the forced removal of the Cherokee, which included the organization of the Cherokee tribe as a nation with its own constitution. Ross used the press, particularly the Cherokee Phoenix, to assist in the cause, as well as 16,000 Cherokee signatures in support. Ross lost the battle to keep the ancestral lands for the Cherokees, due to the pressure from the State of Georgia, as well as pressure from private and government interests in gold found on the land.

Ross continued his battle against forced removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands, a battle he lost. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Pressure from the Georgia legislature led Ross to continue to argue against encroachments on Cherokee lands in an appeal to the US Supreme Court, which ultimately decided in the Cherokee's favor in 1832. Ross also led a delegation to Washington, D.C., in 1832-1833 to argue the Cherokee's cause. However, the State of Georgia ordered the Cherokee to vacate the lands. Ross was arrested by Georgia guards and imprisoned for two weeks and again lost his fight.

In 1835, a small number of Cherokee acted as representatives for the Eastern Cherokees and formed a Treaty Party that signed away all Cherokee rights to the ancestral land for a sum of five million dollars. The 1835 Treaty required that all Cherokees in the Georgian territory surrender their lands and move west, to present-day Oklahoma, within two years. Ross and the Cherokee majority refused to acknowledge the action of what Ross argued was an unauthorized Treaty Party and a fraudulent Treaty. Ross and over 15,000 Cherokees protested the Treaty. He attempted to persuade Congress against the Treaty, and wrote an appeal to the president of the United States. Again, his attempts to maintain ownership of the ancestral lands failed.

By July of 1838, many Cherokee Indians were suffering in government confinement camps. The United States government sent General Winfield Scott with a military force to compel the enforcement of the 1835 Treaty; therefore, from 1838-39, Ross led approximately 17,000 Cherokee Indians on a journey from Georgia to their exile in present-day Oklahoma, a journey known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands died on the journey, with some dying in confinement camps while awaiting their removal. Ross's first wife, Quatie, died on the Trail of Tears near Little Rock, Arkansas, after she gave her blanket to a sick child and acquired a cold that developed into pneumonia.

After reaching the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, Ross united the Eastern and Western tribes under one government and became tribal chief of the United Cherokee Nation in 1839, a position he held until his death. A new constitution was written in September of 1839 at the Cherokee Nation capitol city of Tahlequah. After the establishment of the Cherokee Nation, Ross married his second wife, Mary Brian Stapler, a Quaker from Delaware.

With the American Civil War encroaching on the new territorial lands of the Cherokee in 1861, Chief Ross again used his rhetorical skills, this time to argue for Cherokee neutrality in the Civil War. Ross issued a Proclamation of Neutrality on May, 17, 1861. However, the Cherokee Nation ultimately supported the Confederacy after Confederate victories at Wilson's Creek, Missouri, and victory to the east of the Cherokee Nation. On August 20, 1861, Ross reluctantly called a council at Tahlequah and formed an alliance with the Confederate States. Ross's sons fought in the Civil War, with all surviving except James McDonald Ross, who died as a casualty of war in 1964. Ross, personally and politically unaligned with the Confederacy, moved to live out the Civil War in Washington and Philadelphia, where he continued to argue Cherokee causes. Ross informed President Abraham Lincoln that the Confederate Treaty was signed under duress and the majority of Cherokee were loyal to the Union. Ross died in Washington, D.C., August 1, 1866, after a treaty with the federal government was initiated to preserve the Cherokee government and was soon to be finalized.

—Lindsley Armstrong Smith, University of Arkansas

Source: Moulton, Gary E. "John Ross Cherokee Chief". Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1978.; Eaton, Rachel Caroline, "John Ross and the Cherokee Indians". Chicago: The University of Chicago Libraries, 1921.; "The Papers of Chief John Ross, Edited and with Introduction by Gary E. Moulton. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. Source



Last picture taken before his death



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