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
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
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
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
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 RossvilleGA.com