Dendrochronological Dating of the Chief John Ross House, Rossville, Georgia

Article excerpt

The Chief John Ross House is a two-story oak (Quercus spp.) and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana L.) log structure located in downtown Rossville, Georgia. The log structure was reportedly built in 1797 by John McDonald, grandfather of Chief John Ross, for his Cherokee bride. This construction date first emerged in the 1950s, when efforts were underway to save the structure. Historical documents, however, indicate that the structure did not exist until 1816. Ross lived at the structure until 1828, when he was elected the last principal chief of the Cherokee before the tribe's forced removal during the Trail of Tears. Using dendroarchaeological techniques, 28 archaeological (increment) cores were removed from the oak portion of the structure in 2007 to verify the construction date. Cores were processed and dated using the white oak (Quercus alba L.) Piney Creek Pocket Wilderness, Tennessee chronology. Of the 28 cores, 22 (from 19 trees) yielded cutting dates clustered around the winter of 1816-17, indicating the structure likely was not built by McDonald. This construction date does, however, make it possible for Chief John Ross himself to have been the builder. This correction to history should increase public attention and preservation efforts at the structure.

The dating of nineteenth-century historic sites around the Southeast has largely come from historical documents and accounts, land deeds and records, and oral tradition. Traditionally, the use of dendrochronology in Southeastern historical archaeology has been limited by a lack of existing chronologies that can be used to date wood from historic structures, misconceptions regarding the formation of annual tree rings in the Southeast, and poor sampling and preservation practices (Grissino-Mayer 2009). During the preceding decades, however, a better understanding of growth patterns in eastern trees, standardized sampling practices, and the creation of numerous tree-ring chronologies have made dendrochronology a reliable dating method in the Southeast. Thus when traditional methods of dating fail or fall short, dendrochronology can be used to apply Christian calendar years to tree rings contained in wooden structures. The information from this type of analysis helps determine the cutting dates of the trees used in log structures and ultimately provides the construction year(s) of the structures.

Recent dendrochronological studies at several Southeastern historic sites have proven that accepted construction dates based on documentary evidence and oral tradition are inaccurate (e.g., Grissino-Mayer and van de Gevel 2007; Henderson et al. 2009; Mann 2002). Such is the case with this report on the dendrochronological dating of the Chief John Ross House in northwestern Georgia (Figure 1). As described in more detail below, the log structure was reportedly built in 1797 by John McDonald, grandfather of Chief John Ross, for his Cherokee bride. However, historical documents indicate that the structure did not exist until 1816. Dendrochronological dates support the later construction date and the inference that the home was constructed by Ross himself.

Beyond the particulars of the dating of the log structure, dendroarchaeological study of the Chief John Ross House has the potential to provide a new tree-ring chronology for northwestern Georgia where no others currently exist. Tree-ring chronologies of similar importance have been created in the Southeast recently (e.g., Blankenship et al. 2009; Grissino-Mayer et al. 2010; Grissino-Mayer and van de Gevel 2007; Henderson et al. 2009; Lewis et al. 2009; Mann 2002; Slayton et al. 2009; Wight and Grissino-Mayer 2004) and can be used to date other historic sites around the Southeast.

The Chief John Ross House through Time

The Chief John Ross House is of local and regional historical importance because it reportedly served as one of the first schools in northern Georgia (Bishop 2007:20; Ruskin 1958:28), the first post office (Allen 1936; Bishop 2007:20), and the first business (Allen 1936; Bishop 2007:20) from which not only Rossville, Georgia, but also Chattanooga, Tennessee, would develop. …