The Encyclopedia of North American Indians - Vol. 9

The Encyclopedia of North American Indians - Vol. 9

The Encyclopedia of North American Indians - Vol. 9

The Encyclopedia of North American Indians - Vol. 9


ROSS, JOHN (1790–1866)

John Ross (Coowescoowe or [The Egret]) was born along the Coosa River at Tahnoovayah, Georgia (near Lookout Mountain). The third of nine children, he would become the founder of a Cherokee constitutional government. His father was Daniel Ross, a Scot, and his mother, Mary (Molly) McDonald, was a Scot-Cherokee woman. As a youth, he was called Tsan-usdi or [Little John.]

Although brought up with other Cherokees, Ross was educated at home by non-Indian tutors and then continued his education at Kingston Academy in Tennessee. Although he was only about one-eighth Cherokee, Ross always identified himself as Cherokee and was married in 1813 to [Quatie] or Elizabeth Brown Henley, a full-blooded Cherokee. They had five children.

Ross began his political career in 1809 when he went on a mission to the Arkansas Cherokees. By 1811, he was serving as a member of the standing committee of the Cherokee Council. In 1813–1814, he was an adjutant in a Cherokee regiment under the command of General Andrew Jackson and saw action with other Cherokees at Horseshoe Bend in 1813 against the Red Sticks commanded by [Red Eagle] (William Weatherford). Ross led a contingent of Cherokee warriors in a diversionary tactic and thus was an important factor in Jackson's success at Horseshoe Bend.

In 1814, shortly after his marriage, Ross set up a ferry service and trading post at Ross's Landing. In 1817, he became a member of the Cherokee National Council; he served as president of the National Council from 1819 to 1826. In 1820, the Cherokee people instituted a republican form of government, similar in structure to that of the United States. As an advocate of education and mission work among his people, Ross thought that the Cherokees might become a state in the union, with its own constitution. When New Echota, Georgia, became the Cherokee national capital in 1826, Ross moved there with his family. In 1827, he became president of the Cherokee constitutional convention, which drafted a new constitution. From 1828 to 1839, Ross served as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation under this new constitution.

Although John Ross was only one-eighth Cherokee, he identified himself as a Cherokee and distinguished him- self in the Cherokee political realm. He used his diplo- matic skills in his dealings with fellow Cherokees, other Indian groups, and the United States government.

During Ross's years as chief, he opposed federal and state encroachments on tribal lands. He resisted Georgia's contention that the Cherokees were mere tenants on state lands. When Georgia stripped the Cherokees of their civil rights between 1828 and 1831, Ross took their case to the Supreme Court and won, but President Andrew Jackson violated his oath of office by defying the Supreme Court when he refused to enforce the decision. With the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, non-Native officials pressed for the relocation westward of the Cherokees along with other eastern American Indians. Jackson also signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which provided for the relocation of eastern trihes west of the Mississippi in an area that would become Indian Territory (today's Oklahoma).

Although Ross continued to resist removal policies as principal chief of the Cherokees, a dispirited minority of Cherokee leaders called the Treaty Party, including John Ridge, Major Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and Stand Watie, consented to removal by signing the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. Ross and a majority of the Cherokees sought to have the treaty withdrawn and sent a letter to Congress in 1836 asking for an investigation into its legality.

Although Ross continued to protest removal for three more years, the state of Georgia started to coerce the Cherokees into selling their lands for a fraction of their real value. Marauding EuropeanAmericans plundered Cherokee homes and possessions and destroyed the Cherokee Phoenix's printing press because it opposed removal. The U.S. Army forced Cherokee families into internment camps to prepare for the arduous trek westward. As a result of unhealthy and crowded conditions in these hastily constructed stockades, many Cherokees died even before the trek, known as the Trail of Tears, began. While failing in his efforts to stop removal, Ross managed to gain additional federal funds for his people.

During the internment of the Cherokees in Georgia and the two disastrous trips along the Trail of Tears, over four thousand Cherokees died of exposure, disease, and starvation—about one-quarter of the total Cherokee population. Quatie, Ross's wife, was among the victims of this forced emigration. After removal, the miserable conditions did not cease; many Cherokees died after they arrived in Indian Territory as epidemics and food shortages plagued the new settlements.

Upon his arrival in Indian Territory, Ross joined the Western Cherokees who had moved several years earlier. He aided in the drafting of the constitution for the United Cherokees and served as its head from 1839 until his death in 1866. In 1839, with the assassination of the Ridges and Boudinot in retaliation for their role in signing the removal treaty, tribal factions became polarized and some of the proponents of the Treaty Party claimed that Ross had a role in the assassinations, but they never produced any evidence. Sequoyah, the originator of the Cherokee alphabet, and other peacemakers sought to reconcile the factions within the tribe. In 1844, Ross remarried a Quaker woman named Mary Bryan Stapler, and they had three children. Between 1839 and 1856, he went to Washington five times seeking justice for his people.

Although Ross was a large slaveholder when the U.S. Civil War began, he opposed a Cherokee alliance with the Confederacy. Instead, he advocated Cherokee neutrality. Many of Ross's supporters were opposed to slavery. By the summer of 1861, many influential leaders, including Stand Watie, favored joining the Confederacy. Ross convened a national conference and was overruled by the pro-Confederacy forces. By 1862, federal troops had regained control over most of Indian Territory, so Ross moved his wife and family to Kansas. The Southern Cherokees under Stand Watie formed a separate government that still allied with the Confederacy. Faced with such tragic divisions, Ross went to Washington to tell President Abraham Lincoln about the rebellious Southern Cherokees.

At the end of the Civil War, the Cherokees were deeply split. Ross, at seventy-five and in bad health, journeyed to Washington as the head of the Northern Cherokees for new treaty negotiations that sought to protect the Cherokees and their constitution. He died while in Washington on August 1, 1866, during negotiations. His body was returned to Indian Territory and was buried at Park Hill, Oklahoma.

—B. E. Johansen

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