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

By DeWeese, Georgina G.; Bishop, W. Jeff et al. | Southeastern Archaeology, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

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


DeWeese, Georgina G., Bishop, W. Jeff, Grissino-Mayer, Henri D., Parrish, Brian K., Edwards, S. Michael, Southeastern Archaeology


The dating of nineteenth-century historic sites around the Southeast has largely come from historical documents and accounts, land deeds and records, and oral tradition.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 However, historical documents indicate that the structure did not exist until 1816.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. The house is a two-story log structure with an open dog trot on the first floor (Figure 2) constructed with oak (Quercus spp.) and red cedar (Juniperus virginiana L.) logs falling under the category of "rough hewn" and the notches categorized as "V-notch" (Figure 3). It is said to be the boyhood home of Chief John Ross, the last chief to lead the Cherokee before and during the Trail of Tears in the 1830s. The house was one of the few structures in the area to survive the Civil War, serving as an important location for both Union and Confederate operations (Bishop 2007:20; Stafford 1982:13), but it fell into disrepair in succeeding decades.

In an effort to save the house from demolition in the 1950s, Gertrude Ruskin began publishing stories (1958, 1962) about the house that embellished its history. Ruskin (who often called herself "Princess Chewanl") was a Euro-American lay historian/writer who would don the traditional dress of a Cherokee woman, complete with long, braided wig, to publicize the effort to save the house. According to Ruskin, the house had secret rooms, trap doors, and tunnels (Bishop 2007:12; Ruskin 1958:27). …

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