John Ross (1790-1866) was the most important Cherokee political leader of the nineteenth century. He helped establish the Cherokee national government and served as the Cherokee Nation's principal chief for almost 40 years. He led the Cherokees' resistance against removal and their struggle to rebuild in the Indian Territory.
Ross was born on October 3, 1790, at Turkey Town, a Cherokee settlement near present-day Centre in Cherokee County in northeast Alabama. His upbringing is best described as bicultural. His father, Daniel Ross, was a Scottish trader, and his mother, Mollie Ross, was a member of the Cherokee tribe. The Cherokee are a matrilineal society and trace membership through the mother's line, and thus Ross was fully a member of the tribe. Daniel Ross provided a European American education for his children, but John grew up among the Cherokee when not attending school. As an adult, Ross was able to move easily between Cherokee and non-Indian communities, which helped make him an effective leader.
As a young man, Ross followed his father into business, operating a ferry and warehouse at Ross's Landing, the site of present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee. He participated in the Creek War (1813-1814), in which Cherokees allied with the United States to defeat a faction of Creeks known as the Red Sticks. After the war, he purchased slaves and farmed about 200 acres in what is today northwestern Georgia. There, he became involved in tribal politics and joined a group of leaders who had begun to urge tribal leaders to move away from their traditional governing methods and emphasize written laws and national government institutions. In 1818, Ross became the president of the Cherokee National Council's National Committee, and later he helped to draft the 1827 Cherokee Constitution, which provided for a bicameral legislature, a national court system, and a principal chief. In 1828, Ross was elected principal chief, an office he would hold for the rest of his life.
By the time Ross was elected leader, the tribe faced mounting pressure to sell its homeland and migrate across the Mississippi. Georgians believed that they had a right to a large portion of the Cherokee territory, based on provisions in the 1802 Georgia–United States Compact, and they also believed that the U.S. government had a duty to remove the Indians. Federal officials, meanwhile, had been urging the Cherokees to remove for years, although they preferred that this be done with the tribes' consent rather than by force. Beginning in late 1828, the Georgia legislature passed several laws designed to compel the Cherokees to accept removal. These acts annexed much of the Cherokee territory to the state, opened it to non-Indian settlement, and outlawed the Cherokee government. These laws clearly violated the Cherokees' treaties with the United States, which promised the tribe protection, but when Ross and the Cherokee government appealed to federal authorities, they were rebuffed. President Andrew Jackson, long an advocate of Indian removal, simply urged the Cherokees to make a removal agreement. Ross and his supporters next tried to gain protection through several cases in the federal legal system. In its 1832 decision in Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court declared Georgia's actions unconstitutional and affirmed the United States' duty to protect the Cherokees. Jackson ignored the Supreme Court's ruling, however, and refused to intervene.
Ross continued to oppose removal after these setbacks, and he was supported by the majority of Cherokees. After the court cases failed to bring relief, however, some Cherokees broke with their government and advocated removal as the tribe's only choice. Led by Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot, this "Treaty Party" signed the New Echota Treaty in late 1835, ceding all remaining lands east of the Mississippi, including those in present-day Alabama, in return for territory in what is now Oklahoma. Ross and his followers adamantly opposed the treaty, however. When the U.S. military deployed to Cherokee territory in 1838, Ross relented and accepted removal. During the long march west on the Trail of Tears, at least 4,000 of the migrants died, including Ross's first wife, Quatie, whom he had married in 1813. The couple had six children.
The struggle over removal did not end when Ross and his followers arrived in the new Cherokee territory. Reuniting the nation proved very difficult, particularly after Ross supporters killed Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot in June 1839. For several years, pro- and anti-treaty Cherokees traded attacks, until peace was made in 1846. During the violence, some American officials favored removing Ross as chief, and the federal government considered dividing the Cherokee Nation between the parties. In the end, however, Ross remained the leader of a single Cherokee Nation. During this turbulent time, Ross married Mary Stapler, a Quaker from Wilmington, Delaware, with whom he had two more children.
After a period of peace and rebuilding in the 1850s, Ross and his people again found themselves in crisis brought on by the American Civil War. As the United States divided, Ross tried to keep the Cherokees out of the conflict and maintain the treaty relationship with the federal government. Some slave-owning Cherokees, however, made common cause with the South, taking up arms for the Confederacy. Fearing renewed division and violence, Ross agreed to a Confederate treaty in late 1861. The agreement formally allied the Cherokee Nation with the South and transferred Cherokee relations from the United States to the Confederacy. A year later, he allowed himself to be captured by Union forces, at which point he traveled east and spent the remainder of the war working to reaffirm the Cherokee Nation's ties to the United States. He insisted that his nation made the Confederate alliance only under duress. Many of his supporters, in fact, served in the Union Army. Ross's final public act was to lead a delegation to Washington, D.C., to negotiate a new treaty reestablishing relations between the Cherokee Nation and the United States. The treaty was completed just two weeks before his death in Washington on August 1, 1866. His remains were buried in Wilmington, Delaware, and later returned to the Cherokee Nation for reinterment near Tahlequah. Although Ross had several sons, his nephew William P. Ross became his political heir. The younger Ross served as chief for a short time after his uncle's death and participated in Cherokee politics for much of the late nineteenth century.
Ross's enemies often portrayed him as a power-hungry schemer who served his people poorly by refusing to accept removal until
it was forced on them. Most scholars, however, suggest that Ross maintained his position because he worked tirelessly to represent
the will of the majority of his people. Today, Ross is revered as one of the Cherokee Nation's most able leaders.
McLoughlin, William. Cherokee Renaissance in the New Republic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Moulton, Gary. John Ross, Cherokee Chief. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.
———, ed. The Papers of Chief John Ross. 2 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.
Western Carolina University
Published May 19, 2008
Last updated July 1, 2013