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Chief John Ross

Chief John Ross

Ancestry: William Shorey, interpreter for the garrison at Fort Loudoun married a Cherokee woman named Ghi-goo-ie, or "sweetheart". Their daughter Annie Shorey was the grandmother of John Ross. John McDonald, a Scot, married Annie then opened a store in Loudoun, and later a supply post in the Chickamauga Creek near what in 1838 would become Chattanooga. John and Annie had Mary, who married Daniel Ross. See Cherokee Family Ross.

John Ross was the son of Daniel Ross, a Scotsman from Sutherlandshire, making John Ross 1/8 Cherokee. Daniel Ross joined with his father-in-law, John McDonald, Deputy British Agent to the Chickamauga Indians, to operate a trading post that supplied the Chickamaugas with arms and ammunition for raiding the Americans at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. When peace was made between the Chickamaugas and the Americans, Daniel Ross returned with John McDonald to Rossville, Georgia and built Ross House in 1797.

Youth: Daniel Ross established his store on Chattanooga Creek near the foot of Lookout Mountain and operated there until about 1816. Wanting a good education for his nine children, Daniel built a small school and employed John Barbour Davis as the teacher. After attending Davis' school, John Ross went on to a school in Kingston, TN and later to the academy at Maryville, TN.

While very young, John's Grandmother dressed little John Ross all in white and sent him out to play. The Indian children taunted him by calling him names, "Unaka, Unaka" meaning "White Boy". The next day when she again tried to dress him in all white, he burst into tears. after discovering what had happened, she put him back in his buckskins and he went out happily. John Ross though only one-eighth Cherokee was purely Cherokee in his response.

In 1809, at age 19, John Ross was sent on an official mission to the Western Cherokees by Return J. Meigs, U.S. Indian Agent. John's quiet and reserved manner inspired confidence among both whites and Indians. The mission was such a success, John was immediately sent on another trip. John Ross proved his leadership and diplomacy at an early age.

Warrior: John Ross fought with General Andrew Jackson and 1000 other Cherokee against a large group of Creek Indians. At Horseshoe Bend, 600 Creek warriors were killed and peace was restored on March 28, 1814. It was during this battle that John Ross swam the frigid waters of the Tallapoosa River to help steal the Creek's "getaway" canoes which were then used by the Cherokee in a rear attack on the Creek Indians. The diversion was all Jackson needed to successfully overcome the Creek defenses.

In the war of 1812, John Ross served as adjutant. Although Cherokees fought without payment for the war, they were never considered true Americans. Would the Cherokees have fought with such pride and courage if they had known the very government for which they fought would eventually throw them off their homeland?

Business Man:In 1815, John Ross and Timothy Meigs opened a trading post on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. A ferry was used to port people and merchandise across the river about where the present day Market Street crosses the river. This soon became known as Ross's Landing.

Congregationalists, descendants of the Puritans, founded in Massachusetts an interdenominational missionary organization named the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent missionaries to the Cherokee. The mission was named the Brainerd Mission at Ross's Landing. Unlike some of the other missions, the Brainerd Mission school came with a genuine desire to educate as well as baptize the Cherokee. Recognizing the value of a good education, and himself being well educated, John Ross did everything he could to help the missionaries. It was Ross's work to introduce schools and mechanical training which set Ross apart.

Diplomat: In 1817 the U.S. government asked the Cherokee to cede all lands north of the Hiwassee River and to move West. All this was done despite the treaty of March 30, 1802 guaranteeing the cherokee perpetual rights to their land and recognizing their right to self-government. This same year John Ross was elected to the Cherokee National Council for which he would serve as president of the National Committee from 1819-1826. The Republican Constitution written by John Ross, modeled after the U.S. Constitution, was adopted by the Cherokee in 1827.

John Ross was elected Principal Chief of this first Indian republic in 1828, and took the oath of office at New Echota where he stated, "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation."

The State of Georgia considered it a threat having a sovereign Cherokee nation so close. They too had a treaty with the U.S. government saying the U.S. would "peaceably" acquire the title to Indian land in exchange for Western lands. Georgia enlisted the aide of Andrew Jackson, who, as an emerging candidate for the presidency, promised to remove the Cherokee if elected.

Gold Rush: 10,000 white men invaded Cherokee land in Dahlonega (Da-lon-e-ga), Georgia in 1828 with gold fever. The momentum of this wave of whites would wash the Cherokee off their land. No amount of persuasion would hold back the tide of greed for riches.

When Jackson was elected president in 1828, his first act was to get the Indian Removal bill passed. Georgia, confident in presidential support, passed laws that Cherokees could not dig gold even on their own land. Cherokee law was declared null and void and Georgia law was established as the supreme law of the land. Whites had to take an oath of loyalty to Georgia.

Cherokee land was unlawfully usurped by Georgia and sold by lottery where no Cherokee could participate.

The Cherokee were split between the Treaty Party, those willing to take what the government offered, and those like John Ross, who were against.John Ross hope to have a star on the U.S. flag for the State of Cherokee was in vain. His dream was denied by Andrew Jackson, for despite the Supreme Court's ruling that Georgia's acts were unlawful, Jackson refused to enforce the law.

On December 29, 1935, Major Ridge, leader of the Treaty Party, signed a treaty in New Echota by which the Cherokee ceded all lands east of the Mississippi river in return for western lands and other considerations.

The treaty was without authority of the Cherokee Nation, but all who signed received payment and land. John Ross carried a petition to Washington with 15,000 signatures, 90 percent of all Cherokee, in protest. Davy Crockett lost his seat in Congress for opposing Jackson's views on Indian Removal. When he returned home, his property had been drawn by lottery and granted to a Georgian. Dispossessed, John Ross shared the fate of his fellow tribesmen. He built a one-room cabin at "Red Hill" or Flint Springs, TN, near the Red Clay Council Grounds, which served as the last capital of the Cherokee Nation in the east.

It is somewhat ironic, that the Federal government also declared in 1835 that anyone with one-quarter Indian blood was considered to be an Indian. John Ross, although having only 1/8 Indian blood, identified himself as Indian and aligned with the Cherokee. The seizure of his land and property were not only immoral, they were illegal.

The Trail of Tears: The Cherokee never ceded title to their land, but were forced off. This was the Trail of Tears or in Cherokee "Nunna-da-ul-tsun-yi," Trail where they cried.

In the summer of 1838, 7000 U.S. soldiers went to remove the Indians. Two parties were loaded into boats under military guard. Nearly half died from the heat and unsanitary conditions. Ross petitioned the government for permission to remove his people over land in cooler weather and under their own leadership. The request was granted.

Of the 13,000 refugees, over 1000 escaped to the Great Smoky Mountains rather than leave their homelands. 4000 died, including John's wife "Quatie", during the winter march of 1838-1839 from Rattlesnake Springs, TN to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Once in Oklahoma, John Ross was reelected Principal Chief. Major Ridge was killed the same day for violating the law forbidding unauthorized sale of property.

In Tahlequah, Oklahoma land was set aside for schools, a newspaper and a new Cherokee capital.

October 7, 1861 during the Civil War, the Cherokee aligned with the Confederacy. A declaration repudiating all treaties with the Federal Government was ratified. The treaty with the Confederacy, signed by Ross and Albert Pike, was violated when the Cherokee, led by Pike, were asked to fight outside their own territory at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. At the time, it looked to Confederate General Earl Van Dorn like an easy victory for the confederates because the Union forces were strung out from Springfield, Missouri to Fayetteville, Arkansas. But when General Sam Curtis heard from scout "Wild Bill" Hickok that the confederates were advancing, Curtis consolidated with Davis and Carr to form 11,200 Federal troupes on the high ground at Pea Ridge, just south of Fort Smith, Arkansas. The 17,000 Confederate forces achieved some initial victories on March 7, 1862, in the end they were unable to take Pea Ridge.

The death of his second wife Mary did not deter Ross from attending the Grand Council of Southern Indians at Fort Smith in September 1865 where new treaties between Cherokee and the Federal government were prepared. His own failing health did not prevent him from accompanying the delegation to Washington where the treaty was signed, July 19, 1866.

John Ross died August 1, 1866 at Medes Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ross's dominant ambition was to see the Cherokee become the most civilized and most educated Indians in the country. John Ross continued his whole life trying to improve the lot of the Cherokee, his people. It is for this he should be remembered.

Bibliography: Trail of Tears by John Ehle, The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, Ancher Press, Doubleday 1988 

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