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As the head of the largest branch of the Cherokee nation from 1828 to 1866, John Ross led the Cherokee through a period of profound cultural change. Under Ross's leadership, the Cherokee nation engaged in a historic and controversial legal battle to preserve their sovereignty and underwent a disastrous forced march from Georgia to Oklahoma.
Ross was born near Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, on October 3, 1790. Although he was only one-eighth Cherokee by blood, Cherokee cultural identity in the early 1800s was as much a matter of upbringing and choice as genetics, and Ross was raised and considered himself a Cherokee.
In 1809 at age nineteen, Ross was sent, at the behest of both U.S. officials and Cherokee leaders, to confer with the western Cherokee, who had accepted payments from the United States in exchange for an agreement to relocate to Oklahoma. Ross's quiet and reserved manner inspired confidence among both whites and Indians, and his skill at easing the tensions with the western Cherokee greatly increased his influence within the Cherokee nation.
Ross served as President of the National Council of the Cherokee from 1819 to 1826 and became principal chief of the eastern Cherokee in 1828. He thought the Cherokee could benefit from adopting certain aspects of European-American culture. Accordingly, with the help of two other Cherokee leaders, Major Ridge and Charles Hicks, Ross convinced many Cherokee to convert from an economy based on hunting and the fur trade to one of agriculture. Some Cherokee adopted the Southern tradition of slave-holding. By the 1830s many members of the Cherokee nation were among the wealthiest individuals in what is now north Georgia. Ross himself was a slaveholder with a two hundred–acre farm.
A well-educated man, Ross promoted literacy and education, advocating that all Cherokee utilize the achievement of Sequoia, the Cherokee who had created a written lexicography for the Cherokee language. Ross's efforts brought the Cherokee from near illiteracy to over 90 percent literacy in less than three years. Ross also supported the efforts of Christian Congregationalist missionaries who wished to set up schools in Cherokee territory. When it became apparent that the missionaries' primary objective was religious conversion rather than education, however, Ross informed them that they could stay only if they focused on education. The missionaries complied.
In addition to his emphasis on literacy and education, Ross encouraged the Cherokee to adopt a written system of laws, a bicameral legislative body, and a government with legislative, judicial, and executive branches. In 1827 the Cherokee nation adopted a republican constitution, written by Ross and modeled after the U.S. Constitution.
Under Ross's leadership the Cherokee eliminated the blood feud as a primary means of settling criminal homicides. Under the customs of the blood feud, when a person was killed, the victim's clan was obligated to kill a member of the murderer's clan. This often resulted in years of feuding between clans. Through Ross's influence the blood feud was replaced with a court system, trial by jury, and a written criminal code.
Despite their embrace of many aspects of U.S. society, Ross and his people wished to preserve Cherokee sovereignty—a goal the U.S. and Georgia governments would not accept. Beginning in 1828, Georgia passed a series of laws declaring the invalidity of Cherokee sovereignty. Meanwhile, the U.S. government, under President Andrew Jackson, was advocating removal of the Cherokee to the lands west of the Mississippi, even though treaties such as the Treaty of Hopewell (1785) recognized the Cherokee's sovereign right to their lands.
Ross refused to advocate violence as a means for the Cherokee to retain their land. Having grown up with warfare, ethnic violence, and Genocide between various Indian tribes and the Cherokee and between European-Americans and the Cherokee, Ross had witnessed the destructive effects of violence on the Cherokee nation and had also seen the disastrous results of the armed struggles of other Indian tribes against the European-Americans. Putting his faith in the U.S. legal system, he believed that the U.S. Supreme Court would recognize the Cherokee's right to their land and sovereignty. In two historic cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. 1, 8 L. Ed. 25 (1831), and Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, 8 L. Ed. 483 (1832), Ross and the Cherokee fought for legal recognition of their sovereignty. The Cherokee lost in Cherokee Nation. Then, in a stunning reversal, the Supreme Court recognized Cherokee sovereignty in Worcester and ruled that the Georgia laws claiming jurisdiction in Indian Territory were void. Both Georgia and Jackson refused to abide by the Court's decision, however. Instead, the U.S. government stepped up its efforts to relocate the Cherokee.
The Reverend John F. Schermerhorn, who was appointed by Jackson as commissioner in charge of convincing the Cherokee to leave Georgia, met with the Cherokee leaders and offered to pay them for ceding their lands. The Cherokee were split between the treaty party, led by Major Ridge, who were willing to accept the government's offer, and those like Ross, who were against the offer. When the ruling body of the Cherokee, led by Ross, refused to sign the agreement, Schermerhorn ordered Ross to be arrested.
On December 29, 1835, while Ross was being held without charge, Major Ridge and seventy-four others out of a tribe of seventeen thousand signed a treaty in what is now New Echota, Georgia, by which the Cherokee ceded all lands east of the Mississippi River in return for western lands and other considerations. All who signed received payment and land. In protest, Ross went to Washington carrying a petition with fifteen thousand signatures, 90 percent of all Cherokee. The treaty passed the U.S. Senate by one vote. David ("Davy") Crockett lost his seat in Congress for opposing Jackson's policy on Indian removal.
"If it has been our misfortune to suffer wrongs from the hands of our white brethren, we should not despair of having justice still extended by the United States."
When Ross returned home, he found that the Georgia government had granted his property to a Georgian. In the summer of 1838, Jackson, who had refused to send U.S. troops to enforce the Supreme Court's Worcester decision, sent seven thousand soldiers to remove the Cherokee. Rather than leave their homeland, more than a thousand Cherokee fled to the Great Smoky Mountains, where their descendants still live.
During the winter of 1838–39, the remaining Cherokee were forced to march from Rattlesnake Springs, Tennessee, to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in what became known as the "Trail of Tears." Four thousand Cherokee, including Ross's wife, Quatie, died on the march.
Once in Oklahoma, Ross was reelected principal chief. Major Ridge was killed the same day for his part in the signing of the Treaty of New Echota. In Tahlequah, land was set aside for schools, a newspaper, and a new Cherokee capital. During the Civil War, the Cherokee aligned themselves with the Confederacy, believing the U.S. government untrustworthy. They also ratified a declaration repudiating all treaties with the federal government, a move that led to bad relations with the U.S. government in the first months after the defeat of the Confederacy. In September 1865, however, Ross attended the Grand Council of Southern Indians at Fort Smith, where a new treaty between the Cherokee and the federal government was prepared. This treaty declared that it rejuvenated all prior, valid treaties between the Cherokee and the government. Despite his failing health, Ross accompanied the delegation to Washington, where the treaty was signed on July 19, 1866. Less than two weeks later, on August 1, 1866, Ross died in Washington, D.C.
Blair, Jack. 1995–96. "Demanding a Voice in Our Own Best Interest: A Call for a Delegate of the Cherokee Nation to the U.S. House of Representatives." American Indian Law 20.
Ehle, John. 1988. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday.
Moulton, Gary E. 1978. John Ross, Cherokee Chief. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press.
Moulton, Gary E., ed. 1985. The Papers of Chief John Ross. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.
Norgren, Jill. 1996. The Cherokee Cases: The Confrontation of Law and Politics. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: McGraw-Hill.