The longest-serving chief in the history of the Cherokee nation, John Ross dedicated much of his life to fighting against his people’s forced removal from their homelands. Tragically, he did so at a time when the U.S. government viewed Native Americans as little more than an obstacle to the new nation’s aggressive westward expansion.
Ross rose to power during the most promising period in Cherokee history. During the 1820s, they built a new capital city, developed their own written language and drafted a constitution. But his tenure as principal chief (1828-1866) coincided with the most tumultuous era in the tribe’s history, during which he faced ferocious pressure to relinquish their vast ancestral territory in the fertile Southeast. Starting in 1827, the state of Georgia began annexing Cherokee’s homelands and claiming legal jurisdiction. In 1830, the U.S. government passed the Indian Removal Act, codifying its plan to move all tribal people west of the Mississippi River. And in 1835, a splinter faction of Cherokees—including a former close adviser to Ross—signed an illegitimate treaty that the federal government used to justify the Cherokee’s forced relocation, later called the Trail of Tears.
Fluent in English and Cherokee, Ross long served the role of diplomat and negotiator on behalf of the tribe. According to Brian Hicks, author of Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears, Ross was “adept at citing both federal law and details from a dozen treaties the Cherokees signed with the federal government between 1785 and 1819.” After he became chief, the stakes rose dramatically for his Washington, D.C. missions. He battled Georgia’s attack on Cherokee sovereignty all the way to the Supreme Court. And he fought relentlessly for two years, in numerous White House meetings with President Andrew Jackson, to try and nullify the unsanctioned treaty. Even after his efforts failed and the tribe underwent its brutal forced march to Oklahoma territory, Ross helped the remaining Cherokee rebuild. He continued advocating for their rights for another quarter century.
John Ross’ Early Years
Ross was born in 1790 to a Scottish father and part-Cherokee mother in Turkeytown, a village in present-day Alabama, once part of the vast 43,000-square-mile Cherokee territory. Named Tsan-Usdi (Little John), Ross was raised in Cherokee matrilineal culture by his mother and grandmother. While working at his paternal grandfather’s trading post, he watched European immigrants violate federal treaties by settling in Cherokee lands. He grew determined as a young man to support the rights of his mother’s people.
Americans considered the Cherokee one of the five “Civilized Tribes” because they had adopted aspects of European culture, including Christianity, the concept of personal wealth, intermarriage with non-Indians—and the practice of owning enslaved people, a sign of economic status. The Cherokee built a capital city called New Echota with schools, churches and a courthouse. They crafted their own constitution. And they achieved an unprecedented level of tribal literacy by creating their own writing system and printing the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper in 1828 in their own language.
While raised amid Cherokee traditions, Ross was also highly assimilated. He wore suits and ties instead of traditional Cherokee garb. He was educated at Kingston Academy in Tennessee. According to historian Bernard Vincent, author of “Slaveholding Indians: The Case of the Cherokee Nation,” Ross not only had the family’s successful trading post, but he became a wealthy planter whose assets included 170 acres and 19 enslaved workers. He even joined the secretive Freemason society.
Cherokees Support Andrew Jackson in the Creek War
In 1813, civil war broke out among neighboring Creek Indians, which pitted the British and Americans and other tribal groups as supporting forces on opposite sides. Ross served with hundreds of Cherokee warriors alongside U.S. General Andrew Jackson during the war. Cherokee support proved vital during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, turning the tide of the Creek War in favor of the Americans. Jackson emerged as a war hero, an image he parlayed into national prominence.
Speaking years later, aged Cherokee Chief Junaluska recalled with regret his contribution to Jackson’s success: "If I had known Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day at the Horse Shoe." Ross and Jackson would also clash in the coming years.
Ross’ Rise to Prominence
Ross’ upbringing in Cherokee territory and his deep knowledge of past treaties positioned him well as an advocate. After the Creek War, Ross joined a delegation in 1816 to protest the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which Andrew Jackson planned to use to seize 23 million acres of Indian territory. They succeeded in convincing Secretary of War William H. Crawford of the merits of their complaint, enraging Jackson.
“He [Jackson] was naturally no friend to the Indians, though he did not hesitate to accept favors from them when occasion arose, and his determination to rid the southern states of them was strengthened by his temporary embarrassment and humiliation,” wrote historian Rachel Caroline Eaton, author of John Ross and the Cherokee Indians.
Ross served as president of the Cherokee Nation Council from 1819 to 1826, during which time state commissioners tried to bribe him into selling Cherokee lands. He was imprisoned and lost his home while resisting these incursions.
In 1828, Ross became principal chief of the Cherokee Nation at New Echota, Georgia. His close adviser Major Ridge, a renowned warrior, was named an official counselor.
Cherokee Land Battles Heat Up
Ross concentrated much of his efforts on fighting the Indian Removal Act.
Andrew Jackson had lobbied for Indian removal across the Mississippi River since 1817, convincing some Cherokees to go. But Ross fought back, representing some 16,000 who refused to leave. In 1822, the Cherokee Council passed a resolution stating that the nation would not sell another acre of land. By 1825, they had built a courthouse, council house and public square at New Echota.
In February 1830, amid heated debates in Congress over Indian removal, the Cherokee evicted illegal squatters from its territories, and Major Ridge led a raid that burned white settlers’ homes. Three months later, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, setting the stage for the forced relocation of remaining Cherokee, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks to the western frontier in 1838 and 1839.
Jackson, who became president in 1828, called for Indian removal two years later in a letter to Congress:
“What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?”
Treaty of New Echota
The existence of a Cherokee constitution caused the state of Georgia to pass laws undermining its sovereignty and annexing Cherokee lands. Ross took his Georgia fight to Washington D.C. and won: The Supreme Court ruled against state law being extended to Cherokee lands.
But according to Hicks, Major Ridge’s son John lost faith in the federal government’s ability to enforce the ruling and convinced his father to relocate. By 1833, the Cherokees had split over removal, with Ross and Major Ridge on opposite sides of the divide. In 1835, a small group of Cherokees signed the Treaty of New Echota, agreeing to relocate for $5 million and new land in Oklahoma. In his own negotiation with President Jackson, Ross had asked for $20 million.
Major Ridge supported the deal, saying, “We can never forget these homes, I know, but an unbending, iron necessity tells us we must leave them… There is but one path to safety, one road to future existence as a Nation.”
Ross tried and failed to overturn it. In a letter to the U.S. Congress and Senate protesting it, he described its damaging effects: “We are stripped of every attribute of freedom and eligibility for legal self-defence. Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised… We have neither land nor home.”
The U.S. Army rounded up more than 16,000 Cherokee into holding pens in May 1838, shooting those who tried to flee. The incarcerated families suffered disease, hunger and sexual abuse at the hands of the soldiers sent to “guard” them. Over that summer and the following winter, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Cherokees died on the 1,000-mile-long Trail of Tears to Oklahoma Territory. Ross, defeated, would follow and serve as their chief for the rest of his life, through the Civil War and beyond.
Lingering Divisions Among the Cherokee
Cherokee tribal divisions over the controversial Treaty of New Echota persist to this day. Tribal historian Catherine Gray Foreman says this stems from the fact that the nation had forbidden any more land concessions in 1819. Three of the 30 men who signed the treaty were executed on the same day in 1839 for violating that law: Cherokee Phoenix editor Elias Boudinot, Major Ridge and Ridge’s son John.
“John Ridge was dragged from his horse and stabbed in front of his children,” says Foreman, a direct descendant of New Echota Treaty signer James Star, Sr. “This division is something Cherokees get very emotional about to this day.”
Foreman says John Ross is remembered as the longest serving principal chief of the Cherokee and a dedicated hero of tribal sovereignty and unity.
“He saw us through some dark times,” Foreman said. “And through the creation of a constitutional government. On his deathbed in 1866, he negotiated a treaty with the federal government that is credited with keeping the Cherokee Nation united.”