John Ross

John Ross (1790-1866), chief of the American Cherokee Indians, headed his tribe during the saddest era in its history, when it was removed from its ancestral lands to Oklahoma.

John Ross was born near Lookout Mountain, Tenn., on Oct. 3, 1790. His Indian name was Cooweescoowe. His father was a Scotsman; his mother was one-quarter Cherokee and three-quarters Scot. Ross was educated by private tutors and then at Kingston Academy in Tennessee.

Ross's rise to prominence began in 1817, when he was elected a member of the Cherokee national council. Two years later he became president of the council, a position he held until 1826. In 1827 he helped write the Cherokee constitution and was elected assistant chief. The following year he became principal chief of the tribe, and he remained in this position until 1839.

In 1829 the state of Georgia ordered the Cherokees removed. Ross became a leader of the faction of the tribe that opposed removal, and he led in challenging the state ruling before the U.S. Supreme Court. His appeal was successful, but Georgia officials refused to obey the higher court's ruling.

In 1835 the U.S. government signed a treaty of removal with a small faction of the Cherokee tribe. Ross drafted an appeal against this treaty, saying that it was obtained by fraudulent means, and addressed it to President Andrew Jackson. Jackson approved the policy of removal, however, as did Martin Van Buren, and when Gen. Winfield Scott arrived in Georgia with troops, Ross and the Cherokee were forced to acquiesce. In 1838-1839 Ross led his people in the removal westward (known as the "Trail of Tears") to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

Once there, Ross was instrumental in drafting a Cherokee constitution that united the eastern and western branches of the tribe. That year he was also chosen chief of the united tribe, an office he held until his death. He settled near Park Hill in Oklahoma, where he erected a mansion and farmed, using his many slaves to cultivate his fields. His first wife, a Cherokee, Quatie, died in 1839. In 1845 he married a white woman who died in 1865.

Ross believed that the Cherokee Indians should not participate in the Civil War, and on May 17, 1861, he issued a proclamation of Cherokee neutrality. However, slave-owning Cherokee brought sufficient pressure to force a council resulting in a treaty of alliance with the Confederacy signed in October 1861. When Union troops invaded Oklahoma in 1862, Ross moved to Philadelphia and repudiated the Confederate alliance. This move caused some Confederate sympathizers in the tribe to dispute his right as chief. Ross lived in Philadelphia until the end of the Civil War. He died while negotiating a treaty for his tribe in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1, 1866.

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Further Reading on John Ross

The major study of Ross is Rachel Caroline Eaton, John Ross and the Cherokee Indians (1914). For Ross's political career see Morris L. Wardell, A Political History of the Cherokee Nation, 1838-1907 (1938), and Henry T. Malone, Cherokees of the Old South (1956). An overall study of the tribe and an evaluation of Ross as a leader are in Grace S. Woodward, The Cherokees (1963).