Born on October 3, 1790, at Turkeytown, Alabama, John Ross was the longest-serving Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, a businessman, and landowner who led his people through the Trail of Tears during the Indian Removal.
John was the son of Daniel Ross, a Scotsman who had gone to live among the Cherokee during the American Revolution. His mother was also ¾ Scottish and ¼ Cherokee.
John’s father, Daniel, established a store at Chattanooga Creek near the foot of Lookout Mountain, which operated until about 1816. Determined that his children would receive a quality education, Daniel built a small school and hired a teacher. It was here that John Ross received his early education before attending another school in Kingston, Tennessee, and later the Maryville, Tennessee Academy.
Though only 1/8th Cherokee, Ross was of Indian heritage through and through. Early in his life, he witnessed much brutality on the American frontier as both Indians and settlers alike were constantly raiding the Cherokee villages.
At the early age of 19, Ross was sent by U.S. Indian Agent Return J. Meigs on an official mission to the Western Cherokee of Arkansas in 1809. Due to his quiet and reserved manner, the mission was a success as he inspired confidence among both the Indians and the white settlers. Proving his leadership and diplomacy at an early age, he was immediately sent on another trip.
During the War of 1812, he served as an adjutant in the Cherokee regiment. Though the Cherokee fought valiantly without receiving any pay, they were still not considered true Americans.
A year later, he fought in the Creek War of 1813-14 and General Andrew Jackson and 1000 other Cherokee. Attaining the rank of Lieutenant, he participated in the fighting at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend against the British allied Creek Indians. On March 28, 1814, 600 Creek warriors were killed, and peace was restored.
In 1815, John Ross and Timothy Meigs opened a trading post on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga that soon became known as Ross’ Landing. In addition to providing supplies at the trading post, a ferry was used to transfer merchandise and people across the river. Soon, a group of Congregationalists, descendants of the Puritans, built a mission at Ross’ Landing called the Brainerd Mission. Ross, recognizing the value of a good education, did everything that he could to help the missionaries in their effort to provide schooling for the Cherokee youth.
Viewed as astute and likable, Ross relocated to Georgia as a chosen member of the Cherokee Nation Council in 1817. In this same year, the U.S. government asked the Cherokee to cede all lands north of the Hiwassee River and move west, despite the treaty of March 30, 1802, which guaranteed the Cherokee perpetual rights to their land.
Two years later, in 1819, Ross was elected president of the National Cherokee Committee, a position he held until 1826. During this time, Ross, along with Major John Ridge, the speaker of the Cherokee National Council, established a capital near present-day Calhoun, Georgia, in 1825.
He then became Assistant Chief of the Eastern Cherokee, participating in drafting the Cherokee Constitution in 1827. The constitution was modeled after the U.S. Constitution, including a Senate and a House of Representatives. John Ross was elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1828, a position he would hold until his death in 1866.
Also an astute businessman, Ross was involved with several business ventures, owned a 200-acre farm, and owned several slaves.
Over the next ten years, Ross fought the white settlers attempting to displace the Cherokee from their lands. Fighting not with weapons but with words, he turned to the press and the courts to support the Cherokee cause.
When gold was discovered in White County, Georgia, in 1828, the state began to push even harder to remove the Indians. The Georgia legislature soon outlawed the Cherokee government and confiscated tribal lands. When the Cherokee appealed for federal protection, they were rejected.
The Jackson Administration began to put pressure on the Cherokee and other tribes to sign treaties of removal, but the Cherokee rejected any proposals. However, when Jackson was reelected in 1832, some of the Cherokee believed that removal was inevitable. A Treaty Party, led by Major John Ridge and including Stand Watie, believed that it was in the best interest of the Cherokee Nation to get the best possible terms from the U.S. government. Cautiously, Ridge began unauthorized talks with the Jackson administration.
However, Chief John Ross and the majority of the Cherokee people remained adamantly opposed to removal. In 1832, Ross canceled the tribal elections, and the Council impeached Ridge, and a member of the Ridge Party was murdered. The “Treaty Party” responded by forming their council, which represented only a small minority of the Cherokee people. Both the Ross government and the Ridge Party sent independent delegations to Washington.
In the end, 500 of the Cherokee (out of thousands) supported a treaty to cede the Cherokee lands in exchange for $5,700,000 and new lands in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Though the actions were repudiated by more than nine-tenths of the tribe and was not signed by a single elected tribal official, Congress ratified the treaty on May 23, 1836.
Chief Ross and the Cherokee National Council maintained that the document was a fraud and presented a petition with more than 15,000 Cherokee signatures to congress in the spring of 1838. Other white settlers also were outraged by the questionable legality of the treaty. On April 23, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson appealed to Jackson’s successor, President Martin Van Buren, urging him not to inflict “so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation.” But it was not to be.
Soon, the Cherokee were forced to move to Indian Territory on what would become known as the Trail of Tears. Along the 2,200 mile journey, road conditions, illness, cold, and exhaustion took thousands of lives, including Chief John Ross’ wife, Quatie. Though the federal government officially stated some 424 deaths, an American doctor traveling with one party estimated that 2,000 people died in the camps and another 2,000 along the trail. Other estimates have been stated that conclude almost 8,000 of the Cherokee died during the Indian Removal.
Once the tribe was relocated to a site near present-day Tahlequah, Oklahoma, John Ross was reelected Principal Chief. Major Ridge was killed the same day for violating the law forbidding the unauthorized sale of the property. Soon, the land was set aside for schools, a newspaper, and a new Cherokee capital.
In September 1865, Ross attended the Grand Council of Southern Indians at Fort Smith, Arkansas, where new treaties between Cherokee and the Federal government were prepared. In July 1866, though in failing health, he accompanied a delegation to Washington where new the treaties were signed on July 19, 1866. Soon after the treaties were signed, Ross took to his bed at the Medes Hotel in Washington D.C., where he died on August 1, 1866. Although first buried beside his wife Mary in Wilmington, Delaware, his body was returned to Indian Territory a few months later, where he is buried at Ross Cemetery in Park Hill, Oklahoma.