John Ross (Cherokee chief): Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828–1866 (1790 - 1866) | Biography
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John Ross (Cherokee chief)
Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828–1866

John Ross (Cherokee chief)

John Ross (Cherokee chief)
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828–1866
Was Politician
From United States of America
Field Politics
Gender male
Birth 3 October 1790, Alabama, U.S.A.
Death 1 August 1866, Washington, D.C., District of Columbia, U.S.A. (aged 75 years)
John Ross (Cherokee chief)
The details (from wikipedia)


John Ross (October 3, 1790 – August 1, 1866), also known as Koo-wi-s-gu-wi (meaning in Cherokee: "Mysterious Little White Bird"), was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828–1866, serving longer in this position than any other person. Described as the Moses of his people, Ross influenced the Indian nation through such tumultuous events as the relocation to Indian Territory and the American Civil War.

John Ross was the son of a Cherokee mother and a Scottish father. His mother and maternal grandmother were of mixed Scots-Cherokee ancestry, since his maternal grandfather was another Scottish immigrant. As a result, young John (one-eighth Cherokee by blood quantum) grew up bilingual and bicultural, an experience that served him well when his parents decided to send him to schools that served other mixed race Cherokee. After graduation, he was appointed an Indian agent in 1811. During the War of 1812, he served as adjutant of a Cherokee regiment under the command of Andrew Jackson. After the Red Stick War ended, Ross demonstrated his business acumen by starting a tobacco farm in Tennessee. In 1816, he built a warehouse and trading post on the Tennessee River north of the mouth of Chattanooga Creek, and started a ferry service that carried passengers from the south side of the river (Cherokee Nation) to the north side (USA). His businesses served as the start of a community known as Ross's Landing on the Tennessee River (now modern-day Chattanooga, Tennessee). Concurrently, John Ross developed a keen interest in Cherokee politics, attracting the attention of the Cherokee elders, especially Principal Chiefs Pathkiller and Charles R. Hicks, who, along with Major Ridge, became his political mentors.

Ross first went to Washington, D.C. in 1816 as part of a Cherokee delegation to negotiate issues of national boundaries, land ownership and white encroachment. As the only delegate fluent in English, Ross became the principal negotiator, despite his relative youth. When he returned to the Cherokee Nation in 1817, he was elected to the National Council. He became council president in the following year. The majority of the council were men like Ross, who were wealthy, educated, English-speaking and of mixed blood. Even the traditionalist full-blood Cherokee perceived that he had the skills necessary to contest the whites' demands that the Cherokee cede their land and move beyond the Mississippi River. In this position, Ross's first action was to reject an offer of $200,000 from the US Indian agent made for the Cherokee to voluntarily relocate. Thereafter Ross made more trips to Washington, even as white demands intensified. In 1824, Ross boldly petitioned Congress for redress of Cherokee grievances, the first time a tribe had ever shown the audacity to do such a thing. Along the way, Ross built political support in the capital for the Cherokee cause.

Both Pathkiller and Charles R. Hicks died in January 1827. Hicks's brother, William, was appointed interim chief. Ross and Major Ridge shared responsibilities for the affairs of the tribe. William Hicks did not impress the Cherokee as a leader. They elected Ross as permanent principal chief in October 1828. He remained so until he died.

The issue of removal split the Cherokee Nation politically. Ross, backed by the majority, tried repeatedly to stop white political powers from forcing the tribe to move. They became known as the National Party. Others, who came to believe that further resistance would be futile, wanted to seek the best settlement they could get. They formed the "Treaty Party" or "Ridge Party," led by Major Ridge. The Treaty Party was convinced to sign the Treaty of New Echota on December 29, 1835, requiring the Cherokee to leave by 1838. Neither Ross nor the council approved it, but the Federal government regarded the treaty as valid. It would send the Army to move those who did not depart by 1838 in an action known ever after as the "Trail of Tears." About one-fourth of the Cherokee forced to move died along the trail. The dead included Ross's wife, Quatie.

Ross tried unsuccessfully to restore political unity after the arrival in Indian Territory. Unknown people assassinated the leaders of the Treaty Party, except for Stand Watie, who escaped and became Ross's most implacable foe. Soon, the issue of slavery refueled the old division. The Treaty Party morphed into the "Southern Party," while the National Party largely became the "Union Party." Ross initially counseled neutrality, believing that joining in the "white man's war" would be disastrous for the tribe. After Union Forces abandoned their forts in Indian Territory, Ross reversed himself and signed a treaty with the Confederacy. He later fled to Union-held Kansas and Stand Watie became the de facto chief. The Confederates lost the war, Watie became the last Confederate general to surrender, and Ross returned to his post as principal chief. Confronted with negotiating the Reconstruction Treaty with the United States, he made yet another trip to Washington, where he died on August 1, 1866.


In the first half of the 19th century, the Cherokee had formed a nation state, lost their ancestral homelands, endured removal to the Indian Territory, and suffered defeat in the American Civil War (due to an early alliance of the majority with the Confederacy). During this period, one dominant political figure in the Cherokee Nation was John Ross. His mother was mixed-race Cherokee and belonged to the tribe; as the people were matrilineal, Ross belonged to her Bird Clan. By ancestry, he was one-eighth Cherokee and seven-eighths Scots, and he grew up in both Cherokee and frontier American environments. Educated in English by white men, he was a poor speaker of the Cherokee language, but his bi-cultural background allowed him to represent the Cherokee to the United States government. He became one of the wealthiest men of The Nation.

John Ross Home, Rossville, Georgia. The House was built in 1797 by John McDonald, grandfather of John Ross, and was Ross' home until he left on the "Trail of Tears".

The Cherokee Moses

Ross's life had a pattern similar to those of prominent Anglo-Métis in the northern United States and Canada. Scots and English fur traders in North America were typically men of social status and financial standing who married high-ranking Native American women. Both sides believed these were strategic alliances, helping the Native Americans and the traders. They educated their children in bi-cultural and multilingual environments. The mixed-race children often married and rose to positions of stature in society, both in political and economic terms.

In the quickly changing political environment of the 19th century, the Cherokee needed the skills and languages which the mixed-race Ross had developed. The majority of Cherokee supported Ross, electing him as their principal chief in every election from 1828 through 1860. Given the controversy over the struggle over territory, a vocal minority of Cherokee and a generation of political leaders in Washington considered Ross to be dictatorial, greedy, and an "aristocratic leader [who] sought to defraud" the Cherokee Nation. Ross also had influential supporters in Washington, including Thomas L. McKenney, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1824–1830). He described Ross as the father of the Cherokee Nation, a Moses who "led...his people in their exodus from the land of their nativity to a new country, and from the savage state to that of civilization."

Early life and education

House built in early 19th century by John McDonald, maternal grandfather of John Ross. Now called the "John Ross House," it was occupied by Ross' daughter and her husband, Nicholas Scales. It is located in Rossville, Georgia.

Ross (also known by his Cherokee name, Guwisguwi) was born in Turkeytown (in modern day Alabama), near the head of the Coosa River, to Mollie (née McDonald) and her husband Daniel Ross, an immigrant Scots trader. Because he was born to a Cherokee mother, Ross was considered to be a member of her Bird Clan by birth.

Ross's mother and grandmother were of mixed Scots-Cherokee ancestry. His great-grandmother Ghigooie, a full-blood Cherokee, married William Shorey, a Scottish interpreter. Their daughter, Anna, married John McDonald, a Scots trader. In 1786 Anna and John's daughter, Mollie McDonald, married Daniel Ross, a Scots trader who had begun to live among the Cherokee during the American Revolution.

Ross spent his childhood with his parents in the area of Lookout Mountain. He saw much of Cherokee society as he encountered the full-blood Cherokee who frequented his father's trading company. As a child, Ross participated in tribal events, such as the Green Corn Festival. The elder Ross was determined that John also receive a rigorous classical education. After being educated at home, Ross pursued higher studies with the Reverend Gideon Blackburn, who established two schools in southeast Tennessee for Cherokee children. Classes were in English and students were mostly of mixed race, like Ross. The young Ross finished his education at an academy in South West Point, near Kingston, Tennessee.

John Ross is said to have married his first wife, Elizabeth "Quatie" Brown Henley, about 1812 or 1813. She was a Cherokee, born in 1791 and a widow with one child. Her previous husband, Robert Henley, may have died during the War of 1812.


Indian agent

At the age of twenty, having completed his education and with bilingual skills, Ross was appointed a US Indian agent to the western Cherokee and sent to their territory (in present-day Arkansas). During the War of 1812, he served as an adjutant in a Cherokee regiment. He took part in fighting under General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend against the British-allied Upper Creek warriors, known as the Red Sticks.

Business activities

Ross began a series of business ventures. He derived the majority of his wealth from cultivating 170 acres (0.69 km2) tobacco in Tennessee worked by twenty slaves.

In 1816 he founded Ross's Landing, served by a ferry crossing. After the Cherokee were removed to Oklahoma in the 1830s, American settlers changed the name of Ross's Landing to Chattanooga. In addition, Ross established a trading firm and warehouse. In total, he earned upwards of $1,000 a year ($14.1 thousand in today's terms). In 1827 Ross moved to Rome, Georgia, to be closer to New Echota, the Cherokee capital. In Rome, Ross established a ferry along the headwaters of the Coosa River close to the home of Major Ridge, an older wealthy and influential Cherokee leader. By December 1836, Ross's properties were appraised at $23,665 ($516112 today). He was then one of the five wealthiest men in the Cherokee Nation.

Rise to national leadership

A young John Ross

Political apprenticeship

The years 1811 to 1827 were a period of political apprenticeship for Ross. He learned how to conduct negotiations with the United States and the skills required to run a national government. After 1814, Ross's political career as a Cherokee legislator and diplomat progressed with the support of individuals such as the Principal Chief Pathkiller, Assistant Principal Chief Charles R. Hicks, and Casey Holmes, an elder statesman of the Cherokee Nation, as well as the women elders of his clan.

By 1813, as relations with the United States became more complex, older, uneducated chiefs such as Pathkiller could not effectively defend Cherokee interests. The ascendancy of Ross indicated Cherokee recognition that an educated, English-speaking leadership was of national importance. Both Pathkiller and Hicks believed Ross could be a future leader of the Cherokee Nation, and they trained him for this work. Ross served as clerk to Pathkiller and Hicks, where he worked on all financial and political matters of the nation. They also steeped him in Cherokee tradition. In a series of letters to Ross, Hicks outlined what was known of Cherokee traditions.

In 1816, the chief's council named Ross to his first delegation to Washington. The delegation of 1816 was directed to resolve the sensitive issues of national boundaries, land ownership, and white encroachment on Cherokee land. Of the delegates, only Ross was fluent in English, making him the central figure in the negotiations. This was a unique position for a young man in Cherokee society, which traditionally favored older leaders.

In November 1817, the Cherokee formed the National Council. Ross was elected to the thirteen-member body, where each man served two-year terms. The National Council was created to consolidate Cherokee political authority after Andrew Jackson made two treaties with small cliques of Cherokee representing minority factions. Membership in the National Council placed Ross among the ruling elite of the Cherokee leadership. The majority of the men were wealthy, mixed-race and English-speaking, unlike most of the Cherokee, who still spoke only Cherokee.

Assumption of leadership

In November 1818, on the eve of the General Council meeting with the US Indian agent Joseph McMinn, who dealt with the Cherokee, Ross was elevated to the presidency of the National Committee. He held this position through 1827. The Council selected Ross because they perceived him to have the diplomatic skill necessary to rebuff US requests to cede Cherokee lands. In this task, Ross did not disappoint the Council. McMinn offered $200,000 US for removal of the Cherokee beyond the Mississippi, which Ross refused.

In 1819, the Council sent Ross to Washington, D.C.. He assumed a larger leadership role. The purpose of the delegation was to clarify the provisions of the Treaty of 1817. The delegation had to negotiate the limits of the ceded lands and hope to clarify the Cherokee's right to the remaining lands. John C. Calhoun, the Secretary of War, pressed Ross to cede large tracts of land in Tennessee and Georgia. Such pressure from the US government continued and intensified. In October 1822, Calhoun requested that the Cherokee relinquish their land claimed by Georgia, in fulfillment of the United States' obligation under the Compact of 1802. Before responding to Calhoun's proposition, Ross first ascertained the sentiment of the Cherokee people. They were unanimously opposed to further cession of land.

In January 1824, Ross traveled to Washington to defend the Cherokee possession of their land. Calhoun offered two solutions to the Cherokee delegation: either relinquish title to their lands and remove west, or accept denationalization and become citizens of the United States. Rather than accept Calhoun's ultimatum, Ross directly petitioned Congress for the Cherokee cause on April 15, 1824. This fundamentally altered the traditional relationship between an Indian nation and the US government.

Never before had an Indian nation petitioned Congress with grievances. In Ross' correspondence, what had previously been the tone of petitions by submissive Indians was replaced by assertive defenders. Ross was able to argue subtle points about legal responsibilities as well as whites. This change was apparent to individuals in Washington, including future president John Quincy Adams. He wrote, "[T]here was less Indian oratory, and more of the common style of white discourse, than in the same chief's speech on their first introduction." Adams specifically noted Ross' work as "the writer of the delegation" and remarked that "they [had] sustained a written controversy against the Georgia delegation with greate advantage."[sic] The Georgian delegation inadvertently acknowledged Ross' skill in an editorial published in The Georgia Journal, which charged that "the Cherokee delegation's letters were fraudulent" because they were "too refined to have been written or dictated by an Indian".

Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

In January 1827, Pathkiller, the Cherokee's principal chief and last hereditary chief, and, two weeks later, Charles R. Hicks, Ross's mentor, both died. Ross, as president of the National Committee and Major Ridge, as speaker of the National Council, were responsible for the affairs of the tribe. In a letter dated February 23, 1827, to Colonel Hugh Montgomery, the Cherokee agent, Ross wrote that with the death of Hicks, he had assumed responsibility for all public business of The Nation. Charles Hicks' brother William served briefly as interim chief until a permanent chief could be elected. Although he believed he was the natural heir to his brother's position, William Hicks had not impressed the tribe with his abilities. A majority of the people knew that during the year Ross, not Hicks, had taken care of all of the mundane business of the tribe. On October 17, 1828 the Cherokee elected John Ross as principal chief.

The Cherokee Council passed a series of laws creating a bicameral national government. In 1822 they created the Cherokee Supreme Court, capping the creation of a three-branch government. In May 1827, Ross was elected to the twenty-four member constitutional committee. It drafted a constitution calling for a principal chief, a council of the principal chiefs, and a National Committee, which together would form the General Council of the Cherokee Nation, a constitutional republic. Although the constitution was ratified in October 1827, it did not take effect until October 1828, at which point Ross was elected principal chief. He was repeatedly reelected and held this position until his death in 1866. He was very popular, among both full-bloods, who comprised three-fourths of the population, and mixed-bloods.

The Cherokee had created a constitutional republic with delegated authority capable of formulating a clear, long-range policy to protect national rights.

Supreme Court litigation

John Ross in suit with top hat.

Ross found support in Congress from individuals in the National Republican Party, such as senators Henry Clay, Theodore Frelinghuysen, and Daniel Webster and representatives Ambrose Spencer and David (Davy) Crockett. Despite this support, in April 1829, John H. Eaton, Secretary of War (1829–1831), informed Ross that President Jackson would support the right of Georgia to extend her laws over the Cherokee people.

On December 8, 1829, President Andrew Jackson made a speech announcing his intention to pass a bill through Congress by the following spring requiring Indian tribes living in the Southeastern states to move west of the Mississippi.

On December 19, 1829, the Georgia legislature, enacted a series of laws which confiscated a large section of Cherokee land, nullified Cherokee law within the confiscated area, banned further meetings of the Cherokee government in Georgia, declared contracts between Indians and whites null and void unless witnessed by two whites, disallowed Indians from testifying against a white person in court and forbade Cherokee to dig for gold on their own lands. The laws were made effective June 1, 1830. These were calculated to force the Cherokee to move.

In May 1830, Congress endorsed Jackson's policy of removal by passing the Indian Removal Act. Jackson signed the Act on May 23. It authorized the president to set aside lands west of the Mississippi to exchange for the lands of the Indian nations in the Southeast. In the summer of 1830, Jackson urged the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek to sign individual treaties accepting removal from their homelands. The Cherokee refused to attend a meeting in Nashville that Jackson proposed. The other tribes signed off on Jackson's terms.

When Ross and the Cherokee delegation failed in their efforts to protect Cherokee lands through dealings with the executive branch and Congress, Ross took the radical step of defending Cherokee rights through the U.S. courts. In June 1830, at the urging of Senator Webster and Senator Frelinghuysen, the Cherokee delegation selected William Wirt, US Attorney General in the Monroe and Adams administrations, to defend Cherokee rights before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wirt argued two cases on behalf of the Cherokee: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia,' Chief Justice John Marshall acknowledged that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation, stating, "[T]he Cherokees as a state, as a distinct political society, separated from others, capable of managing its own affairs and governing itself, has, in the opinion of a majority of the judges, been completely successful." But he did not compel President Jackson to take action that would defend the Cherokee from Georgia's laws, because he did not find that the U.S. Supreme Court had original jurisdiction over a case in which a tribe was a party.

In 1832, the Supreme Court further defined the relation of the federal government and the Cherokee Nation. In Worcester v. Georgia, the Court found that Georgia could not extend its laws to the Cherokee Nation because that was a power of the federal government. Marshall stated that "the acts of Georgia are repugnant to the Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States. They interfere forcibly with the relations established between the United States and the Cherokee nation, the regulation of which, according to the settled principles of our Constitution, are committed exclusively to the government of the Union." The Cherokee were considered sovereign enough to legally resist the government of Georgia, and they were encouraged to do so.

The court maintained that the Cherokee Nation was dependent on the federal government, much like a protectorate state, but still a sovereign entity. But the dispute was made moot when federal legislation in the form of the Indian Removal Act exercised the federal government's legal power to handle the whole affair. The series of decisions embarrassed Jackson politically, as Whigs attempted to use the issue in the 1832 election. They largely supported his earlier opinion that the "Indian Question" was one that was best handled by the federal government, and not local authorities.

Meanwhile, the Cherokee Nation had encountered financial hard times. The U. S. government had stopped paying the agreed-upon $6,000 annuity for previous land cessions, Georgia had effectively cut off any income from the gold fields in Cherokee lands, and the Cherokee Nation's application for a federal government loan was rejected in February, 1831. With great difficulty (and private donations) Ross was able to pay the Cherokee Nation's legal bills.

Ross versus the Ridge Party

In a meeting in May 1832, Supreme Court Justice John McLean spoke with the Cherokee delegation to offer his views on their situation. McLean's advice was to "remove and become a Territory with a patent in fee simple to the nation for all its lands and a delegate in Congress, but reserving to itself the entire right of legislation and selection of all officers." He agreed to send Ross a letter explaining his views. Ross was furious, believing that this was a form of treachery.

McLean's advice precipitated a split within the Cherokee leadership as John Ridge and Elias Boudinot began to doubt Ross's leadership. John Ridge introduced a resolution at the national council meeting in October, 1832 to send a delegation to Washington to discuss a removal treaty with President Jackson. The council rejected Ridge's proposal and instead selected Joseph Vann, John Baldridge, Richard Taylor and John Ross to represent the Cherokee. In February 1833, Ridge wrote Ross advocating that the delegation dispatched to Washington that month should begin removal negotiations with Jackson. Ridge and Ross did not have irreconcilable worldviews; neither believed that the Cherokee could fend off Georgian usurpation of Cherokee land. However, Ridge was furious that Ross had refused to consider Jackson's offer to pay the Cherokee $3,000,000 for all their lands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

In this environment, Ross led a delegation to Washington in March 1834 to try to negotiate alternatives to removal. Ross made several proposals; however, the Cherokee Nation may not have approved any of Ross's plans, nor was there reasonable expectation that Jackson would settle for any agreement short of removal. These offers, coupled with the lengthy cross-continental trip, indicated that Ross's strategy was to prolong negotiations on removal indefinitely. There was the possibility that the next President might be more favorably inclined.

Ross's strategy was flawed because it was susceptible to the United States' making a treaty with a minority faction. On May 29, 1834, Ross received word from John H. Eaton, that a new delegation, including Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and Ross' younger brother Andrew, collectively called the "Ridge Party" or "Treaty Party", had arrived in Washington with the goal of signing a treaty of removal. The two sides attempted reconciliation, but by October 1834 still had not come to an agreement. In January 1835 the factions were again in Washington. Pressured by the presence of the Ridge Party, Ross agreed on February 25, 1835, to exchange all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi for land west of the Mississippi and 20 million dollars. He made it contingent on the General Council's accepting the terms.

Lewis Cass, Secretary of War, believing that this was yet another ploy to delay action on removal for an additional year, threatened to sign the treaty with John Ridge. On December 29, 1835, the Treaty Party signed the Treaty of New Echota with the U.S. This action was against the will of the majority of Cherokee. Ross was unsuccessful in his attempts to stop enforcement of the treaty.

Returning to his home at Head of Coosa late at night, Ross saw a man he did not recognize at his house. He told the man to feed his horse and put him away for the night. Instead, the man followed him to the door. The stranger, who identified himself as Stephen Carter, then told Ross that he, Carter, was now the homeowner and that he had papers to prove it. Ross then learned Carter had been given possession of the house earlier in the week by agents of Georgia, and that his family had been turned out earlier in the week. Ross had been dispossessed by Georgia and was now homeless. The next day, Ross found that Quatie had been given refuge by some other family members.

Those Cherokee who did not emigrate to the Indian Territory by 1838 were forced to do so by General Winfield Scott. This forced removal came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Accepting defeat, Ross convinced General Scott to allow him to supervise much of the removal process. On the Trail of Tears, Ross lost his wife, Quatie. According to one of the soldiers escorting the group, she had given her coat to a child that was crying because of the cold. A few days later, she died of pneumonia near Little Rock on the Arkansas River.

Knowing that the cession of the common lands was a capital crime under Cherokee law, opponents of the treaty chose to assassinate Boudinot, Major Ridge and John Ridge after the migration to Indian Territory.<Moulton, John Ross: Cherokee Chief, 114> Stand Watie, Boudinot's brother, was also attacked but he survived. The assassins were never publicly identified nor tried in court. General Matthew Arbuckle, commander of Fort Gibson, claimed he knew their identities but never tried to arrest them. Some Cherokee, particularly those tied to the pro-treaty party, claimed that Chief John Ross knew about the assassinations beforehand. Many years later, Chief Ross's son Allen, wrote that this was not so. Allen's letter, is said to be in the possession of the Oklahoma State Historical Society. Afterward, there were years of violence between the two factions.


John Ross was introduced to the Stapler family of Brandywine Springs, Delaware by former Indian commissioner Thomas McKenney in 1841. John Stapler, a merchant and widower, had many interests in common with Ross. Ross found a real friend in the eldest daughter, Sarah, who was now caring for her younger siblings. However, it was a younger sister, Mary Brian Stapler, who developed a real love for Ross. Mary initiated a romantic attachment in May 1844. As the time came for Ross to return to the Indian Territory, their mutual love ripened. They married in Philadelphia on September 2, 1844.

Continuing tribal conflict

Dissent was exacerbated during the Civil War, in which at first the majority of the Cherokee people supported the Confederacy. Fearing that joining the Confederacy would void the earlier Cherokee treaties with the United States, Ross tried to persuade his people to remain neutral in the conflict, but eventually most chose sides. Full-bloods tended to favor maintaining relations with the United States. This group included over two thousand members of a traditionalist and abolitionist society, the Keetoowah Society. Members of this group were called "Pins" by non-members because they wore an emblem of crossed pins on their shirts. Ross advocated that the Cherokee Nation remain neutral. It was a losing argument. At a general assembly on August 21, 1861, Ross ended his speech by announcing that in the interests of tribal and inter-Indian unity it was time to agree on an alliance with the Confederate States of America. Many of the well-armed mixed bloods, especially the wealthy led by Stand Watie, supported the Confederacy. Traditionalists and Cherokee who opposed the institution of slavery remained loyal to the Union. However, the majority of Cherokee may not have understood the nature of the new treaty (Warde, When the Wolf Came: The Civil War in Indian Territory, 59).

After Ross departed to meet with President Lincoln in Washington, traditionalist Cherokee helped maneuver the selection of Ross supporter Thomas Pegg as Acting Principal Chief. Three or four of Ross's own sons fought for the Union. However, Ross's nephew by marriage, John Drew, had organized and served as Colonel of the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles in the Confederate Army. Most of Drew's regiment would later twice desert in reaction to Confederate orders to kill other Indians. Many leaders of the northern faction, still led by Ross, went to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for the duration of the war.

By 1863, the flight of many Cherokee voters to refuge in Kansas and Texas provided the pro-Confederate Treaty Party an opportunity to elect Stand Watie as principal chief without them. Pro-Union National Council members declared the election invalid. Watie that fall raided Ross's home, Rose Cottage. The home was looted and burned. Ross lost all his belongings. Ross's daughter Jane and her husband, Andrew Nave, were living at Rose Cottage at the time. Nave was shot and killed. Only the prior intervention of Watie's wife seems to have prevented the killing of additional Ross relatives (Warde, When the Wolfe Came: The Civil War and the Indian Territory, 191). Ross's oldest son, James, who had gone to Park Hill searching for supplies, was captured and sent to prison in the Confederacy, where he died. Ross remained in exile. However, within a week of the burning, the National Council convened and restored Ross as principal chief.

Ross took his wife Mary and the children to Philadelphia so she could see her family. Ross returned to Washington, where he had an inconclusive meeting with President Lincoln and other supporters. When he returned for Mary in 1865, he found her gravely ill with what was diagnosed as "lung congestion" (likely tuberculosis). She could not travel, so he remained with her for more than a month. Mary died of her illness on July 20, 1865. She was buried in her native Delaware. Ross returned to Indian Territory after her funeral.

After the war, the two factions of the Cherokee tried to negotiate separately with the US government Southern Treaty Commission. The commissioner of Indian Affairs, Dennis N. Cooley, was persuaded to believe allegations by Stand Watie and Elias Cornelius Boudinot that Ross was a dictator who did not truly represent the Cherokee people. Even though his health was worsening, Ross left Park Hill, where he was staying with his niece, on November 9, 1865, to meet with President Andrew Johnson. Johnson instructed Cooley to reopen negotiations with the Cherokee and to meet only with the pro-Union faction, headed by John Ross. Ross died on August 1, 1866 in Washington, D.C. while still negotiating a final treaty with the federal government. However, Ross had by then persuaded Johnson to reject a particularly harsh treaty version favored by Cooley.

Initially, Ross was buried beside his wife Mary in Wilmington, Delaware. A few months later, the Cherokee Nation returned his remains to the Ross Cemetery at Park Hill, Indian Territory for interment.

John Ross' grave in Park Hill, Oklahoma


The City of Chattanooga named the Market Street Bridge in Ross's honor, and a bust of Ross stands on the north side of the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn.

Ross is the namesake of the city of Rossville, Georgia, located just south of the Tennessee state line. The city contains his former home, the John Ross House, where the chief lived from 1830–1838 until the state seized his lands near the Coosa River. One of the oldest surviving homes in the Chattanooga area, it has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. National Public Radio correspondent Steve Inskeep has suggest that the US $20 bill be modified to carry images of both John Ross and Andrew Jackson, "illustrating our democratic experience."

Representation in other media

  • John Ross was portrayed by Johnny Cash in an episode of NET Playhouse titled "Trail of Tears" in 1971.
  • John Ross's life and the Trail of Tears are dramatized in Episode 3 of the Ric Burns "American Experience" documentary, We Shall Remain (2009), shown and available online on PBS.
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