John Ross – The Scottish Cherokee Chief
John Ross was considered one of the greatest chiefs of the Cherokee tribe, having been chief for nearly 40 years from 1828 to 1866, the year of his death. However, John was not how many would have imagined a typical 19th century chief of a Native American tribe to be like. Infact, Ross was politician and a business man, and he was the son of Daniel Ross, a Scottish immigrant trader who settled with the tribe during the American War of Independence, and Mollie McDonald, who was of mixed Cherokee and Scottish blood – her father being an immigrant from Inverness.
Ross fought most of his life for the rights of his Cherokee tribe; most notably fighting against the forced move of the Cherokee nation from their lands in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma), in the western United States. He was elected principle chief of the Cherokee Nation by free ballot ten successive times, holding the position until the day he died.
John Ross grew up in both Cherokee and frontier American enviroments. However, he came from a relatively affluent family, and so he was able to receive a more than decent education from private white tutors. This allowed him to become the sort of chief he was. Many of the older chiefs from before were not educated to anywhere near the same standard as Ross, and so could not protect and defend the Cherokee interests as well. Ross grew up having experienced both worlds. His time amongst the Cherokee gave him an understanding of their culture and their language, and his education gave him the ability to understand the complexities of negotiating with politicians and a national government, and so was more than capable of taking on his political foes. Principal Chief Pathkiller saw in John Ross a future leader, and so went about training him for the position.
Unfortunately, one of the Cherokee tribe’s most notable foe was President Andrew Jackson, a strong advocate of the Indian Removal policy. Ross did have some influential allies in Washington, however, including the Commissoner for Indian Affairs (1824-1830), Thomas L. McKenny, who described Ross as being the Moses of the Cherokee nation, 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.”
In the January of 1827, both Principal Chief Pathkiller and his predecessor, Charles Hicks died, leaving William Hicks, Charles’ younger brother, as interim Principal Chief. Though during that time, it is said that John Ross was the real power broker. Many within the tribe were worried that, with the deaths of Pathkiller and Charles Hicks, the time of the Cherokees was short, but Ross and others believed that in order to save the Cherokee and prevent a forced move, legal action would be needed, as would turning the tribe into a recognised nation. It was to have its own constitution, which was modeled on the United States’ one, even including a Sentate and House of Representatives. In October 1827 the constitution was ratified, though not coming into effect until the October of 1828, at which point John Ross was elected as the first Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, a role he would be continually elected into until the day he died.
Over the following years Ross continued to fight with the white Americans, who were trying to displace his people, but used the power of words rather than weapons. There were some favourable court rulings when battling with local authorities, but in the end when seeking for Federal protection it was ultimately denied, and in 1830 President Jackson authorised the Indian Removal Act which saw the Jackson administration starting to put real pressure on the Cherokee, amongst others, to move. When Jackson was re-elected in 1832, some within the tribe saw it as an inevitability that they were going to be displaced, and so sought out the best arrangement they could get for the Cherokee Nation from the US Government. In the end, 500 (out of tens of thousands) of the Cherokee backed a treaty to leave their land in excahnge for $5,700,000, and the land in Indian Territory. Despite the fact that this agreement was not signed by a single elected official, and not supported by nine-tenths of the tribe, the US Congress ratified the removal treaty on the 23rd of May, 1836.
Between 1836 and 1839 saw the removal of the Cherokee from their lands in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina. Ross tried in vain to overturn the removal treaty. In 1838, Jackson’s successor, Martin van Buren sent US Army and state militia, totalling around 7,000 men, to forcefully remove any men, women and children at gunpoint who hadn’t already left, and send them on their way west. This forced removal came to be known as the “Trail of Tears” – a term used to refer to the removal of all Native American tribes at this time. The 2,200 mile journey saw many lose their lives from the cold, illness, and exhaustion, including John Ross’ own full-blooded Cherokee wife, Quatie, of whom not much is known.
Ross was given permission to help supervise the move, to make sure that his people were looked after, and make the transition as smooth as possible. Though that was not enough to prevent many of his people dying en route. Estimates of how many of the Cherokee died on their mass removal vary, with numbers ranging between 4,000 and 8,000.
Principal Chief John Ross remained solely focused on the interests and protection of his Cherokee tribe even after the move. The Cherokee people were ardant supporters of him, trusting the Scottish Ross with the future of their culture and their society for 40 years, which was something he fought to protect even to his last days.Tagged