John Ross, long-time leader of the Cherokee Nation, was born on October 3, 1790, in Cherokee territory now part of Alabama. He grew up near Lookout Mountain on the Tennessee-Georgia border. Ross served as president of the Cherokee’s National Committee (their legislature) from 1819 to 1826, as delegate to the Cherokee constitutional convention in 1827, as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828 to 1839, and finally as principal chief of the United Cherokee Nation from 1839 until his death in 1866. In these roles, he successfully led the Cherokee people through some of their most difficult circumstances.
Although his father was Scottish and his mother was of mixed descent, John Ross grew up as a full-fledged member of the Cherokee community. Known as Tsan Usdi (Little John) in his youth, he acquired the Cherokee name Kooweskoowe at adulthood. His parents also provided him with a European-based education, at first through a private tutor at home and later at an academy in South West Point (now Kingston), Tennessee. Thus Ross learned to function fully in white society while maintaining strong Cherokee ties. He later used his knowledge of both cultures to his peoples’ advantage during repeated negotiations with the U.S. government.
By 1816 when he entered politics as a Cherokee delegate to Washington, D.C., John Ross was a successful merchant with a wife and several children. Having fought with Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813-14, he went on to establish a ferry and warehouse for his trading firm at Ross’ Landing, now Chattanooga, on the Tennessee River. Ross also inherited a family home at Rossville, now in Georgia, where he increasingly took on the role of a southern planter. By the time that he moved to Head of Coosa (now Rome, Georgia) in 1827, Ross owned nearly 200 acres of farmland worked by slaves and was one of the Cherokee Nation’s wealthiest men.
Despite the encroachment of white settlers and extensive cessions of their territory, by the early nineteenth century the Cherokee people still held a sizeable tract of land spanning parts of southern Tennessee, northern Alabama, northern Georgia, and western North Carolina. Following the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory by the U.S. in 1803, many Americans—not the least of them President Thomas Jefferson—sought to move the Cherokees along with other eastern tribes to unincorporated land west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokees’ adoption of agricultural practices, a written alphabetExternal, and a constitutional form of government all were intended to accommodate Europeans and forestall relocation. By 1830, however, discovery of gold on Cherokee land, paired with Georgia’s attempts at legislative annexation and the U.S. Indian Removal Act, made that relocation look increasingly inevitable.
John Ross led a bold attempt to resist forced removal through legal proceedings in Washington. In two Supreme Court cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Cherokees challenged Georgia laws intended to expel them from their land. While the court first ruled that Indian tribes were “domestic dependent nations” over which it had no legal jurisdiction, it later reversed itself, writing that the Cherokee Nation “is a distinct community…in which the laws of Georgia can have no force…The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation is, by our Constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.” Yet, the Supreme Court had no way to enforce its stand and President Andrew Jackson was sympathetic to the cause of removal.
Factionalism within the Cherokee community also grew. Late in 1835, a small group of Cherokees, led by members of the Watie and Ridge families, signed a treaty in Ross’ absence ceding all tribal land to the U.S. government in exchange for money and territory further west. Though Ross protested these events in a petition to Congress, the treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate with a one-vote margin in May 1836. This gave the Cherokees just two years to get off their land.
By the summer of 1838, Ross found himself leading his people through the harrowing process of military eviction from their ancestral homes. U.S. government logistics were poor: there were three to five deaths a day from illness and drought among the first groups departing by boat. For the majority who waited until autumn, the journey, now organized by Ross, became a challenging thousand-mile march through freezing winter weather. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died on the journey—more than one-fifth of the total population—including John Ross’ wife Quatie, who succumbed to pneumonia at Little Rock. Now known as the Trail of Tears, this Cherokee experience of removal is remembered as a tragic low point in U.S.-tribal relations.
While a small group of Cherokees remained in Georgia, the majority of the tribe, with Ross as their leader, began life anew in what is now Oklahoma. There, Ross helped craft the 1839 Constitution of the United Cherokee Nation, with its capital established at Tahlequah in 1841. Ross again was elected principal chief. He married Mary Brian Stapler, a young Quaker woman, in 1844. By the 1850s, the Oklahoma Cherokees had a national press, a free public school program, and a unified political system.
During the Civil War, Ross called for the Cherokee Nation to maintain neutrality, but reluctantly agreed to sign a treaty with the Confederacy due to pressure from bordering states. He soon traveled with his family to Washington, however, and remained there for the rest of the war. In September 1862, John Ross met with President Lincoln to explain that he was coerced into signing the treaty with the Confederates.
The divisive sentiments of the Civil War again threatened to split the Cherokee tribe, but John Ross worked to reunite them and protect their land. Just days before his death he learned that the Treaty of 1866 would secure permanent land rights for his people at last.
- Image appears in Thomas Loraine McKenney and James Hall, History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs. Embellished with One Hundred and Twenty Portraits, from the Indian Gallery in the Department of War, at Washington. Philadelphia: F.W. Greenough [etc.], 1838-1844. (Return to text)
- Search across the collections on Indian to find a remarkable variety of prints, photographs, and documents relating to Native-American peoples. Learn more about relations between the eastern Indian nations and the federal government during the earliest years of the republic.
- Search on Cherokee in the following collections:
- A Century of Lawmaking For a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875
- Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789
- George Washington Papers
- Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827
- James Madison Papers, 1723 to 1859
- Andrew Jackson Papers
- Search on the term Cherokee across all collections to find additional documents and images associated with the tribe, such as The President’s Proclamation of Pardon and Amnesty in the Cherokee Language, issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 contains the special presentation Indian Land Cessions in the United States, 1784-1894. Select Browse by Tribe and choose Cherokee to learn about the Cherokee Nation’s land, and then compare their situation to that of other tribes.
- View architectural surveys of mid-nineteenth-century Cherokee governmental buildings at Tahlequah, Oklahoma: the Cherokee Supreme Court Building, the Cherokee National Capitol Building, and the Cherokee National Penitentiary, all found in Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey.
For example, a letter from George Washington to the U.S. Senate outlines problems the Cherokees faced just prior to John Ross’ birth:
By the papers which have been laid before the Senate it will appear that in the latter end of the year 1785 and the beginning of 1786 treaties were formed by the United States with the Cherokees, Chickasaws and Choctaws…It will also appear by the Papers that the States of North Carolina and Georgia protested against said Treaties as infringing upon their legislative rights and being contrary to the Confederation. It will further appear by the said papers that the treaty with the Cherokees has been entirely violated by the disorderly white people on the frontiers of North Carolina.
George Washington to Senate, August 22, 1789, Negotiations with Southern Indians. Series 2, Letterbooks 1754-1799. Letterbook 25. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division