John Ross was born on October 3, 1790, in Turkey Town, Cherokee Nation, now located in Alabama. His father and grandfather were Scottish traders who married into the Cherokee Nation. He received private tutoring during his early years and became a successful young merchant and plantation owner. Like other well-off Cherokee of his day, Ross owned African slaves. By the 1830s, he was one of the Cherokee Nation's wealthiest men.
As evidenced by his early life, Ross advocated, as Cherokee leader, a particular form of assimilation—one that maintained Cherokee sovereignty and independence—as a means of preservation in the face of encroaching white pressure and influence, but he did so in the context of mainstream U.S. values, including those of Christianity. Despite the fact that he spoke little, if any, Cherokee, Ross was adamantly supported by Cherokee traditionalists because of his intense dedication to the preservation of a unified nation located in their southeastern homeland. These followers called him Tsan Usdi, or Little John, and later Cooweescoowee, the Cherokee name for an egret.
Beginning in 1816, Ross became increasingly involved and dedicated to Cherokee politics. In 1827, Ross was chosen to head the Cherokee's constitutional convention. Once ratified, this constitution became the first such written document among Native North American tribes. The following year, Ross was elected chief of a government that challenged what remained of the Cherokees' traditional governing system.
Pressures on the Cherokees from the state of Georgia to relocate west of the Mississippi River mounted in the 1830s. Georgians began settling on Cherokee lands, and with Andrew Jackson, a well-known Indian fighter, elected to the U.S. presidency in 1828, the state had a strong sympathizer in Washington, D.C. Despite Supreme Court decisions that supported the Cherokees' right to their land, Jackson and later President Martin Van Buren would force the tribe to relocate.
Still, Ross had the support of the majority of Cherokee citizens and was fighting to keep his nation's homeland intact. However, a small group of dissenters, who considered removal to Indian Territory a promising solution to white encroachment, signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, ceding Cherokee land for new land to the west. Ross fought the sham treaty as best he could and then led his people along the Trail of Tears in 1838, a disastrous trip that would take the lives of at least one-quarter of the traveling population. Once these Cherokees reached those already settled in the West, they faced division and near civil war trying to create a unified government. It was not until 1846, after the revengeful executions of several treaty signers (not with Ross's direct knowledge), that the Cherokee Nation became unified once again.
From 1846 until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the Cherokees prospered under Ross's leadership. A newspaper, the Cherokee Advocate, was established, Cherokee education became a top priority, and the new settlers experienced general prosperity. With the outbreak of war, however, the Cherokees were once again divided, this time between Union and Confederate sympathies. This split, however, echoed that which occurred in the tribe 30 years before: New Echota Treaty signers sided with the Confederate cause.
Ross and his supporters hoped the Cherokee people would remain neutral, but challengers such as Stand Watie, who raised a Cherokee regiment for service in the Confederate Army, dashed Ross's hopes of continued peace within the nation. After a victory at Wilson's Creek, Missouri, increased the Confederacy's strength in the region, Ross resigned himself and his people to an alliance with the South. Ross continued to serve as head of the Cherokee Nation and as emissary to the United States. Ross returned to the Cherokee Nation before his death on August 1, 1866.
Amy M. Ware
Moulton, Gary E. John Ross: Cherokee Chief. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978; Ross, John. The Papers of Chief John Ross. 2 volumes. Edited by Gary E. Moulton. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.