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John Ross


October 3, 1790 - August 1, 1866

Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation for nearly forty years, John Ross was one of the most astute negotiators and dedicated leaders of his era. Born in the Cherokee Nation of Scottish and Cherokee descent, Ross had connections to both Indian and white worlds. His fluency in English, political skill, and steadfast commitment to the Cherokee Nation resulted in his emergence as a leader. Although he was a controversial figure, Ross remained popular among a majority of Cherokees throughout his career.

In 1813, during the Creek War, Ross fought with the federal forces against the Red Stick Creeks. Shortly afterward, he began his political career, traveling to Washington, D.C. and participating in diplomatic proceedings as part of a Cherokee delegation. He would become expert in such negotiations during his lifetime, making many trips to the capital and defending the autonomy of the Cherokee Nation, arguing against further land cessions and removal, and insisting on payments due from past treaties. Ross became popular with Cherokee leaders Path Killer and Charles Hicks, rising to the position of President of the Cherokee National Council in 1818. After the deaths of these men in 1827, Ross was chosen as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, during the first election held in accordance with the Cherokee Constitution. Ross served in this capacity until his death in 1866.

The most challenging period of Ross's career was the decade of the 1830's. While the Cherokees were struggling to repel the encroachments of Georgians, Andrew Jackson's administration began unrelenting pressure for Cherokee removal, introducing the Indian Removal Bill (enacted 1830). As anti-Indian legislation and violence increased, a faction of prominent Cherokees (including Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot) came to believe that removal was the only option for the nation. Ross, who remained optimistic and continued his negotiations with the United States, was increasingly viewed by the pro-removal faction as autocratic and unreasonable. On December 29, 1835, without Ross's knowledge or approval, the removal advocates signed the Treaty of New Echota, relinquishing the Cherokee homeland for land west of the Mississippi River. Ross continued to fight against removal, arguing that the treaty was fraudulent, but he was ultimately unsuccessful and forced removal of the Cherokees began in 1838. The Cherokees were treated with brutality, and approximately one-fourth of the people perished during the Trail of Tears (among them Ross's wife). Despite the chief's attempts to heal and unify the nation in the west, civil unrest and factionalism continued, culminating in violence that lasted through the U.S. Civil War. Ross participated in the negotiations that followed the war, but did not live to see their conclusion.

~ portrait by Charles Bird King




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