When the Cherokee nation, numbering some 17,000 people, marched west in 1838, they were led by Principal Chief John Ross. Ross had lost his long political battle to overturn the Treaty of New Echota, but the dedicated leader would continue to serve his grateful nation up to the hour of his death in 1866.
A Man of Stature:
John Ross stood so high in the eyes of his people that they called him ‘Guwisguwi,’ after a rare migratory bird of large size and white or grayish plumage that had one time appeared at long intervals in the old Cherokee country. Intellectually, he was the greatest chief in the history of the Cherokee people. By free ballot, he was repeatedly elected as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and died in office as chief executive of a government fashioned after that of the United States of America. In his youth he knew Jefferson, spent most of his prime years negotiating with Jackson, came face to face with Lincoln. In Washington, D.C., he was known as the Indian Prince. Yet, for all his impressive contacts, he was a man of simple and friendly habit, his home ever open to visitors of all walks of life. This included John Howard Payne, who once shared a jail cell with him –where Payne got the idea for the song, “Home, Sweet Home.”
He was one-eighth Cherokee and seven-eighths Scot. He was as much a Scotsman as his great opponent, Andrew Jackson, and fought just as tenaciously. But he was forever Cherokee at heart. Scion of a prominent trading family that had settled before the American Revolution at what is now Rossville, Georgia, just across the line from Chattanooga, Tennessee, he was born October 3, 1790. He was educated at a white man’s school at Kingston, Tennessee, and began his public career at the age of 19 when he was entrusted by Indian Agent Return Meigs with an important mission to the Arkansas Cherokee in 1809. Ross fought alongside Jackson, Sam Houston, and Davy Crockett in the War of 1812, and at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, in a daring act of bravery, he swam the river to capture the Creeks’ canoes which were then used in an attack upon the enemy’s fort.
Framing The Republic:
More than anyone else, Ross was responsible for remodeling the Cherokee tribal government into a miniature republic in 1820. Under the arrangement, the nation was divided into eight districts. Each was entitled to send four representatives to the Cherokee national legislature, which met at New Echota, the capital, near present-day Calhoun, Georgia. Meanwhile, Sequoyah had invented his alphabet, and almost overnight, the Cherokee became a literate race. This led, in 1828, to the adoption of a constitution predicated on the Cherokee assumption of sovereignty, development of a system of industries and home education, and establishment of a national press. This bold step drew the immediate wrath of authorities and people of Georgia and set off the first argument for state’s rights, with Georgia asking the United States government what it proposed to do about the “erection of a separate government within the limits of a sovereign state.” As the battle raged, Ross dreamed that one day a new star would be added to the flag of the United States and that it would stand for a state the like of which has not yet been received into the Union—an Indian state, the State of Cherokee. Instead, John Ross found himself spending most of his time in Washington fighting the removal of the Cherokee to new homes in the West. His knowledge of the writings of Jefferson enabled the Cherokee to present memorials of dignity and moving appeal to Congress. However, he lost the battle by one vote. Throughout the long hard battle, Ross’ people trusted him implicitly.
Honored For a Lifetime Of Service:
After their arrival in the Indian Territory, Ross was chosen chief of the united Cherokee Nation and held that office until his death in Washington on August 1, 1866 at the age of 76. Upon learning of his death, the Cherokee Nation passed a memorial resolution that praised him as a man of moral conviction and selfless leadership, dedicated to the rule of law and the importance of education. The resolution also acknowledged his important place in the history of his people: “His works are inseparable from the history of the Cherokee people for nearly half a century, while his example in the daily walks of life will linger in the future and whisper words of hope, temperance, and charity in the years of posterity.” Resolutions were also passed for bringing his body from Washington at the expense of the Cherokee Nation and provided for suitable funeral rites and burial, in order “that his remains should rest among those he so long served.” He was buried at Park Hill, Oklahoma, but there are descendants of John Ross living in Cherokee.