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John Ross, Cherokee Chief

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John Ross
John Ross
Cherokee Chief

John Ross, on his mother’s side, was of Scotch descent. His grandfather, John McDonald, was born at Inverness, Scotland, about 1747. Visiting London when a youth of nineteen years, he met a countryman who was coming to America, and catching the spirit of adventure, he joined him, landing in Charleston, S. C., in 1766. While here, he heard of a mercantile house in Augusta, Georgia, which attracted him thither, and he entered it as clerk. His success in business inspired confidence in his employers, who sent him to Fort Loudon, on the frontier of the State, built by the British Government in 1756, to open and superintend trade among the Cherokees. These lived in little towns or villages, a few miles apart for mutual protection, and to preserve the hunting-grounds around them. He soon “set up for himself” in business, and married Ann Shorey, a half-blood Cherokee. It was customary with the tribe to colonize a company pushing out into the wilderness often many miles, and opening a new centre of traffic. McDonald went with one of the migratory colonies, in 1770, to Chickamauga. Here, the same year, was born “Mollie McDonald.” A few years later the family removed to Lookout Valley, near the spot consecrated to Liberty and the Union by the heroic valor of General Hooker’s command, in the autumn of 1863. While residing in this romantic region, among the natives, Daniel Ross, originally from Sutherlandshire, Scotland, and left an orphan in Baltimore soon after peace was declared with Great Britain, had accompanied a Mr. Mayberry to Hawkins County, Tennessee, and came down the river in a flat-boat built by himself for trading purposes.

There is an obstruction in the Tennessee River below Lookout Mountain, compelling the boats to land above, at a point known as ” Brown’s Ferry.” The Indian town was called Siteco. The arrival of the strange craft at Siteco, on the way to the Chickasaw country, navigated by Ross, and having on board, besides valuable merchandise, “Mountain Leader,” a chief, spread excitement at once through the Cherokee settlement, and the people rallied to inquire into the designs of the unexpected traders.

A consultation was held, in which “Bloody Fellow,” the Cherokee Chief, advised the massacre of the whole party and the confiscation of the goods. McDonald, who lived fifteen miles distant, was sent for, he having a commanding influence over the natives. He came, and urged them not to harm the strangers; saying, among other arguments, that Ross was, like himself, a Scotchman, and he should regard an insult to him as a personal injury. McDonald’s address calmed the wrath of the Cherokees, and they changed their tone to that of persuasion, offering inducements to remain there and establish a trading-post. The proposition was accepted.

Daniel Ross soon after married “Mollie McDonald.” He was a gentleman of irreproachable and transparent honesty, and carried with him the entire confidence of all who knew him. He also migrated to different portions of the wild lands, during the next twenty years or more, and became the father of nine children. John was the third, and was born at Turkeytown, on the Coosa River, in Alabama, October 3d, 1790. Returning to Hillstown, Lewis was born there, who is associated with him in labors and trials at the present time. Subsequently Chickamauga, and still later Chattanooga, became his place of residence.

When about seven years of age, he accompanied his parents to Hillstown, forty miles distant, to attend the “Green-Corn Festival.” This was an annual agricultural Fair, when for several days the natives, gathering from all parts of the nation, gave themselves up to social and public entertainments. The tribe was divided into clans, and each member of them regarded an associate as a kinsman, and felt bound to extend hospitality to him; and thus provision was always made for the gathering to the anniversary. On this occasion, John’s mother had dressed him in his first suit after the style of civilized life made of nankeen. No sooner was he at play with boys of his clan, than the loud shout of ridicule was aimed at the “white boy.” The next morning, while his grandmother was dressing him, he wept bitterly. Inquiring the cause, she learned it was the fear of a repetition of the previous day’s experience. The tears prevailed, and arrayed in calico frock and leggings, and moccasins, with a bound and shout of joy, he left his tent, in his own language, “at home again.” As the large family were old enough to attend school, John’s father bought land in Georgia, to remove there that he might educate them; but gave up the plan and went to Maryville, in Tennessee, six hundred miles from his residence, and fifteen miles from Knoxville, and employed a Mr. George Barbee Davis to come and instruct his children. To have this privilege, however, he must obtain permission of the General Council of the nation. The application was opposed by some, on the ground of an unwilling ness to introduce any of the customs or habits of the whites. Others urged the necessity of having interpreters and persons among them acquainted with the improvements of their civilized neighbors. This reasoning prevailed, and Mr. Ross had the honor of giving to the Cherokee nation the first school, the beginning of a new era in the history of the American aborigines.

After a few years culture at home, John and Lewis were sent to Kingston, Tennessee, to enjoy the advantages of a popular school there. John boarded with a merchant named Clark, and also acted as clerk in his store. Kingston was on the great emigrant road from Virginia, Maryland, and other parts, to Nashville, and not far from South West Point, a military post. At Chattanooga,

John’s mother died and was buried, a great loss to him, to whom she was a counselor and a constant friend. His grandfather lavished his partial affection upon him, and at his death left him two colored servants he had owned for several years. After a clerkship of two years for a firm in Kingston, young Ross returned home, and was sent by his father in search of an aunt in Hagerstown, Md., nine hundred miles distant, of whom, till then, for a long time, all traces had been lost.

On horseback and without a companion, he commenced his long and solitary journey. He encamped at night wherever he could find a shelter, and reached safely the home of the recently discovered aunt. Furnishing her a horse, they recrossed Tennessee, and returned, after several weeks of pilgrimage, to the desolate home in Chattanooga. The grandfather soon after removed to Brainard, the early missionary station of the American Board among the Cherokees, situated on the southern border of Tennessee, only two miles from the Georgia line, upon the bank of Chickamauga Creek, and almost within, the limits of the bloody battle-field of Chickamauga, being only three miles distant from its nearest point, (The name is derived from the Chickasaw word Chucama, which means “good,” and with the termination of the Cherokee Kah, means Good place.) .

In anticipation of the war with Great Britain, in 1812, the Government determined to send presents to the Cherokees who had colonized west of the Mississippi, and Col. Meigs, the Indian Agent, employed Riley, the United States Interpreter, to take charge of them. The voyage was commenced, but hearing at Fort Massas, ten miles below the mouth of the Tennessee, that the earthquake shocks which had been felt had sunk the land at New Madrid, the party were alarmed and returned, leaving the goods there. Col. Meigs then deputed John Ross to go with additional gifts, and see them all delivered to the Cherokees. With John Spears a half-blood, Peter a Mexican Spaniard, and Kalsatchee an old Cherokee, he started on his perilous expedition, leaving his father’s landing on Christmas.

At Battle Creek, afterward Laurie’s Ferry, he met Isaac Brown-low, uncle of Parson Brownlow, a famous waterman. When he saw Ross in his small craft, bound on the long and dangerous voyage, his boat being a clapboarded ark, he swore that Colonel Meigs was stupid or reckless, to send him down the rivers in such a plight. He went with him eighty miles, and to within ten miles of Knoxville, exchanging a keel-boat for his crazy craft, and taking an order on the Government for the difference, declaring, even if he lost it, John should not venture farther as he came. At Fort Pickering, near Memphis, he learned that the Cherokees he was seeking had removed from St. Francis River to the Dardenell, on the Arkansas, which then contained no more than 900 whites, and he directed his course thither.

The narrative of the entire expedition, the sixty-six days on the rivers; the pursuit by settlers along the banks, who supposed the party to be Indians on some wild adventure; the wrecking of the boat; the land travel of two hundred miles in eight days, often up to the knees in water, with only meat for food; and the arrival home the next April, bringing tidings that the Creeks were having their war-dance on the eve of an outbreak; these details alone would make a volume of romantic interest.

The Creek war commenced among the tribe on account of hostile views, but soon was turned upon the loyal whites and Cherokees. Of the latter, a regiment was formed to cooperate with the Tennessee troops, and Mr. Ross was made adjutant. General White commanded in East, and General Jackson in West Tennessee. The Cherokees concentrated at Turkeytown, between the two forts Armstrong and Strauthers. The Creeks were within twenty-five miles. A Creek prisoner had escaped, and informing his people of the Cherokee encampment, they could be restrained no longer, but dashed forward to meet the enemy. Upon reaching the place of encampment, they found only the relics of a deadly fight, in which General Coffee, under Jackson, had routed the

Creeks. The Cherokees returned to Turkey town the same night by 10 o’clock, having inarched fifty or sixty miles (many on foot) since the early morning.

The terrible battle at Horseshoe, February 27th, 1814, which left the bodies of nine hundred Creeks on the field, was followed by a treaty of peace, at Fort Jackson, with the friendly Creeks, securing a large territory to indemnify the United States. In making it, McIntosh, a shrewd, unprincipled chief, represented the Creeks, and Colonel Brown, half-brother of Catharine the first Cherokee convert at the Missionary Station, the Cherokees, to fix their boundary. McIntosh had his conference with General Jack son in his tent; and the treaty was made, so far as Brown was concerned, pretty much as the former desired, in reality infringing upon the rights of the Cherokees; the line of new territory crossing theirs at Turkeytown. Consequently a delegation, of which John Ross was a prominent member, was sent to Wash ington to wait on President Madison and adjust the difficulty. Mr. Crawford, Secretary of War, decided the question in favor of the Cherokees.

The next treaty which involved their righteous claims was made with the Chickasaws, whose boundary-lines were next to their own. General Jackson was against the Cherokee claim, and affirmed that he would grant the Chickasaws their entire claim. He offered the former an annuity of $6000 for ten years, although they had refused before, the offer of a permanent annuity of the same amount. This negotiation was conditional upon the confirmation of it at a meeting of the Cherokees to be held at Turkey-town. ‘The Indians came together, and refused to recognize the treaty; but finally the old Chief Pathkiller signed it. At every step of dealing with the aborigines, we can discern the proud and selfish policy which declared that “the red man had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

In 1816, General Jackson was again commissioned to negotiate with the Cherokees, and John Ross was to represent his people. But before any result was reached, Ross, having gone into business with Timothy Meigs, son of Colonel Meigs, went with him on horseback to Washington and Baltimore, to purchase goods and have them conveyed to Rossville, on the Georgia line, at the foot of Missionary Ridge. In a few months Mr. Meigs died, and Lewis Ross became partner in his place.

After a long and interrupted passage having deer-skins and furs for traffic from Savannah to New York, and then to Baltimore, he returned to find that General Jackson had prepared the celebrated treaty of 1817. A council being called to explain the treaty, Ross determined to go as a looker-on.

The national affairs of the Cherokees had been administered by a council, consisting of delegates from the several towns, appointed by the chiefs, in connection with the latter. A National Committee of sixteen, to transact business under the general super vision of the chiefs, was also a part of the administrative power of the nation.

On the way to the council referred to, which was called at their capital by Governor McMinn, who had charge of the treaty of 1817, Judge Brown, of the Committee, meeting Ross at Van’s, Spring Place, Georgia, said to him, ” When we get to Oosteanalee, I intend to put you in hell I ” When Ross objected to such a fate, not guessing the import of the apparently profane expression, Judge Brown added, that he ” intended to run him for President of the National Committee,” giving his views of the comfort of office-holding, in the language employed.

The council met in the public square. Soon after, John Ross, then twenty-seven years of age, was called in, when Major Ridge, the speaker of the council, announced, to the modest young man’s surprise and confusion, that he was elected President of the National Committee.

When the treaty came up for discussion, Governor McMinn explained it as meaning, that those who emigrated west of the Mississippi were to have lands there; and those who remained came under the laws of the State, giving up to the United States there as much soil as was occupied west. Charles H. Hicks, a chief, and Ross, went into the woods alone, and, seated on a log, conferred sadly together over a form of reply to the terms of treaty as expounded. Hicks was very popular with his people, and was one of the earliest converts under the missionary labors of the Moravians. Ross made replies in opposition to the governor’s construction.

Governor McMinn made another appointment for a meeting of the chiefs, and other men of influence, at the Cherokee Agency on Highnassee River. The time arrived; the firing of a cannon opened the council daily for three long weeks, McMinn hoping to wear out the patience of the Cherokees and secure the ratification of the treaty, never as yet formally granted. The result was the appointment of a delegation to Washington, of which Hicks and Ross were members, always the last resort. Mr. Monroe was President, and John C. Calhoun Secretary of War. This was in February, 1819.

Meanwhile, Governor McMinn allowed the time designated for the census to elapse without taking it, leaving the exchange of lands with no rule of limitation, while he bought up improvements as far as possible, to induce the natives to emigrate; and then rented them to white settlers to supplant the Cherokees, contrary to express stipulation that the avails of the sales were to be appropriated to the support of the poor and infirm.

In this crisis of affairs it was proposed at Washington to form a new treaty, the principal feature of which was the surrender of territory sufficient in extent and value to be an equivalent for all demands past and to come; disposing thus finally of the treaty of 1817. The lands lay in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia.

The Government also assumed the responsibility of removing all the “squatters” McMinn had introduced by his undignified and unjust management. Andrew Jackson, then Major-General in the regular army, was called upon to execute the condition of the new compact. He wrote in reply, that he had no troops to spare; and said that the Cherokee Light-Horse companies should do the work. Colonel Meigs, the Indian Agent, feared the effect of employing Indians to remove the white intruders, but applied to the chiefs Hicks and Pathkiller, who consented to let them take the field. The command was given to Mr. Ross, because it was urged by Colonel Meigs that a preeminently prudent man was needed.

Colonel Meigs ordered the horsemen to simply warn the settlers to leave. Ross protested against a powerless attempt of the kind; and they were reluctantly granted authority to remove those who refused to go, burning cabins and corn.

The first settlement to be purged of intruders was near the Agency, and these, at the approach of Ross with his troopers, fled. Finding a house closed, and believing the owner within prepared to resist, his men surrounded it, and the commander made an entrance down the chimney, but the object of pursuit was gone.

The Light-Horse troops, though the chieftain had been unused to military life, did their work well, necessarily marking their way with fire and ruin. At Crow Island they found a hundred armed men, who, upon being approached by messengers with peaceful propositions, yielded to the claims of Government and disbanded. In Brown’s Valley, Ross might have been seen at dead of night, Deputy Agent Williams keeping sentry at the tent-door, writing by torchlight his dispatches to General Jackson. The General sent Captain Call with a company of regulars to the Georgia frontier; the latter passing round Lookout Mountain, a solitary range eighty or ninety miles long, while Ross went directly over it. Upon joining Call, Mr. Ross surrendered to him the military command, and returned to Rossville. In 1818 he was elected by Colonel Meigs to go in search of a captive Osage boy, about 190 miles distant, in Alabama. He mounted his horse and started; managing his mission as detective so well, that in a few days he returned with the boy on behind, and placed him in the Brainard Mission, where he took the name of John Osage Ross.

About this time New Echota was selected for the seat of government, a town on the Oosteanalee, two miles from the spot where he was elected President of the National Committee. In 1812 the National Council was held there. “The Cherokee Phoenix,” a weekly paper, was started in 1821.

In 1823, Congress appropriated money to send commissioners to make a new treaty with the Cherokees, and secure lands for Georgia. The State had also two representatives in the delegation, to assert old claims and attain the object. They argued that the Almighty made the soil for agricultural purposes. The Cherokees replied, that, while they did not pretend to know the designs of Jehovah, they thought it quite clear that He never authorized the rich to take possession of territory at the expense of the poor. McIntosh, a shrewd Creek chief with a Cherokee wife, who had. betrayed his own people, now tried his art on his neighbors. He wrote to John Ross, offering $18,000 from the United States Com missioners for a specified amount of land, using as an argument the affair with the Creeks. Mr. Ross kept the secret till the council were assembled, then sent for McIntosh, who had pre pared an address for it; and when he appeared, exposed the plot. The council reported him a traitor, and his “white-bench,” or seat of honor, was overthrown. McIntosh in alarm mounted his steed and rode eighty miles, killing two horses, it is said, in a single day. He was afterward slain by his own people, according to their law declaring that whoever should dispose of lands without the consent of the nation, should die. He was speaker of the Creek Council.

In 1827, Chiefs Hicks and Pathkiller died. John Ross was now President of the Committee, and Major Ridge speaker of council, the two principal officers of the Cherokee nation. The new constitution, similar to that of the Republic, was adopted in the follow ing manner: The council proposed ten candidates, three of which were to be elected from each district to meet in convention. Mr. Ross was one of them; and the instrument, accepted then, with his warmest interest urging it, was the following year approved by the council. It became necessary to fill, till the constitution went into effect, the vacancies made by death, and John Ross and William Hicks were elected chiefs for a year

At the expiration of the term, Mr. Ross was elected Principal Chief of the nation, and George Lourey Second Chief, each to hold the office four years. The extraordinary honor has been bestowed unsought upon Mr. Ross, of reelection to the high position without an interval in the long period, to the present.

We have reached, through the career of John Ross, the lawless development of covetousness and secession in the treatment of the Cherokees by Georgia. Andrew Jackson favored the doctrine of State rights, which settled the claim of legalized robbery in the face of the constitution of the Commonwealth. This was understood before his election to the Presidency by politicians who waited upon him. He further stated, it is reported authoritatively, that he affirmed the three great measures he desired should mark his administration now, legislating the Cherokees out of the State; the death of the National Bank; and the extinguishment of the public debt.

We are not criticizing politically, or condemning this or any other executive officer, but stating matters of accredited history.

We need not repeat the events that followed, briefly narrated in the preceding sketch of the Cherokee nation, till it rises from suffering and banishment to power again west of the Mississippi.

When the dark and wrathful tide of secession set westward, the disloyal officials at once took measures to conciliate or frighten the Indians into an alliance with them. In regard to the Cherokees, they partially succeeded, making an alliance principally with weal thy half-breeds. The Creek chief Opotohleyohola, whose memory of past wrongs was bitter, said he must “fight the Georgians; ” and he did, with the aid of loyal Cherokees, by a successful and daring attack. John Ross was consulted by Governor Ruter, of Arkansas, but evaded the question of Cherokee action in the conflict; and when Colonel Solomon marched into the Indian country, the Cherokees, who before the battle of Bird Creek formed a secret loyal league, held a meeting at night, took Rebel ammunition stored near, and fought the enemy the next day; relieved from the terror of Rebel rule, they hailed the Federal army with joy, and flocked to the standard of the Union. Scarcely had this loyalty been declared, before Solomon marched with recruits and all 2,200 men again out of the territory, without any apparent reason, leaving the Cherokees and the country he was to defend in a more exposed condition than before.

Park Hill, the residence of Mr. Ross, was forty miles from the road Solomon took in his retreat, for this was practically the character of the movement. Colonel Cooper, the former United States Agent, having under his command Texan s, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks, was ready to sweep down on Park Hill, where around the Chief were between two and three hundred women and children. Colonel Cloud, of the Second Kansas Regiment, while the enemy were within twenty miles, marched forty miles with five hundred men, half of whom were Cherokees, reach ing Park Hill at night. He said to Mr. Ross, “I have come to escort you out of the country, if you will go.” The Chief inquired, “How soon must I leave?” The reply was, “tomorrow morning at six o’clock.”

With a couple of camp-wagons, containing a few household effects, family pictures cut from their frames, and other valuable articles at hand, Mr. Ross, with about fifty of the whole number there, hastened toward our lines, hundreds of miles away. August 4th, 1861, he reached his brother Lewis’ place, and found his furniture destroyed and the house injured. At midnight they resumed the flight of terror, crossing Grand River, where they would have been cut off, had the enemy known their condition. The next day a courier came from Park Hill, bringing the sad tidings that the mansion of the Chief had fallen into Cooper’s hands. The work of plunder and ruin soon laid it in ruins, and the country desolate. The Cherokees were robbed of horses and everything that could be used by the Rebels. They were scattered over the plains, shelter less, famishing, and skirmishing with the enemy. Mr. Ross and his company, after weeks of perilous travel and exposure, suffering from constant fear and the elements, reached Fort Leavenworth; but, as he feelingly remarked, ” the graves of the Cherokees were scattered over the soil of Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas.”

Mr. Ross spends much of his time in Washington, watching for the favorable moment, if it shall ever come, to get the ear of the Government, and secure the attention to the wants and claims of his people, demanded alike by justice and humanity.

A public meeting was held in Concert Hall, Philadelphia, in March, 1864, which drew together an immense crowd, and was addressed by Mr. Ross; ex-Governor Pollock; Colonel Downing, a full-blood Cherokee, a Baptist minister, and a brave officer; Captain McDaniel; Dr. Brainard; and others. The interest was deep and abiding, but the difficulty in the way of appeal for redress by the aborigines has ever been, the corruption, or, at best, indifference of Government officials. For, whatever the natural character of the Indian, his prompt and terrible revenge, it is an undeniable fact, as stated by Bishop Whipple in his late plea for the Sioux, referring to the massacres of 1862, that not an instance of uprising and slaughter has occurred without the provocation of broken treaties, fraudulent traffic, or wanton destruction of property. It is also true, that when kindly treated as a ward, instead of an outlaw fit only for common plunder, life and property have been safe in his keep ing. He has had no redress for injuries, no reliable protection from territorial or any other law.

Fortunately for Mr. Ross, he had a comfortable dwelling, purchased several years since, on Washington Square, Philadelphia, to which he retired in exile from his nation.

He has been twice married. His first wife, Elizabeth, was a Cherokee woman, who bore him one daughter and four sons. The former married Return John Meigs, who died in 1850; and her second husband was Andrew Ware, who was shot at his own house at Park Hill, while making a flying visit there from Fort Gibson, to which he had gone for refuge from Rebel cruelty. His boy escaped by hiding in the chimney, while the house was pillaged, and the terror-smitten wife told she would find her husband in the yard, pierced with bullets. Of the four sons, three are in the army and one a prisoner, besides three grandsons and several nephews of the Chief in the Federal ranks. Two nephews have been murdered by the enemy. Mrs. Ross died, as stated in another place, on the journey of emigration to the west, in 1839.

September 2d, 1844, Mr. Ross married Mary B. Stapler, of Philadelphia, a lady of the first respectability in her position, and possessed of all the qualities of a true Christian womanhood.1 A son and daughter of much promise cheer their home amid the severe trials of the civil war. It was a singular coincidence, that just eighteen years from the day of his marriage he returned in his flight from impending death to the Washington House, in which the ceremony was performed.

By none in the land was the President’s proclamation of freedom more fully and promptly indorsed than by Mr. Ross and the Cherokees; indeed, they took the lead in emancipation. His sacrifice, so far as the commercial estimate is concerned, in slaves which had come to him from those left him by a grandfather, of whom he was a great favorite, was $50,000. Besides this, the product of three hundred acres of cultivated land, just gathered into barns, and all the rich furniture of his mansion, went into the enemy’s hands, to be carried away or destroyed, making the loss of pos sessions more than $100,000.

Chief John Ross, who, in the hope and expectation of seeing his people elevated to a place beside the English stock, cast in his lot with them in early youth, when worldly prospects beckoned him to another sphere of activity, has been identified with their progress for half a century, and is still a “living sacrifice” on the altar of devotion to his nation. His moral and religious character is unstained, his personal appearance venerable and attractive, and his name will be imperishable in the annals of our country.

Mr. Ross has labored untiringly, since his return to Philadelphia, to secure justice and relief for his suffering people.

As the last bitter cup of affliction pressed to his lips amid domestic bereavement which removed from his side his excellent companion, enemies have sought to deprive him of his office, and stain his fair fame with the charge of deception and disloyalty.

The Chief still holds his position of authority, and his good name will remain under no permanent eclipse; while all true hearts will long for deliverance to his nation, and that he may live to see the day.


1 This estimable lady died with the serenity of Christian faith during the summer of 1865.

History of the Indian Tribes of North America


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The History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs, Embellished with one Hundred Portraits, from the Indian Gallery in the Department of War, at Washington, 1872


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