By Jennifer Watts
There are times when you need a leader. A person to guide you and keep you moving forward. In the early 1800s, the Cherokee people needed such a leader. A man to fight for their Nation and its people. That man was John Ross, but who was he? How did he become the great leader the Cherokee needed when times were getting tough?
John Ross was not born in Tennessee. He was born October 3, 1790 in northern Alabama. He moved to Tennessee when he was seven years old with his parents Daniel and Mollie McDonald Ross. Their home was near Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga. As a child, he went to school in Kingston and Maryville, Tennessee. It was there that he learned how to read and write. He was very well educated for a child living at that time. Many children did not get to go to school like kids do today. He also learned at home from his mother and grandmother. They were Cherokee and taught him about Cherokee culture and legends.
Lithograph of John Ross from 1845, TSM Collection 80.156.2
When war broke out with the Red Stick Creeks in 1813, John encouraged the Cherokee to join the United States in fighting them. They were harassing settlers moving to Tennessee. He feared people would confuse the Cherokees with the Creeks and attack them. With the help of the Cherokee, the United States defeated the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1816. John returned home and continued helping his people. He could speak English and Cherokee, so he was able to negotiate for them with the United States government.
In 1817, John became one of thirteen people to form a national council for the Cherokee. In the following years, John helped write a constitution for the Cherokee Nation based on the United States Constitution. A Cherokee named Sequoyah created their own written language and started a newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix. They also built a capital city called New Echota in 1825. Things were looking good, but the good times didn’t last.
Postcard of the John Ross House in Rossville, Georgia, TSM Collection 2016.207.21
In 1828, John Ross was elected the Principal Chief of the Cherokee. By then, the U.S. government wanted to take Cherokee land for new settlers. Ross refused to let them take it. He often traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak for his people and stop their land from being stolen. Sadly, he did not win. In 1835, other Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota. They agreed to sell their land and move west within two years. Ross did not agree and fought for the next two years to stop it, but nothing worked. In 1838, the Cherokee were forced to leave their homes and move to Oklahoma. The 800-mile journey became known as the “Trail of Tears”. Many people did not survive. Even John’s wife, Quatie, died along the way.
Reproduction of General Winfield Scott’s Removal Orders, TSM Collection 84.26.1
The loss the Cherokee people experienced did not stop Ross from helping his people for the rest of his life. In Oklahoma, he helped build a new capital city called Tahlequah. He helped open schools and other public buildings. He helped the Cherokee build a new life for themselves. He believed he did the best he could for his people. John Ross remained Principal Chief until his death in 1866 on a trip to Washington, D.C. He is buried at Park Hill Cemetery in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Culture - things shared by a group of people including music, art, religion, food, and language.
Legend - an old story that is widely known but cannot be proven as true.
Harassing - attacking a person, group, or enemy repeatedly.
Negotiate - to discuss/debate something to reach an agreement.
Who taught John Ross about the Cherokee people?
When did John Ross become the Principal Chief of the Cherokee?
What do you think made John Ross a good leader for the Cherokee?
If you would make one rule for your school that would make everyone's ex[eroemce better, what would it be?
To learn more about what happened during Indian removal, check out our blog The Unwanted Journey on Trail of Tears.
Tennessee Social Studies Standards
5.38 Analyze the impact of Andrew Jackson’s presidency on the American Indian population of Tennessee, including the Indiana Removal Act, Trail of Tears, Treaty of Echota, and John Ross.
Glass, Patricia Hobbs. “John Ross.” Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society. 2017. Accessed October 11, 2021. http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/john-ross/.
Hicks, Brian. “The Cherokees vs. Andrew Jackson.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 2011. Accessed October 11, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-cherokees-vs-andrew-jackson-277394/.
King, Duane. “The Life and Times of Principal Chief John Ross.” Anthology of Articles: The John Ross Papers. Gilcrease Museum. February 3, 2016. Accessed October 11, 2021. https://collections.gilcrease.org/articles/article-life-and-times-principal-chief-john-ross.
Moulton, Gary E. “Ross, John.” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. Accessed October 11, 2021. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=RO031.
“Papers of Chief John Ross.” National Archives. Accessed October 11, 2021. https://www.archives.gov/nhprc/projects/catalog/chief-john-ross.
Jennifer Watts is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum