Ross was born in Turkeytown, Alabama, along the Coosa River, near Lookout Mountain, to Mollie and Daniel Ross. Ross' genealogy begins with William Shorey, a Scottish interpreter, and his "fullblood" wife Ghigooie, a member of the Bird clan. In 1769, their daughter Anna married John McDonald, a Scottish trader at Fort Loudoun, in Tennessee. This marriage produced a daughter Mollie, who in 1786 married Daniel Ross, a Scotsman who had gone to live among the Cherokee during the American Revolution.
Ross' childhood, spent in the area of Lookout Mountain, was immersed in Cherokee society, where he encountered the fullblood Cherokee who frequented his father's trading company. As a child, Ross was allowed to participate in Cherokee events such as the Green Corn Festival. However, despite his father's willingness to allow his son to partake in some Cherokee customs, the elder Ross was determined his son receive a rigorous education. After receiving an elementary education at home, Ross studied with the Reverend Gideon Blackburn, and finished his education at an academy in South West Point, Tennessee.
Ross then began a series of business ventures, but derived the majority of his wealth from cultivating worked by twenty slaves. In 1816 he founded Ross's Landing (which was renamed Chattanooga after his departure for Oklahoma). In addition, Ross established a trading firm and warehouse. In total, he earned upwards on one-thousand dollars a year. In 1827, Ross moved to Coosa to be closer to New Echota, the Cherokee capital, and the other leading figures of the nation. In Coosa, Ross established another ferry and had twenty slaves cultivating . By December 1836, Ross's property was appraised at $23,665.75, which made him one of the five wealthiest men in the Cherokee Nation.
In 1816, Ross was named by the National Council to his first delegation to Washington. The delegation of 1816 was directed to resolve the sensitive issues of national boundaries, land ownership, and white intrusions on Cherokee land. Of the delegates, only Ross was fluent in English, making him the central figure in the negotiations; a unique position for a young man in Cherokee society, which traditionally favored older leaders. Ross's first political position came in November 1817 with the formation of the National Council; a thirteen member body elected for two year terms. The National Council was created to consolidate Cherokee political authority after General Jackson made two treaties with small cliques of Cherokees representing minority factions. Membership in the National Council placed Ross among the ruling elite in the upper echelons of the Cherokee leadership.
In 1819, Ross was again sent to Washington; unlike 1816, however, Ross was now assuming a larger role in the leadership. The purpose of the delegation was to clarify the provisions of the Treaty of 1817. The delegation had to negotiate the limits of the ceded land and hope to clarify the Cherokee's right to the remaining land. John C. Calhoun, the secretary of war, pressed Ross to cede large tracts of land in Tennessee and Georgia. Such pressure would continue and intensify. In October 1822, Calhoun requested that the Cherokee relinquish their land claimed by Georgia, in fulfillment of the United State's obligation under the Compact of 1802. Before responding to Calhoun's proposition, Ross first ascertained the sentiment of the Cherokee people, which he found to be unanimously opposed to cession of land.
In January 1824, Ross traveled yet again to Washington to defend the Cherokees' possession of their land, where Calhoun offered two solutions to the Cherokee delegation: either relinquish title to their lands and remove west or accept denationalization and become citizens of the United States. Rather than accept Calhoun's ultimatum, Ross made a bold departure from previous negotiations by continuing to aggressively press their complaints, and on April 15 1824, Ross took the dramatic step of petitioning Congress. This fundamentally altered the traditional relationship between an Indian nation and whites dating back to colonial times.
Never before had an Indian nation petitioned Congress with grievances, and in Ross' correspondences the petitions of submissive Indians were replaced by assertive defenders, able to argue, as well as whites, subtle points about legal responsibilities. This change was apparent to individuals in Washington, including future president John Quincy Adams, who wrote that "there was less Indian oratory, and more of the common style of white discourse, than in the same chief's speech on their first introduction. Adams specifically noted Ross' work as "the writer of the delegation" and remarked that "they [had] sustained a written controversy against the Georgia delegation with greate advantage." Indeed the Georgia delegation acknowledged Ross' skill in an editorial in The Georgia Journal which charged that the Cherokee delegation's letters were fraudulent because they were too refined to have been written or dictated by an Indian.
In January 1827, Pathkiller, the Cherokee's principal chief, and Charles Hicks, Ross's mentor, both died. In a letter dated February 23, 1827, to Colonel Hugh Montgomery, the Cherokee Agent, Ross wrote that with the death of Hicks, he had assumed responsibility for all public business of the nation. The year 1827 would mark not only the elevation of Ross to principal chief pro tem, but also the climax of political reform of the Cherokee government. During the same period that Ross was negotiating in Washington on behalf of the Cherokee, the Cherokee Council began to pass a series of laws creating a bicameral national government and in 1822 created the Cherokee Supreme Court, capping the creation of a three branch government. In May 1827, Ross was elected to the twenty-four member constitutional committee, which drafted a constitution calling for a principal chief, a council of the principal chief, and a National Committee, which together would form the General Council of the Cherokee Nation. Although the constitution was ratified in October 1827, it did not take effect until October 1828, at which point, Ross was elected principal chief, a position he would hold until his death in 1866.
The Cherokee now had a system of government with delegated authority capable of dependably formulating a clear, long-range policy to protect national rights, and a strong leader in Ross who understood the complexities of the United States government and could use that knowledge to implement national policy.
On December 20, 1828, Georgia, fearful that the United States would be unable to effect the removal of the Cherokee Nation, enacted a series of oppressive laws which stripped the Cherokee of their rights and were calculated to force the Cherokee to remove. In this climate, Ross led another delegation to Washington in January 1829 to resolve disputes over non-payment of annuities and the boundary between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation. Rather than lead the delegation into futile negotiations with President Jackson, Ross wrote an immediate memorial to Congress, completely forgoing the customary correspondence and petitions with the President.
Ross found support in Congress from individuals in the National Republican Party such as Senators Henry Clay, Theodore Frelinghuysen, and Daniel Webster and Representatives Ambrose Spencer and David (Davy) Crockett. Despite this support, in April 1829, John H. Eaton, secretary of war (1829 - 1831) informed Ross that President Jackson would support the right of Georgia to extend her laws over the Cherokee Nation and in May 1830, Congress endorsed Jackson's policy of removal by passing the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to set aside lands west of the Mississippi to exchange for the lands of the Indian nations in the east.
When Ross and the Cherokee delegation failed to in their efforts to protect Cherokee lands through negotiation with the executive branch and through petitions with Congress, Ross took the radical step of defending Cherokee rights through the U.S. courts. In June 1830, at the urging of Senator Webster and Senator Frelinghuysen, the Cherokee delegation selected William Wirt, attorney general in the Monroe and Adams administrations, to defend Cherokee rights before the U.S. Supreme Court. Wirt argued two cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Cherokee: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia. The decision handed down by Chief Justice John Marshall never acknowledged that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation, and as such did not compel President Jackson to take action that would defend the Cherokee from Georgia's laws. The Cherokee Nation claim was denied on the grounds that the Cherokees were a "domestic dependent sovereignty" and as such did not have the right to sue Georgia as a nation state. The court would later expand on this in Worcester v. Georgia, where the court decided that Georgians could not extend its laws into Cherokee lands, not because they were fully sovereign, but because they were a domestic dependent sovereignty, and as such were dependent not on the state of Georgia, but on the United States. According to the series of rulings, Georgia could not extend its laws because that was a power in essence reserved to the federal government. The Cherokee were considered sovereign enough to legally resist the government of Georgia, and were encouraged to do so. However, the court carefully maintained that the Cherokee were ultimately dependent on the federal government and were not a true nation state, nor fully sovereign. Thus the dispute was made moot when federal legislation in the form of the Indian Removal Act exercised the federal government's legal power to handle the whole affair. Ironically, the series of decisions embarrassed Jackson politically, as Whigs attempted to use the issue in the 1832 election, but largely supported his earlier opinion that the "Indian Question" was one that was best handled by the federal government, and not local authorities.
In an unusual meeting in May 1832, Supreme Court Justice John McLean spoke with the Cherokee delegation offered his views on the Cherokee's situation. McLean's advice was to "remove and become a Territory with a patent in fee simple to the nation for all its lands, and a delegate in Congress, but reserving to itself the entire right of legislation and selection of all officers."
In this environment, Ross led a delegation to Washington in March 1834 in an attempt to negotiate alternatives to removal. Ross made several proposals, however, there is no indication that the Cherokee Nation would have approved any of Ross' plans, nor is there any reasonable expectation that Jackson would settle for any agreement short of removal. These offers, coupled with the proposition of a lengthy cross-continental trip indicate that Ross' strategy was to prolong negotiations on removal indefinitely, with the hope of wearing down Jackson's opposition to a treaty which did not result in Cherokee removal.
Ross' strategy was flawed, because it was susceptible to the United States making a treaty with a minority faction. On May 29, 1834, Ross received word from John H. Eaton, that a new delegation, including Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and Ross' younger brother Andrew, collectively the Ridge Party, had arrived in Washington with the goal of signing a treaty of removal. The two sides attempted reconciliation, but by October 1834 had still not come to an agreement. In January 1835 the factions were again in Washington, and pressured by the presence of the Ridge Party, Ross agreed on February 25, 1835 to exchange all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi for land west of the Mississippi and twenty million dollars on the condition that the terms be accepted by the General Council.
Lewis Cass, secretary of war, feeling that this was yet another ploy to delay action on removal for an additional year threatened to sign the treaty with John Ridge. On December 29, 1835, the Ridge Party, against the will of the majority of Cherokees signed the removal treaty with the U.S. Ross unsuccessfully lobbied against enforcement of the treaty, but those Cherokees who did not emigrate to the "Indian Territory" by 1838 were forced to do so by General Winfield Scott, an episode that came to be known as the "Trail of Tears." Accepting defeat, Ross convinced General Scott to have supervision of much of the removal process turned over to Ross. On the trail of tears Ross lost his wife, Quatie, a fullblooded Cherokee woman, of whom little is known, shortly before reaching Little Rock on the Arkansas River.
The Cherokee civil war over the issues of acculturation and removal in the 1820s, 1830's, and 1840's, motivated Ross' overriding concern for unity. Furthermore, Ross understood that "the relations which the Cherokee people sustain toward their white brethren have been established by subsisting treaties with the United States..." The Cherokee right to land, self-government, and annuities from the sale of ancestral lands were all secured in treaties with the United States; they would be lost if the Cherokee Nation joined the Confederacy. Torn by treaties to the Union and sympathies to the Confederacy, Ross opted for a policy of neutrality as the best means of unifying the nation and ensuring that the rights of the Cherokee were not lost.
To advance this policy, Ross began, in February 1861, a vigorous campaign among the leaders of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek Nations which emphasized loyalty to the United States to protect their treaty rights. Although the policy of neutrality was a skillful attempt to spare the Cherokee the depredations of war and the potential loss of their precious rights, but by July 1861, Ross had been informed that "difficulties of a serious character existed...between half and full blood Cherokees..."
This shift in policy is in no way surprising when examined in context with traditional Cherokee political ethos. Any Cherokee leader would have been expected to calmly state and restate the same opinion until a consensus emerged, at which point all Cherokee would either accept the emerging sentiment or withdraw. Ross perceived the forces pushing for ties with the Confederacy to be in the majority; in traditional Cherokee style, he acceded to the majority sentiment in order to preserve unity and harmony.
The new policy, however, not only exposed the Cherokee to the depredations of war, it failed to achieve the desired unity. The state of affairs was beyond the ability of one man to control, and it overwhelmed Ross' attempts to keep the Cherokee unified. Before the end of 1861, the Civil War had infected Indian territory; the failure of Ross to shield the five nations was complete. But the Cherokees had chosen the wrong ally to defend the nation's rights, for despite Ross' protestations the South could not protect the Cherokee Nation, which was invaded by the Union army in July 1862.
In a letter to President Lincoln before his arrival in Washington, Ross outlined a six-point defense of Cherokee rights based on the mutual observance of treaty obligations. The skillfully crafted argument absolved Cherokee disloyalty by claiming the treaties were abrogated by the failure of the United States to fulfill the promises it had contracted. Lincoln, a trained lawyer, expressed doubt about the logic of Ross' arguments, and was unwilling to accede to the claim that the United States had special obligations to the Cherokee. But Lincoln did acknowledge the Cherokee's general right to protection by the government.
Ross stayed in Washington from October 1862 through July 1865 working to defend Cherokee treaty rights and ensure the welfare of the nation for the duration of the war. The government-in-exile received grievances and updates from citizens who remained in the nation, while Ross, who gained access to members of Congress and the Executive, lobbied to aid the Cherokee as well as the other western nations. Although Ross was able to establish and maintain correspondences with Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war, and William P. Dole, commissioner of Indian Affairs, his task remained arduous. His pleas received sympathetic hearing, but he had not convinced the government of its obligations to the Cherokees. Ultimately, Ross was successful in getting Cherokee regiments armed in the defense of the nation, which allowed the Cherokee to return, however, he was never successful in settling the Cherokees' rights with the United States.
Ross died on August 1, 1866 in Washington.
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