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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,272

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This is the grave of John Ross.

Born in 1790 in the Cherokee town of Turkeytown, in what is today Alabama, Ross grew up in a mixed race household. His mother was Cherokee and his father was a Scottish trader. By this time, the pressure on the Cherokee and other southern tribes was intense. Americans whites had flooded the region during and after the American Revolution and their agenda of genocide was well under way. The Cherokee did as much as any tribe could to try and survive, including adopting chattel slavery and embracing the plantation system that was the dominant economic form of the white society overtaking them. It was also very common for traders, whether European or American, to take Native wives as a way to integrate themselves into the tribes. Sometimes, there was genuine love there, sometimes it was just about sex and trade and they would leave their women and children behind when they returned to “civilization.”

Anyway, the Cherokee, a matrilineal society, had decided to accept the mixed-race children born into their society and in fact, many of these people would make up the new Cherokee elite. That included Ross. In fact, he was only one-eighth Cherokee, but he was considered Cherokee both by the tribe and by white society with its one-drop rule.

As a member of the Cherokee elite, he was trained in leadership from a young age. He went to good schools and then was appointed as an Indian agent by the US government in 1811. In the War of 1812, he was one of the leaders of a Cherokee regiment working under Andrew Jackson’s command. Uniting with Jackson sure worked out for the Cherokee!!! In fact, the Cherokee were divided and there was basically a civil war in the tribe during these years. Again, the pressure of American domination was just overwhelming here.

After the war, Ross started his own tobacco plantation in Tennessee, as befitted a Cherokee elite of the time. That was near modern Chattanooga and he also opened a warehouse and ferry there too. In 1816, he was part of a delegation to Washington to work with the federal government to protect Cherokee rights, determine property boundaries, and do whatever was necessary to keep the tribe on its land. This wasn’t very successful, but it showed him to be a rising political star with the tribe. Because he was the only person in the delegation fluent in English, he was the translator for the delegation and did more than anyone else in the negotiations. Upon his return, he won election to the Cherokee National Council.

Ross took the lead then on resisting white demands for the Cherokee to move west of the Mississippi River. Although actual removal wouldn’t happen for another two decades, it was already in motion by the mid-1810s. He became the voice of those who resisted the idea. That would eventually make him the enemy of men like Major and John Ridge, who became the voice of the minority who saw removal as inevitable and wanted to do it on their own terms.

Ross was frequently in Washington. He was an excellent speaker and superb articulator of the Cherokee struggle. It’s highly unlikely that there’s not the significant allyship among whites–as limited and often racist as that was–to fight removal if not for Ross. It’s not as if the Choctaw or Chickasaw is who we focus on in schools when thinking about removal. It’s the Cherokee and that has a lot to do with the ally networks Ross built with whites that led to the court cases and eventually the Supreme Court affirmation of their rights, not that it mattered to Andrew Jackson.

Due to the previous generation of top leadership dying or retiring and Ross’ skills, he was elected as principal chief in 1828. By this time, the fight against removal was in full effect and Ross continued to lead the resistance to it. But the federal government was happy to ignore the wishes of the tribe’s majority and its leadership in Ross and sign agreements with the Ridges which it then applied to the whole tribe. This was a super common strategy for the federal government. So this led to the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 that sold out the Cherokee and their forced removal in 1838. For this, many leaders of the removal faction were murdered soon after the tribe relocated to Oklahoma. Ross experienced this removal just as harshly as everyone else. He returned home one night to find a white man had taken his house on the permission of the state of Georgia. What could he do? Kill him? Not if he wanted to live. He was forced to Oklahoma too. His first wife died on the route, as did many Cherokee. It was an act of genocide.

Ross continued his leadership after the removal. The tribe remained tremendously divided. The scars over betrayal and removal were not easy to cure. With the assassinations of the Ridges, Stand Watie, who had survived his own assassination attempt, led the opposition to Ross. Watie was aggressively pro-slavery and pro-Confederacy. Ross felt it would be a disaster for the Cherokee to get in the middle of a war where white people were killing each other. He counseled neutrality. The division of the tribe here tended to fall on racial lines. Those who were full-blooded or close wanted to continue to work with the American government, but the mostly white slaveholding elite were Confederates all the way. When the Union abandoned its forts in Indian Territory, Ross made a reluctant deal with the Confederates. But he later fled to a Union fort in Kansas, as did many Union supporters. After the war, he retook power from Watie, who basically held power during the Civil War. But Ross was pretty old by this time. He went to DC again to work out new treaties with the government, necessary with the end of African slavery. He died there, in 1866. He was 75 years old.

John Ross is buried in Ross Cemetery, Park Hill, Oklahoma. This is not his first grave. He was initially placed with his white wife Mary Stapler, who had died the year before, at her family home in Delaware. But his body was brought home a few months later to be with his people.

If you would like this series to visit other Native leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Red Cloud is in Pine Ridge, South Dakota and Chief Joseph is in Nespelem, Washington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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