Throughout the years he had been cast in the role of Chief of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross had never been confronted with a more difficult decision than today, July 15, 1862.
Despite the presence of nearly 1500 Confederates under command of Colonel John Drew, Captain Harrison Greeno, with a small band of Union troops, had arrived under a flag of truce offering the Chief and his family safe passage to the North.
Union troops had invaded the Cherokee Nation, pushing Confederate forces aside and winning a decisive battle at Locust Grove just two weeks earlier. Now, under command of General James Blount, Union troops were pursuing a large force of Confederates they would defeat two days later at the Battle of Honey Creek.
For nearly two years the Cherokee leadership had debated between loyalties to the Union or Confederacy essentially ignoring Ross’ original preference for neutrality.
Federal troops abandoned Fort Gibson in 1857 and what then had been hailed as progress toward national sovereignty now meant that there was no stable Union presence in the Cherokee Nation. Ross was aware other Civilized Tribes had pledged loyalty to the South and that there were no similar overtures from the North.
Recently, southern agent Albert Pike offered payment of a large sum of money, military support, and a guarantee of national recognition for the Cherokee Nation if his side prevailed. Then, there also had been the decisive Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri in August of 1861.
So Ross and the Cherokee Nation had aligned with the South only to see the original agreement immediately broken when John Drew’s Indian troops were ordered to participate in the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas in March of 1862. Ross had been assured Indian troops would not leave Indian Territory and when the Confederates were defeated Drew’s men began to grumble. Other Confederate promises were going unfulfilled as well.
Now in mid-summer of the second year of the war, reality occurred. Here was Greeno offering safe passage, perhaps, Ross thought, he might be more effective by his presence in Washington.
But only conjecture could possibly describe what went through the mind of the Cherokee Chief. He had served his people faithfully since 1828, attempting to obtain sovereignty in Georgia, guiding them through their forced removal, then successfully negotiated with discontented factions within the tribe, the Western Cherokee, the Treaty Signers and the Traditionalists.
And, Ross was no political novice, he had experienced the politics of Washington. He was aware of the industrial might of the North and its much larger population compared to the South, and although he also owned slaves he understood the argument of abolitionists who maintained that the “peculiar institution” was unconscionable.
Reflecting on his agreement with Albert Pike, Ross was also aware that nothing the Confederate representative promised had materialized. There was no delivery of supplies, munitions or financial assistance despite his repeated appeals to the Confederate high command. Indian troops had arbitrarily been ordered into battle out of the Cherokee Nation.
And now, although protected by Drew’s force of fifteen hundred men, a Union envoy was offering another way to possibly resolve this dilemma. John Ross was no coward, small in stature and only 1/8th Cherokee, during his 38 years as chief, he had frequently been threatened with violence. So for two weeks he pondered a personal decision…where could he be most effective?
History does not record his conversations nor with whom he counseled, but on August 3, 1862 Chief John Ross and his family left Rose Cottage and Park Hill not only with Greeno but with most of Colonel John Drew’s disenchanted troops who pledged allegiance to the United States as well.
Just how Ross’ defection affected the situation during the Civil War is subject to debate. Relocating his family in Philadelphia, the Chief made repeated trips to Washington counseling with a circumspect President Lincoln.
He argued for Union protection but it materialized only in that the Union military reoccupied Fort Gibson and refugees were protected there. Otherwise, unbelievable chaos developed both during and after the war. For the realities were that the major threat to the Union was resolved by the great battles fought east of the Mississippi, not west of it. In retrospect, the United States never focused on the concerns presented by Ross so most of his pleas for aid were not met.
After the war, John Ross returned to the Nation he helped found, but his influence was gone and his effort to secure benefits for the Cherokee were largely usurped by his opponents. And, during the conflict his personal losses were great.
His wife Mary died in Pennsylvania during the war, a son was captured and died and a son-in-law was killed. Rose Cottage was burned to the ground and his other holdings scattered. Returning to Pennsylvania, John Ross died August 1, 1866 and his remains were reinterred in Ross Cemetery in Park Hill the following summer.
John Ross will be remembered for his efforts to maintain the Cherokee Nation in Georgia as well as the successful transition of the Cherokee government to Indian Territory, but his impact ended with the decision at Park Hill
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.