Impeachment was on the minds of some of the 6,000 Cherokee in attendance at Double Springs, about four miles northwest of present-day Tahlequah, on June 3, 1839. Chief John Ross, leader of the Eastern Cherokee, had just proposed developing a constitution that would combine the two tribes, Eastern with Western Cherokee. But it would be the Eastern version. Who was he to imply that the government of the Western Cherokee should be changed? They had arrived in 1828 and managed quite well for the past 13 years. But Ross was a master politician and as events would unfold, demonstrate why he had been Principal Chief for the past 21 years.
Born October 3, 1790, in Turkey Town, Alabama, to Scotsman Daniel Ross and his part Cherokee wife Mollie, John attended schools in Cherokee Territory, but never mastered the language nor looked the part. In 1813 he and Timothy Meigs joined as business partners, obtaining lucrative government contracts selling supplies to the army. That same year he served for a brief time as a second lieutenant in the Creek War and married Elizabeth “Quatie” Henley.
Ross first became acquainted with Cherokee politics in 1815 when he served on a committee that visited the capital to appeal a boundary dispute with the Creeks. He attracted the attention of Washington politicians because of his fluency with the English language, uncommon for Native Americans in that era. After his initial introduction to Washington, he returned to his family and business near present day Chattanooga, but continued to be involved in Cherokee politics, eventually selected as chairman of the Cherokee Constitutional Convention in 1827. The product of the convention resulted in a constitution very similar to the United States version, including calling for the election by Avote of the people for Chief in 1828 and in subsequent four year intervals. Earlier, during January of 1827, both Chief Pathfinder and his logical successor, Charles Hicks died and Hick’s son William was selected to fulfill the remaining months before the convention. However, when the election was conducted during the summer of 1828, John Ross was chosen overwhelmingly as Principal Chief. Repressive laws enacted by both the state of Georgia and the United States would dictate that John Ross would be Principal Chief and official spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation during the tumultuous removal years and, after that, for the rest of his life. It is highly probable that, because of his efforts focused on the Nations remaining in Georgia and supported by the majority, he would have been re-elected anyway.
Ross political activities consumed him and his wife Quatie and their five children were virtually ignored. Ross’ journeys to Washington often kept him away from home and family for periods of six months. His personal effects reveal that there were numerous letters addressed to other members of the family, but none to Quatie. Quatie died during their journey from Georgia to Park Hill and is buried near Little Rock. His only written acknowledgment of her existence was in a will when she was listed as mother of his children.
As noted, neither the arrival of Chief Ross nor his plan for governance received a warm reception by either the Western Cherokee or the Treaty Party faction during that June meeting, but other recent arrivals had a different agenda…murder. While the meeting was underway a scheme was developed to assassinate seven Treaty Signers and, on June 22 the plot was partially successful. Three would die and four would escape, this was only the beginning of years of sporadic killings on both sides that didn’t conclude until 1845 when Ross and Stand Watie, the Treaty leader, called a truce. Fortunately, the Cherokee began focusing on revival instead of revenge and embarked on what would become known as “the Golden Years” for the fledgling nation.
In the meantime, Ross’ personal life evolved into marrying 18 year old Philadelphia Quaker, MaryAnn Stapler in 1844 and they returned to the Ross home in Park Hill. But this was only a respite from war clouds that soon developed. The Civil War followed the Nation’s brief period of prosperity. Ross, well aware of the military superiority of the North, attempted to align with them, but with no result. Eventually, he was resigned to signing a compact with the Confederacy during the Fall of 1861, resulting in a split of loyalties within the Cherokee Nation. But within a year he and his family were forced to flee north, escorted by Union troops. Leaderless, the Nation fell into chaos, Cherokee against Cherokee, never to fully recover “the Golden Years.”
Dispossessed and living in the east, the Post Civil War years were unkind to John Ross.
In July of 1865, 39 year old Mary Ann died of lung congestion. His 58 year influence as chief considerably diminished, Ross continued to seek concessions, but with little success. He died the following year. Ross’ political career was initiated during a crisis and his goal was unity for his people. It's unfortunate he can’t see his Cherokee Nation today.
Note: Snapshots of Cherokee Country is now available on Amazon.com
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.