During his early years, no one could have predicted that John Ross would be Chief of the Cherokees for over 50 years. Primarily of Scotch descent and only one eighth Cherokee, Ross spoke the language haltingly and never learned to write it. But following his election in 1828, as he grew into the job, Ross exhibited an unusual insight, an instinct for understanding government and the nature of politics. As pressure mounted, his skillful delaying tactics for removal, further increased a majority of the tribe’s loyalty toward him. But his hesitant decision to join forces with the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War, abandoning his innate instincts, proved to be fatal.
The fierce debate over slavery came to a dramatic climax when in 1856, North Carolina Representative Preston Brooks severely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a walking stick as a result of Sumner’s fiery speech against slavery. The politically astute Ross would have taken note, reminding himself that, for the good of the young Cherokee Nation, involvement in this slavery issue was volatile and should be avoided at all costs.
As time evolved, the winds of war blew stronger and citizens of the Nation became more divided. In 1859 the Keetowah, an ancient Cherokee society was revived, led by Reverend Evan Jones, a fiery Baptist minister and strict abolitionist. It proved to be a magnet for other non-slave holding citizens. The founding of the Keetowah, prompted Stand Waite and other pro-slavery advocates to join an organization formed in Ohio, The Knights of the Golden Circle. Watie also raised an armed company of sympathizers to assist the South, if needed. In the meantime, Ross made several attempts to correspond with Washington bureaucrats, even the president, to reaffirm his Nation’s allegiance, but they were unresponsive.
In an effort to reconcile factions, during May of 1861, Ross issued a proclamation of neutrality to remind citizens of their treaty obligations to the United States. Then, while the outlook continued to be bleak for Ross’ efforts toward alliance with the North, on July 21st the Confederates won a stunning victory, defeating the Union at Manassas southwest of Washington. Undoubtedly encouraged, Stand Watie who by now had organized 12 companies of the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles, participated in another Confederate victory, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10th, further undermined Ross’ efforts to remain neutral.
Shaken, deviating from his political instincts, perhaps convinced that he had misjudged Confederate capabilities, Ross called a general assembly meeting at Tahlequah on August 21st. The assembly voted unanimously to join the South and organize a mounted regiment under the command of Colonel John Drew. Shortly after, the Cherokee Nation issued a declaration of war with the United States. John Ross, who staved off removal from Georgia for a decade, then lead his Nation’s development in Indian Territory for 22 more years, had become involved in a fateful decision.
Almost immediately there was dissention. The regiment, approved by the General Assembly and commanded by Drew, rebelled. In December of 1861, it had been ordered to join other Confederate forces in pursuing and capturing Opothleyahola, a Creek chief leading thousands of Indians opposed to the war to Kansas. But, after an initial engagement many in Drew’s regiment deserted in large numbers, disillusioned at killing other Indians. This setback was followed by the defeat of Confederate troops at the Battle of Pea Ridge the following March of 1862, then Richmond’s recall of Confederate troops in Indian Territory to engage in battles east of the Mississippi. Ross’ original apprehensions about joining the Confederacy had been correct. Now the Cherokee Nation would be protected by Stand Watie and his guerilla band with perhaps some limited assistance of Confederate troops from Arkansas or Texas. But would they be able to defend against a Union invasion?
The answer came shortly. Confederate troops were now under the command of Colonel J. J. Clarkson. On July 3, 1862, during an early morning raid near Locust Grove, Union troops not only captured Clarkson in his nightshirt, but scattered or captured his troops and commandeered a large wagon train. Soon after, Union troops appeared at the heavily guarded Ross residence at Park Hill demanding his arrest. Details are sparse regarding events of the next two weeks, but on August 3rd Chief Ross, his family, important government documents and the National Treasury were escorted from Park Hill by Union soldiers. In the wake of Ross’ departure nearly all of Colonel Drew’s regiment enlisted in the Union Army.
Ross escaped to the Union and Philadelphia. Now 76 years old and in declining health, he still continued to advocate for the Nation he loved. The long journey of his career had been filled with deception and unfulfilled promises, many of which he had overcome by an uncanny ability to obtain compromises. However, his ultimate mistake, aligning with the Confederacy, gave his opponents the weapon they needed to counter any post war influence he might have had. As a result, instead of following his instincts, Ross had become a reluctant warrior, the Cherokee Nation would pay the price.
Note: Snapshots of Cherokee Country is now available on Amazon.com and BARNESAND NOBLE.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.