I don’t often share themes from my stories but I will say this: they boil my blood, and they show me perseverance.
Today I had to brush up on my John Ross timeline. Can you imagine spending your life and energy in Washington to keep your people in their homes, and coming back to find that your own house has been taken? Given away, actually. Everything you built, every memory, signed away by people not authorized to speak for an entire nation. It is in somebody else’s hands and there is nothing you can do to get it back. None of the 17,000 people who backed your petition are of any consequence.
How did this come to be? Why is this important? WHO IS THIS GUY? If one is not familiar with the Cherokee Nation’s struggle, that person is probably thoroughly confused by now. Here is some background information. The entire story is so much more complex than what I have written here, and I encourage each reader to follow the links at the end of this post and also do more research.
Who is John Ross?
Born in 1870 to a Scotsman and a part Cherokee member of the Bird Clan. Since they had a matrilineal system, Ross, or Guwisguwi, became a member of his mother’s clan. He grew up with plenty of resources and education, giving him an advantage in politics and language skills. This lead to his rapid climb within the Cherokee Nation leadership. He became their principal chief and advocate to Congress, president Jackson, and the supreme courts. He had a lot to lose and lost most of it in the process of defending his people.
How this happened
In the early and mid-1800s, the US government was bent on removing all native tribes east of the Mississippi River to what they called “Indian Territory”. This process was done through treaties, bribery, and coercion. Differences in language, leadership styles, and culture lead to many misunderstandings and chaos ensued.
The Cherokee had been torn over whether or not to move for decades before Ross lost his home. Multiple treaty attempts ended in a split nation and bitter revenge, or fear of revenge for signing away land.
In 1827, tensions were rising again and the pressure was on to move. Ross drafted a constitution for the Nation and modeled it after the US constitution. The idea was to identify as a nation and not child-like people with no rights—the latter being the common opinion at the time.
An 1828 Gold rush in Georgia prompted the state to demand the native people leave. Their premise was hard to deny. The government had negotiated with Georgia decades earlier to release land that would later become other states in exchange for paying off Georgia’s war debt, and removing all natives “as soon as peaceably possible”. The state wanted to cash in on that promise. Andrew Jackson vowed to make this happen if he were elected president. He was elected and got right to work. So did Georgia.
According to the Cherokee Registry, “Georgia immediately passed a legislative act annexing all Cherokee lands. The Cherokees were forbidden to hold a council within the limits of the State; were denied legal rights of trial; forbidden to dig gold on their own land, and Cherokee land was divided into lots of 160 acres and gold lots of 40 acres and distributed by lottery to Georgia citizens.” This ended up being a bit too far for the US, and is just one battle Congress and courts would have with a state over “state’s rights”, but not much came of it.
John Ross, now principal chief, immediately sprung into action. He went straight to Washington to appeal to Congress, the president, and the courts. While he was gone, Georgia gave his home away in their land lottery. He moved to Tennessee and kept campaigning, albeit being arrested while working with an author who was interested in writing about the Nation’s plight.
The response? The Indian Removal Act of 1830. This authorized the president to negotiate treaties on his own. Ross pushed his case to the courts instead and made progress, but not all the way.
It didn’t look like things were going to get better, so a few chiefs signed a treaty in 1835 while there was still money to be had in the deal. This gave away the rest of the Nation’s land and was not authorized by the National Council. John Ross was not there. He gathered 17,000 signatures in protest. This was almost the entire Cherokee population. Jackson wouldn’t have it.
The Nation was given two years to leave. The ones who signed the treaty moved out quick so they could avoid certain revenge for doing away with everyone else’s home.
When the time was up, soldiers moved in and forcibly removed Cherokee people to stockades. One story worth reading is that of Tsali who, after a deadly scuffle with soldiers, sacrificed himself and his sons so the people who escaped with him could live in the mountains. They became what is now the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
Summer brought so much death in the stockades that the National Council petitioned for and were granted permission to move their own people in the Fall. Thirteen parties moved out that Fall, thus beginning what is normally referred to as the Trail of Tears. They arrived in Indian Territory in the Spring of 1839. It is said that about 4,000 out of 16,000 people died on the way, included John Ross’s first wife.
In their new home, the Cherokee once again elected Ross as principal chief and he went on to mend and help reconstruct their government. Many lawsuits passed through many hands after this to account for broken treaty terms on their trip, and most of the men who signed the 1835 treaty were brutally killed.
The next event to tear the Nation to pieces was the Civil War, and that is a matter for another day.
Why we should care
Ross didn’t give up. He could have “passed” as white and cast off his other identity. He had the money and the resources to turn away. It would have been easy to walk out and chose to abandon his mother’s people, but he kept trying and used his skills to help, even when it got devastatingly worse. He lost his house and land, then his wife, his pride, his homeland. Many others sacrificed everything, including their lives, but I want to ask that if you have the means to make a difference, please do. Please fight as long and as hard as you can.
Friends, this is perseverance. When your life has gone to s**t, don’t give up, and don’t let others define you. Do good and the lives you touch along the way will never forget your kindness.
I don’t mind that this boils my blood. I want it to. If it doesn’t evoke some reaction in myself, it’s not worth exploring. Mind you, Ross was not a perfect person. How can a proponent of freedom, who knows what it is like to be helpless, restrict others from having it themselves? Slavery was a huge part of the economy and we see it in many heroes of the time, but if he were a character of mine, it would be hard for his action to pass my Why Test. This happens when we examine our heroes closer; we find they are merely humans and we must learn from their failures in humanity as well. Of course, the irony ties into my theme. It is a part of my own history that I cannot erase, so I must not shy away.
For more information on John Ross, see these pages:
https://www.cherokeeregistry.com/john_ross.pdf (This is by far the most concise summary I have found)
https://www.ias.edu/ideas/2016/mcgrath-history (on interracial marriage)