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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter IV - John Ross Beginning His Public Career


It chanced that John Ross, though peculiarly devoted to the interests of his own people, the Cherokees, nevertheless rendered his first public service to the Federal Government, an the following Incidents will prove.

During the years just preceding the War of 1812 the Indian question assumed unusual importance at Washington. The southern tribes were still strong enough, if united by Tseuedbe's plan of a Southern Confederacy, to cause considerable trouble should they choose to renew their allegiance to Great Britain. Frequent reports reached the War Office that agents of the British Government were arming the Indians of the Great Lakes and the western frontier and encouraging hostilities to the United States. A war with England and an uprising on the frontier at one and the same time appeared doubly embarrassing to a government poorly equipped for fighting in either direction. In order to conciliate the Indians and attach them as strongly as possible to the American cause, the Secretary of War instructed Indian agents to promote and maintain friendly relations with the Indian tribes,' and at the same time furnished them the ms of carrying out this policy. Gifts to prominent chiefs, medals for services to the Federal Government, appointments In the army, a friendly interest in their tribal affairs, all tended to have the desired effect upon the southern tribes. This was true particularly of the Cherokees, whose agent, Colonel M. J. Meigs, was one of the wisest and most efficient men who has ever served the United States and the Indians In the capacity of agent, The Eastern Cherokees were enjoying unprecedented prosperity and were rapidly taking on civilized manners and customs; consequently, they favored peace. To make sure of the band in Arkansas, the agent dispatched an interpreter to them bearing gifts as peace offerings. The interpreter. alarmed by rumors of an earthquake at New Madrid, returned home. Colonel Meigs. thereupon, asked John Ross, then a young man about nineteen years of age, to undertake the mission. On Christmas day be set out from Ross's Landing, armed with additional gifts and accompanied by John Spier, a half-breed, Kalsatchee, an aged Cherokee. and Peter. a Mexican. The beat which carried the party was a rude craft entirely unsuited to such a journey. Isaac Brownlow, a famous frontierman of his day, swore, on meeting the party, that Colonel Meige was either stupid or careless to send an inexperienced young fellow on a long expedition in such a plight. He accompanied them eighty miles down the river and on leaving them exchanged his good keel boat for their "clapboard ark," taking an order on the government for the difference, and declaring that he would rather lose his boat than see Ross risk making the journey as he had started. After sixty days upon the rivers in dead of winter, chased by warlike Indians who thought they were whites, and suspicious settlers who thought they were an Indian party of mischief bent, they wrecked their boat, lost the greater part of their baggage and were compelled to finish the way on foot. Often up to their knees in mud and water, and with only such game as they could kill for food, they covered the remaining two hundred miles in eight days. From start to finish the story of the expedition fairly bristles with stirring a4ventues and hairbreadth escapes; it even rivals with interest that of the American hero so dear to the heart of every schoolboy. Late in April the party reached Ross's Landing from whence they had started, and were able in a short time after to report to Colonel Meigs, at the agency, the success of the expedition.

The next two or three years were comparatively uneventful ones for young Ross, spent at his father's home at Rossville or on trading trips to different parts of the Cherokee Nation. These trading trips gave him opportunity to become acquainted with the conditions of the country and brought him in contact with many of the more backward members of the tribe as well as with leading chiefs. Always quiet and unassuming and always scrupulously honest in his dealings, he won confidence and respect wherever he was known. The intimate knowledge of country and people acquired during these years was destined to be of infinite service to him later on.

When Tecumthe made his tour through the south and, with his burning eloquence and his "almanac of red sticks," tried to fire the southern tribe to revolt against the United States he met with cool courtesy among the Cherokees. A few of the mountain chiefs expressed a desire "to dance the war dance of the Indians of the Lakes and sing their song," but thanks to the influence of Major Ridge, a progressive and influential chief of whom we shall hear more later, the war spirit was promptly quenched in the council of the tribe. When the General Council assembled they decided that, as there would be more loss than gain to them from an alliance with either of the contending parties, they would remain neutraL Thereupon the Red Sticks, as the war party of the Creeks was called, perpetrated outrages upon the Cherokees which aroused such indignation among the young warriors, already eager to test their prowess in battle, that the Council abandoned its peace policy, declared war upon the hostile Creeks and placed their forces at the command of the Federal Government. Between seven hundred and eight hundred warriors, under their own officers, took part in the Creek war and rendered valuable services to the American cause.

Ross promptly enlisted in a regiment raised to cooperate with the Tennessee troops, was appointed adjutant, and set out to the Creek country where he served with distinction in several engagements. He took a prominent part in the battle of Horse Shoe Bend, where it was undoubtedly the bravery and daring of the Cherokees and loyal Creek forces that won the victory for General Jackson which rendered him a military hero and prepared the way for his promotion, a few years later, to the highest rank in the American army. The battle took place on the Tallipoosa River, about two miles from the site of the present village of Tohopeka, Alabama. The Creeks had thrown up a strong fortification of logs across the neck of the peninsula, made by a bend in the river, and behind it about a thousand warriors and three hundred women and children had taken refuge. Moored to the river bank behind them were their canoes, to be used in case retreat became necessary. When it was found that General Jackson with his artillery was making no headway on the breastworks, John Ross, with several other Cherokees, plunged into the river, swam to the peninsula at the risk of their lives and brought off the canoes. In these the Cherokee forces crossed the river and attacked the Creeks in the rear. This diverted the attention of the Creeks from the front and Jackson succeeded in storming the fort. They fought desperately, but were cut down without mercy. Of the three hundred who survived in the fort only three were men. The defenders of the Horse Shoe were practically exterminated. Some of the Cherokees lived to rue the part they took in this inhuman massacre. "If I had known Jackson would drive us from our homes I would have killed him that day at the Horse Shoe," said Junaluska, an aged chief, many years after.

On his mission to the Western Cherokees Ross had shown energy, tact, prudence and perseverance in prosecuting and bringing to a successful close a difficult undertaking. In the Creek war he had proved himself a fearless soldier. What more was needed to give him prestige with the tribe, and a place among the foremost men of the Cherokee Nation? Moreover, he was a man of education according to the standard of the time and could meet white men on their own ground. It is not surprising, therefore, to find his name in the list of delegates who went up to Washington in the winter of 1816, to protest against the action of commissioners, sent to carry out the provisions of the treaty of Fort Jackson which came at the close of the Creek war. General Jackson, who was appointed one of the commissioners to arrange the treaty, showed scant consideration for the loyal Creeks and the Cherokees. From the former he demanded the cession of the Hickory Grounds, comprising more than half the territory of the Creek Nation, and when they demurred, told them to sign the treaty or join their kinsmen who had fled to Florida. General Coffee, detained by General Jackson to survey the lines limiting the cession on the north and west encroached upon the claims of the Cherokees. When they objected he promptly made a private contract with Richard Brown, a Cherokee chief through whose village the lines ran. The Cherokees, protesting against the action of the commissioners, sent a delegation of seven men to Washington to lay the matter before the Secretary of War. Agent Meigs accompanied them. Notwithstanding the efforts of General Jackson, who was in Washington at the time the delegation arrived, to prejudice the Secretary of War against them, they secured an interview, stated their case and convinced Mr. Crawford of the justice of their claim. The result was the negotiation of the treaty of Washington, in which the boundary lines were satisfactorily established and a claim of two thousand five hundred dollars for damages during the Creek war was allowed the Cherokees. General Jackson was greatly chagrined over the success of the delegation and his intense hatred of Crawford is said to date from this incident. He was naturally no friend to the Indians, though he did not hesitate to accept favors from them when occasion arose, and his determination to rid the southern states of them was strengthened by his temporary embarrassment and humiliation. From this time forward he and his friends managed to secure more and more of the Indian patronage and their influence on the War Department tended steadily and persistently towards the ultimate aim, removal.

The delegation to Washington in 1816, consisting of Colonel Lowrey, Major Walker, Major Ridge, Adjutant Ross and Cunnessee, show that the Cherokees were no longer a savage nation to be dealt with after the fashion of former times. "These men are men of cultivation and understanding," says the National Intelligencer, in mentioning their arrival. "Their appearance and deportment are such as to entitle them to respect and attention."

The fact that the Indians were becoming civilized and showed evidence of the ability to develop into good American citizens, thereby adding strength to the whole American nation, did not appeal to politicians who coveted Indian lands. In truth this class of men opposed any policy for civilizing the Indians, since it would tend to attach them more firmly to the soil. And to many a white man just over the border the Indian country was the promised land of wealth and plenty which he hoped some day to possess. If the delegates returned home with the belief that their territorial boundaries were permanently fixed they were soon undeceived.

Soon after his return from the Creek war John Ross, in partnership with Timothy Meigs had started a general store at Roseville, and in the autumn of 1816 he went to New York to buy goods. With a supply of deerskins and furs for traffic, he went by way of Savannah to New York and Baltimore, where he bought the stock of shawls, calicoes, implements and such other articles as were in demand among the Cherokees at this time. While absent reports reached him through the newspapers, of a commission appointed at Washington for the purpose of negotiating a treaty with the Cherokees, the object of which was to secure their consent to remove west of the Mississippi. The Tennessee contingent in Congress had been urging the President to free that state of Indians. Governor McMinn had an agent in the Cherokee Nation all winter campaigning for removal. The Arkansas Cherokees were having trouble with the Osages and the Quapawn as no definite tract of land had been assigned to them nor was likely to be without a corresponding cession in the east. They appealed to Washington. President Monroe, relying upon reports sent to the War Office the previous summer by General Jackson, then among the southern tribes, concerning the willingness of the Cherokees to emigrate, appointed a commission, which was to meet the Cherokees at the Agency, June 20, 1817. The Spring Council of the Cherokees met with May at Amohe. The news of the impending negotiations had gone abroad and men and women turned out in full force, as was the custom, to hear the discussions in the Council and perhaps have a voice in them. Ross decided to attend merely as an observer. At Spring Place he met Judge Brown, a prominent man of the tribe and a member of the National Committee, a branch of the Cherokee legislative body. As they rode on together Judge Brown jestingly remarked that they were going to put Ross in purgatory when he arrived at Amohe. When the young merchant expressed objections to such a fate Judge Brown explained that he meant they were going to run him for a member of the National Committee. He was not entirely unprepared, therefore, when soon after the Council was convened, he was called in and Major Ridge, speaker of the Council, announced to him that he had been appointed a member of the National Committee.

The discussions in the Council revealed strong opposition, not only to removal, but also to the cession of any more land. "If the western band was not happy where they were, let them return to the eastern nation," was an argument heard on all sides. If there had been a sentiment for removal the previous year as Jackson had affirmed, there was no evidence of it at this time. When the commission arrived at the agency, June 20, only representatives from Arkansas were present to meet them, and it was three weeks before a sufficient representation could be obtained to open negotiations. The Arkansas members, who had everything to gain and nothing to lose, were graciously compliant; the eastern nation firmly opposed removal or a cession of territory. In a talk which he made to them General Jackson took the ground that the Cherokee delegation of 1809 had arranged with President Jefferson for an exchange of lands east of the Mississippi River for lands west of it, and that the time had now come when the exchange must be made. In order to fix the boundaries of the western country so as to prevent white people from settling within them it was necessary for all who expected to remove at any future time to declare it now, as after the bounds were marked and the lands laid off they would not otherwise be allowed to settle there. The United States would provide the means for removing, to those who wished to go, and to the poorer classes would furnish implements of husbandry, arms and ammunition for hunting, and would allow them reasonable compensation for improvements. Those who preferred to remain might do so by becoming citizens of the United States. "As free men you have now to make your choice," he declared. "Those who go west, go to a country belonging to the United States. There your father, the President, can never be urged by his white children to ask their red brothers, the Cherokees, for any of the lands laid off at that place for them." As for the eastern lands, he declared that the right of possession or hunting was the only right guaranteed to the Cherokee Nation by former treaties.

The Cherokees chose Elijah Hicks and John Ross to frame a reply to the commissioners. With careful deliberation they drew up a memorial, which, having been signed by sixty-seven chiefs, was presented by the Council to General Jackson. It stated that the great body of the Cherokees desired to remain in the land of their birth where they were rapidly advancing in civilization. They did not wish to revert to their original condition and surroundings. They prayed, therefore, that the question of removal be pressed no farther and that they be allowed to remain peaceably in the land of their fathers. No attention was paid to the memorial and a treaty prepared by General Jackson was signed by the Arkansas representation and by twenty-two of the chiefs, though not the most representative ones, of the eastern nation who were susceptible to Jackson's influence.

Great preparations were promptly started to incline the Cherokees to removal. A special agent was sent to assist Mr. Meigs, and when the work still did not go fast enough to suit Governor McMinn, he himself went to the nation and canvassed for emigrants. Although bribes were offered freely and intimidation was unsparingly used to get Indians to come in and enroll for removal, the governor of Tennessee, who was notoriously self-interested in the project, was doomed to disappointment in the final results. By the last of June about seven hundred had enrolled and several boats were ready to descend the river bearing them to the western country. But they did not represent the sentiments of the nation. The Cherokees as a body were opposed to emigration, and as the summer wore away hostility towards the treaty became more and more bitter. Those who enrolled were ostracized and in some cases cruelly persecuted. The council which met in the fall deposed, and deprived of any further authority in the tribe, Toochelah, the second chief. It took his commission from him and appointed in his place Charles Hicks, a leader in the opposition party. The body even went further and passed the resolution that, "We consider ourselves a free and distinct nation and the National Government has no policy over us further than a friendly intercourse in trade," thus setting forth the earliest formulation of their opinion concerning their political status, a question which was to be settled more than a decade later by a decision of the Supreme Court.

So active was the opposition to the treaty that when a delegation of twelve Cherokees appeared at Washington in 1819 Secretary Calhoun entered into a new treaty which effectually put an end to removal for the time being. By it the Cherokees agreed to cede to the United States a tract of land at least as extensive as that to which it was entitled under the treaty of 1817, and consented to the distribution of annuities, in the proportion of two to one in favor of the eastern nation; the United States agreed to dispense with taking the census of the treaty of 1817, and obligated itself to remove intruders from the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokees now earnestly addressed themselves to further national improvements. Their hopes and ambitions ran high. In a circular letter to the adjoining states in 1813, they had declared that many of their youth of both sexes "had acquired such knowledge of letters as to show the most incredulous that our mental powers are not, by nature, inferior to yours, and we look forward to a period of time when it may be said 'this artist, this mathematician, this astronomer is a Cherokee." There was an increasing desire among them to have their children educated. The treaty of 1819 contained a provision for a reservation of land twelve miles square to be sold by the United States, the proceeds to be invested by the President in stocks and bonds and the income applied in the manner best calculated to promote education among the Cherokees east of the Mississippi. In 1822 seven Cherokee boys were being educated in a mission school at Cornwall, Connecticut. Of these John Ridge, Elias Boudinot and Richard Brown were to play a prominent part in the politics of their nation.

In 1817 missionary activities among the southern tribes increased. In less than ten years they had eight churches and thirteen schools among the Cherokees. These schools were very well attended. Children were taught not only reading, arithmetic and writing but also the agricultural arts. "In the latter," says one who visited the Cherokee Nation in 1818, "the boys take the different branches in weekly rotation; and on Monday morning, such as are to turn out to labour, are called by naming their avocatios of labor, as plow boys, hoe boys, axe boys, to which call they answer and appear with the greatest cheerfulness and alacrity. The girls are taught in similar method, their occupations being suited to their sex. They are instructed in the use of the needle, the art of spinning, knitting and all household business and it is stated that among them are some gentle young women who would not disgrace more polished society." While progress in the academic branches was slow at first the industrial training met with eager interest and wrought such results that village life was almost completely abandoned, the inhabitants scattering out and taking up farms. As the land was held in common, a farm was in reach of any member of the tribe who had the energy to clear it and put it in cultivation. By 1822 most families cultivated from ten to forty acres, and raised corn, rye, oats, wheat and cotton. The women spun and wove their own cotton and woolen cloth and blankets, and knitted all the stockings used by their famii.ies.

By 1826 the mass of the Cherokees lived in cabins, some of which were built of hewn logs and were floored and furnished with chimneys, while well-to-do slave owners built comfortable two-story houses, some of which were really elegant, and lived in much the same style as the white planters of the same economic standing in the south. Except in remote mountain regions, the hunting shirt, leggings and moccasins, along with old customs and religion, were fast disappearing under the influence of commerce, education and missionary zeal. "It no longer remains a doubt," wrote a missionary from Brainard, Tennessee, as early as 1812, "whether the Indians of America can be civilized. The Cherokees have gone too far in the pleasant paths of civilization to return to the rough and unbeaten track of savage life."

Political advancement kept pace with economic and educational progress. By 1820 the government was well organized and administered. It had undergone considerable change since its organization in 1808. The Light Horse, or Regulators, provided for at that time, served their purpose well, and were not dispensed with until 1825, when district officers made their services no longer necessary. In 1815 the Council provided for a standing committee whose business it was at first to look after claims and adjust financial differences. This committee appointed by the council of chiefs for two years, developed into the upper house of the legislature, while the General Council became the lower house. Thus was a bicameral system worked out by an aboriginal tribe groping towards the light of a civilized form of government. The former body, composed of thirteen members including its president, with a clerk to record its proceedings, had the power, as It was later developed, to control and regulate financial affairs, inspect the treasurer's books and to acknowledge claims. The Council under the old system had been large and the responsibility of each chief trifling. In 1817 it was reorganized; useless members were stricken off and a standing body of legislators were created. This body was to assemble in October of each year at New Echota, hereafter to be the permanent seat of government. By 1826 it consisted of thirty-three members including, its speaker. It had power to legislate and fill vacancies In its own body and in the committee. The principal chief and second chief were elected by joint ballot of both houses. In 1820 the Council determined to divide the nation into eight districts, in each of which was located a council house, where court was held twice yearly. District officers administered all business purely local. A code of laws was developed regulating taxes, internal improvements, the payment of debts, the liquor traffic and marriages; the franchise was limited to Cherokee citizens and punishments were defined for crimes and misdemeanors.

In 1819, on the removal of John McIntosh, John Ross became president of the National Committee which position he filled successfully for eight years. With other prominent and progressive men of the Cherokee Nation he recognized that, in order to realize their national ambition, the Cherokees must maintain their tribal unity and integrity. In order to prevent a repetition of the treaty of 1817, the Council adopted a resolution making it a death penalty for individuals to sign a treaty ceding Cherokee land. Further cession must be made by the National Committee and the National Council acting together. It appears that in 1826 the organization of the government had been pretty thoroughly accomplished and the tribe was not unprepared for the next step which was taken by the Council in its resolution providing for a convention to draw up a written constitution. They were laying large plans also for improving educational facilities: a national library was under contemplation and the best method of establishing a Cherokee national school system was being discussed by such Cherokee citizens as Major Ridge, Major Walker, Eljah Hicks, the Vanne and the Rosses, all considered men of ability and refinement even in Washington.

An event occurred in 1821 which profoundly influenced the whole future history of the tribe. A mixed-blood Cherokee, known among the whites as George Guess, and among his own people as Sikwayi, invented the Cherokee alphabet. Of the father of Sequoyah very little is definitely known. On his mother's side he was of good family, being a nephew of Oconostota, a famous war chief of pre-Revolutionary times. His early youth was spent at Chota, the ancient peace town of the Cherokees, amid the bloody scenes of Indian wars during the Revolution. He never attended school and never learned to read, write or speak the English language. Like most Indian youths of his time he hunted and trapped and liked a wild, free life among his native mountains and valleys. Possessed of considerable mechanical skill, he liked especially to work in silver. When about forty years of age a chance conversation called his attention to the white man's ability to communicate thought by means of writing. Naturally of a contemplative turn of mind he reflected upon the possibility of working out a similar system for his own people and finally determined to attempt it. After years of patient effort, in spite of repeated failures and the discouragement and the ridicule of friends and relatives, he finally evolved a Cherokee syllabary, which was so simple and so remarkably adapted to the language that, in order to read and write, it was necessary only to learn the eighty-six characters of which it was composed. The mass of the people immediately recognized its possibilities and in a few months thousands who could not speak English and had despaired of acquiring an education were learning to read and write in their own tongue. With one accord the whole Cherokee Nation seemed to resolve itself into a great Indian academy, old men and children as well as the youth and the middle-aged, addressing themselves to the mastery of the system. As soon as one had learned it he taught another. Thus almost every fireside became a school, and every man, woman and child, either teacher or pupil. Even at the post office, in the public houses, or by the roadside, instruction was given and received, "so that within a few months without school or other expense of time or money, the Cherokees were able to read and write in their own language."

When three years later by an act of the National Council, a printing press was set up at New Echota and the Cherokee Phoenix, a weekly paper printed in both English and Cherokee, was started, with Elias Boudinot, just returned from school in Cornwall, Connecticut, as editor, the most illiterate members of the tribe were able to read the proceedings of their legislative body and keep in touch with the progress of their nation. Soon the Bible was translated into Cherokee, and later hymn books and textbooks followed. An active correspondence sprang up between the eastern and western nations, for Sequoyah had a true missionary zeal and carried his inventions to Arkansas where he took up his permanent abode in 1823. In the fall of that year, the Cherokee Council, in recognition of his merits, awarded a silver medal bearing a commemorative inscriptions in both languages. The president of the National Committee was commissioned to bear this token of regard to him, and once more John Ross crossed the Father of Waters and journeyed to his tribsmen on the Arkansas. While his second mission was not attended with as many wild adventures and harrowing experiences as was the one made fourteen years earlier it was full of interest and importance, as it gave him opportunity to investigate the nature of the country and the condition of the people in the territory to which the Federal Government had been offering many inducements to the Eastern Cherokees to remove. That his impressions of the country were not favorable is evidenced by the fact that he returned home to use every effort for strengthening the government and welding the Cherokees into a strong, united nation in order that they might present a solid front of resistance to any further project for removal.


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