John Ross

John Ross
PHOTO: Smithsonian Institution


John Ross was the leader of the Cherokee Nation in the years leading up to and following the Trail of Tears.

He was born near Lookout Mountain, the son of a Scottish trader. He was privately educated as a youth, and didn’t begin to think of himself as a Cherokee until the U.S. government sent him on a mission to work with the tribe when he was only 19.

In 1828, after the Cherokee had created a written Constitution, he was elected “principal chief of the Cherokees.” For the next several years he was embroiled in negotiations with the United States government in an attempt to keep the U.S. from forcing the Cherokee Nation off its land (then located mainly in present day southeast Tennessee and northwest Georgia.) Those efforts failed; by 1838 the Cherokees who remained in this area were forcibly removed to present-day Oklahoma in the journey known as the Trail of Tears.

Among those who died on that journey was Ross’ full-blooded Cherokee wife Quatie.

John Ross’s former home, which still stands in Rossville, Georgia (just south of Chattanooga)

History is far more complicated than you might first believe, and John Ross’ life proves that. Here are some things about him you might not expect:

John Ross was only one-eighth Cherokee by blood. Most of his lineage was Scottish. But he was exposed to the Cherokee language and customs as a boy.

Ross founded a trading post and settlement called Ross’s Landing. After Cherokee removal, it became known as Chattanooga.

As a young man, Ross (as did many Cherokee) fought along with the U.S. Army at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1812, where 500 Creeks were killed.

Ross was a wealthy man by Cherokee standards who owned 20 black slaves.

Ross was astute and likeable and had many friends in Washington, including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and David Crockett.