Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

March 7, 2014

Moulton: Sovereignty is John Ross’ legacy

Noted history professor speaks at NSU event

TAHLEQUAH — When describing the Cherokee people, the words “well-educated” and “independent” may come to mind. Those attributes were principles held most dear by John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokees from 1828-1866.

Dr. Gary Moulton, University of Nebraska Thomas C. Sorensen emeritus professor of American history, discussed Ross’ history during a presentation at the Tahlequah Armory Municipal Center Thursday. The event was organized by the history department at Northeastern State University.

“Ross, who was the longest-serving chief, did so during the most tumultuous period for the Cherokees,” said Moulton. “He was repeatedly elected by the people, and was tapped for the post because of his devotion to maintain the Cherokee homeland.”

Moulton told attendees Ross was one-eighth Cherokee, with strong Scottish roots.

“Ross’ father looked for his son to take the Anglo path,” said Moulton. “He was educated in Kingston, Tenn. Then began a trading business in present-day Chattanooga, Tenn., known then as Ross’ Landing. He also acquired property in the center of the Cherokee lands, which is now Rossville and Rome, Ga.”

Moulton said that despite his European-style education, Ross made the transition to follow the Cherokee path in the 1820s, taking on more political responsibilities and serving on several committees.

“He helped to develop the Cherokee Constitution, which was modeled quite closely to that of the United States,” said Moulton. “At the time, the Cherokees believed if they copied the process of the federal government, they could ward off potential future encroachment.”

Moulton also explained that although Ross did not speak Cherokee or write using Sequoyah’s syllabary, he worked tirelessly to follow the “way of the fullbloods,” in protecting the tribe’s homelands.

“He didn’t put on Cherokee garb, or ‘go native,’” said Moulton.

By this time, core areas of the Cherokee lands were being diminished, and during the 1830s, Georgia put pressure on the tribe to move.

“Gold had been discovered, and they put pressure on the Cherokee to leave to get at the gold,” said Moulton. “They even held a grand lottery for land. They sold certificates, and those who purchased them could go in an claim a parcel of Cherokee land, even though it didn’t belong to Georgia to sell. I find it just incredible the state gave away lands that didn’t even belong to them.”

Because of these constant incursions, the Cherokees, through Ross, filed cases in federal court, and waited for the federal government to step in and protect them and uphold their treaty obligations, said Moulton.

Moulton said President Andrew Jackson did nothing to protect the Cherokees, allowing Georgia to do what it wanted.

“Ross remained committed to preserving the lands, but others – including Major Ridge, the Boudinot and Watie families – were willing to give up resisting, creating a divide in the tribe,” said Moulton. “They wanted to face the harsh reality, sign the removal treaty and go west, where they believed they’d have generations of time to build a new society.”

While Ross was in Washington working to prevent removal when the Ridges, Boudinots and Waties signed the Treaty of New Echota, deciding to move west.

For the next several years, Ross tried to no avail to convince the federal government the treaty was not the will of the majority of Cherokees, but of a select few.

“Gen. Winfield Scott was charged with removing the Cherokees, at bayonet point, to move them West,” said Moulton. “Ross asked Scott to allow the Cherokees to determine their own removal, and they moved across the route now known as the Trail of Tears.”

When Ross and the Cherokees arrived in Indian Territory, Moulton said, they faced two oppositional groups: the Ridge faction and the Cherokee “Old Settlers,” who moved to IT long before Ridge arrived.

“The Old Settlers came west long before, and wanted no part of either the Ross or the Ridge faction,” said Moulton. “It was at this time vendettas were carried out. The Ridge family was brutally murdered by people who had suffered on the Trail of Tears, and it’s doubtful Ross ordered the killings, but did little to solve the crimes.”

Finally, in 1846, the tribe came together once again, and throughout the 1850s enjoyed a “Golden Age.”

“Ross worked to promote cultural and social advances,” said Moulton. “A newspaper was established, new missionaries came in, educational institutions were established, as was a new Cherokee government. Then the Civil War erupted.”

Moulton said the Cherokee Nation was surrounded by southern states, and Ross faced tremendous pressure to join the Confederacy.

“Although Ross was a slave-holder, he wanted to stay with the North,” said Moulton. “He also faced pressure from within the tribe, as the Ridges wanted the tribe to choose to side with the South.”

Ross finally signed a treaty with the South, but at the first sight of soldiers, he packed up and went to Washington to fight the treaty, saying it had been signed under duress.

Ross died before the Treaty of 1866, which nullified the tribe’s agreement with the South, was signed.

“But he knew they were on the eve of it happening,” said Moulton. “Ross’ legacy is that he worked to preserve Cherokee independence. To this day, those working to preserve tribal sovereignty are reflecting his efforts.”

Moulton said the success of the leader cannot be measured by gains and losses, but more so by placing the actions in context, due to the complex issues of the time.

“The Cherokee fared far better than other tribes, due to the shrewd negotiating skills of John Ross,” Moulton said.


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