John Guwisguwi Ross, Chief of the Cherokee Nation

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John Guwisguwi Ross, Chief of the Cherokee Nation

Also Known As: "Guwisguwi Tsanusdi or", "Chief John Ross"
Birthplace: Turkeytown, Etowah, Alabama, United States
Death: August 01, 1866 (75)
Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Place of Burial: Park Hill, OK, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Daniel Ross and Mary “Mollie” Ross
Husband of Quatie ‘Elizabeth’ Ross and Mary Brian Ross
Father of James McDonald Ross, Sr.; William Allen Ross; ‘Ghi-goo-ie’ Jane ‘Jennie’ Nave; Silas Dean Ross; Infant Ross and 3 others
Brother of Jane "Jennie" Coody; Elizabeth Ross; Annie Nave; Judge Andrew 'Tlo-S-Ta-Ma' Ross; Susannah (Susan) Nave and 3 others

Occupation: Cherokee Chief
Managed by: Erica Howton
Last Updated:

About John Guwisguwi Ross, Chief of the Cherokee Nation

John Ross (October 3, 1790 - August 1, 1866), also known as Guwisguwi (a mythological or rare migratory bird), was Principal Chief of the Cherokee Native American Nation from 1828-1866. Described as the Moses of his people, Ross led the Nation through tumultuous years of development, relocation to Oklahoma, and the American Civil War.

Born 3 October 1790, Jumo, Alabama; died 1 August 1866 Washington, D.C.



Quatie Brown Henley (c.1790-1839)

Mary Brian Stapler (1826-1865)

John Ross (October 3, 1790 - August 1, 1866), also known as Guwisguwi (a mythological or rare migratory bird), was Principal Chief of the Cherokee Native American Nation from 1828-1866. Described as the Moses of his people, Ross led the Nation through tumultuous years of development, relocation to Oklahoma, and the American Civil War. Ross was born in Turkeytown, Alabama, along the Coosa River, near Lookout Mountain, to Mollie McDonald, of mixed-race Cherokee and Scots ancestry, and Daniel Ross, a Scots immigrant trader.

Ross' Scots heritage in North America began with William Shorey, a Scottish interpreter who married Ghigooie, a "full-blood" who had their status and class. In 1786 Anna and John's daughter Mollie McDonald in 1786 married Daniel Ross, a Scotsman who began to live among the Cherokee as a trader during the American Revolution.

Ross spent his childhood with his parents in the area of Lookout Mountain. He saw much of Cherokee society as he encountered the full-blood Cherokee who frequented his father's trading company. As a child, Ross was allowed to participate in Cherokee events such as the Green Corn Festival. Despite Daniel's willingness to allow his son to participate in some Cherokee customs, the elder Ross was determined that John also receive a rigorous classical education. After being educated at home, Ross pursued higher studies with the Reverend Gideon Blackburn, who established two schools in southeast Tennessee for Cherokee children. Classes were in English and students were mostly bi-cultural like John Ross. Ross finished his education at an academy in South West Point, Tennessee. The years 1812 to 1827 were also a period of political apprenticeship for Ross. He had to learn how to conduct negotiations with the United States and the skills required to run a national government. After 1814, Ross's political career, as a Cherokee legislator and diplomat, progressed with the support of individuals such as Principal Chief Pathkiller, Associate Chief Charles R. Hicks, and Casey Holmes, an elder statesman of the Cherokee Nation. In 1813, as relations with the United States became more complex, older, uneducated Chiefs like Pathkiller could not effectively defend Cherokee interests. The ascendancy of Ross represented an acknowledgment by the Cherokee that an educated, English-speaking leadership was of national importance. Both Pathkiller and Hicks saw Ross as the future leader of the Cherokee Nation and trained him for this work. Ross served as clerk to Pathkiller and Hicks, where he worked on all financial and political matters of the nation. Equally important in the education of the future leader of the Cherokees was instruction in the traditions of the Cherokee Nation. In a series of letters to Ross, Hicks outlined what was known of Cherokee traditions.

In 1816, the National Council named Ross to his first delegation to Washington. The delegation of 1816 was directed to resolve the sensitive issues of national boundaries, land ownership, and white intrusions on Cherokee land. Of the delegates, only Ross was fluent in English, making him the central figure in the negotiations. This was a unique position for a young man in Cherokee society, which traditionally favored older leaders. Ross's first political position came in November 1817 with the formation of the National Council. He was elected to the thirteen-member body, where each man served two-year terms. The National Council was created to consolidate Cherokee political authority after General Jackson made two treaties with small cliques of Cherokees representing minority factions. Membership in the National Council placed Ross among the ruling elite of the Cherokee leadership. In November 1818, on the eve of the General Council meeting with Cherokee agent Joseph McMinn, Ross was elevated to the presidency of the National Committee. He held this position through 1827. The Council selected Ross because they perceived him to have the diplomatic skill necessary to rebuff US requests to cede Cherokee lands. In this task, Ross did not disappoint the Council. McMinn offered $200,000 US for removal of the Cherokees beyond the Mississippi, which Ross refused.

In 1819, the Council sent Ross to Washington again. He was assuming a larger role among the leadership. The purpose of the delegation was to clarify the provisions of the Treaty of 1817. The delegation had to negotiate the limits of the ceded land and hope to clarify the Cherokee's right to the remaining land. John C. Calhoun, the Secretary of War, pressed Ross to cede large tracts of land in Tennessee and Georgia. Such pressure from the US government would continue and intensify. In October 1822, Calhoun requested that the Cherokee relinquish their land claimed by Georgia, in fulfillment of the United States' obligation under the Compact of 1802. Before responding to Calhoun's proposition, Ross first ascertained the sentiment of the Cherokee people. They were unanimously opposed to cession of land.

In January 1824, Ross traveled to Washington to defend the Cherokees' possession of their land. Calhoun offered two solutions to the Cherokee delegation: either relinquish title to their lands and remove west, or accept denationalization and become citizens of the United States. Rather than accept Calhoun's ultimatum, Ross made a bold departure from previous negotiations. He pressed the Nation's complaints. On April 15, 1824, Ross took the dramatic step of directly petitioning Congress. This fundamentally altered the traditional relationship between an Indian nation and the US government.

Never before had an Indian nation petitioned Congress with grievances. In Ross' correspondence, what had previously had the tone of petitions of submissive Indians were replaced by assertive defenders. He was able to argue as well as whites, subtle points about legal responsibilities. This change was apparent to individuals in Washington, including future president John Quincy Adams. He wrote, "[T]here was less Indian oratory, and more of the common style of white discourse, than in the same chief's speech on their first introduction." Adams specifically noted Ross' work as "the writer of the delegation" and remarked that "they [had] sustained a written controversy against the Georgia delegation with greate advantage." The Georgia delegation acknowledged Ross' skill in an editorial in The Georgia Journal, which charged that the Cherokee delegation's letters were fraudulent because they were too refined to have been written or dictated by an Indian. [edit] Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

In January 1827, Pathkiller, the Cherokee's principal chief, and Charles R. Hicks, Ross's mentor, both died. In a letter dated February 23, 1827, to Colonel Hugh Montgomery, the Cherokee Agent, Ross wrote that with the death of Hicks, he had assumed responsibility for all public business of the nation. The year 1827 marked not only the elevation of Ross to principal chief pro tem, but also the climax of political reform of the Cherokee government. The Cherokee Council passed a series of laws creating a bicameral national government. In 1822 they created the Cherokee Supreme Court, capping the creation of a three-branch government. In May 1827, Ross was elected to the twenty-four member constitutional committee, which drafted a constitution calling for a principal chief, a council of the principal chief, and a National Committee, which together would form the General Council of the Cherokee Nation. Although the constitution was ratified in October 1827, it did not take effect until October 1828, at which point Ross was elected principal chief. He was repeatedly reelected and held this position until his death in 1866.

The Cherokee had created a system of government with delegated authority capable of dependably formulating a clear, long-range policy to protect national rights. They had a strong leader in Ross who understood the complexities of the United States government and could use that knowledge to implement national policy.

On December 20, 1828, Georgia, fearful that the United States would be unable to effect the removal of the Cherokee Nation, enacted a series of oppressive laws which stripped the Cherokee of their rights and were calculated to force the Cherokee to remove.

Ross found support in Congress from individuals in the National Republican Party, such as Senators Henry Clay, Theodore Frelinghuysen, and Daniel Webster and Representatives Ambrose Spencer and David (Davy) Crockett. Despite this support, in April 1829, John H. Eaton, Secretary of War (1829–1831), informed Ross that President Jackson would support the right of Georgia to extend her laws over the Cherokee Nation. In May 1830, Congress endorsed Jackson's policy of removal by passing the Indian Removal Act. It authorized the president to set aside lands west of the Mississippi to exchange for the lands of the Indian nations in the east.

When Ross and the Cherokee delegation failed in their efforts to protect Cherokee lands through dealings with the executive branch and Congress, Ross took the radical step of defending Cherokee rights through the U.S. courts. In June 1830, at the urging of Senator Webster and Senator Frelinghuysen, the Cherokee delegation selected William Wirt, US Attorney General in the Monroe and Adams administrations, to defend Cherokee rights before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wirt argued two cases on behalf of the Cherokee: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia. In his decision, Chief Justice John Marshall never acknowledged that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation. He did not compel President Jackson to take action that would defend the Cherokee from Georgia's laws. The Cherokee Nation claim was denied on the grounds that the Cherokees were a "domestic dependent sovereignty" and as such did not have the right as a nation state to sue Georgia. The court later expanded on this position in Worcester v. Georgia, ruling that Georgia could not extend its laws into Cherokee lands. It was not because they were fully sovereign, however, but because they were a domestic dependent sovereignty. As such the court ruled the Cherokee were dependent not on the state of Georgia, but on the United States. According to the series of rulings, Georgia could not extend its laws because that was a power in essence reserved to the federal government. The Cherokee were considered sovereign enough to legally resist the government of Georgia, and were encouraged to do so.

The court carefully maintained that the Cherokee were ultimately dependent on the federal government and were not a true nation state, nor fully sovereign. Thus the dispute was made moot when federal legislation in the form of the Indian Removal Act exercised the federal government's legal power to handle the whole affair. The series of decisions embarrassed Jackson politically, as Whigs attempted to use the issue in the 1832 election. They largely supported his earlier opinion that the "Indian Question" was one that was best handled by the federal government, and not local authorities.

In an unusual meeting in May 1832, Supreme Court Justice John McLean spoke with the Cherokee delegation to offer his views on their situation. McLean's advice was to "remove and become a Territory with a patent in fee simple to the nation for all its lands, and a delegate in Congress, but reserving to itself the entire right of legislation and selection of all officers." McLean's advice precipitated a split within the Cherokee leadership as John Ridge and Elias Boudinot began to doubt Ross' leadership. In February 1833, Ridge wrote Ross advocating that the delegation dispatched to Washington that month should begin removal negotiations with Jackson. However, Ridge and Ross did not have irreconcilable worldviews; neither believed that the Cherokee could fend off Georgian usurpation of Cherokee land. Although Ridge and Ross agreed on this point, they clashed about how best to serve the Cherokee Nation.

In this environment, Ross led a delegation to Washington in March 1834 to try to negotiate alternatives to removal. Ross made several proposals; however, the Cherokee Nation may not have approved any of Ross' plans, nor was there reasonable expectation that Jackson would settle for any agreement short of removal. These offers, coupled with the lengthy cross-continental trip, indicated that Ross' strategy was to prolong negotiations on removal indefinitely. He hoped to wear down Jackson's opposition to a treaty that did not require Cherokee removal.

Ross' strategy was flawed because it was susceptible to the United States' making a treaty with a minority faction. On May 29, 1834, Ross received word from John H. Eaton, that a new delegation, including Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and Ross' younger brother Andrew, collectively called the Ridge Party, had arrived in Washington with the goal of signing a treaty of removal. The two sides attempted reconciliation, but by October 1834 still had not come to an agreement. In January 1835 the factions were again in Washington. Pressured by the presence of the Ridge Party, Ross agreed on February 25, 1835, to exchange all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi for land west of the Mississippi and 20 million dollars. He made it contingent on the General Council's accepting the terms.

Lewis Cass, Secretary of War, believing that this was yet another ploy to delay action on removal for an additional year, threatened to sign the treaty with John Ridge. On December 29, 1835, the Ridge Party signed the removal treaty with the U.S., although this action was against the will of the majority of Cherokees. Ross unsuccessfully lobbied against enforcement of the treaty. Those Cherokees who did not emigrate to the Indian Territory by 1838 were forced to do so by General Winfield Scott. This forced removal came to be known as the "Trail of Tears". Accepting defeat, Ross convinced General Scott to allow him to supervise much of the removal process. On the Trail of Tears, Ross lost his wife Quatie, a full-blooded Cherokee woman of whom little is known. She died shortly before reaching Little Rock on the Arkansas River.

Ross later married again, to Mary Brian Stapler. n his final annual message on October 1865, Ross assessed the Cherokee experience during the Civil War and his performance as chief. The Cherokee could "have the proud satisfaction of knowing that we honestly strove to preserve the peace within our borders, but when this could not be done,...borne a gallant part in the defense...of the cause which has been crowned with such signal success."

Ross died on August 1, 1866 in Washington, DC.


  • Page 62 of The History of Hamilton County and Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volume 1 By Zella Armstrong. “Children of Chief John Ross” 2 sons named John Ross given by Starr.
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John Guwisguwi Ross, Chief of the Cherokee Nation's Timeline

October 3, 1790
Turkeytown, Etowah, Alabama, United States
October 10, 1814
Cherokee Nation, Georgia
December 26, 1817
Ross' Landing, Old Cherokee Nation, Tennessee, United States
May 21, 1821
Walker County, Georgia, United States
Cherokee Nation East
March 30, 1830
Tennessee, United States
July 7, 1845
New Castle, New Castle, Delaware, United States