John Ross made an unlikely looking Cherokee chief. Born in 1790 to a Scottish trader and a woman of Indian and European heritage, he was only one-eighth Cherokee by blood. Short, slight and reserved, he wore a suit and tie instead of deerskin leggings and a beaver-skin hat. His trading post made him more prosperous than most Indians—or white men. But his mother and grandmother raised him in a traditional household, teaching him the tribe’s customs and legends. When the Cherokees embraced formal education—they were adapting quickly to a world they knew was changing—he attended school with their children. After his mother died, in 1808, Ross worked at his grandfather’s trading post near present-day Chattanooga, an important way station on the road to the West. There he encountered white settlers moving onto Cherokee land.
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To a degree unique among the five major tribes in the South, the Cherokees used diplomacy and legal argument to protect their interests. With the help of a forward-looking warrior named Major Ridge, Ross became the tribe’s primary negotiator with officials in Washington, D.C., adept at citing both federal law and details from a dozen treaties the Cherokees signed with the federal government between 1785 and 1819. In the 1820s, as they enjoyed one of the most promising periods in their history—developing a written language, adopting a constitution and building a capital city—Ross became the Cherokees’ principal chief, and Ridge was named his counselor.
All the while, white settlers kept coming.
The state governments did little to discourage them, ignoring federal treaties and even abetting the taking of Indian land through bribery, fraud and coercion. When the tribes turned to Washington for redress, federal officials proved ineffectual or hostile, depending on the administration. One by one the other major Southern tribes—the Chickasaws, the Choctaws, the Creeks and the Seminoles—signed treaties that required them to uproot to the far side of the Mississippi River. But the Cherokees held out.
They finally succumbed in 1838, when they were marched 800 miles into an extremely bitter winter. The survivors of the journey to what is now Oklahoma would call it the Trail of Tears. The exodus was a communal tragedy, as it had been for the other tribes. But in the case of the Cherokees, their resistance and defeat were reflected as well in the rise and collapse of the extraordinary partnership between Ross and Ridge.
The two had met in 1813, the year Ross had a political awakening while on a trading trip through what would become Alabama. A Creek chief named Big Warrior told him a faction of his tribe had become openly hostile to European customs and settlers. These Red Sticks, as the faction called itself, were threatening civil war. Ross, only 22, recognized a hazard to the Cherokees: such a war would likely endanger white settlers, and given that whites scarcely distinguished between tribes, any retaliatory move they made would threaten every Indian. So he wrote an urgent note to the local U.S. Indian agent: “The intelligence received from the Creek Nation at this present crisis is very serious. The hostile party is said to be numerous and if assistance is not given to the Big Warrior and his party by the U.S. it is apprehensive that they will be conquered from the Superior force of the rebels.”
When Tennessee militiamen intervened that fall, the Cherokees joined them, both to protect their own interests and to curry favor with whites. Ross, whose early record shows not even a fistfight, was among the 500 Cherokees who enlisted. So was Ridge, already a renowned warrior.
The Cherokees called him “the man who walks on the mountaintop,” for his preferred means of traversing the woods; white men interpreted that as “ridge.” He would appropriate the rank he was given during the Creek War as a first name. Born in 1770 or 1771, Ridge straddled two generations: in his youth he had fought white settlers, but as a man he welcomed European traditions. “He appears very anxious that all his people should receive instruction, and come into the customs of the whites,” the missionary William Chamberlin would write in 1822. Indeed, Ridge was one of the first Cherokees to send his children to missionary schools.