The Cherokees vs. Andrew Jackson

John Ross and Major Ridge tried diplomatic and legal strategies to maintain autonomy, but the new president had other plans

John Ross, left, and Major Ridge teamed up to protect Cherokee holdings in what is now Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Library of Congress)
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In a move intended to prevent local chiefs from accepting bribes to sell off Cherokee land, the Cherokee council in 1817 established a national committee to handle all tribal business. When Ross arrived at the council meeting as a spectator, Ridge led him into a private conference and told him that he would be one of 13 members of the committee. Ross was only 26—a young man in a community where leadership traditionally came with age. Just a month later, he would have to confront Andrew Jackson directly.

Jackson had been serving as a federal Indian commissioner when he launched his first effort to remove the Cherokees en masse. In 1817, he appeared with two other agents at the Cherokees’ council in Calhoun, just northeast of what is now Cleveland, Tennessee, to inform the tribe that if it refused to move west, it would have to submit to white men’s laws, no matter what any treaties might say. The chiefs dismissed the agents without hesitation. “Brothers, we wish to remain on our land, and hold it fast,” their signed statement said. “We appeal to our father the president of the United States to do us justice. We look to him for protection in the hour of distress.”

Through threats and bribery, Jackson eventually persuaded a few thousand Cherokees to leave Tennessee; Ross became the spokesman of those who remained—some 16,000 resolved to hold their ground. After years of trading land for peace, the council in 1822 passed a resolution vowing never to cede a single acre more. “If we had but one square mile left they would not be satisfied unless they could get it,” Ross wrote to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that October, referring to state Indian commissioners who regularly tried to buy out the tribe. “But we hope that the United States will never forget her obligation to our nation.”

In 1823, Georgia officials, recognizing Ross’ growing power, dispatched a Creek chief to personally offer him $2,000 (about $42,300 today) to persuade the Cherokees to move. Ross asked for the offer in writing—then took it to Ridge. Together they exposed the bribery attempt in front of the tribal council and sent the emissary packing.

At the same time, what historians would call the Cherokee Renaissance was bringing the tribe more fully into the 19th century. Sequoyah, a mixed-blood Cherokee, distilled the Cherokee oral language into a set of 86 symbols; soon, the tribe enjoyed a higher rate of literacy than the settlers who called them savages. They started a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. In 1825—after new president John Quincy Adams promised to honor the federal government’s obligations to Indians—the Cherokees began their largest public works project, building a council house, courthouse and public square in northwestern Georgia, near present-day Calhoun. They named it New Echota, in honor of a village lost to settlers years earlier.

Ridge could not hide his pride. “It’s like Baltimore,” he told a visiting missionary, comparing it to the largest city he’d ever seen.

In 1827, the Cherokees adopted a written constitution that defined a government with executive, legislative and judicial branches. That same year, they acquired new leadership: Pathkiller died, and Charles Hicks, his assistant and logical successor, followed him two weeks later. The council appointed an interim chief, but Ross and Ridge were making the decisions—when to hold council, how to handle law enforcement, whether to allow roads to be built through tribal land. The two men so relied on each other that locals called the three-mile trail between their homes the Ross Ridge Road.

If Ross aspired to be principal chief, he never spoke of it. But Ridge promoted his protégé’s candidacy without naming him, dictating an essay to the Cherokee Phoenix that described removal as the tribe’s most pressing issue and warning against electing leaders who could be manipulated by white men. Until then, every principal chief had been nearly full-blooded Cherokee. When the council voted in the fall of 1828, Ross—who was only 38—was elected principal chief by a vote of 34 to 6. The council named Ridge his counselor.


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