As John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokee, continually found himself engaged in legal battles with the state of Georgia and U.S. President Andrew Jackson to aid his people in keeping their homes and farms, he began to hope that U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall might become his peoples' champion. Marshall had written in terms that hinted at his support of the Cherokees' plight against the state and federal forces attempting to force them to move westward. However, Ross's hopes were dashed with Marshall's decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, at least in the immediate publication of the decision.
While Marshall spoke openly about the unfairness of the Cherokee plight, he ruled against them in the initial legal case. His written decision rejected the attorney for the Cherokees legal argument in his written and oral brief, an argument focused on the Cherokees' status as a "foreign nation" within the borders of the United States. He instead classified the Cherokees as a "domestic independent nation" and, because of the incorrect choice of legal status, ruled against John Ross's people.
However, John Ross settled down in his home and carefully read and reread the decision. He realized that the chief justice had not ruled against the Cherokees' argument, simply their legal standing as argued. Ross announced in a letter shared with other Cherokee leaders and supporters in the general community that "the denial of the injunction has no bearing whatever upon the true merits of our case." He spent the next three weeks riding across the Cherokee lands and organizing community meetings where he attempted to keep hope alive by explaining the next planned action and urging them to "persevere in this prudent course ... as it will lead you to a safe deliverance."
Decades later, Cherokee men and women would recount stories of Ross riding up to their homes, sharing bread with them and then assuring them that he knew how important "home" was to a family. Interestingly, decades later, Ross would become emotional talking about the fight and his "door-to-door" campaign, indicating that he believed he had become the voice of his people and he "had to tell their story."
While Ross struggled with the next course of legal action and, equally important, how he would fund a legal team, Jackson claimed victory. In a letter to his close friend, John Coffee, he wrote "the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that it cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate."
When Georgia passed a restrictive law requiring its citizens to apply for a state license before dwelling inside the Cherokee nation, the Cherokee understood that the law was aimed at the missionaries who lived among their villages and supported their resistance to removal. Samuel Worcester courageously took a stand against the law and refused to apply for a license. When he and another missionary were indicted, brought to trial, convicted and imprisoned, Worcester appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ross had his second chance with the legal system when the court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a separate political entity that could not be regulated by Georgia and, in the majority opinion, noted that "treaties and laws of the United States [also] contemplate the Indian territory as completely separated from that of the states; and provide that all intercourse with them shall be carried on exclusively by the government of the union."
Ross knew the battle to retain Cherokee lands was far from being resolved. The court's decision suggested that Georgia drop any further attempts to seize the fertile lands of the Cherokee and allow the Cherokee Nation to govern themselves with only federal direction.
In the Age of Jacksonian Democracy, the idea that a state, especially a Southern state, would voluntarily defer to the federal government in such a critical conflict was unthinkable. The Cherokee Nation's lands would only be saved by federal intervention and Jackson, ever the skilled politician, had no desire to risk a loss of political prestige by open use of federal force. Instead, he chose to ignore Marshall's ruling.
While he may not have uttered the words attributed to him that suggested that Marshall had made his ruling and he could enforce it, it was clearly evident that the Cherokee Nation was caught in an impossible situation. Should the leaders agree to a financial settlement, willingly vacate their lands and be "removed" to lands in the Oklahoma Territory, or should they seek to fight in another way?
One final chapter remains.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission and Regent of the Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.