While John Ross is most readily recognizable as the founder of Chattanooga and the longest-serving Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, it was his relationship with Andrew Jackson that defined much of his life and his legacy.
The black-haired, brown-eyed John Ross was the son of a Scottish trader. His ancestral family had lived among his mother's Cherokees for generations. Ross often found himself balanced carefully between the two worlds of his ancestry, speaking English and Cherokee fluently, understanding both cultures and having a strong relationship with both parents. It was his childhood, growing up alongside Cherokee children and adopting a modified version of Cherokee dress, that would indicate the direction his life would take. At adulthood, Ross chose to receive his new Cherokee name, Kooweskoowe, and to identify thereafter as Cherokee.
Most Tennesseans remember Andrew Jackson as 'Old Hickory,' the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and the first Tennessean to be elected president of the United States. Military historians are familiar with his strategic battles against the Creek Indians, including an alliance with the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Regiment, allied with Jackson against the warring Creeks, included a young 2nd Lt. John Ross who was serving as an adjutant to a senior officer.
When Jackson's first notice came for the Cherokee Regiment to spring into action, Ross delayed long enough to write to his elderly patron, Return J. Meigs, the federal Indian agent. After an assurance that the Cherokees would march, Ross the trader took three days to complete delivery of supplies to the Cherokee Regiment so it would be ready for the coming conflict. Ross ended his letter to Meigs with his intent to call for troops by noting that "All those who wish to signalize themselves by fighting and taking revenge/For the blood of the innocent will now step forward and you will be good/Enough to urge on all those Cherokees that have been delayed .../I am Sir, yours respectfully/Jno Ross."
Those who recall the early history of this nation and its Revolutionary War may wonder why the Cherokee would have chosen, less than 40 years later, to fight alongside the English settlers, now citizens of the new republic. John Ross's grandfather, another Scottish trader, had helped arm the Cherokees to fight for the British, sensing that the future westward expansion of settlers would bring them into serious future conflict.
However, only one year after Ross's birth in 1790, the Cherokee signed a peace treaty with President George Washington in which Washington had avowed that he would respect the borders of the Cherokee Nation and the rights of its people. The federal government would deal with the Cherokee government, managing areas of common interest without intervention from the states or local governments.
Even with the assurance of an alliance between the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation, why would Jackson and the Cherokee fight together against the Creek? The simplest answer is that the Creek's horrific attack against Fort Mims near Mobile Bay spurred a direct response. One description of the aftermath described the scene as "all were scalped and ... butchered in a manner which neither decency nor language will permit me to describe." (Interesting fact: Mims descendants reside in Hamilton County.)
The Cherokee Regiment included names known to Hamilton County residents. Pathkiller, aging principal chief of the Cherokee, encouraged his men to fight alongside Jackson after the general agreed that they would receive the same pay and death benefits as white soldiers. Other regiment members included George Guess, known as Sequoyah, the Mouse, Old Turkey and perhaps the greatest fighter among the Cherokees, a warrior known as Shoe Boots. One of the Cherokee Regiment members, Tobacco Juice, was chosen to serve as Jackson's bodyguard.
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend destroyed the major fighting arm of the Creeks, and it was the Cherokee attack from inside the Horseshoe that initiated the final attack, guaranteeing victory. The Creek chiefs were forced to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson, ceding a wide swath of land that included the whole northern border of Florida and most of central Alabama, about 23 million acres.
Together, Jackson's forces and the Cherokee Regiment claimed a common victory. But would Jackson's gratitude impact future policies? That's the next chapter in our Hamilton County Bicentennial story.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Historian, a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission and the Regent of the Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.