Gen. Andrew Jackson and 2nd Lt. John Ross of the Cherokee Brigade joined forces during the Creek Wars, and the forged partnership between Jackson's volunteers and the Cherokee warriors resulted in a devastating loss for the Creeks. No longer would the Creeks pose a threat to the westward expansion of settlers, and Jackson's attention would instead turn to repealing the British troops' attempt to defeat the U.S. military through an attack from the South. The Cherokee Brigade returned to their homes and Jackson's units, including numerous Tennesseans, ultimately claimed victory in the heralded Battle of New Orleans. Gen. Jackson's fame spread quickly, and he became a national figure, was nominated for the presidency in 1824 and was elected in 1828.
John Ross's star also began to rise among "his" people, and by Jackson's inauguration, Ross had become the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. The most significant issue facing the Cherokee centered on Georgia's legal and political attempts to remove the Cherokee from coveted lands in North Georgia, lands that had historically been Cherokee homelands. Ross faced the challenge directly with legal action and simultaneously called upon his former comrade-in-arms, asking the president to intervene on behalf of the Cherokee and uphold decades-old treaties and promises of citizenship rights. Instead, the new president, an expansionist and a substantial landholder of former native peoples' lands, countered that the proposed action fell with Georgia's rights as a "sovereign" state and that it would be inappropriate for the federal government to intervene.
As Georgia's quasi-authorized forces began to terrorize the Cherokee by burning homesteads, forcibly removing families, imprisoning white missionaries supporting the Cherokee's rights and refusing to reply to Ross's letters and missives, Elias Boudinot's Cherokee Phoenix newspaper responded by publicizing the atrocities in hopes that an outcry from citizens across the nation would persuade the president to take action. When Secretary of War John Eaton blamed the Cherokee for the violence in the region, noting that they were refusing to subjugate themselves to the will of "American citizens," he added that he would authorize federal troops to enter Georgia to "stay" the rebellion. Georgia officials responded that there was no need of federal troops and asserted that Georgia would deal with the "problem" of the Cherokee.
It's easy to imagine John Ross's frustrations and fears as the fate of his people was caught in a battle between the eminence of the federal government and the forces of "state rights." For Ross, a well-read man with strong Scottish-American ancestors, the idea of self-determination or, in the case of the Cherokee, the lack of a voice about their own future must have stung.
He responded to the political debate with a terse statement: "If it is thus that the laws of Georgia are to be extended and executed over the Cherokee, it is very obvious that justice and humanity are not to be respected. The Cherokee will patiently wait for justice through the proper tribunal. Your obedient servant, Jno. Ross."
In the ensuing months, Ross would personally finance a legal team to make an appeal through the judicial system, continue to attempt to engage the executive branch in protecting the rights of the Cherokee based on formal treaties and alliances and confer with members of the legislative branch, urging the passage of protective laws and the implementation of the promised citizenship. Perhaps no action is more well-known than the U.S. Supreme Court case arising from the volatile situation. While many legal scholars believed the court would never agree to hear the case, by May of 1830, it was evident that Chief Justice John Marshall might step into the middle of the fight. Marshall wrote to New Jersey Sen. Theodore Frelinghuysen, using phrases which probably struck fear into hearts of those planning Georgia's removal of the Cherokee.
Marshall noted "the subject [removal of the Indians] has always appeared to me to affect deeply the honor, the faith and the character of our country. The cause of these oppressed people has been most ably though unsuccessfully sustained J. Marshall." His letter appeared to indicate he would consider the plight of the Cherokee if a proper case was to reach his court.
A case, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, did indeed reach his court, and the chief justice's statement that Georgia's laws were "repugnant to the constitution, laws and treaties of the United States" offered insight into his feelings for the Cherokee. But, would the Cherokee be saved? The story will continue.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, member of the Tennessee Historical Commission and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.