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Monday, August 1, 2016

August 1, 2016: Native American Leaders: John Ross

[August 1st marks the 150th anniversary of Cherokee Chief John Ross’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and other native leaders, leading up to a weekend Guest Post from one of our most talented and significant Native Studies scholars.]
Three American histories that look far different when viewed through the lens of the Cherokee Nation’s longest-serving Principal Chief.
1)      The Trail of Tears: As I wrote in this post, Jackson’s Indian Removal policy and the Trail of Tears that it produced are perhaps the best remembered Native American histories, yet our collective memories of them tend to position the Cherokee and their native brethren solely as tragic victims. The Cherokee Memorials to Congress, of which Ross was likely the central author, offer one potent and powerful way to revise that narrative, highlighting the communal voices and histories through which the nation engaged with America and its own evolving histories and community. Yet Ross’s life and perspective also connect to the complex debate within the Cherokee nation over the removal policy and the most effective way to respond to it, with Ross representing a more active resistance and his fellow chief Major Ridge standing for the more moderate “Treaty Party.” History, of course, bore Ross and his position out very fully—but an accurate history of the era would feature far more of the Cherokee nation’s diverse perspectives as well as their multiple resistances to removal, and Ross offers a starting point for engaging with all those histories and factors.
2)      Early Republic Wars: Long before he was elected Principal Chief (in 1828), Ross emerged onto the national scene as an officers’ assistant in a Cherokee regiment fighting (ironically enough) under General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. As I wrote in this post, the U.S. army during that war’s culminating (if literally inconsequential) Battle of New Orleans exemplified the national community in multicultural miniature, from French pirates and Filipino fisherman to the city’s African American community and multiple Native American regiments. Yet by the time of that January 1815 battle, Ross and his Cherokee regiment had already also fought under Jackson in the so-called Creek War of 1813-14, a far more complex conflict that interconnected with the War of 1812 yet pitted the U.S. army against multiple Southeastern Native American tribes. As had been the case during both the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, the Native American military during this Early Republic era was thus complicatedly both part of and opposed to America’s martial efforts, and Ross came of age within that divided world.
3)      The Civil War: The final years of Ross’s life took place against the backdrop of an even more divided wartime moment, not only for the nation but also for the Cherokee tribe and Ross’s own family and personal perspective. At the Civil War’s outset the Cherokee, now living in the Indian Territory that would later become Oklahoma (once the tribe was once again forcibly removed), were once again divided, with a majority supporting the Confederacy but a sizeable contingent favoring the Union. Ross, still in his role as Principal Chief, initially advocated neutrality, and traveled to Washington early in the war to meet President Lincoln; three of his sons volunteered for the Union Army, while his nephew-in-law John Drew organized the Confederate Army’s first Cherokee regiment. Later in the war the divisions only deepened, with pro-Confederate sympathizers led by Stand Watie raiding Ross’s home and killing his son-in-law while Ross’s now overtly pro-Union faction had moved to Fort Leavenworth. At the time of his August 1, 1866 death Ross (along with Watie and many other leaders) was in the midst of the negotiations with the Johnson administration that would culminate in the Cherokee Reconstruction Treaty, one final step in the tribe’s and Ross’s complex relationship to the Civil War and its histories.
Next leader tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Native American leaders or figures you’d highlight?

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