John Ross (October 3, 1790 - August 1, 1866), also known as Guwisguwi (a mythological or rare migratory bird), was Principal Chief of the Cherokee Native American Nation from 1828-1866. Described as the Moses of his people, Ross led the Nation through tumultuous years of development, relocation to Oklahoma, and the American Civil War.
John Ross in Trail of Glory
John Ross was a young American educated Cherokee businessman. As was the case with many Cherokee of his generation, Ross was also descended from a line of Scottish immigrants, and so by blood, was more "white" than Cherokee. Nonetheless, Ross was culturally Cherokee, and identified himself as such.
Battle of Horseshoe Bend
Ross did not see much direct combat. After meeting with Coffee, who ordered the Cherokees to stay on the other side of the river, lest they be mistaken for fleeing Red Sticks, Ross forded the Tallapoosa River. He encountered a Red Stick warrior. Despite Ross's efforts to kill the Red Stick, including shooting him in the leg, the Red Stick got the better of Ross. Only the timely arrival of James Rogers saved Ross. Shortly after the battle, Rogers introduced Ross to Sam Houston.
When Andrew Jackson convinced Houston to make a trip to Washington with a group of Cherokees, Houston tapped Ross to come. Ross also brought Sequoyah, James Rogers, and James's brother and sister, John and Tiana. Another prominent Cherokee leader, Nancy Ward, traveled with the group as far as Oothcaloga, where they were to rendezvous with Houston.
The Cherokee were attacked by a group of Chickasaw as they traveled up the Tennessee River. After about four days, the Cherokee were able to kill off the Chickasaw band, arriving safely at Oothcaloga on June 28, 1814.
The group arrived in the city on August 24, just ahead of the British invasion. Rumors were already rampant that Admiral George Cockburn planned to burn the city down. As they entered, it occured to Houston that as he and John Ross were U.S. Army officers, they had a duty to defend the city, especially as rumor also held that the city was effectively undefended.
While tactful attempts were made to take the children of the group to a safe location, Tiana Rogers argued forcefully enough that Houston and Ross relented and kept the group together.
Upon arriving at the Executive Mansion, the group learned that American forces had been defeated at the Battle of Bladensburg, and that General William Winder had ordered all American military personnel to regroup in Georgetown, leaving the capital city vulnerable. Houston saw two twelve-pound canons about to be carried away under the direction of former War Department accountant William Simmons. After some cajoling and lying from Houston (which included a claim that John Ross was an artilleryman), Simmons relented, and left the guns. During this exchange, Lt. Patrick Driscol arrived with the various castaway soldiers and sailors he'd gathered on his way to the city. He agreed to stay with Houston, and presented actual naval gunners who could operate the twelve-pounders. Houston and Driscol quickly realized which of whom was the more experienced soldier, and Houston agreed to listen to Driscol's advice. Both realized that the Capitol Building was a virtual fortress, and relocated there. Houston did see the potential pitfalls of his rushed decision, as he still had the children with him. However, Driscol assured him that the Capitol would probably be safe. Houston had Sequoyah watch the children during the battle.
Upon arriving at the Capitol Building, Houston's hodgepodge force began setting up defenses, including positioning the cannons they had between the buildings for the House of Representatives and the Senate. Ross, no soldier despite his rank, stayed close to Houston before and during the battle.
The British attack was quickly repelled. After the British retreat, the group was joined by Secretary of State James Monroe, who commended Houston. Later, Houston approached Monroe about why he and his entourage were there. Monroe heard Houston out, which planted the seeds for the future Confederacy. Houston also detached Ross to aide Monroe while the secretary was in the Capitol.
Ross continued in that capacity until October 9, 1814. During that time, Ross and Monroe developed a respect for one another, and Ross came to even like Monroe personally. Both realized what conflicts might lie ahead, and that Monroe, whose rise to the Presidency was almost inevitable, would do all he could to forestall those conflicts.
Louisiana and the Battle of the Mississippi
Ross was part of Houston's expedition to Louisiana to help reinforce Andrew Jackson as he prepared to confront the British. Ross himself saw action on the night of December 23, 1814, in the bayous outside of New Orleans. He was nearly killed by a Scots soldier. Luckily, Ross was able to avoid being bayonetted, and club his attacker with his pistol, all while receiving a wound to his left arm. Ross had one last bit of good luck when he made his way to Major Ridge and other Cherokees, who bound his wounds.
The experience left Ross with the realization that war was a horrible thing. Moreover, as he watched Jackson's men fortify the Rodriguez Canal, he also realized that the Cherokee could never hope to defeat the U.S. Major Ridge was also able to observe the Rodriguez Canal, now called the Jackson Line, and finally agreed to support Ross in his efforts to secure voluntary removal of the Cherokee to Arkansas.
- 1812: The Rivers of War, ch. 33.
- Ibid., ch. 38.
- Ibid., Ch. 41.
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