Brian Hicks’s Toward the Setting Sun chronicles one of the most significant but least explored periods in American history, recounting the littleknown story of the first white man to champion the voiceless Native American cause.
John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears
A gray dusk settled over the Coosa. The sun had slipped behind a steep, plum-colored ridge covered with skeletal trees, their branches reaching into the fading sky like outstretched arms. The last of the leaves had fallen weeks ago and now, as he followed the trail beside the river, they crackled like a great fire under his horse’s footsteps.
Winter was coming. John Ross could feel its chill in the wind that swept through dormant fields, rustling brown and withered cornstalks like a Diamondback’s rattle. The harvest had passed and the days had grown shorter. It was Nov. 30, 1831. In another two cycles of the moon a bitter cold would blanket the Cherokee Nation, and there was much to do before then.
Ross loved this land. Perhaps he realized his affection for the red earth was part of what made him a Cherokee, certainly more than his blood. The great majority of his people had no use for material possessions – they could not be bought, like some Indians, with shiny trinkets, guns, or even food. Nothing mattered to them as much as the land of their ancestors, where they had lived and hunted and fought and died for hundreds – maybe even thousands – of years. Now all of the tribe’s great history, and its future, rested on him and yet another trip to Washington City. If this final attempt at diplomacy failed, he knew that his people might not see another spring, another summer, or another harvest on this land.
That evening, Ross rode with his younger brother, Andrew. They had spent the day securing provisions for the Washington delegation and now, as the sun set, they followed the river toward the home of William Shorey Coodey, Ross’s favorite nephew and husband of his stepdaughter. Coodey would lead the delegation; Ross would not go this time. Jackson had turned him into a target, blamed him for all the Cherokees’ recent troubles. He knew his presence could cost the tribe what small chance it had to reach an accord with the administration and the Congress. Without realizing the great irony of his words, the president of the United States had suggested this entire conflict was caused by the half-breed John Ross grandstanding for political favor.
To be sure, Ross was not a typical Indian chief. He did not wear the tribal garb of his predecessors but wore a suit and tie like the finest gentleman farmer. A trading post he barely had time to run had made him more prosperous than most white men. Short, slight and reserved, he carried himself with the air of a well-educated man, which he was. With his pale skin and European features, he did not even look like an Indian. In fact, Ross looked very like the Southerners who had become his sworn enemies. Had he chosen a different path, Ross could have lived among the settlers, hidden his heritage, and never had to worry about removal. But if he ever entertained such thoughts, he shared them with no one. He had decided at an early age that he was a Cherokee. Their fate would be his.
For this choice he had inherited all of the tribe’s troubles. Since he was a boy –he was now forty-one – he had watched white men chip away at the Great Cherokee Nation. Once, his people’s land had stretched from the southern Indiana territory to the seacoast, but they now occupied only small areas of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina. Their land had been taken slowly, through negotiation and trickery. And when that had not worked white men simply bribed influential chiefs to sell. Ross had seen it happen any number of times in his life, but when he came to be chief he’d put a stop to it. As the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and even the mighty Seminoles fell under the pressure of the United States military, Ross held his ground. He had accomplished this without violence, in part because he and his people fancied themselves more peaceful than other tribes. In truth, he knew that no matter how strong or how brave the Cherokees were, they would be no match for the white man’s army. He had seen the work of Jackson’s troops firsthand years ago, and it made a strong impression on him.
His obstinate nature had not won him many allies outside the tribe, but it had earned him the love of his people. Their faith in him had no limit. Indians went out of their way just to touch him, to speak a few words in his presence. They never questioned him; indeed, to the consternation of his detractors, they nearly worshipped him. The Cherokees knew Ross was their last hope, though he was an unlikely savior: only one-eighth Cherokee, a rich trader barely able to speak his tribe’s native tongue. But they had not elected him principal chief for his ability to speak Cherokee; they had elected him, at least in part, because of how well he spoke the white man’s language.
It was Andrew who decided they should call on Coodey; Ross had not been inclined to go. He was tired and wanted only to return to his house overlooking the headwaters of the three rivers. But he could not let his brother continue alone, could not abide the thought of others doing the tribe’s work while he rested. He had proven himself a tireless leader for more than a decade, both as a member of council and now as chief, and he did not delegate his duties easily. Yet there was more to it than that. There was the man ahead of them on the trail.
The Ross brothers had seen this stranger once too often in a single day for it to be coincidence, most recently at the ferry landing on the other side of the river. The man said that his name was Harris and he was looking for a stolen horse. He traveled with a local Cherokee named Oonehutty, a harmless, simple man that Ross knew well. But something about this Harris seemed sinister, and Ross thought his story rang false. Harris claimed to have information that a thief had carried his animal away on Ross’s own ferry. There was accusation in his tone.
Earlier, Ross had assured the man he had not seen a horse of that description or any strange people in the area, but it seemed to make little difference to Harris. He continued to talk about the horse and asked several times if he was really speaking to John Ross, the famous Cherokee chief. The whole incident left Ross unsettled. When the ferry arrived, he had told Harris and Oonehutty they could cross first. He and Andrew would wait for the next trip.
As the man named Harris boarded the ferry he had turned to Ross and said, “I hope we shall be better acquainted after this.”
Now these same men were once again ahead of Ross on the trail, and another had joined them. Silhouetted in the dusk, the party made a strange sight: Oonehutty riding with a rifle slung over his shoulder, Harris and the other man following behind, whispering to one another. When Ross and Andrew caught up to them the men claimed they were riding to Coodey’s house, too, which only made the chief more suspicious. He was sure his nephew did not know them. Ross suggested that since they had the same destination, they should ride together.
The third man’s horse matched the description of the stolen animal, but when Ross asked about it, he got no response. The two white men were jumpy and guarded, and glancing back and forth conspiratorially. Harris, who had been talkative earlier, barely said a word. Oonehutty seemed oblivious to the tension but the Ross brothers felt it. The chief kept talking, trying to loosen the third man’s tongue, and before long he allowed that his name was Looney. Perhaps it was Ross’s questions, or his unmistakable air of authority, but Looney finally broke down.
“Harris, I am now going to tell the whole truth about this business,” he said.
“The truth alone is what I want to know,” Ross said.
“He is foolish. The horse is not his,” Looney said.
“Whose horse is he?”
“Do you know Harris?”
Before Looney could finish speaking, Andrew screamed out to his brother: “Take care!”
Ross turned immediately, as if he had expected the warning. He jerked his horse in the direction Andrew was pointing and saw that Harris had fallen behind them and gotten off his horse. By the light of a waning crescent moon Ross could see him crouched behind a tree, and he saw the gun pointed at him before Harris spoke.
“Ross, I have for a long time been wanting to kill you, and I’ll be damned if I don’t now do it.”
John Ross was close enough to hear the cold steel click as Harris cocked his rifle.
Major Ridge's home in the 1820s and 1830s, as it looked in his final days in residence. It is now the Chieftains Museum, Rome, Georgia and open for tours.
This is John Ross's grave in the Ross family plot, Park Hill, Oklahoma.