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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 15, No. 1
March, 1937

John Bartlett Meserve

Page 21

William P. Ross

There was unfeigned sorrow in Tahlequah and throughout the Cherokee Nation when the word came through from Washington of the death of John Ross in the capital city, on August 1, 1866. The "sleep that knows no waking" had halted his interesting career of 38 years as chieftain of his people. He had survived out of the old Cherokee life in the East and into their new life in the West. His life story offers an arresting chapter for those who are interested in Indian history.

John Golden Ross,1 who was of no blood relation to Chief John Ross of the Cherokees, was born in Scotland on December 23, 1787. When a mere lad, his parents, with young John and his sister, embarked from Scotland for America to establish a new home. While en route, a violent storm arose at sea, during which the father was swept overboard into the sea and was never seen again. The frantic mother collapsed and died from the shock, leaving the two children to the care of strangers. The ship's captain brought the orphans into port at Baltimore where a kind-hearted citizen gave them a home. The sister died shortly thereafter but John Golden Ross grew to young manhood in Baltimore where he attended school and became a cabinet maker. Early in life, he struck out for himself, went south and located in Tennessee in the country of the Cherokee Indians. The young Scotchman served as a rifleman in Gen. Jackson's Tennessee militia in the Creek war of 1813-14 and fought with "Old Hickory" at New Orleans in January, 1815. Upon the conclusion of the war, he returned to Tennessee where, in 1819, he married Eliza Ross,2 a sister of John Ross, later to become chief of the Cherokees. She was

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a daughter of Daniel and Mary Ross, was born near Lookout Mountain, Tennessee on March 25, 1789 and died at Park Hill, in the old Indian Territory on February 7, 1876 and rests in the old cemetery at that place. Young Ross through his marriage became a recognized member of the Cherokee tribe. He established a trading post among the Cherokees and at one time maintained a large warehouse at Gunter's Landing in what is now in Marshall County, Alabama, on the Tennessee river. He owned a beautiful home at Will's Valley, Alabama, which he was required to abandon when the Cherokees were forced to remove to the West in 1838.

About the first of the year 1839, John Golden Ross and his wife and children joined Chief John Ross and other members of the Ross family in their tragic emigration to the old Indian Territory. The river steamboat "Victoria" upon which the party had negotiated the Arkansas river reached the mouth of the Illinois river in April 1839. A delay had been occasioned at Little Rock, Arkansas, because of the death of Mrs. John Ross at that place in March. After landing, the party proceeded over land to Park Hill, where John Golden Ross established his home and engaged in the mercantile business. "Uncle Jack" as he was affectionately called during the latter years of his life, was below the medium in stature and rather conservative in disposition. He was very much esteemed by all who knew him. His business operations were quite successful and he enjoyed the comforts of a fine home at Park Hill. He was an earnest Christian, being a devout member of the Methodist Church. Uncle Jack passed away at Park Hill on June 2, 1858, after a brief illness and was laid to rest in the old Ross cemetery near that place. Dr. Samuel Worcester, himself in failing health, conducted the burial services held in the little brick church at the old Mission. The life service of Dr. Worcester was closed in the following April, but to the brave soul of this great Puritan messenger among the Cherokees, death was only another tomorrow.

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William Potter Ross,3 eldest son of John Golden and Eliza Ross, was born at the base of Lookout Mountain, on the Tennessee river, some seven miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, on August 20, 1820. He was taught his first letters by his mother and first attended the Presbyterian Mission School at Will's Valley, Alabama, presided over by Rev. William Potter after whom he was named. Later, he attended the academy at Greenville, Tennessee and, at seventeen, entered Hamil's Preparatory School at Lawrenceville, New Jersey. He subsequently enrolled at Princeton, from which he was graduated with the first honors of his class of forty-four young men, in 1842. These advantages of a higher education came to him through the interest of his uncle, Chief John Ross, who provided the necessary finances. During the five year period of his absence at school, the removal of the Cherokees had been accomplished and so the summer of 1842 found him at the home of his parents at Park Hill, which was at that time the cultural center of the Cherokee Nation. In the fall and winter of 1842-3, he taught school at Fourteen-mile creek (now Hulbert, Oklahoma) in a Methodist log church. The young collegiate was privileged to witness the celebrated intertribal peace conference at Tahlequah in July, 1843, at which between three and four thousand representatives of some eighteen tribes were in attendance, many of whom were in primitive dress.

William P. Ross was elected clerk of the senate of the National Council on October 3, 1843 and as such rendered much technical assistance in framing legislation, as well as in drafting state papers for the chief. As a matter of fact, he was a very close confidante and counsellor of the chief until the death of his distinguished uncle. This session of the Council established the Cherokee Advocate, a weekly newspaper designed to inform and encourage the Cherokees in matters of agriculture and education and to afford to them, the correct Indian happenings. William P. Ross was se-

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lected as the first editor and the initial edition appeared on September 26, 1844, at Tahlequah.4 He continued in that capacity for four years. Its editorials, in composition and quality from the pen of its accomplished young editor, proclaimed him a master of English. The life of the Advocate was rather uncertain, it being discontinued on September 28, 1853, because of lack of funds. It was revived on April 26, 1870, and continued until December 26, 1874, when its office and equipment were destroyed by fire. It was started again on March 4, 1876, and ran until March 3, 1906, when it was finally discontinued by the Government. These years in the editorial chair of the Advocate enabled him to give practical effect to his collegiate technical training and as a consequence he rapidly developed into a most versatile writer and fluent public speaker and became so recognized among the Cherokees. Upon his retirement from editorial work, he became a merchant and and later engaged in the practice of law. He served as senator from the Tahlequah District to the National Council in 1849, 1851, 1853, 1855, and 1857. He was secretary to his uncle Lewis Ross, the National Treasurer, in 1860.

The young editor was a staunch temperance advocate and an active participant in the activities of the Cherokee Temperance Society of which he was secretary.5 At a meeting of this society held at Tahlequah on October 16, 1845, as such secretary he reported a membership of 3,058. Through the Advocate during his editor-ship, ardent support was given to the temperance movement among the Cherokees.*

The Civil War provoked a headache for the Cherokees. Efforts were made by the Ross faction to preserve a neutral posture toward the contending elements but the abandonment of the mili-

Mary Jane Ross

Page 25

tary posts in the Territory by the Government and the immediate occupancy of the Indian country by the Confederate troops, left no option for the Cherokees but to make an alliance with the South. Many of the more opulent mixed bloods and intermarried whites were quite extensive slave holders and they were also probably an influencing factor. The treaty of alliance made with the Confederacy through Gen. Albert Pike, late in the summer of 1861 was not regarded with much favor by William P. Ross; nevertheless, on October 4, 1861, at Park Hill, he enlisted in and became Lt. Colonel in the 1st Cherokee Regiment of Mounted Rifles, Field and Staff, in the Confederate army. The interesting Rev. Lewis Downing was chaplain of this organization. He engaged in the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas on March 7-8, 1862, but a majority of his regiment returned to their allegiance to the Union by February, 1863. The Union forces occupied Tahlequah for a brief period in the summer of 1862 at which time Chief John Ross was granted a military escort by the Union general to Ft. Scott, Kansas from whence he left for Philadelphia. Col. William P. Ross, a Confederate official under "parole of honor" followed his friends to the North, but returned in 1863 when Union forces again occupied the Cherokee country, and became associated in a sutler's store at Ft. Gibson, for the 3rd Regiment of Indian Home Guards (Union). This store was burned very shortly thereafter. The occupation of the Cherokee Nation in 1863 by Union forces doubtless impressed William P. Ross that further active hostilities were concluded in so far as the Cherokees were concerned. At this time he engaged every effort to persuade the Confederate Cherokees to return with their families from the South, to their homes in the Nation and resume their peaceful lives. William P. Ross abhorred war, especially when it became internecine as it did among the Cherokees. He was a friend of humanity, a lover of Northern and of Southern Cherokees alike and labored for a reunited Nation.

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He was a member of the Cherokee delegation to the peace conference at Ft. Smith, Arkansas, September, 1865, at the close of the war.

Upon the death of Chief John Ross, Rev. Lewis Downing automatically became acting chief and served until October 19, 1866, upon which date the National Council filled the vacancy by electing William P. Ross to the position. The selection of him to follow immediately in the footsteps of his illustrious uncle, was, to him, the momentous event of his career. In his first message to the Council, in November, 1866, he touches upon the late war and in eloquence which rises to heights almost sublime, pleads with his people for tribal unity:

"Cherokees! if you firmly resolve to become one people, you will become one; if you firmly resolve to stand together, so will you stand, alike through good and evil. * * * Let us look forward to the pleasing landscape of the future, with its newly rising sun, its green plains, majestic hills and silvery streams, and not back upon the dark valley of the past, with its lost friends, blighted hopes and sad and fearful associations. The error, the wrong, the violence, the inhumanity and the defeat, the patience, the suffering, the heroism and the victory of the war have floated by us down the stream of time. They have gone to swell the great volume of history."

The remains of John Ross were returned to the Territory in the summer of 1867 and reinterred at Park Hill. The eulogy upon that occasion delivered by his successor, approached the sublime as he concluded,

"Such was John Ross. He died at the post of duty, at a most solemn crisis in our affairs; was temporarily interred in the cemetery at Wilmington, Delaware and has been brought here by authority of the National Council for final burial among those whom he so much loved and so long served. It is meet that such action has been had. It is proper that here should his dust mingle with kindred dust, and that a suitable mem-

Council House

Page 27

orial should arise to mark the spot where repose the bones of our greatest chieftain. It will keep alive within our bosoms a spirit of patriotism. It will impart strength and hope in the hour of adversity. It will teach us to beware of domestic strife and division. It will serve to unite us more closely in peace, in concord and in devotion to a common welfare. It will soften our asperities and excite the thoughtful youth of our land to patience, to perseverance, to success and to renown."

William P. Ross served as chief until the tribal election of August 5, 1867, when Rev. Lewis Downing was chosen. Chief Downing served out his first term, was reelected on August 7, 1871, but died on November 9, 1872 and on November 11, the Council filled the vacancy by again appointing William P. Ross to serve out the unexpired term. He served until superseded by Rev. Charles Thompson, who was elected on August 2, 1875.

The years of his tenure as chieftain were the initial years of reconstruction among the Cherokees after the Civil War. Under his directing hand, the Cherokee constitution was amended to coordinate with the terms of the treaty in 1866. In 1867, he served as one of the Cherokee commissioners who framed the treaty with the Delaware Indians whereby the members of that tribe were adoptd among the Cherokees. The harmonizing influence of William P. Ross healed many of the breaches created by the Civil War, as he omitted no opportunity to impress upon his people, the necessity of a unified Nation.

After his retirement from public office, he became editor of the Indian Journal, at Muskogee, in 1875-6. He later edited the Indian Chieftain at Vinita and the Indian Arrow at Ft. Gibson and Tahlequah. He was a member of the board of education in 1884 and in 1869, 1871, 1889 and 1891, was a senator from the Illinois District. During the many years of his residence at Ft. Gibson, he functioned, at one time, as the mayor of that interesting place. In 1871, he represented the Cherokee Nation at the inter-

Page 28

tribal council at Okmulgee in which preliminary matters affecting possible future statehood were discussed.

Perhaps William P. Ross rendered no greater service to his people than his services, from time to time, as a delegate to Washington. Many outstanding delegations represented the various tribes before Congress and the departments in the capital city, but the distinguished Cherokee delegate towered above them all in his ability as an advocate. From 1846 to 1886, he represented his people, at various times in Washington. His argument before the Interior Department and the Indian Committee of the House, betrayed his complete knowledge of the Indian treaties and proclaimed him an Indian master of the English diction and eloquence—a writer, orator and statesman.

The matter of education among the Cherokees ever engrossed the heart of William P. Ross. A notable achievement of his administration was the enlargement of the Cherokee National High Schools. He also initiated legislation looking to the establishment of the Orphan Asylum which was later to become a notable institution. He constantly sought the cultural advancement of his people by seeking to interest them, in education. As chief of the Nation, he gave to the schools and seminaries a personal touch.

The bells of Evensong tolled at Ft. Gibson on July 20, 1891 as the soul of the erudite chieftain passed from earth. He rests in the Citizens' Cemetery at that historic place, where his grave is suitably marked. He married Mary Jane Ross, a daughter of Lewis Ross, at Park Hill on November 16, 1846. She was born at Charlestown, Tennessee on November 5, 1827, was educated in Washington, D. C. and died at Ft. Gibson on July 29, 1908 where she is buried. After the demise of her distinguished husband, she compiled and caused to be printed6 a biography of the chief. She was also a member of the distinguished Ross family among the Cherokees and a most charming lady.

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William P. Ross was a man of medium height, weighing perhaps 165 pounds and rather erect in carriage. His manner was pleasing, his voice gentle and his posture, kind hearted and easy of approach. Intellectual though he was, he did not place culture so high as to sacrifice the essential thing in life—faith. Life offered him no alternative but God. He was a member of the Presbyterian church. William P. Ross was a statesman. He was a man of letters and an orator. The Cherokees are today as they have been for many decades, one of the most cultured of the Indian tribes upon the continent. In the later years of their rehabilitation in the West, the influence of William Potter Ross upon their advancement stands unchallenged.

—John Bartlett Meserve

Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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