Cherokee Chief John Ross Is The Unsung Hero Of 'Jacksonland' Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep's new book examines a dark chapter in American history: the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the chief who used the tools of democracy to try to protect his people.
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Cherokee Chief John Ross Is The Unsung Hero Of 'Jacksonland'

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Cherokee Chief John Ross Is The Unsung Hero Of 'Jacksonland'

Cherokee Chief John Ross Is The Unsung Hero Of 'Jacksonland'

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On a recent afternoon, Steve Inskeep and I made a visit to the U.S. Capitol building. The excited hum of tourists fills this grand space, a rotunda within which are a circle of statues of past presidents. One of those presidents, Steve has come to know well.


We're looking up at Andrew Jackson in bronze.

MONTAGNE: A legendary figure who made his name in America's second war against the British.

INSKEEP: He's standing here in an old-style military uniform. He's got a cape over his shoulders, which is realistic. He sometimes was seen that way during the war of 1812. This is a man who fought, not one, but two different gunfights in which he was shot. He fought a duel and took a bullet near his heart which remained in his body for the rest of his life.

MONTAGNE: Decades later, Jackson was inaugurated president with both bullets in his body. His toughness came with a reputation as a champion of the common man. But Jackson's place in history has also been stained by his part in setting the stage for the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of the Cherokee from their traditional home in the South. In Steve's new book, called "Jacksonland," it is a Cherokee leader, John Ross, who took on Andrew Jackson. The two men were locked in a conflict for two decades in a tale that rests upon a deep hunger for land in a new nation.

INSKEEP: There were poor white families who wanted land throughout the Western United States, and this was considered the West - anything west of the Appalachians at that time. There were also slave owners and people who wanted to sell slaves who wanted to open up that land for plantation settlement, for cotton planting, to make an immense fortune and create an ever larger market for slaves. This is a very, very dark story.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us about some of the tactics that John Ross used to try to preserve the Cherokee nation and keep the land, because what's very intriguing about this is he actually was able to take, sort of, the tools of American democracy and put them to use in his cause.

INSKEEP: This to me was one of the great undiscovered stories. You hear a line or two perhaps, if you study this era, about John Ross, about how he was a stubborn leader or described as a stubborn leader who held out. The truth is that he and the rest of the Cherokees managed to hold out against pressure to give up their land using, as you said, the tools of an emerging democracy. They started their own newspaper. No Indian nation had ever done that before. There was Cherokee in the newspaper. There were also English articles in the newspaper, and they used it as a political tool because the articles would effectively go viral. They'd be reprinted in other newspapers and spread across the United States and get the Cherokee viewpoints out. The Cherokees also realized that in a democracy, they were very badly outnumbered. There were very few of them. They weren't allowed to vote anyway in federal elections, and so they needed white allies. They got them. They reached out to Christian communities across the United States. In the end, women took their side. Women didn't have the right to vote, but they certainly had the right to petition, and they signed many petitions which were sent to Congress. They even sued in the United States Supreme Court.


INSKEEP: And they won. John Marshall, possibly the most famous chief justice of all, was still the Chief Justice of the United States in the 1830s, and John Marshall ruled against the Cherokees once, but then ruled in their favor and stated in a really astonishing ruling that it was blindingly obvious that the Cherokees had the right to govern themselves on their land and had had that right since before colonial times. It's a complicated story, but in the end, nothing happened to enforce that ruling. The Cherokees lost even when they won.

MONTAGNE: One thing that seemed to be different about the Cherokee nation at that time was, had things been different, they were willing to in some sense be assimilated.

INSKEEP: This is one of the things that I think makes this a profoundly modern story. We're not dealing with Indian nations who insisted upon their independence absolutely. We're dealing - when we think of the Cherokees - of people who were not entirely happy about the wave of white settlement that had come over the continent, but were willing to be part of this new world, and John Ross particularly was willing to be part of this new world. He wrote in a letter once that we, meaning the Cherokees, consider ourselves part of the great family of the Republic of the United States. It is really powerful to think about that and read about that and also heartbreaking because of what happened.

MONTAGNE: And what happened ultimately was all of John Ross's efforts couldn't hold off the enforcement of something called the Indian Removal Act. Is there a story about that moment that sticks with you?

INSKEEP: There are many stories. Cherokees did not believe that it was their legal requirement to move. And in the spring of 1838, even as American soldiers were preparing stockades to put them in, to collect them for a shipment to the West, it was discovered that Cherokees were out planting corn, assuming that they would be there in those same fields in the fall. The removal began anyway. And one of the most memorable letters that survives from that time is a soldier who describes going out into the North Carolina countryside, rounding up hundreds of Cherokees with his men, making them walk along the road. He describes what a terrible ordeal this was for children or for the elderly to walk mile after mile, and he describes there being no sounds at all except the sounds of thunder often sounding in the distance as if to suggest the judgment that awaited the soldiers for this act of oppression. This is what the soldier himself called it.

MONTAGNE: In terms, Steve, of the historical lessons of the lives of these men, Andrew Jackson and John Ross, you write that each man personified a basic democratic value. How so?

INSKEEP: Andrew Jackson was all about the rule of the majority, the majority will. John Ross, however, represented a different and equally important value - the respect of the rights of the minority. There are lessons here today. We have a changing country with many different people from many parts of the globe or with ancestors from many parts of the globe. We're all trying to figure out how to balance each other's rights and how to make sure that we all fit together as one nation, and I feel the power of that a lot more deeply having gone back in time and realized for how many hundreds of years people in this country have been wrestling with those questions.

MONTAGNE: That is our Steve Inskeep, whose new book is out today. It's called "Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, And A Great American Land Grab." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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