A century-long blood feud between two Cherokee chiefs shaped the history of the Cherokee tribe far more than anyone, even the reviled President Andrew Jackson. They were John Ross and the Ridge. Today I’m talking with John Sedgwick about the fall of the Cherokee Nation due to the clash of these two figures.

The Ridge (1771–1839)—or He Who Walks on Mountains—was a Cherokee chief and warrior who spoke no English but whose exploits on the battlefield were legendary. John Ross (1790–1866) was the Cherokees’ primary chief for nearly forty years yet spoke not a word of Cherokee and proudly displayed the Scottish side of his mixed-blood heritage. To protect their sacred landholdings from American encroachment, these two men negotiated with almost every American president from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln. At first friends and allies, they worked together to establish the modern Cherokee Nation in 1827. However, the two founders eventually broke on the subject of removal; the Ridge believed resisting President Jackson and his army would be hopeless, while Ross wanted to stay and fight for the lands the Cherokee had occupied since long before the white settlers’ arrival.

The failure of these two respected leaders to compromise bred a hatred that led to a bloody civil war within the Cherokee Nation, the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, and finally, the two factions battling each other on opposite sides of the Civil War. Sedgwick writes, “It is the work of politics to resolve such conflicts peacefully, but Cherokee politics were not up to the job. For a society that had always operated by consensus, there was little tradition of compromise.” Although the Cherokee were one of the most culturally and socially advanced Native American tribes in history, with their own government, language, newspapers, and religion, Sedgwick notes, “The warrior culture offered few gradations between war and peace, all or nothing.”

 

RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE

Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation

John’s Website