Guwisguwi (John Ross) was born in Turkeytown, Alabama, on 3rd October, 1790. His father, Daniel Ross, was a Scottish immigrant. His mother, was a quarter Cherokee. He was therefore only one-eighth Native American. However he always identified himself with the Cherokee tribe and after finishing his education at a school in Kingston, Tennessee, he went to live with the Arkansas Cherokees.
During the Creek War (1813-1814) Major Ridge raised an army of Cherokee volunteers and fought under Andrew Jackson. John Ross joined the volunteers and served as adjutant and took part in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814.
In 1817 Ross was chosen as a member of the Cherokee Council. In this post he was an outspoken opponent of the plan to remove the Cherokees to west of the Mississippi River. In 1819 he became president of the national committee (1819-26). In this post he played an important role in persuading the Cherokees to attend school. Ross also supported the introduction of Talking Leaves, a graphic representation of the Cherokee language that had been developed by Sequoyah.
The Cherokees had substantial land in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Ross argued that to protect its land the tribe needed a written constitution that proclaimed that the Cherokee nation had complete jurisdiction over its own territory. In 1827 Ross drafted a written constitution for the Cherokee tribe. This was based on the Constitution of the United States. He also encouraged Samuel Worcester and Elias Boudinot to begin publishing the Cherokee Phoenix.
In 1828 Ross was elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Two years later Andrew Jackson encouraged Congress to pass the 1830 Indian Removal Act. He argued that the legislation would provide land for white invaders, improve security against foreign invaders and encourage the civilization of the Native Americans. In one speech he argued that the measure "will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the government and through the influences of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and christian community."
Andrew Jackson was re-elected with an overwhelming majority in 1832. He now pursued the policy of removing Native Americans from good farming land. He even refused to accept the decision of the Supreme Court to invalidate Georgia's plan to annex the territory of the Cherokee.
Samuel Worcester organized protests against this decision. Worcester was now arrested and sentenced to four years imprisonment for violating a Georgia law prohibiting a white from living among the Native Americans. John Ross took the case to the Supreme Court and it eventually ruled the law unconstitutional and Worcester was released.
Some members of the Cherokee tribe such as Elias Boudinot and Major Ridge supported the 1830 Indian Removal Act and in 1832 Boudinot argued that removal was the "course that will come nearest benefiting the nation". In 1835 Major Ridge, Elias Boudinot and 18 other members of Cherokee tribe signed the Treaty of New Echota. This agreement ceded all rights to their traditional lands to the United States. In return the tribe was granted land in the Indian Territory.
Although the majority of the Cherokees, including John Ross, opposed this agreement they were forced to make the journey by General Winfield Scott and his soldiers. In October 1838 about 15,000 Cherokees began what was later to be known as the Trail of Tears. Most of the Cherokees travelled the 800 mile journey on foot. As a result of serious mistakes made by the Federal agents who guided them to their new land, they suffered from hunger and the cold weather and an estimated 4,000 people died on the journey. This included John Ross's wife, Quatie.
John Ross remained leader of the Cherokee tribe in Oklahoma and during the American Civil War called for his people to remain neutral. However, some tribe members disagreed and fought with the Confederate Army.
Chief John Ross died on 1st August, 1866, while negotiating a new treaty in Washington.