Date posted:  February 3, 2016

“…in due time they will enter College and graduate in a degree that will reflect credit upon the mental capacity of the Cherokee…” – Principal Chief John Ross, 18 June 1844

In the immediate aftermath of forced removal, Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross questioned how to prevent future attacks on tribal sovereignty. Education was his answer. Provide the next generation of Cherokees with a first-rate education, arm them with the intellectual arsenal available to their Euroamerican counterparts, and they will protect and defend Cherokee independence. With this emphasis on education in mind, Ross financed the formal schooling of multiple members of his extended family. One nephew in particular, William Potter Ross, exceeded the principal chief ’s expectations of academic excellence and became one of the most successful and influential Cherokees in Indian Territory.

William P. Ross was a teacher, newspaper editor, Confederate Lieutenant Colonel, senator, and Cherokee principal chief. His voice is prevalent throughout the John Ross Papers housed in Gilcrease Museum’s archival collection. This manuscript collection spans several decades, from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, and spotlights some of the most significant events in Cherokee history, including the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, allotment, and statehood. The John Ross Papers feature several letters written to and from William Potter Ross, all of which reveal his fierce commitment to education and tribal sovereignty.

William Potter Ross was born 20 August 1820 to John Golden and Eliza Ross, sister of Principal Chief John Ross. He spent his childhood in a town just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he learned the basics of reading and writing from his mother. He completed his elementary education at a Baptist missionary school in Alabama and later attended Tusculum Academy1 in Greeneville, Tennessee. In 1837, with his uncle’s financial support, William relocated to Lawrenceville, New Jersey, where he attended Hamil’s Preparatory School (later named Lawrenceville Preparatory School), known nationally as one of the most prestigious high schools in the Northeast. The John Ross Collection contains one of William’s report cards from the academy from 20 June 20 1839; he earned the highest possible scores in all of his classes, including Orthography, Reading and Elocution, Penmanship, and Mathematics and received recognition for excellent conduct.2

In fall 1839 William enrolled at Princeton, fulfilling John Ross’s expectations that he “enter College and graduate in a degree that will reflect credit upon the mental capacity of the Cherokee.” While at Princeton, William wrote several letters (featured in the “John Ross Collection”) to his uncle, all of which highlight the close and mutually respectful nature of their relationship. One particularly fascinating exchange between the two reveals the seriousness with which John Ross viewed his own role as mentor and the high expectations he placed on William to achieve academic excellence. In a letter dated 12 August 1841, William confessed to his uncle a recent adventure which pulled him away from his studies. He writes,

I was informed lately by Cousin William Coodey and two others of the arrival in Philadelphia of two fair Cherokee friends. I did not resist the temptation to make them a short visit which I did at the close of the week as less would be done at that time in the way of study by the members. While in the city I was invited by both parties to attend a Cherokee wedding in New York. I returned to Princeton and at the appointed time fell in company and went on with the party. I remained in New York a day and two nights then returned to College. My time could not have been spent other than pleasantly in such company . . . During my absence I lost a few lectures on Geology and four or five hundred lines of Greek. I have nearly made up all the Greek and will do the same with the lectures.3

John Ross’s response, written seven days later, fused his role as uncle/mentor with his views on the importance of education to the future of the Cherokee Nation. He began, “... had you not informed me of the Caper, I should certainly have looked upon your silence as a dereliction of duty.”4 While the principal chief seemed to appreciate the forthright nature of the letter, he went on to warn William that “making up for lost lessons by over studying will not remove the objectionable features, in the irregularity of habit, which a student may indulge in; Economy! & well spent time are the surest guarantees for the completion of an honorable education.”5

John Ross reminded William of the importance of academic success to both himself and the tribe, writing “. . . I trust that our highest hopes and expectations will be fully realized when you shall have graduated — and that you may acquit yourself as high in the Honors to be confered [sic] as any student of your Class — thereby show to the civilized world that the faculty of the North American Indian is not inferior to that of the White European.”6

Pressing upon William the virtues of education, he ends the letter, “I hope you will persevere in the path of duty, and that you may finish your collegiate studies with prominence and honour.”7

Ross’s response to William’s “Caper” underscores the chief ’s belief in education as a path toward Cherokee survival. By Ross’s estimation, William and other similar Cherokee youth were to inherit the task of running the Cherokee Nation and protecting tribal sovereignty. By providing these youths with the best education possible and training them in the legal and cultural practices of white society, Ross believed that they would be on equal footing with whites. They would possess the skills necessary to move the tribe into a more powerful position in dealings with the federal government.8

William’s letters reveal that he shared John Ross’s views on the critical role of education to the future of the tribe. William was clearly disappointed when his cousin, Daniel H. Ross, decided to forgo college and instead opted to “fall into some wholesale establishment in New York.”9 William wrote to his uncle, “I regret very much the choice he has made and think that he has acted unwisely in deciding his future character and destiny with so little reflection . . . I felt so strong a desire to have him go on with his studies that I endeavored to influence his mind that way as much as was becoming, but to no purpose.”10 Clearly, William preferred a university education for his cousin.

William’s own academic success provides further evidence of the value he placed on education. While at Princeton, he studied natural philosophy, geography, and grammar, among other subjects, and graduated with honors. He wrote his final essay on the “Romance of Indian History,” for which he requested from John Ross a copy of “the Cherokee alphabet almanac.”11 Nearly every semester, William earned top grades, a feat which landed him the honor of delivering a speech on commencement day.12

William arrived home in Park Hill in August 1844, at the height of the violent conflict between members of the Treaty Party and the Ross Party. The conflict, lasting from 1839 to 1846, began when members of the John Ross Party killed three signers of the Treat of New Echota — Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot.13 Over the course of seven years, more than a hundred Cherokees died in the conflict.14 William wrote two letters to John Ross (who was in Washington) informing him of the increased bloodshed, explaining “more deeds of horror have been committed. The torch and the deadly weapons have reeked the vengeance of the dark and hellish band of desperadoes who have so long infested our country.”15 He continues, “But this is not all, on Tuesday evening last we received intelligence at Park Hill that a dead man had been found not more than a mile from his house. A number of us immediately repaired to the spot where I witnessed the awful sight imaginable. There upon a rocky hill side laid the lifeless remains of Crawford Fox commonly called in Cherokee, Crawfish and Ahtolahi who had been murdered in the most cruel manner. The just named had been shot through, and stabbed below the left nipple with a very large bowie or butcher’s knife. The other had been dragged about fifty yds. He had his throat cut, a stab in each side, his bowels partially let out and a deep gash in the forehead about the inside corner of the left eye. One of them, had also been severely whipped . . . The men have been buried at Tahlequah. The Council ha[ve taken] no steps to arrest or hunt down the murderers. Compa[nies] are however, out and god grant they may take them. There is now no security in the country.”16

Nine days later, William wrote again to his uncle, describing acts of retaliation for the two murders just described. He writes, “James Starr Sr. and Suel Rider have been cut short in their career of crime and infamy. On Sunday morning last a company of our citizens went to old Jim Starr’s about sunrise and shot him twice, once through the heart. He fell dead . . . these events have stirred up considerable excitement, especially on the line across which many of that family and the “Treaty Party” so called, have fled.”17

William also informed the principal chief that Matthew Arbuckle sent troops into the area in an attempt to prevent any further bloodshed and relayed that tribal members cried out for protection.18

Aware of the divisions within the Cherokee Nation long before his arrival in Park Hill, William made his views on the internal fighting known in a letter to the New York Morning Express. Shortly after graduation, on 14 June 1844, William wrote a scathing response to an article in the newspaper about Principal Chief John Ross and the current state of tribal politics. The writer, “R.S.M.” incorrectly stated that the majority of the John Ross Party opposed John Ross himself, and that the Cherokee requested assistance from the United States government to interfere and divide the Nation along party lines.

William takes the unnamed author to task for perpetuating misinformation, claiming that he is “either shamefully ignorant of the subject on which he writes, or, what seems more probable, as he professes to have got his ‘facts from a variety of sources,’ recklessly disregardful of truth.”19 This letter reveals William’s stance on tribal independence and his disdain for the United States government’s repeated attempts at interference in Cherokee affairs. He asserts that the “Cherokees are fully competent and desire to settle themselves within their own limits, any matters relating exclusively to them . . . Let the Cherokee Nation solemnly protest against any interference in the internal affairs of the Nation.”20

In response to the reporter’s assertion that the Cherokee are under the “protection” of the United States, William asks skeptically, “Shall that protection be what it has been . . . Shall they ever be permitted to feel fixed — to say they have a home?”21 The letter also gives insight into William’s antipathy for the Treaty Party. He writes that the “Treaty Party have not even a shadow of authority to do anything with the Government . . . that will be morally, or, legally binding in the Cherokee Nation,” and that the John Ross delegation “is the delegation of the Cherokee Nation, appointed by its National Council and alone authorized to transact any business in its name and behalf with the Government.”22

Clearly, William was not inclined to recognize the authority of the Treaty Party or willing to tolerate the idea of separating the Cherokee Nation along factional lines. Fortunately, in 1846, leaders from the three factions signed a treaty calling for an end to violence, recognizing John Ross as principal chief, and accepting the legitimacy of the Treaty of New Echota.23 As William predicted, the compromise was reached without the interference of the federal government.

From 1843 to 1866 William served the Nation in a variety of capacities, including Committee clerk, editor of the Cherokee Advocate, lawyer, tribal councilman, and Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate Army. Arguably his most influential position came in autumn 1866, when he was appointed interim principal chief following the death of John Ross. By the end of the war, the Cherokee Nation lay in ruins. More than four thousand Cherokees were killed, thousands were disabled, and more than a thousand children were left orphans.24 As principal chief, William was charged with rebuilding a broken Cherokee Nation.

The newly-appointed chief immediately made plans to improve public education, working to reopen Cherokee public schools. He resuscitated the Board of Education to manage the growing public education system. As stated in “An Act Relating to Education,” William nominated the board members for a three-year appointment, and the National Committee confirmed these nominations. He expected the members to be of “liberal literary attainments, and free from immoral or intemperate habits.”25

Although the board controlled the funds, approval for any increase in funding came directly from the principal chief.26 By the early 1870s, hundreds of public elementary schools had opened across the Nation, some in the most remote and isolated towns. As part of the effort to improve public education, the Board resolved to provide “uniform textbooks, stationary, globes, apparatus, fixtures, and appliances” in all the schools.27

William also resolved to make improvements to the Cherokee male and female seminaries (high schools). Originally, John Ross had modeled the high schools after academies in the Northeast such as Mount Holyoke and Lawrenceville Preparatory School. The schools’ rigorous curriculum required advanced English skills and a prior familiarity with classical subjects, which, unfortunately, prevented many full-blood children from passing entrance exams.

After the Civil War, however, William envisioned an entirely new path for the Cherokee academies. In 1873, the National Council demanded that “the board of education shall, without delay, cause the Male Seminary to be reopened and manned with an efficient corps of teachers.”28 Both seminaries incurred substantial damage during the war (including the loss of the library); nevertheless, in 1874, William Potter Ross approved their reopening. He modified the seminaries to include a greater proportion of the populace, creating programs such as the Primary Department, which provided lessons in the basics of English, and the Indigent Program, which enabled students from lower-income families to attend the schools tuition free. Interestingly, while William shared John Ross’s belief that education was critical to maintaining tribal independence, the former made his own path, distinct from his uncle’s, and succeeded in providing a quality education to an even greater proportion of Cherokees.29

John Ross wanted to educate Cherokee young men “so as to make them a blessing to their Nation.”30 William undoubtedly achieved this goal. In many respects, William fulfilled John Ross’s great expectations.



1 Renamed Tusculum College in 1844.

2 John Ross Papers. Tri-Sessional Report for William Potter Ross, 20 June

1839. GM4026.753.

3 William Potter Ross, “From William P. Ross to Chief John Ross,” 12 August 1841, in Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Papers of Chief John Ross (Norman: University of Oklahoma

Press, 1985), 97.

4 John Ross Papers. From John Ross to William Potter Ross, 19 August 1841. GM4026.942.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Natalie Panther, “To Make Us Independent: The Education of Young Men at the Cherokee Male Seminary,” Ph.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 40–42.

9 William Potter Ross, “From William Potter Ross to John Ross,” 19 June 1842, in Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, 135-36.

10 Ibid.

11 John Ross Papers. From William Potter Ross to John Ross, 2 August 1842. GM4026.1041.

12 Ibid.

13 Duane King, “Cherokees in the West: History since 1776,” The Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 14 (Washington D. C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1978), 359.

14 Ibid., 361.

15 William Potter Ross, “From William Potter Ross to John Ross,” 5 November 1845, in Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, 271–274.

16 Ibid.

17 William Potter Ross, “William Potter Ross to John Ross,” 14 November 1845, in Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, 279–180.

18 Ibid.

19 John Ross Papers. William Potter Ross, “For the New York Express: The Cherokee Indians,” 14 June 1844,GM4026.1078.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Duane King, “Cherokee in the West,” 361.

24 In 1860, the total population, including slaves and intermarried whites, was between 21,000 and 22,000. In 1865, the total population was between 14,000 and 17,000, William McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees’ Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839-1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 220-24.

25 Constitution and Laws of the Cherokee Nation, Chapter 10, Articles 1, Sec. 1 (St. Louis: R.&T.A. Ennis Stationers, Printers, and Book Binders, 1875), 193.

26 Ibid., 232.

27 Ibid., 193.

28 Ibid.

29 Cherokee Male Seminary Catalogue: 1884, University Archives, John Vaughn Library, Northeastern State University, 13.

30 John Ross Papers. From John Ross to John Alexander, 19 February 1840. GM4026.896.

31 John Ross Papers. From John Ross to Mary Stapler, 18 June 1844. GM4026.1084.