How Cherokee Territory Became the “Deep South”

Two men find themselves on opposite ends of a battlefield. One was General Andrew Jackson — the other was John Ross, a fighter with the Cherokee regiment …

Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab by Steve Inskeep. Penguin Press. 448 pages.

ON THE MORNING of March 27, 1814, two men found themselves on opposite ends of a battlefield, with the Tallapoosa River and about 100 acres of Native American land between them. One was General Andrew Jackson (known to the soldiers under his command as Old Hickory), future hero of the Battle of New Orleans, president of the United States, and personage on the 20-dollar bill. The other was John Ross, a fighter with the Cherokee regiment — future diplomat, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and foe to the Great Father as Jackson would be known during his presidential years. At six-feet-one, Jackson was an imposing figure, albeit quite thin, a breadstick in a uniform. Ross, 23, was half Jackson’s age and shorter than most men; though he had the manner and dress of a white man, he determinedly hewed to the one-eighth of his heritage that was Native American.

But Jackson and Ross were not fighting each other — not yet anyway. Jackson’s army was facing down a fortified position of Creek Indians on the banks of the Tallapoosa deep within what is present-day Alabama. These were the Red Sticks, a rebellious faction of traditionalist Creeks waging war against white settlers and friendly Creeks in the Mississippi Territory. The previous August, Red Stick Creeks had overwhelmed the defenses at Fort Mims, killing and scalping all: white settlers and friendly Creeks alike, men, women, and children. Their battle was against white territorial encroachment, against US citizens who argued that Indian land rightfully belonged to them. Jackson’s forces won the battle handily, their victory triggered by a group of allied Cherokees, positioned on the river’s far side, that Ross had helped organize months earlier. Several Cherokees swam across the river, stole Creek canoes, and used them to shuttle fellow Cherokees into the Creek encampment. When Jackson’s frontal units spotted the marauding Cherokees wreaking havoc behind enemy lines, they charged. Afterward, soldiers counted the dead Creeks, all 557, by slicing off their noses. Another 300, they guessed, were lost to the river. By August, the General was negotiating a treaty with the defeated Creeks at Fort Jackson, the Creek Nation’s renamed capital, in which he forced the friendly faction of the tribe to cede 23 million acres.

This was only the beginning. Over the next 25 years, Jackson would wrest millions more — huge swaths of territory — from Native Americans living in the US Southeast: present-day Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas. Ross and Jackson had begun as allies fighting for a sliver of Indian land; they ended as antagonists fighting over the hundreds of thousands of acres that made up Cherokee country. Ross resisted as Jackson sought to redraw the map so that no Indian territory overlapped with the states of the Southeast. A descendant of a white trader and a Cherokee great-grandmother, Ross lobbied the US government for years on behalf of his people to preserve their homeland. In the end, he would fail, and the Cherokee Indians who lived in the Great Smoky Mountains at the convergence of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina would be forced to relocate.

It’s this story that author Steve Inskeep, co-host of Morning Edition on National Public Radio, traces in his new book, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab. He begins with Ross and Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, but the broader narrative quickly emerges.

The trick with biographies is to say something new, and writing any book that focuses even in part on Andrew Jackson is a tall challenge; his life has been covered countless times by numerous writers. However, Inskeep’s instincts as a newsman have helped him craft an engaging account, rarely told in such depth, that moves at a good clip. As he writes early on, he arrived at the title for this book because Jackson, “more than any other single person, was responsible for creating the region we call the Deep South.”

In 1814, the United States was growing at a rapid rate. Ohio was admitted as the 18th state. The US population, numbering 4 million in 1790, was greater than 7 million by 1810. But US power was concentrated east of the mighty Mississippi River. As Inskeep tells us, the American frontier in early 19th century was defined by areas of consistent white settlement in middle Tennessee. West of that were the territories — Illinois, Indiana, North West, Michigan, Mississippi — where American influence was largely imaginary. Those regions, and the land farther west, was the dominion of Native Americans, and the Indian map governed the geography. Even in already admitted states, like Georgia, the Indian map commingled, running across state lines.

Jackson would work to change this, and in shocking fashion. As Jacksonland details, the years between his victory at Horseshoe Bend and his election as president involved him speculating on Indian land he helped conquer. He managed to have friend (and Horseshoe Bend veteran) John Coffee installed as surveyor of the Creek land cession; in correspondence in 1816, Jackson urged Coffee to “compleat the line” by gobbling up two million acres in the Tennessee Valley — land belonging to Chickasaw, and Cherokee Indians — outside the boundaries of the Creek land cession. He dealt directly with Cherokees to take temporary control of Melton’s Bluff in the Tennessee Valley, a cotton plantation that possibly yielded him in excess of $35,000 in 1817, which was $10,000 more than President James Monroe’s salary. Starting in 1816, Inskeep writes, the names of Jackson, Jackson’s relatives, and Jackson’s “two closest business associates appeared on the titles to more than 45 thousand acres of newly opened Alabama land.”

What’s more, as he and his friends made plans to buy newly opened US land purchased from Native Americans (at low prices through coercive treaties), Jackson continued wielding influence by virtue of his being in charge of directing US military operations in the South. Take spring 1818: Jackson marched his army into Spanish Florida, killing Seminoles and Creeks — Red Stick refugees — and, with neither congressional nor constitutional authority, conquered Pensacola. A few months before, however, a group of his associates bought real estate in Pensacola. A US Senate investigation “produced no evidence that Jackson’s motive for taking Florida was real estate speculation,” writes Inskeep. He adds that it was possible Jackson’s friends knew of his plans to take Pensacola beforehand, putting them in a great position to profit on land purchased right before Jackson invaded Florida.

No question then: If one were to nominate a US president to be the subject of an Upworthy post, the larger-than-life Jackson would be the likely contender. (“You won’t believe how this President settles his arguments!”) But where Inskeep’s work truly shines is in the parallel story of John Ross, who, after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, opposed Jackson at every step of his ongoing march. It was Ross and a delegation of Cherokees who convinced President James Madison in 1816 that Jackson had wrongly claimed the 2 million acres of Tennessee Valley land that included Cherokee territory. According to Inskeep, “[it] was the only time in Andrew Jackson’s career that he was ever soundly defeated by Indians.”

In this way, Ross’s mixed background — Scottish ancestry on his father’s side; Cherokee roots on his mother’s — worked to his advantage. He grew up in an English-speaking household and studied at a private academy. When he needed to, Inskeep explains, he could pass as white, making him “one of the few Cherokees who had the education and language skills to debate on equal terms with federal officials.” And “Ross did not assume the submissive tone that was expected of Indians.” On the contrary, Ross saw himself and his fellow Indians as equals, and expected such treatment. At a time when it would have been easier to eschew his Native American heritage, Ross claimed membership in a group of people that was “smaller, more vulnerable, and seemingly destined to lose.” But for years, he deftly maneuvered in the political scene, managing to stave off federal claims to Cherokee lands in a rather ingenious way.

Since George Washington’s presidency, Native Americans had been encouraged by the federal government to adopt the ways of white Americans; the civilization program, in the wake of a 1791 peace treaty, was Washington’s method for keeping peace. Keen to avoid expensive wars with Native Americans — and, therefore, interested in preventing white encroachment onto Indian lands — Washington explicitly recognized Indian rights as well as the Indian map that overlaid the developing map of American states. Indeed, the Cherokees, formerly the enemies of a nascent United States during the Revolutionary War, had conducted an about-face by way of this program. They were already adopting elements of American culture when they organized to fight alongside US troops against the invading British in the War of 1812. But Washington and later presidents always viewed the civilization program as a temporary measure, mere political gamesmanship to avoid conflict as they slowly pushed the Native Americans farther and farther west. “The Founding Fathers,” notes Inskeep, “had offered civilization as a means to humanely pacify and displace the Indians.”

Ross’s innovation was to embrace the civilization program of the federal government, using it to strengthen Cherokees’ territorial claims. Unlike the Red Sticks, who sought to redress their grievances against the United States on the battlefield, Ross took the diplomat’s route. Land, not traditional culture, was what needed preserving; to achieve that, Ross concluded, the Cherokees would require a stronger national government. In 1827, three years after rebuffing a US offer to buy land, Ross and the other Cherokee leaders convened in New Echota — capital of the Cherokee Nation (or a town in northern Georgia on the White Man’s map) — to write a constitution that mirrored the founding fathers’, and to form a new national government.

As Washington was the presiding officer at the US Constitutional Convention, Ross was presiding officer at the Cherokee version of the same. And like Washington, Ross became the first leader of the new nation whose formation he had just overseen. This was significant, and not only because the Cherokees were interpreting Washington’s civilization program promises literally. As Inskeep observes: “[the] 1827 constitution claimed for Cherokees a permanent place in the American union, with inviolable borders under the auspices of the federal government, somewhat like the new territory of Florida or the new state of Alabama.” Ross, like Jackson, was running the line. Over the next several years, as Cherokees would establish their own newspaper and cultivate their own lands, they built up their case that they weren’t merely interlopers — they had justifiable claims to their territory, claims they expected to be honored by the US government, and claims that Ross staunchly upheld. At one point in 1833, Jackson offered Ross $2.5 million for Cherokee territory; Ross replied that the money would be better spent relocating white Georgians who had started settling on Cherokee land.

In following the fate of the Cherokees east of the Mississippi, Inskeep has managed a book about land deals that reads like a novel. He has a knack for telling a compelling story, and Jacksonland is seasoned with fascinating historical details that add context to the Ross-Jackson disagreements over land. For instance, the first mass political movement by American women, an anonymous letter-writing campaign done on behalf of the Cherokee Nation, is recounted. (It was spearheaded by Catharine Beecher, the older sister to the future author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe.) And Inskeep’s account steers clear of rendering judgment; he finds his story in his reporting, so to speak, and any accounting of the story of early America must include an accounting of the measures taken in the course of displacing entire populations. In the acknowledgements, Inskeep mentions his book has been “a joy to write, even though it tells a difficult story. It is about my country, which makes it a love story. Of the many ways to show one’s love, one of the best is to tell the truth.”

The stage for the final confrontation between Ross and Jackson is set once Jackson wins the presidency in 1828. Martin Van Buren, advisor to Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1828 and later Jackson’s secretary of state, summed up Jackson’s principal objective: “First, the removal of the Indians from the vicinity of the white population and their settlement beyond the Mississippi.” Year after year, Ross represented the Cherokee Nation in Washington, DC, resisting US claims to and financial offers for Cherokee land; in opposing Ross, Jackson marshaled his considerable allies in Congress to finally give him the tool, the Indian Removal Act, necessary to displace the Cherokees. In the end, it was a group of Cherokees — including Ross’s brother, Andrew — who signed the Treaty of New Echota, selling off the Cherokee Nation to the United States.

Even so, Ross kept fighting: he successfully bargained with the US government for more money for Cherokee lands and to cover the cost of Cherokee emigration. We know from history what came next: in 1838, the Cherokees remaining east of the Mississippi traveled west to the Arkansas territory along the Trail of Tears, so named for the deaths of Cherokees along the way, and the thousands more who died in emigration camps, on their homeland, waiting to move westward.

What Jacksonland is at its core is a tale of two men with great vision for the future of their respective nations. “Just as Jackson always believed that the majority of the people supported him, Ross had reason to believe that the overwhelming majority of his people supported him,” Inskeep writes. In a note to an official in the War Department in 1816 — the correspondence that successfully argued that Jackson had wrongly claimed Cherokee land in the Tennessee Valley — Ross wrote that the Cherokees thought themselves “a part of the great family of the Republic of the U. States […] ready at any time to sacrifice our lives, our property & every thing sacred to us, in its cause.” As Jacksonland bears out, Ross’s letter was the prophecy he never intended it to be.


Andrew Zaleski is a journalist in Philadelphia whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Atlantic, Popular Science, Politico Magazine, Backchannel.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post Magazine, Wired, The Atlantic, Popular Science, Newsweek, Politico, and Backchannel. He lives just outside Washington, DC.


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