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Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab

Edited by Ann Godoff

A thrilling narrative history of two men–President Andrew Jackson and Cherokee Chief John Ross–who led their respective nations at a crossroads of American history

Five decades after the Revolutionary War, the United States faced a constitutional crisis. At its center stood two men, former military comrades locked in a struggle that tested the boundaries of our fledgling democracy. Jacksonland is their story.

One man we recognize: Andrew Jackson—war hero, populist, and exemplar of the expanding South—whose first major initiative as president instigated the massive expulsion of Native Americans known as the Trail of Tears. The other is a half-forgotten figure: John Ross—a mixed-race Cherokee politician and diplomat—who used the United States’ own legal system and democratic ideals to oppose Jackson.

Representing one of the Five Civilized Tribes, which had adopted the ways of white settlers—cultivating farms, publishing a newspaper in their own language, and sending children to school—Ross championed the tribes’ cause all the way to the Supreme Court. He gained allies like Senator Henry Clay, Chief Justice John Marshall, and even Davy Crockett. In a fight that seems at once distant and familiar, Ross and his allies made their case in the media, committed civil disobedience, and benefited from the first mass political action by American women. Their struggle contained ominous overtures of later events, such as the Civil War, and set the pattern for modern-day politics.

At stake in this struggle was the land of the Five Civilized Tribes. In shocking detail, Jacksonlandreveals how Jackson, as a general, extracted immense wealth from his own armies’ conquest of Native lands. Later, as president, Jackson set in motion the seizure of tens of millions of acres in today’s Deep South, the “Jacksonland” of our story. Jacksonland is the work of renowned journalist

Steve Inskeep, cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition and author of the critically acclaimed Instant City. Inskeep offers in Jacksonland a heart-stopping narrative masterpiece, a tragedy of American history that feels ripped from the headlines in its immediacy, drama, and relevance to our lives. Harrowing, inspiring, and deeply moving, Inskeep’s Jacksonland is the story of America at a moment of transition, when the fate of states and nations was decided by the actions of two heroic yet tragically opposed men.





“Confident, lucid prose. . . . The author knows how to hold an audience. . . Well-researched, organized, and presented, this is a sober, balanced examination of the origins of one of the more regrettable chapters in American history. “—Kirkus

Author Q&A


Near the end of 1812 a small boat set out on the Tennessee River. Starting somewhere around the site of present-day Chattanooga, the boat and its crew floated westward with the current, a speck on the water, dwarfed by the riverside cliffs that marked the river’s passage through the Appalachians.

Captaining the vessel was John Ross: twentytwo years old, black-haired, browneyed, slight but handsome. Each of his three companions could be described in a phrase (a Cherokee interpreter, an older Cherokee man named Kalastee, a servant who was likely a slave) but Ross was harder to categorize. He was the son of a Scottish trader whose family had lived among Cherokees for generations in their homeland in the southern Appalachians. Ross was an aspiring trader himself. Yet he was also an Indian. A man of mixed race, he had grown up among Cherokee children.

Whether he was a white man or an Indian became a matter of life or death on December 28, 1812. In Kentucky, as Ross later recorded in a letter, “We was haled by a party of white men” on the riverbank. The white men called for Ross’s boat to come closer. Ross asked what they wanted. Give us the news, one called back. Something bothered Ross about the men. “I told them we had no news worth their attention.”

Now the white men revealed their true purpose. One shouted that they had orders from a garrison of soldiers nearby “to stop every boat descending the river to examin if any Indians was on board as they were not permitted to come about that place.” Come to us, the men concluded. Or we’ll come to you. Ross didn’t come. “They insisted it was an Indian boat,” Ross recalled later, “mounted their horses & galloped off.”

The horsemen never reappeared. Reflecting on this afterward, Ross said he was “convinced” that “the independent manner in which I answered” the horsemen had “confounded their apprehension of it being an Indian boat.” Indians were supposed to be children of the woods, in a common phrase of the era: dangerous but not so bright, and expected to address white men respectfully as elder brothers. Ross had talked back to the men in clear and defiant English.

The future leader of the Cherokee Nation had passed as white.


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