“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
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.