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

Peter Floess

Staff Writer

Quick quiz: Why are Jackson, Mississippi, Jacksonville, Florida, and Jackson County, Alabama named for President Andrew Jackson? Answer: Because Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi were the three states he did the most to establish.

The author of Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (Penguin Press), Steve Inskeep, believes that Jackson, more than anyone else, was responsible for the settling of the  “Deep South” by white settlers, plantation owners, and their black slaves.

During Jackson’s life as a real estate dealer, military and political leader, he tried to clear the South of the Native American population: Cherokees, the Chickasaws, the Choctaws, the Creeks, and the Seminoles.

By 1816, Jackson, his relatives, and his business partners controlled 45,000 acres in what is now Northern Alabama. The land was either sold as plantations, farms, or cities. Martin van Buren, one of Jackson’s main political advisors and a key person in his government, remembered Jackson’s first objective as President was “the removal of the Indians from the vicinity of the white population and their settlement beyond the Mississippi.”

Unfortunately for Jackson’s administration, the Cherokees elected John Ross (who was of mixed heritage; he could “pass” as either Cherokee or white) as their Chief in 1828. Ross, who was “well educated by the standards of the frontier,” had been part of the Cherokee delegations to Washington, D.C. since 1816.

By 1828, as leader, he believed that his duty was to carry out the Cherokee constitution (which he helped daft) that said the current boundaries of the Cherokee Nation are “reserved forever.” At the time, the Cherokee Nation was in the four corners area of the present-day states of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

In 1791, George Washington’s government and the Cherokees signed a peace treaty where Washington promised to respect the rights and borders of the Cherokees. Washington passed the Indian Intercourse Acts which stated “the federal government…would manage relations with the tribes. Government trading posts would sell Indians the goods required for civilization.”

By the 1830s, many Cherokees within the Cherokee Nation had adopted many aspects of white culture, some (including John Ross) even owned slaves. As Chief, Ross meant to protect Cherokee land as either an independent nation or as a state within the United States. Ross was popular with the Cherokees.

According to Inskeep, “He understood how devoted the people were to their homes…He came to feel, as Jackson did, that the people spoke through him.” Ross remained the leader of the Western Cherokees until the Civil War, guiding the Western Cherokees through the Trail of Tears to present-day Oklahoma and its aftermath.

The best part of Jacksonland is that I knew very little about John Ross, Jackson, or the United States in the 1830s before I read the book, so there was a lot of new information to learn and understand.  Inskeep tries to balance his two main subjects and he balances them quite well. Ross controlled his public image more careful than Jackson. Due to the fact that Ross believed he represented the future of the Cherokees, he was very careful to create the image of being a “well-bred country” gentleman, who could control his emotions.  Conversely the scenes of Andrew Jackson, who was much more emotional, are a little more memorable in the book.

The story of Jackson and Ross is important because their battle changed how many white Americans viewed minorities. Many white abolitionists originally thought that freed slaves in the United States should be removed to West Africa, but after 1830, some activists “concluded that if Indian removal was wrong, so was African removal…a new movement declared that slaves should be immediately emancipated and allowed to live free in the United States.”