Polarized Cherokee Politics in “Blood Moon”

Outgrowing schoolbook understandings is a lifelong endeavor.  We were all taught the injustice of the Trail of Tears, but there is more to the story.  How many of us grow up to examine its complexities?  With the arrival of John Sedgwick’s Blood Moon a fuller understanding is one exciting read away.

Jackson is the villain of the schoolbook story, but Sedgwick makes him into a round character.  Old Hickory valued strength, both in himself and in the Indians with which he treated.  True, he made promises he did not keep–most notoriously with the Cherokee who supported him in the Creek War–yet other times he spoke forthrightly and sympathetically.   When Jackson made The Ridge into a (symbolic) major in the army, the Cherokee leader was so proud he affixed the title to his name ever afterwards.  His son, John Ridge, went so far as to name his second son Andrew Jackson Ridge.

This obsequiousness may not be surprising, coming from the Ridges, leaders of the accommodationist faction of the Cherokee, the Treaty Party.  The Ridges foresaw that life as they had known it had no future in the East.  To remain a sovereign people, the Treaty Party believed, the Cherokee would need to relocate in land set aside west of the Mississippi.  In truth, life as they knew it had been changing fast for decades.  In a single generation, the Ridges and their ilk had become upwardly mobile farmers, exchanging the bow-and-arrow for the plow.  They had begun dressing in European clothes and, some of them, purchasing African slaves.  (Major Ridge owned thirty on his $24,000 plantation.)  Many (though not Major Ridge) adopted Christian beliefs and practices.  Sequoyah‘s invention of a Cherokee syllabary led to a flowering of Cherokee writing in a single decade, the 1820s, which included the drafting of a constitution, the publication of a Cherokee newspaper, and the opening of at least a dozen new schools.  It is no surprise that the Cherokee earned the moniker of “civilized tribe,” European Americans’ highest praise.

If the Ridge Party represented a kind of striving middle class within of mixed-blood Cherokee, then the much larger Cherokee faction of full-bloods, still speaking Cherokee and living (as much as possible) according to tradition, was represented by John Ross.  Oddly and ironically, Ross looked more like a Scots gentleman than a principal chief, as he soon became.  (Seven of his eight great-grandparents were of pure Scots extraction.)  Ross spoke only English, almost no Cherokee.  But it was Ross, somehow, who spoke to the Cherokees’ deepest longings of remaining in the land of their birth and of maintaining the old ways of the hunt and the tribal council.  (This was not unlike the billionaire, Donald Trump, “speaking the language” of dispossessed, white lower middle class voters with whom he otherwise shares very little).

The political disagreements between the Ridge and the Ross Parties turned into a factional feud with vendettas and violence in abundance.  It persisted for the full lifespans of their namesakes and beyond.  After Removal became an accomplished fact, Ross supporters assassinated three of four main Ridge leaders, including the Major, himself.  Reprisal succeeded reprisal, and the struggle for political control of the People heated to the boiling point.  In 1845, 34 murders gave the Territory a murder rate ten times greater than Chicago’s deadly 2017 rate.  Weariness of bloodshed–along with a few other contingencies that Sedgwick enumerates–led the two parties, at last, to lay down their arms and agree to work together.  John Ross and John Ridge stood on the same stage and shook hands.

The peace didn’t last.  Sedgwick documents how “income inequality” (and, just as much, wealth inequality) exacerbated the political rifts.  Treaty Party members and their newfound Old Settler allies were much more likely to be prosperous landowners, much more likely to be slave owners.  The issue of slavery was driving a wedge down the middle of the entire American nation.  Once again, the Cherokee would be torn in two.  (The Revolutionary War had split the Cherokee, too, even before the rivalry of Ross and Ridge.)  Ross, who had been elected principal chief by a strong but tenuous majority, hedged his bets as long as he could.  Under pressure to act, he threw his lot with the Union, then quickly shifted to the Confederacy.

The war took a disproportionate toll on the Cherokee.  Sedgwick tells us the war resulted in the deaths (of battle, disease, and starvation) of one-quarter of the Cherokee population.  A third of all wives were widowed.  A quarter of all children were orphaned.  By siding with the Rebels–first the Ridge Party, then the Rosses–the Cherokee had given the federal government the freedom to abrogate its treaty obligations with a clean conscience.  The New Echota Treaty of 1935, in which the Ridges had placed so much faith, was null and void.  It had merely delayed the inevitable, in any case.

Who would control the Cherokee Territory in war’s aftermath?  The Ridge Party rallied around Confederate hero Stand Watie.  John Ross, the octogenarian, clung to his claim on leadership from his deathbed: “I am an old man and have served my people and the government of the United States a long time….  My people have kept me in the harness, not of my own seeking, but of their own choice.”  Ross had the votes, so the Ridges (not for the first time) talked of dividing the Territory in two.  Johnson, federal officials, and the courts were in no mood to accede to a states’ rights type argument.  As Sedgwick says, they were not about to “save one union only to dissolve another.”

In his concluding chapters, Sedgwick critiques the leaders of both factions evenhandedly.  Ross should have listened better, been more realistic and less politically opportunistic.  The various Ridge leaders should have done more to understand the resistance to removal and worked to overcome it.  In his most direct summation, Sedgwick explains, “Everyone is self-interested, and politics is the art by which everyone’s self-interest can be fairly served.  It is the market system for distributing whatever benefits government can dispense.”

Those two sentences grabbed me.  The Cherokee story in its totality struck me as immediately relevant to our current situation.  Democrats and Republicans are increasingly turning policy disagreements into all-or-nothing issues of personal virtue and patriotism.  Last week, Donald Trump called the effort to block the Kavanaugh nomination “a disgraceful situation brought about by evil people.”  Hillary Clinton decided that civility was no longer tenable “with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”  There is no wiggle room for compromise with either utterance.  There is no room, even, for coexistence.

Major Ridge didn’t survive to reflect back on his legacy, but John Ross did.  In his deathbed oration, he declared pride in his fifty years of service to “his” people.  “Now I look back,” he said, “not one act of my public life rises up to upbraid me.  I have done the best I could, and today upon this bed of sickness, my heart approves all I have done.  And still I am John Ross, the same John Ross of former years.  Unchanged!  No cause to change!”  Such an astounding lack of humility and self-awareness!  Such a blindness to the virtues of learning and flexibility.  Is it too much to ask that today’s leaders show these traits that Ross so patently lacked?


Source:  Sedgwick, John.  Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

The Cherokee story has been told before in Robert Conley‘s The Cherokee Nation: A History (2005), which has the virtue of starting the tale earlier, as far back as the record can account for.  However, Sedgwick’s account is told more vividly and perhaps in a more balanced way.  Conley emphasizes the Treaty Party’s lack of authority to sign a treaty in 1935.  Sedgwick emphasizes Ross’s willful myopia in resisting removal, while, ultimately, finding fault on both sides.


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