William P. Ross: the ‘founding father of Oklahoma journalism’
By Emily Siddiqui, Student Editor
William Potter Ross left a legacy of loyalty and service for his country and his people. As the first newspaper editor in Indian Territory, he would come to be known as the founding father of Oklahoma journalism.
Ross was born in 1820 near Chattanooga, Tennessee, to John G. Ross, from Scotland, and Eliza Ross, at Cherokee. His uncle, Chief John Ross, paid for him to attend high school and The College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, from which he graduated with honors in 1842. Ross returned to find that his home had moved to Indian Territory, due to the Treaty of New Echota. His aunt had perished in the Trail of Tears. That fall, he taught Indian schoolchildren at Fourteen-Mile Creek, near what is now Hulbert, Oklahoma.
The following year, Ross was elected Senate clerk for the Cherokee National Council, where he drafted laws and wrote state papers, and helped to construct the Cherokee Constitution.
The Council soon named him editor of the new Cherokee Advocate, the first newspaper in Indian Territory. The mission of the Advocate was “to inform and encourage the Cherokees in agriculture, education and religion; and to enlighten the world with correct Indian news.”
Four years later, Ross resigned his position as editor and to go to Washington. He married Mary Jane Ross, his first cousin, in 1846. He then worked as a merchant and lawyer in represented the Tahlequah District as senator.
As a bilingual, Ross excelled in his professions. “His written arguments are eloquent specimens of the Indian master of English composition,” his wife wrote. His work is among the best in Native American literature, although much of his did advocate slavery. His uncle Chief John Ross owned 100 slaves himself.
In 1860, he worked as a secretary for another uncle, Lewis Ross, who was treasurer of the Cherokee Nation.
Initially, Ross sought to remain neutral in the Civil War; But, like the country, the tribe was split. He fought for the South as a lieutenant colonel in John Drew’s First Cherokee Mounted Rifles.
Ross was temporarily captured by the North, and rival Indians burned his store. At the war’s end, he was a delegate to the peace conference at Fort Smith, Arkansas.
William P. Ross replaced his uncle John Ross as principle chief after John died in 1866. In this position he amended the Cherokee Constitution and helped construct an agreement that would permit Cherokee citizenship for Delaware Indians. Much of his time was spent trying to amend Cherokee relations shattered by the Civil War. Later, when Lewis Downing died while in office, Ross also served the rest of Downing’s term as principal chief.
Ross later worked as editor for the Indian Journal, the Indian Chieftain, and the Indian Arrow. He also served as a Cherokee senator for the Illinois District, on the board of education, and on the court of citizen claims.
Upon his death in 1891, the family of William Potter Ross received numerous letters of condolence, many of which expressed deep reverence for his legacy. As one friend wrote: “All felt that the noblest man in the Cherokee Nation had fallen.” Ross is buried at the Fort Gibson Citizens Cemetery in eastern Oklahoma.
Ross was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame in 1998, 107 years after his death.
Sources for this story include the Oklahoma Historical Society, Princeton Historical page, and Cherokee Chief history.
Portrait of William Potter Ross, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1871 to 1875. Original housed in the Archives & Manuscripts Division of the Oklahoma Historical Society.