The Life of Major Ridge

Major Ridge was born about 1771 in a village in the southeastern portion of present day Tennessee. Ridge is a translation of his given name, “Ca-nung-da-cla-geh” because he was seen to be a man of vision as if he were looking at the world from a mountain ridge top.

In the years around 1800, Ridge built a homestead on Oothcalooga Creek near present day Calhoun, Georgia. Ridge married a Cherokee named Susanna (Sehoya) Wickett and was chosen to be a representative to the Cherokee Council.

During the war of 1812, the Cherokee sent a contingent to fight alongside the American forces against the British and the Creek Red Sticks. In 1814, Ridge’s troops were a decisive factor in the defeat of the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Because of his brave role in recruiting and leading the Cherokee, Ridge was awarded the rank of Major by General Andrew Jackson. Ridge would soon begin to use his rank as his first name, forever becoming “Major Ridge.”

By 1819, Ridge moved his family into a two-story log cabin onto this property on the Oostanaula River. In 1828, Ridge and his son John oversaw renovations of the cabin. When the work was finished, the cabin had become a white clapboard plantation home. Here the Ridge family oversaw a ferry, trading post and a working plantation complete with crops, orchards and slaves.

While the Ridge family was renovating this home and building the plantation, Native American nations across the eastern United States were facing great challenges. After the War of 1812, the United States continued to push onto Native American land, using the treaty system to acquire more and more territory in the east. This was helped by a Supreme Court decision in 1823 which stated that Native Americans could occupy lands within the United States, but could not hold title to those lands. Different methods were used by Native Americans in an effort to hold onto their way of life. Many of the Cherokee in Georgia adopted white living practices and customs, using assimilation as an attempt to demonstrate their cooperation with white settlers. In addition, the Cherokee used the United States legal system as a way to hold onto their lands. However, the attitude towards Native Americans in the eastern United States became even more apparent when Andrew Jackson, now President, passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, calling for all Native Americans in the east to trade their land for land west of the Mississippi River.

Ridge descendants visit Chieftains Museum in 2009.

This act had a direct effect on the Cherokee. The discovery of gold deposits in northern Georgia and the desire to build railroad lines throughout the area created the opportunity for the state to extend its legal reach over the tribe between 1828 and 1830. The Cherokee fought Georgia through the United States court system. In 1831 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee were a nation separate and independent from the U.S. The U.S. should help and protect the Cherokees, but neither the federal government nor the individual states had legal jurisdiction over them. This seeming victory was turned into defeat when President Andrew Jackson refused to honor or enforce the ruling. He not only allowed Georgia to take the land, he encouraged them to do so.

In 1832, Georgia held a land lottery and gave all of the Cherokee land to white settlers. Major Ridge’s home was given to a widow named Rachel Ferguson who lived in Richmond County, Georgia. Unlike many Georgians, Mrs. Ferguson made no effort to settle on her new property in advance of Cherokee removal, and in fact never lived here, selling the property soon after to another Richmond County resident, Augustus N. Verdery.

By 1835, Major Ridge, his son John, and nephew Elias Boudinot, along with a small number of influential Cherokees, were convinced their people had only one chance for survival. On December 29, 1835, Ridge and the others signed the Treaty of New Echota, selling the Cherokee land to the United States in exchange for land in modern-day Oklahoma. The treaty gave the Cherokee two years to move. The treaty was unsanctioned by the Cherokee government under Chief John Ross, and thus considered illegal by most Cherokee. Ironically, years before, John Ridge had pushed a law through the Cherokee Council setting death as the penalty for selling tribal lands. Major Ridge is said to have told others that he had signed his death warrant with the treaty.

The Ridge family and other treaty signers packed up their belongings in 1837 and moved to the Oklahoma Territory, where they started over. John Ross told the remaining Cherokee not to worry. He thought that he could go to Washington and plan a way for the Cherokee to stay or at least get a better deal for the land. Ross was wrong.

In May of 1838, the United States government started rounding up the Cherokee and placing them in stockades. By fall they were forced to leave for Oklahoma. They were not given enough supplies or transportation for the trip, and they traveled through one of the worst winters on record. By the time they arrived in Oklahoma, in March of 1839, several thousand had died, escaped, or otherwise went missing.

The embittered survivors blamed the treaty signers, and especially the Ridge family, for their suffering on what they came to call the “Trail of Tears.” A small group met in secret, held a trial and declared all of the treaty signers guilty of treason. On June 22, 1839, Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot were all murdered within an hour of each other. No one was ever arrested for the murders of the Ridge men. After the murders, many of the Ridge family moved to Texas where their descendants live today.

After the Ridge family left, later occupants of this house began calling their home “Chieftains” in recognition of its significance to Native American history. It has served as the home of the Verdereys, Wrights, Jones, Jeffries, and Porters. It also functioned as the residence of the various managers of the synthetic fibers mill constructed near the site in 1930. In 1969, the Celanese Corporation donated the house to the Junior Service League of Rome. It has been preserved and utilized as a museum ever since. Chieftains is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a National Historic Landmark, and is a designated site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, the first private site to be so designated. Since 1987, the museum has been operated by Chieftains Museum, Inc., an independent, nonprofit, membership organization. In 2002, the name became Chieftains Museum/Major Ridge Home.