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Cherokee Nation refurbishes historic Ross Cemetery

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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – After more than 165 years, the final resting places of many Cherokee leaders, diplomats, Trail of Tears survivors, community members and ancestors have been restored to their original setting as the Ross Cemetery raised burial area restoration project was completed June 19.

The two-month restoration project included the removal and reconstruction of the limestone wall and columns surrounding the burial pen. The existing wrought iron fence was also removed and cleaned, straightened and repainted to its original color. Once the new concrete foundation and footings were poured and set, the stone wall was reconstructed and the wrought iron fence was reinstalled. Originally, decorative lead orbs were affixed to the center of each iron rod in the fencing, but were removed during the Civil War and melted down to make bullets. The decorative lead orbs were not replaced.

The raised burial area is the site of the Ross family burial plot. Adjacent to the burial plot is the grave of Principal Chief John Ross whose individual plot also had iron fence installed around its perimeter during the renovation to match the Ross family burial plot. Chief Ross led the Cherokee people through some of its darkest periods including forced removal and the Civil War. Ross died in 1866 in Washington, D.C., and was laid to rest near his wife in Delaware. In 1867, by a Cherokee National Council decree, the remains of Chief Ross were moved and interred at Ross Cemetery.

“The restoration of the Ross Family Cemetery is significant, not only for family members but for all Cherokees. So much of our history can be told through the lives of those interred there,” said Gayle Ross, Cherokee citizen, direct descendent of Principal Chief John Ross and renowned storyteller. “I am grateful that the Cherokee Nation is ensuring that this historic site will endure so that future generations can come and remember that history.”

A tall, grey, granite obelisk marks the burial area for Chief Ross. A variety of monuments, plaques, headstones and markers also honor the many Cherokee citizens. Trail of Tears medallions pay tribute to Trail of Tears survivors interred at Ross Cemetery, which is a recognition program initiated by the Oklahoma chapter of the National Trail of Tears Association in 1999.

Ross Cemetery was named for Chief Ross’s nephew, John McDonald Ross, who received the land as a gift for homesteading following his graduation from Princeton University and prior to his untimely death in 1842.

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On July 3, 2002, Ross Cemetery, located in Park Hill, Okla., was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

A second Ross Cemetery restoration project, set to begin this summer, will feature interpretive signage, a trail system, a scenic overlook, enhanced parking and upgraded pedestrian access to and within the cemetery.

Builders Unlimited of Tulsa, Okla., completed the Ross Cemetery raised burial area restoration project.

“Ross Cemetery is a very important site for the Cherokee Nation from both a historical and cultural aspect. From the great Cherokee leaders to the Trail of Tears survivors that are interred at the site, there’s great emotion and pride,” said David Stewart, CEO of Cherokee Nation Enterprises, which manages the Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism Department. “We are also working on several other projects that will help sustain the area, such as the preservation of the Rural School 51 schoolhouse, which is a reminder of the importance of education to the Cherokee people.”

Rural School 51

Cherokee Nation recently completed a stabilization project that was required before moving forward with its preservation efforts for Rural School 51. The schoolhouse is located near Ross Cemetery.

The public school was built in 1913 for Cherokee and non-Cherokee students. Some stabilization efforts for Rural School 51 included boarding and sealing the windows, placing weatherproof covering over the roof’s structure and addressing the lead, asbestos and other hazardous materials issues in the building.