It’s hard to believe it now, but Chieftains, Major Ridge’s elegant white-washed estate in Rome, Georgia, started out as a rustic dogtrot cabin, with a breezeway through the middle. It’s been updated a lot since then—weather-boarding and a grand pine staircase were added in the 1820s, and in the 1920s two arch windowed wings were built on. Inside, the decor is a mish-mash of glass exhibit cases and 19th century furnishings, more educational than evocative of a specific era. But in a couple places, patches of wall have been removed to reveal the original log structure as well as what may be the most authentic glimpse into Chieftain’s past.
Major Ridge, a Cherokee leader who actually went by the first name of ‘Major’ (he earned the title while fighting alongside General Andrew Jackson’s troops during the Creek War and liked it so much that he kept it), either built the original dogtrot home or acquired it from his father in the 1790s. He grew rich as a plantation owner and ferry operator, utilizing slave labor and transforming Chieftains from a rustic cabin to a gentleman’s estate. He was an important figure in Cherokee politics and in north Georgia society before his old war ally Andrew Jackson stepped in.
Jackson, by then president of the United States, gave Georgians verbal permission to do something they’d been trying to do for years: take the Cherokee’s rich mountain lands for themselves. Ridge opposed the enforced Cherokee removal until he began to see the hopelessness of it. Deciding that it would be best for his people to made a deal with the US government rather than fight against it, he signed the Treaty of New Echota. Within two years, the Cherokees were forced from their land and on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, where Ridge, his son, and his nephew were killed by their own people, assassinated as traitors.
The museum also features exhibits on some of the home’s later inhabitants, including Augustus R. Wright, a Union sympathizer who fled during the Civil War, but none of the stories are as poignant or as conflicted as Major Ridge’s.