John Rollin Ridge, (Yellow Bird) (1827-67)
Encyclopedia of North American Indians
Oklahoma Cherokee newspaper editor, novelist, and poet
Born just a few years prior to the crisis surrounding the Cherokee removal from Georgia, John Rollin Ridge experienced firsthand the most traumatic moments in the tribe's history. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act established the process that allowed for the removal of Cherokees from their homes in the Southeast. The Cherokees resisted this process, but federal officials exploited splits within the Cherokee Nation over relocation to advance their policy. In 1835 the government convinced twenty-one Cherokees, including Major Ridge (John Rollin Ridge's grandfather), John Ridge (John Rollin Ridge's father), Elias Boudinot, and Stand Watie, Boudinot's younger brother, to sign the Treaty of New Echota. The treaty provided for the cession of all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi and the subsequent removal of the tribe to the West.
Within months of removal, tribal leaders held general meetings to establish a new government. Negotiations between the pro-removal treaty faction and the Ross anti-removal faction quickly broke down, and on June 22, 1839, Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot were murdered by their political enemies. As a twelve-year-old boy, John Rollin Ridge witnessed his father's murder, an event that deeply affected him. Because of continuing hostilities between the two factions, John Ridge's widow, a white woman, and her son immediately left Indian Territory for Fayetteville, Arkansas. In 1843, young Ridge was sent to the Great Barrington School in Massachusetts, where he stayed until 1845. He then returned to Fayetteville and began studying law.
In 1847, Ridge married Elizabeth Wilson, a white woman he had met in Massachusetts, and one year later they had their first and only child, Alice. His years in Arkansas, however, were also marked by conflict. He became involved in Cherokee politics, closely following the internecine struggles of the nation. On one occasion, he expressed his desire to avenge his father's death by killing one of the men implicated in the murder, the anti-removal leader John Ross. Ridge's involvement reached a climax in 1849 when he killed David Kell, a Cherokee he believed was one of his father's assassins.
In 1850, largely because of Kell's murder, Ridge left for California. He worked briefly in the gold mines there and soon afterward began writing. His poetry, dealing primarily with love and nature, was published in various magazines; it was collected and published posthumously in 1868. His major literary accomplishment, however, was his first and only novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854), whose story gave Ridge a chance to verbally avenge his father's death. His hero committed murders in the name of justice and stood up to all who resisted him. Ridge's novel also condemned American racism, particularly the hatred he saw being directed toward Mexican Americans. He declared in the book's conclusion that "there is nothing so dangerous in its consequences as injustice to individuals—whether it arises from prejudice of color or any other source; that a wrong done to one man is a wrong to society and to the world." Joaquín Murieta is considered "historical fiction," given the fact that the novel was based on the life of an actual California bandit. Ridge utilized newspaper articles extensively, and he claimed to have interviewed those close to Murieta. Several California historians later used the novel as a source in their own works.
From 1857 to 1862, Ridge worked as an editor for several California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, the California Express, the National Democrat, the San Francisco Herald, and the Red Bluff Beacon. As an editor he often advocated assimilationist policies and federal protection for American Indians. Like his father, he felt that American Indians needed the guidance and assistance of the federal government to maintain their rights. Also like his father, he often ignored the ways in which the federal government abused those rights. In regard to California Indians, Ridge felt they were inferior to the Indians of the Southeast and Northeast, and supported policies that confined them to reservations while upholding the claims of Euro-Americans to California lands.
During his years as an editor, Ridge also became increasingly involved in national politics. As a slave-owning southerner, he found himself sympathetic to the "Copperheads," a politically conservative faction of the Democratic Party. His critics accused him of establishing several chapters of the pro-slavery Knights of the Golden Circle. He worked for Democratic newspapers and openly supported the party's platform in his writings.
With the coming of the Civil War, Ridge expressed the sentiment that the Union should be preserved at all costs. While working for the Red Bluff Beacon in 1862, he protested the election of Abraham Lincoln and, later, insisted that the Emancipation Proclamation subverted democratic principles. In addition, while working for the National Democrat, he spoke in favor of the Confederacy and blamed the Civil War on abolitionists.
With the end of the Civil War, Ridge was given the opportunity to work toward his political goals for Cherokees. Invited by the federal government to head the Southern Cherokee delegation in postwar treaty proceedings, Ridge eagerly traveled to Washington, D.C. He worked diligently but failed to acquire Cherokee admission into the Union. In December 1866 Ridge returned home to Grass Valley, California. He died there on October 5, 1867.
Much of John Rollin Ridge's significance lies in his status as the first professional American Indian writer. More importantly, his life demonstrates that it was not only Euro-Americans who supported contradictory positions and detrimental policies toward American Indians and African Americans. Ridge, an American Indian writer whom we might expect to have thought otherwise, clearly helped to reinforce systems of thought and practice whose violent reverberations continue to be felt today.
See also Cherokee; Ridge, Major.
James W. Parins, John Rollin Ridge: His Life and Works (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991).
Liza E. Black
University of Washington