John Rollin Ridge (1827-1867) was born into one of the ruling families of the Cherokee Tribe during a period of great division. Under pressure to cede their lands in the southeastern United States and relocate to the Indian Territory in the West, the Ridge family signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, which completed a removal agreement with the United States government over the objections of many Cherokees. In 1839 John Rollin Ridge's father and grandfather were murdered in revenge for their support of removal; not long afterwards, Ridge himself was forced to flee to California to escape his family's enemies. Working primarily as a newspaper editor, Ridge also published perhaps the first novel set in California, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit, in 1854.A longtime slave holder, Ridge was the political leader of California's anti-abolitionist movement before the Civil War and a leader of the Copperheads, proslavery Democrats, during the conflict. In declining health after the Civil War, Ridge died in Grass Lake, California, in 1867; his widow, the former Elizabeth Wilson, published a collection of his poetry after his death.
The saga of the Ridge Family is one of the best known in Native American history. John Rollin Ridge's grandfather, Major Ridge—often called "The Ridge"—was born in 1771 in present-day Tennessee, an area then inhabited by the Cherokee Tribe. The Ridge earned a fearsome reputation as a skilled fighter against white settlers in the 1780s while he was still a teenager. Around 1792, Ridge married Susanna Wicket, and the couple built a sizable farm along the lines of their white settler neighbors. In 1813, Ridge fought on the side of the American government against the Creek Nation, which demonstrated how his loyalty had shifted. Returning to his farm— now more of a plantation, complete with slaves—Ridge and his wife raised their four surviving children, including John Ridge, born about 1800.
Believing that acculturation into white society was the best hope for the survival of the Cherokee people, the Ridge children received the best education that the frontier setting could provide. John Ridge was taught by a series of missionary workers at schools in Georgia before attending the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) school in Cornwall, Connecticut. There he met Sarah Bird Northrup, the daughter of a nurse who was caring for him during a brief illness. The two married in 1824 and Northrup returned with him to Georgia. In addition to working as a lawyer, John Ridge became a major landholder in his own right: His farm covered 419 acres and was manned by eighteen slaves. Added to The Ridge's 280-acre farm, eight-room manor, trading post, and ferry service, the Ridge family was the wealthiest and most influential among the Cherokees.
Like his parents, John Ridge emphasized the importance of formal education and acculturation in raising his children, including John Rollin Ridge, born on March 19, 1827. The Ridge children attended a school built by their parents and staffed by a missionary teacher trained at the ABCFM. During John Rollin Ridge's childhood, however, the Cherokees came under increasing pressure to cede their lands to white settlers and move to the Indian Territory, comprising much of present-day Oklahoma. Despite their belief that acculturation into white society was the best course for the Cherokees, the Ridge Family eventually perceived that they had to leave their land. The 1828 election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency brought the issue to a head; although The Ridge had fought with Jackson's troops against the Creeks in 1813, Jackson was resolute on the policy of Indian Removal, as the plan to relocate tribes to the Indian Territory was called. In addition to the federal government, the state of Georgia also increased pressure for removal. In 1830 Georgia passed legislation to nullify the Cherokee's sovereignty and followed it with a series of measures to force them to sell their lands. The discovery of gold in the region also brought numerous fortune-hunters into the lands where the Cherokees had farmed since the late 1700s.
The Trail of Tears
With the Ridges leading the Treaty Party of the Cherokees, the Treaty of New Echota was signed with the federal government on December 29, 1835. It provided the Cherokee Tribe with 13.8 million acres for settlement in the Indian Territory as well as a payment of $4.5 million and an annuity payment to support a school. While the Ridges insisted that they had negotiated the best possible deal, many Cherokees were outraged at the prospect of removal to the West. To make matters worse, the journey to the Indian Territory was poorly planned; many Cherokees died during the treks of 1836 through 1839, which became known as "The Trail of Tears." By the time the removal of the Cherokee had been completed, the Ridge family's leadership was under attack by a hostile faction who accused them of profiting from their people's misery.
On June 22, 1839, the Ridges' rivals got their revenge. Dragging John Ridge out of his home, a band of his fellow Cherokees brutally murdered him while his family watched. Later, Major Ridge was also attacked and killed. Fleeing to Fayetteville, Arkansas, the surviving family members pled with the federal government to guarantee their safety and restore their losses, as their homes were looted after the killings. At the age of twelve, then, John Rollin Ridge's life was changed forever. Not only was the economic security of his family diminished, but his very safety as the future leader of the Ridge family was in doubt as well.
Despite the tragedy, John Rollin Ridge continued his family's tradition of educational attainment. After studying in Fayetteville, Ridge entered the Great Barrington Academy, named after its site in Massachusetts, in 1843. After two years in the East, Ridge returned to Fayetteville to study the law. In 1847, the twenty year-old married Elizabeth Wilson, a native of Fayetteville, and the couple settled on a farm nearby. Their only child, Alice, was born in 1848. With his inheritance, which included ownership of two slaves, Ridge retained a measure of prosperity, even if it paled to the Ridges' fortune in the past.
Tensions within the Cherokee Tribe resurfaced again in 1849, when John Rollin Ridge entered into a dispute with a neighbor whom he accused of stealing and injuring his horse. During the argument, Ridge claimed that he had been threatened and had shot the man in self-defense. Soon rumors were circulating that the neighbor, who was part of the anti-Ridge faction of the Cherokees, had set up the event in order to have an excuse to kill Ridge. Whatever the exact circumstances, Ridge decided not to risk a trial and decided to flee to California. Encouraged by news of gold strikes there, Ridge took out mortgages on his two slaves to finance the trip and departed with his brother and one slave in April 1850.
Gold Rush Years
After an arduous trip that exhausted most of his resources, Ridge realized that the tales of prosperity in California were greatly exaggerated. After one full day of mining that brought him only fifty cents worth of gold dust, it was obvious to Ridge that prospecting would not provide enough money to bring his wife and daughter out west. Instead, Ridge turned to writing to make a living; as a spokesman for the Ridge Family, he had already been published in a number of newspapers. In California, his topics typically included stories about prospecting in addition to covering Native American topics. While his essays on California's tribes exhibited many of the biases of the day— including the belief that they were primitive and possibly doomed to extinction unless they acculturated into white society—Ridge often took a more sympathetic point of view than other observers, for example, in calling for measures to protect Native Americans from exploitation and violence by white settlers.
Published The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit
While working for several different newspapers during his career in California, Ridge was successful enough to reunite his family by 1854. That same year, Ridge published his only novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit. The story was a fictionalized account based on the lives of a group of bandits operating in central California; according to various reports, there were between two and five men who used the name Murieta, although Ridge condensed them into one figure for his novel. While the exploits of Murieta were melodramatic, the larger theme of the novel demonstrated a greater sensitivity to the ethnic tensions that dominated Californian society at the time. In the wake of the recent war with Mexico, which concluded in 1848, and pervasive discrimination against Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking residents, white settlers in California attempted to pass legislation to limit their rights, including the right to prospect for gold. Although such a law was passed in the state, it was later rescinded; however, tensions remained at a boiling point throughout the state. In one incident that Ridge included in his book, a group of whites accused Murieta of stealing and beat him in front of his wife, who was also attacked. In response, Murieta became a bandit, raiding the homes of white and Asian settlers throughout California. Eventually, officials killed at least two men who were thought to be operating under Murieta's name, but not before he became a folk hero to many beleaguered Spanish-speaking residents.
The publication of the ninety-page novel The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit was an immediate success; unfortunately, it was often republished in plagiarized editions, and Ridge's hoped-for economic gain never materialized. Instead, he worked as a Yuba County Deputy Clerk and as a part-time police officer in addition to publishing his work in several newspapers. In 1856 Ridge joined the staff of the Californian American, a newspaper affiliated with the Know-Nothing Party. A racist and nativist organization, the Know-Nothings advocated strict limits on immigration to the United States and espoused a deep anti-Catholic resentment. Although the California branch of the Know-Nothing Party was more moderate on some issues, it nevertheless represented one extreme end of the political spectrum.
Throughout 1857 and 1858, Ridge worked for a number of other newspapers in northern California; with the decline of the Know-Nothing Party, he now supported the proslavery faction of the Democratic Party. Although he believed that the Union should be preserved, Ridge was also adamant that the existing rights of slave holders not be infringed. After the Civil War broke out, Ridge continued to support the efforts of negotiators to bring the war to an end without abolishing slavery. In May 1861 Ridge became the editor of the San Francisco Evening Journal and often wrote essays against President Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. As the war continued in the Union's favor, however, Ridge was increasingly criticized for his attacks on Lincoln and the Union's cause.
At the conclusion of the war, Ridge stepped into controversy for his role as a negotiator on behalf of the Cherokees, who had once again split ranks over the war. While some slaveholding Cherokees sided with the Confederacy, others supported the Union's effort. In securing a position as the agent for all the Cherokees east of the Mississippi River, John Rollin Ridge was once again accused of profiting from the division among his tribe. As he approached his fortieth birthday, however, Ridge was increasingly in poor health and suffered diminished mental capacity. In the last weeks of his life he was largely incoherent. Ridge died in his home at Grass Lake, California, on October 5, 1867. After his death, his wife published a collection of his poetry; however, he remains best known as the author of perhaps the first Californian novel and as a somewhat tragic figure in the history of the Cherokee people.
Gibson, Arrell Morgan, The American Indian: Prehistory to the Present, D.C. Heath and Company, 1980.
Parins, James W., John Rollin Ridge: His Life and Works, University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Sellers, Charles, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Wilkins, Thurman, Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
ATQ, September 1994, p 173.
MELUS, Summer 1991, p. 61.
"John Rollin Ridge: A Biographical Sketch," University of Arkansas-Little Rock American Native Press Association Web Site, http://anpa.ualr.edu/DTP/JRR/JRR-Bio.htm (January 9, 2002).