(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Rollin Ridge 1827–1867

(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Yellow Bird.) Cherokee novelist, poet, journalist, and editor.

Ridge is often credited as the first Native American to write a novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854). He is also remembered for his various essays concerning Native Americans and for his poetry, collected in Poems (1868), which is generally characterized as romantic.

Biographical Information

Ridge was born in Eastern Cherokee Nation, now Rome, Georgia, and educated in a school established by his father. Both his father, John Ridge, and his grandfather, Major Ridge, were prominent Cherokee orators and political leaders who, after failing to persuade the United States government to enforce a Supreme Court decision that protected Cherokee lands from incursions by white Georgia settlers, reluctantly signed the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. This treaty provided for the voluntary relocation of their people in exchange for money and land in the West. Ridge's family relocated to present-day Missouri in 1837. Most Cherokees, however, refused to give up their lands and many blamed the elder Ridges and other treaty signers for the brutal, forced relocations of 1838-39 known as the "Trail of Tears," during which the U.S. Army drove the majority of the Cherokee Nation westward to Oklahoma under frigid winter conditions, resulting in approximately four thousand deaths due to starvation, exhaustion, and exposure. Ridge's father and grandfather were killed by members of the anti-Treaty faction in 1839, and his mother moved the family to Arkansas. During the late 1840s, Ridge began studying law and publishing his poetry and journalism in local papers. In 1849, he returned to Cherokee territory, killed one of his father's enemies during a dispute, and fled to California to escape prosecution. After pursuing various occupations, Ridge resumed his literary career and became a prominent editor and newspaper man. He served as editor for various papers, including California American, San Francisco Herald, and Trinity National, wrote passionate political editorials. Following the Civil War, he led an unsuccessful effort to secure federal recognition of Cherokee lands as a sovereign nation. Ridge died in 1867 in Grass Valley, California.

Major Works

Ridge's most famous work, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, focuses on the exploits of its eponymous hero, a renowned (and probably fictitious) Mexican bandit and his band of robbers. Often compared with the legendary outlaw Robin Hood, Murieta is portrayed as a noble figure who turns to a life of crime after suffering numerous injustices and outrages in the mining camps of California, including an undeserved whipping, the rape of his wife, the theft of his prospecting claim, and the lynching of his half-brother. There are many parallels that can be drawn between the character Murieta and Ridge himself. The main theme that Ridge is concerned with throughout the novel is one of courage and heroism in the face of oppression.

Critical Reception

Many critics note that Ridge's novel, Joaquín Murieta, considered significant as the first novel written by a Native American, greatly influenced later Native American fiction. Although sometimes faulted for its stereotypical portrayal of Chinese immigrants and California Indians, Joaquín Murieta, as noted by critic Louis Owens, "demonstrates in fascinating fashion the tension arising from conflicting identities that would emerge as the central theme in virtually every novel by a Native American author to follow." Scholars have noted that much of Ridge's literary work deals with an internal struggle that raged within him throughout his career and life. He was very conscious of his Cherokee identity, yet he wrote in favor of assimilation of his people. His works express an internal conflict between two cultures.