John Rollin Ridge Essay - Critical Essays

Ridge, John Rollin


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.

Principal Works

The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit [under pseudonym of Yellow Bird] (novel) 1854; also published as Joaquín Murieta: Marauder of the Mines, 1871

Poems (poetry) 1868

A Trumpet of Our Own: Yellow Bird's Essays on the North American Indians (essays) 1981


Angie Debo (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "John Rollin Ridge," in Southwest Review, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Autumn, 1931, pp. 59-71.

[In the following excerpt, Debo provides an overview of Ridge's poetry, concluding that Ridge was "a Cherokee poet only in the sense that he was both a Cherokee and a poet, and that his intellectual bent was all Christian, classical, and American rather than native".]

Most of Ridge's literary work has been lost; probably a great deal of it was of the ephemeral sort that goes to make up much of the output of the journalist. A volume of his verse [Poems] was published posthumously by his wife in 1868. Although somewhat disappointing after the strength and beauty of literary style revealed by his personal correspondence, still these poems throw some additional light on his strange and many-sided personality. As most of his life was spent in banishment from what was felt to be his home, his most interesting poems have to do with the loneliness of his exile. This emotion is dominant in "The Harp of Broken Strings," his best known poem, and also in a poem written when, at the age of twenty-three, exiled from his people, and with a price upon his head, he was crossing the plains to California. It begins:

A wanderer from my distant home,
From those who blest me with their love,
With boundless plains beneath my feet,
And foreign skies my head above; …

The following lines, evidently written two or three years later, express the same loneliness:

Long years have passed, and I have seen thee not,
Save in my waking and my nightly dreams,
When rose our quiet well-remembered cot
In that far land of pleasant woods and streams.

Ridge always felt a mystical companionship with nature that was a part of his Indian heritage. This is sometimes crudely expressed, but he always felt peace and calm descending upon his stormy spirit when he was in the presence of the intimate beauty of shaded streams, the pure remoteness of the stars, or the eternal strength of the snowcapped peaks.

One of his best expressions of this contact with nature is his "Mount Shasta," which begins:

Behold the dread Mount Shasta, where it stands
Imperial midst the lesser heights, and, like
Some mighty unimpassioned mind, companion-
And cold. The storms of Heaven may beat in wrath
Against it, but it stands in unpolluted
Grandeur still; and from the rolling mists upheaves
Its tower of pride e'en purer than before.
The wintry showers and white-winged tempests
Their frozen tributes on its brow, and it
Doth make of them an everlasting crown.

Then there is the "Remembrance of a Summer's Night," which in its fatalism reminds one some-what of "Thanatopsis." As the poet sat beside a lake and watched the stars come out it seemed to him that the earth must burn dimly among her sister planets...

(The entire section is 1309 words.)

Franklin Walker (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: "Ridge's Life of Joaquin Murieta: The First and Revised Editions Compared," in California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. XVI, No. 3, September, 1937, pp. 256-62.

[In the following essay, Walker analyzes and compares the 1854 first edition of Ridge's novel Joaquín Murieta with the more widely-read revised 1871 edition.]

Until recently it was feared that no copy existed of John Rollin Ridge's life of Joaquin Murieta in its original version of 1854. As late as 1932, Mr. Francis P. Farquhar, in preparing what is known as the Police Gazette version of the Joaquin Murieta story for a reissue by the Grabhorn Press, lamented that Ridge's first...

(The entire section is 3119 words.)

James W. Parins (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Romantic Poet" and "The Romance of Joaquín Murieta" in John Rollin Ridge: His Life and Works, University of Nebraska Press, 1991, pp. 76-94 and 95-112.

[Below, Parins assesses Ridge's love poetry and examines the history behind Joaquín Murieta and Ridge's depiction of the main character.]

Romantic Poet

By 1851 Ridge was writing seriously and attempting to have his work published in publications that circulated more widely than local newspapers. He began writing for the Golden Era in its first year of publication. The Golden Era was begun in San Francisco in 1852 by Rollin M. Daggett and J. Macdonough Foard. The...

(The entire section is 13257 words.)

Peter G. Christensen (essay date 1991-1992)

SOURCE: "Minority Interaction in John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta," in MELUS, University of Massachusetts, Summer, 1991-1992, pp. 61-72.

[In the following essay, Christensen analyzes Ridge's portrayal of different ethnic groups, including Mexicans, Chinese, and Native Americans, in Joaquín Murieta.]

The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854) by John Rollin Ridge (1827-1867) begins two traditions in American literature. Not only is it the first novel written in English by a person of Native American ancestry, it is also the first novel by an American in English treating the Mexican...

(The entire section is 5082 words.)

Karl Kroeber (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "American Indian Persistence and Resurgence," in boundary 2, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 1-25.

[In the following excerpt, Kroeber finds Ridge's novel Joaquín Murieta important as a product of Ridge's cultural identity]

In 1854, John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee, became the first American Indian to publish a novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murietta, the Celebrated Bandit. This blood-and-thunder potboiler will never supersede Madame Bovary as an object of stylistic analysis. Its literary interest, in fact, lies in its journalistic character. Ridge wrote the novel to take advantage of the celebrity of its protagonist, a Robin Hood...

(The entire section is 2343 words.)

Louis Owens (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Origin Mists: John Rollin Ridge's Masquerade and Mourning Dove's Mixed Bloods," in Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 32-48.

[In the following essay, Owens discusses Joaquín Murieta as a work that expresses the internal conflict Ridge experienced as an individual trapped between Native and white cultures.]

John Rollin Ridge, the first American Indian to publish a novel, arrived in California in 1850, a mixedblood Cherokee fleeing the turmoil set loose by the injustices of the Removal Act. If the "Indian Territory" that would become Oklahoma was a displaced setting wrought out of violence...

(The entire section is 3511 words.)

John Lowe (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "I Am Joaquin!: Space and Freedom in Yellow Bird's The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit," in Early Native American Writing: New Critical Essays, edited by Helen Jaskoski, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 104-21.

[In the following essay, Lowe examines Ridge's depiction of the relationship between space and identity in Joaquin Murieta.]

Christopher Newman, that quintessential American abroad, opens Henry James's The American by occupying a huge circular divan at the Louvre; he sits, spreads his arms and legs, and fills up all the space he possibly can. He is, of course, from the West (where else?), where...

(The entire section is 7805 words.)

Further Reading


Walker, Franklin. "The Fifties." In his San Francisco's Literary Frontier, pp. 45-54. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1939.

Provides a brief overview of Ridge's life as well as a discussion of some of the major features of his novel

Additional coverage of Ridge's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Native North American Literature.

(The entire section is 62 words.)