Why you should care
The first Native American to write a novel in English lived a life chock-full of contradictions.
Darkness had fallen, but the Ridge family wouldn’t find peace in slumber. John Rollin Ridge, then 12 years old, watched as his father was hauled out of their house and killed by a group of fellow Cherokee men. The murder wasn’t unprompted. Ridge’s father, an influential Cherokee, had signed the treaty that ceded Cherokee lands to the U.S. government in 1835 — leading to forced removal and relocation west. This journey, which led to the deaths of thousands, would become known as the Trail of Tears.
Watching his father die before his eyes, Ridge vowed to someday avenge the murder. That determination laid the foundation for Ridge’s adult life, which would be rife with conflict and contradiction. He professed commitment to the Cherokee cause but viewed other Native Americans as inferior. A staunch anti-abolitionist, he advocated for Native American empowerment but owned slaves. He came from a culture where oral history reigned supreme but was the first Native American to write and publish an English novel in 1854. His literary legacy, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit, was a hit … but was largely illegally redistributed, meaning he saw little profit from his work.
Ridge came from a family often accused of reaping rewards from division. “He possessed a special ability to steal from the oppressors for his survival and success,” says Sean Teuton, an English professor at the University of Arkansas.
Turns out that you can cross a man — but you must never, ever steal his horse.
John Rollin Ridge was born in Cherokee Nation (present-day Georgia) in 1827 to a powerful, wealthy Cherokee family. Controversy ran in his blood: His grandfather, “Major Ridge,” had fought alongside the U.S. government against the Creek Nation. His family survived by adapting to the ways of encroaching White society, says Teuton. After Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, tensions surrounding ownership of Native American land continued to escalate. The Ridge family led the Treaty Party of the Cherokees to sign the Treaty of New Echota in exchange for payment, as well as land in the West in what would be called Indian Territory. To some, the Ridges were traitors for taking profit at the expense of their own people.
In spite of his childhood trauma, Ridge continued the family tradition of prioritizing education and studied at Great Barrington Academy in Massachusetts. After returning from the East Coast, he studied law in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he married and had a child with Elizabeth Wilson, a White woman. Ridge’s inheritance was enough for them to own a farm and two slaves, but he couldn’t steer clear of trouble for long. Turns out that you can cross a man — but you must never, ever steal his horse. Ridge killed his neighbor after accusing him of horse theft amid circulating rumors that the whole kerfuffle had been staged by anti-Ridge Cherokees.
Ridge claimed self-defense but didn’t stick around to face trial or the court of public opinion. He fled to Missouri, and later California in 1850, the heyday of the Gold Rush. That never panned out, so Ridge put pen to paper instead. In 1854, he broke a barrier as the first Native American to publish a novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit, which he wrote under the name Yellow Bird. Believed to be among the first novels written in California, it tells the violent story of a Mexican immigrant who was driven from his land, stole from California’s elite and defended the rights of the poor.
“This allegorical narrative then proved to be at least one outlet for the exiled Cherokee to imagine justice,” Teuton says. At the same time, he describes it as a “bloodthirsty, vicious clarion for land resistance,” which reflected a period in which colonial violence was woven into the fabric of American settlement. But this time Ridge wouldn’t reap profit from conflict. Though widely read, the book was reprinted and distributed without permission. To make ends meet, he worked for several California publications as a writer and editor — he was the first editor of The Sacramento Bee — in addition to writing poetry and fiction.
His writing revealed fervent yet conflicting political opinions. He covered issues close to Native Americans and wrote that he aspired to launch a newspaper dedicated to Cherokee interests, but he simultaneously amplified racist arguments that were popular during his lifetime. He opposed Lincoln but supported preserving the Union while upholding slavery, as his family had built generations of wealth on the plantation economy. He supported the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party and later the pro-slavery faction of the Democratic Party in hopes of securing a Cherokee seat in the Confederate Congress.
Despite the family track record for unpopular negotiations, he acted as an agent for the Southern Cherokee delegation in treaty negotiations after the Civil War. His attempts to get the Cherokee region admitted into the Union as a state proved unsuccessful. Ridge returned to the Golden State and died of “brain fever” at age 40 in Grass Valley, California, in 1867. His wife posthumously published his poems.
Even as Ridge was a pivotal Native American writer, many celebrate his book as one of the first novels about Mexican-Americans while overlooking its Native American authorship, according to Teuton. Ridge used European-American rhetorics and literary forms against the American establishment to promote Cherokee nationhood, finding solace in words as a space to convey the tension of colliding cultures and reimagine both power and justice — with his own demons trailing close behind him all the while.