John Rollin Ridge (1827-1867), whose Cherokee name was Cheesquatalawny (meaning "Yellow Bird"), was a Cherokee novelist, poet, magazine and newspaper writer, politician, gold miner, and the editor of many newspapers, including the California American of Marysville, the Marysville Express, the Marysville National Democrat, and the Marysville Appeal, as well as the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Herald. He is considered the first Native American novelist1 and the first Californian novelist.2 The 1893 book The Story of the Files: A Review of California Writers and Literature by Ella Sterling Cummins proclaimed that "No California library—private or public—should be considered complete which omits [Ridge's] little volume of soul stirring verse [collected and published in 1868, shortly after his death] . . . He was no imitator, but a profound study in himself. No more beautiful lines were ever written to a wife than those . . . addressed 'To Lizzie . . . She stood an angel in my sight.'" An August 1904 article in Overland Magazine titled "Early California Journalism" added that "No California newspaper of any political persuasion was handled with more dignity, or true, manly bearing" than the Marysville National Democrat when Ridge was the editor.

Ridge (who was usually called by his middle name, Rollin) was born in New Echota, Georgia, the oldest son of a Cherokee father, John Ridge, and a white mother, Sarah Northrup Ridge. The interracial nature of his parents' wedding in Cornwall, Connecticut, had provoked a mob, driving the couple to move back to the Cherokee Nation (in New Echota, Georgia) for protection. The Cherokee Nation at this time had a much higher literacy rate than the white population of Georgia had, and its governmental structure was more complex and more stable than the U.S. government as well.3

Ridge's father and his paternal grandfather, Major Ridge, as well as two of his uncles, were among the signatories to the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which ceded Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River and ultimately led to the 1838 Trail of Tears, in which the entire Cherokee Nation, including the Ridge family, was forced to relocate, largely on foot, to Oklahoma when John Rollin Ridge was 10 years old. More than a third of the Cherokee died during the long trip. Cherokee leader John Ross, who had protested vehemently against the treaty, killed Major Ridge and the elder John Ridge, and one of Rollin's two uncles who had signed the treaty, in 1839. Rollin, who was 12 years old at the time, and his siblings and their mother, witnessed the murder of Rollin's father, which took place in their family home. Sarah Ridge and her children fled to Fayetteville, Arkansas. From 1843 to 1845, Rollin attended a boarding school in Massachusetts. He then returned to Fayetteville due to illness and began studying law. In 1847, at age 20, he married a white woman, Elizabeth Wilson. In 1848 they had a daughter, whom they named Alice. He also owned African-American slaves during this time.

In 1849, a Cherokee named David Kell, who had expressed agreement with many of John Ross's views and who Rollin Ridge suspected was involved in planning the murders, castrated Rollin Ridge's stallion against Ridge's wishes. Ridge killed Kell and then fled to Missouri, leaving his wife and daughter in Arkansas. To avoid being tried for murder, he traveled to California within a year, financed by his paternal grandmother and hoping that the Gold Rush would enable him to support himself here. For the rest of his life, he longed to return to the Cherokee nation, but his mother pleaded for him to remain in California so that he wouldn't be tried for murder.

Arriving in the newly admitted state of California in 1850, Ridge first became a gold miner in Shasta County. His wife Elizabeth and daughter Alice joined him in California in 1852, and the family would at various times live in Marysville, Weaverville, Red Bluff, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Grass Valley. By 1852, Ridge's poems were being published in a San Francisco weekly newspaper called the Golden Era, under the pen name "Yellow Bird" (the English translation of his Cherokee name). Other notable writers such as Mark Twain and Bret Harte contributed to the same paper. Ridge also wrote essays for the Democratic Party during this time. In 1853, he was living in Marysville at the Tremont House, a hotel on 2nd Street, according to the first city directory of Marysville, published by Hale and Emory in August of that year.

In 1854, Ridge wrote and published his first novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit, which is now considered to be both the first novel written in California and the first Native American novel written anywhere. It is a fictionalized composite of various local true crime tales from the earliest years of California's statehood. It tells of a young man, Joaquín Murieta, who came to California from Mexico to seek his fortune during the Gold Rush but was driven to a life of crime to avenge the repeated racist attacks against himself, his girlfriend, and his family. The novel condemned American racism toward Mexicans, yet also voiced some racism against them itself—much as Ridge expressed racism against various Indian nations throughout his life:

It was at this moment of peace and felicity that a blight came over the young man’s prospects. The country was then full of lawless and desperate men, who bore the name of Americans but failed to support the honor and dignity of that title. A feeling was prevalent among this class of contempt for any and all Mexicans, whom they looked upon as no better than conquered subjects of the United States and having no rights that could stand before a haughtier and superior race. They made no exceptions. If the proud blood of the Castilians mounted to the cheek of a partial descendant of the Mexiques, showing that he had inherited the old chivalrous spirit of his Spanish ancestry, they looked upon it as a saucy presumption in one so inferior to them. The prejudice of color, the antipathy of races, which are always stronger and bitterer with the ignorant and unlettered, they could not overcome; or if they could, would not, because it afforded them a convenient excuse for their unmanly cruelty and oppression. A band of these lawless men, having the brute power to do as they pleased, visited Joaquín's house and peremptorily bade him leave his claim, as they would allow no Mexicans to work in that region. Upon his remonstrating against such outrageous conduct, they struck him violently over the face, and being physically superior, compelled him to swallow his wrath. Not content with this, they tied him hand and foot and ravished his mistress before his eyes. They left him, but the soul of the young man was from that moment darkened. It was the first injury he had ever received at the hands of the Americans, whom he had always hitherto respected, and it wrung him to the soul as a deeper and deadlier wrong from that very circumstance. He departed with his weeping and almost heart-broken mistress for a more northern portion of the mines; and the next we hear of him, he is cultivating a little farm on the banks of a beautiful stream that watered a fertile valley, far out in the seclusion of the mountains. Here he might hope for peace—here he might forget the past and again be happy. But his dream was not destined to last. A company of unprincipled Americans—shame that there should be such bearing the name!—saw his retreat, coveted his little home surrounded by its fertile tract of land, and drove him from it with no other excuse than that he was "an infernal Mexican intruder!"
Joaquín's blood boiled in his veins, but his spirit was still unbroken, nor had the iron so far entered his soul so as to sear out the innate sensitiveness to honor and right that reigned in his bosom. Twice broken from his honest pursuit of fortune, he resolved still to labor on with unflinching brow and with that true moral bravery, which throws its redeeming light forward upon his subsequently dark and criminal career. How deep must have been the anguish of that young heart and how strongly rooted the native honesty of his soul, none can know or imagine but they who have been tried in a like manner. He bundled up his little movable property, still accompanied by his faithful bosom-friend, and again started forth to strike once more, like a brave and honest man, for fortune and for happiness. He arrived at "Murphy's Diggings" in Calaveras County, in the month of April, and went again to mining, but, meeting with nothing like his former success, he soon abandoned that business and devoted his time to dealing "monte," a game common in Mexico and almost universally adopted by gamblers in California. It is considered by the Mexican in no manner a disreputable employment, and many well-raised young men from the Atlantic states have resorted to it as a profession in this land of luck and chances. It was then in much better odor than it is now, although it is at present a game that may be played on very fair and honest principles; provided, anything can be strictly honest or fair that allows the taking of money without a valuable consideration. It was therefore looked upon as no departure from rectitude on the part of Joaquín when he commenced the business of dealing "monte." Having a very pleasing exterior and being, despite of all his sorrows, very gay and lively in disposition, he attracted many persons to his table, and won their money with such skill and grace, or lost his own with such perfect good humor that he was considered by all the very beau ideal of a gambler and the prince of clever fellows. His sky seemed clear and his prospects bright, but Fate was weaving her mysterious web around him, and fitting him to be by the force of circumstances what nature never intended to make him.
He had gone a short distance from Murphy’s Diggings to see a half-brother, who had been located in that vicinity for several months, and returned to Murphy’s Diggings upon a horse which his brother had lent him. The animal proved to have been stolen, and being recognized by a number of individuals in town, an excitement was raised on the subject. Joaquín suddenly found himself surrounded by a furious mob and charged with the crime of theft. He told them how it happened that he was riding the horse and in what manner his half-brother had come in possession of it. They listened to no explanation, but bound him to a tree, and publicly disgraced him with the lash. They then proceeded to the house of his half-brother and hung him without judge or jury. It was then that the character of Joaquín changed, suddenly and irrevocably. Wanton cruelty and the tyranny of prejudice had reached their climax. His soul swelled beyond its former boundaries, and the barriers of honor, rocked into atoms by the strong passion that shook his heart like an earthquake, crumbled around him. Then it was that he declared to a friend that he would live henceforth for revenge and that his path should be marked with blood.

The novel eventually became the inspiration for Johnston McCulley's Zorro stories. It is said that the publisher failed to to pay Ridge anything for the novel.

Ridge began his newspaper editing career in Marysville in 1856, editing the daily California American, a Know-Nothing newspaper for one year. In 1857, when the Sacramento Bee was founded, Rollin moved to Sacramento to become its first editor. Later the same year, he returned to Marysville and replaced Colonel Richard Rust as the editor of the Marysville Express. In 1858, James Allen sold his majority ownership of the recently founded Marysville Daily News to Ridge, who renamed it the Marysville Daily National Democrat. The paper had already established itself as a supporter of slavery, and Ridge—an unrepentant former slaveowner himself—maintained this political slant. He supported Stephen A. Douglas against Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1858. However, he was also one of the first editors in California to denounce secession as treason and argue that President Lincoln should use force to reunite the Union. He continued to support slavery, though, and blamed the war largely on abolitionists. In this respect, he sided with the majority of Cherokees, who fought on the side of the South in the Civil War. He also considered the Nisenan and other California Indians inferior to the Indians of the eastern and midwestern United States, and supported policies that robbed the California Indians of their land.4

Ridge left the Marysville Daily National Democrat in 1861 to become the political editor of the San Francisco Herald. In this capacity, he expressed his vocal opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation. In the same year, he was nominated as a candidate for State Printer of California at a convention in Sacramento. In 1863 he moved to Weaverville and founded the Trinity National, but soon resigned because Weaverville was a very Republican town. In 1864, he bought a one-quarter portion of the Grass Valley National and co-edited it with W. S. Byrne. At various times, he also edited the Marysville Appeal and the Red Bluff Beacon.

In 1866, after the Civil War had ended, Ridge was invited by the federal government to head the Southern Cherokee delegation in postwar treaty proceedings. Bitter disagreements arose between the delegates. Like his father and grandfather, Ridge had always advocated trusting the U.S. government to protect Native Americans, even when historically, the U.S. government had betrayed that trust over and over. One of Ridge's cousins, who was also in the delegation, made vicious accusations against Ridge and other delegates, and the negotiations crumbled. To Ridge's disappointment, the delegation failed to persuade the U.S. government to admit the Cherokee region as a state. Ridge returned home to Grass Valley, where he died in 1867.

The year after his death, Ridge's poems were collected and published in a single volume: The Poems of John Rollin Ridge--A reproduction of the 1868 publication plus fugitive poems and notes, edited by James W. Parins and Jeff Ward. "One of his poems, called "On Yuba City," is reprinted below.

On Yuba City
The Yuba City silent stands
Where Providence has placed her,
The glory 's passed to other hands,
That should by right have graced her.
She stands with aspect sad but high,
And gazes on the river,
That like a stranger passes by,
And nothing has to give her.
Alas, that beauty thus should fade,
Or live so unregarded!
And all the efforts art has made
Or her, pass unrewarded!
Are not her groves most fair to see,
Her paths full greenly skirted?
What has she said, or done, to be
Thus doomed, and thus deserted?
Though melancholy her decline,
By mem'ries sweet 'tis haunted,
And luring tones and forms divine
Still make her scenes enchanted.
There, peace domestic reigns supreme,
In quiet, holy beauty,
And like the smiles of angels, seem
Parental, filial duty.
Her aged ones are good and mild,
Her children fair and witty.
But Caroline's the fairest child
That charms the lonely city!
I've seen her at the morning prime—
The sky looked sweeter, bluer!
I've seen her at the evening time—
The stars seemed bending to her!
Oh, Yuba City! 'tis a sin
Thou 'rt lonely and forsaken,
When uglier cities favor win,
And prosperous paths have taken.
Who seeks for beauty, they shall meet
The picture where they find thee—
The Feather River at thy feet,
The lofty Buttes behind thee.
And they will bless the quiet scene
That holds thee like a jewel,
And weep that thou 'st abandoned been
To fortunes cold and cruel.
But, Yuba City, time will cast
The changes in thy favor,
The future shall redeem the past—
Thou 'lt stand whilst others waver!


John Rollin Ridge The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit: Chapter One by John Rollin Ridge The Poems of John Rollin Ridge--A reproduction of the 1868 publication plus fugitive poems and notes edited by James W. Parins and Jeff Ward The New Georgia Encyclopedia: Jon Rollin Ridge "Edward W. Bushyhead and John Rollin Ridge: Cherokee Editors in California" by Carolyn Thomas Foreman, from Chronicles of Oklahoma Volume 14 No. 3, September 1936 American Passages: A Literary Survey: Unit 5: Masculine Heroes


1. John Rollin Ridge
2. "Edward W. Bushyhead and John Rollin Ridge: Cherokee Editors in California" by Carolyn Thomas Foreman, from Chronicles of Oklahoma Volume 14 No. 3, September 1936
3. The New Georgia Encyclopedia: Jon Rollin Ridge
4. Sierra Nevada Virtual Museum: The Story of Joaquin Murieta and John Rollin Ridge