The California Bandit and Yellow Bird:
December 14, 2005
The following is the story of the legend of Joaquin Murieta, the celebrated bandit of the California Gold Rush, and the author credited with creating the myth of Joaquin, John Rollin Ridge of Grass Valley.
His name was Cheesquatalawny. He lived in Grass Valley. He died young at the age of 40, but what he did changed American popular culture to this day. In the quiet Greenwood Cemetery, near Lyman Gilmore School, there is a row of markers for the Ridge Family. Most prominent among them is the stone for John Rollin Ridge, one of the most interesting and influential figures of Gold Rush California history.
John Rollin Ridge was the son of a powerful Cherokee family. He was born in 1827 in the Cherokee Nation, near today’s Rome, Ga. His native name was Cheesquatalawny, which translates into “Yellow Bird.”
John Rollin Ridge personally experienced the most traumatic moments in the tribe’s history. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act accelerated the removal of Cherokees from their homes in the Southeast. The Cherokees resisted, but there were divisions within the tribal community as to how to proceed in the future. Federal officials exploited these disagreements. In 1835 the government convinced 21 Cherokees, including John Rollin’s grandfather, Major Ridge, and John Rollin’s father, John Ridge, to sign the Treaty of New Echota.
The treaty provided for the removal of the tribe to the West and for the abandonment of all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi. Some Cherokees supported the treaty, while others felt it was a betrayal. A portion of the Indian Removal, in which thousands of Cherokees died enroute to Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma), came to be called “The Trail of Tears.”
Conflicts about removal within the tribe intensified following the treaty. Within months of removal, the tensions burst into violence. In 1839, Major Ridge and John Ridge were murdered by other Cherokees. The 12-year-old John Rollin witnessed his father’s assassination.
John Rollin Ridge left Indian Territory immediately and went to Arkansas, where he lived for four years.
In 1843, young John Rollin was sent to Massachusetts for schooling. He returned to Arkansas in 1845 and began law practice. John Rollin was particularly interested in Cherokee politics and closely followed the developments within the tribe. On one occasion, he expressed a desire to avenge the deaths of his father and grandfather.
In 1847, he married Elizabeth Wilson, a white woman he had met in Massachusetts, and one year later, the couple had their only child, Alice Bird.
John Rollin’s involvement in tribal politics strengthened. He grew increasingly passionate, and, in 1849, his passion boiled over into bloodshed. John Rollin killed David Kell; a Cherokee that he believed was one of his father’s assassins.
Largely to escape prosecution, John Rollin fled. In 1850, he arrived in California, during the early days of the California Gold Rush. In 1852, Elizabeth Wilson Ridge and Alice Bird made the long journey to the gold fields by way of the Isthmus of Panama to join him. From 1852 to 1864, John Rollin and his family lived in six different California communities, including Sacramento and San Francisco.
After briefly working as a miner, John Rollin Ridge gained a reputation as a writer of note. He wrote poetry (most notably the poem “Mt. Shasta”), but mostly became known as a newspaper editor, reporter and columnist. In 1854, he would write a novel about a celebrated California bandit. It is generally considered to be the first novel written by a Native American and the first novel published in California.
But … more about that in Part Two.
From 1857 to 1862, Ridge worked as an editor for several California newspapers, including the California Express, the National Democrat, the San Francisco Herald, and the Red Bluff Beacon. Ridge is also considered to be one of the founding members of the Sacramento Bee.
Not surprisingly, John Rollin wrote extensively about Native American politics. Surprisingly, he was often scathing toward Native Americans. He disagreed with the notion that Indians should remain independent from government control, believing that the federal government provided necessary guidance and assistance to the tribes.
John Rollin often ignored, perhaps deliberately, the abuses suffered upon natives by the government. He felt California Indians were inferior to other natives and supported policies that stripped California natives of their lands and rights.
In his earlier days, John Rollin had been a slaveowner and he found himself sympathetic to the conservative faction of the Democratic Party that supported slavery and its extension to California. With the advent of the Civil War, John Rollin’s writings were a study in contradictions. He supported retaining national union at all costs, but he also protested the election of Abraham Lincoln and was favorable toward the Confederacy.
In 1864, John Rollin Ridge and family moved to Grass Valley. He purchased an interest in the Grass Valley National newspaper. He was co-editor with W.S. Bryne. In 1866, Bryne would buy the Grass Valley Union.
John Rollin Ridge and his family lived in a house on Church Street in Grass Valley. Ridge worked as editor of the National until his death in 1867. In 1866, he briefly traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of a Cherokee delegation hoping to annex the tribal region into the Union as a state. The effort failed and Ridge returned to Grass Valley.
He fell ill and died on Oct. 5, 1867. In his Oct. 8 obituary, it was written: “As a writer probably no man in California had a wider and better reputation than John R. Ridge. He possessed a good education had a clear and vigorous mind, was well up in classical lore; and in the possession of these essentials to journalistic distinction it is not surprising that he was professionally successful.
With more energy and with stronger aspirations to place his name among the highest literary lights he might have added many volumes to the purer and better literature of the time….He wrote with ease, and as is generally the case with genius, sometimes carelessly…. His remains were yesterday interred in Greenwood Cemetery near this place, his funeral cortege being a very large one….” Today, John Rollin Ridge rests in final slumber next to his wife; his daughter; his brother, Andrew Jackson Ridge; and some in-laws.
In 1876, his widow Elizabeth planted a red maple tree at the corner of School and Neal streets in honor of her husband. The tree came from the battlefield at Gettysburg. It still stands proudly, although it was seriously damaged by a powerful January 2005 storm.
However, John Rollin Ridge lives on through the impact of his stories of Joaquin Murieta, the legendary bandit hero of the California Gold Country. The mythology surrounding Joaquin Murieta stubbornly refuses to expire. Throughout the Mother Lode, his name is still invoked. Sprinkled throughout the region are plaques, inscriptions, and markers recounting the prodigious feats of Murieta, “our” Joaquin. And his legend began with John Rollin Ridge.
That story will be told in part two.
Gary Noy, director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College’s Rocklin campus, appears monthly in The Union. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org