The legendary life of John Rollin Ridge
October 31, 2003
Tuesday was the 139th birthday of the first edition of The Union, and the story of our newspaper’s wild and wooly birth was told both in the weekly column by publisher Jeff Ackerman and in the reprinting of a 1934 article by former managing editor Edmund Kinyon.
One of the main characters in that story was rival editor John Rollin Ridge, who caned The Union’s editor, M. Blumenthal, in 1864 after Blumenthal refused to be bribed to switch the fledgling paper’s allegiance to Gen. George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln’s rival in the presidential election that year.
What eventually happened to Blumenthal after he got The Union off to its start is lost to time (the paper changed hands several times in its early years), but Ridge was one of the true legendary characters of early California, and readers may be interested in knowing more about him. (Much of what follows is from research by American Indian journalist Mark Trahant, along with other sources.)
Ridge is fascinating from several angles. American Indians know him as one of the first Indians to make his mark in literature. For journalists, he is one of the more colorful editors of California’s gold rush days. He also was, surprisingly, a rabid supporter of slavery.
After 14,000 Cherokees were moved west from Georgia on the infamous “Trail of Tears,” John Rollin Ridge was born to John Ridge, a chief and son of a tribal orator and warrior known to whites as Major Ridge, who had negotiated the treaty with the government. The grandfather named the baby “Cheesquat-a-law-ny,” or Yellow Bird.
When John Rollin Ridge was 12, both his father and grandfather were slain by a rival Cherokee political faction. (The boy was said to have seen his father stabbed 30 times.) Ridge’s white mother fled with her family to Fayetteville, Ark., where he attended local schools before being sent to study at the Great Barrington School in Massachusetts, reading Greek and Latin.
When he was 18, political violence again changed Ridge’s life. Trahant tells the story:
“David Kells [a man Ridge believed to be one of his father’s assassins] mutilated and gelded a prize stallion owned by John Rollin Ridge. When confronted, Kells said, ‘I am willing to stand by my deed with my life.’ The two squared off, and Ridge warned the man to stay away from him. Kells continued walking toward Ridge, who shot him dead.”
Despite the strong evidence of self-defense, Ridge hopped a wagon train for the California gold fields rather than stand trial. For a while, he worked in the mines of Shasta County but also supported himself by writing poems and stories for newspapers. (“Mount Shasta,” written in 1852, is considered one of his best poems.)
After his wife, Elizabeth Wilson Ridge (a white woman he’d met in Massachusetts), and their baby daughter, Alice Bird, joined him from Arkansas in 1852, he spent the next 12 years working in at least six towns and cities, including San Francisco and Sacramento. Under the pen name Yellow Bird, he was a frequent contributor to Golden Era, a literary magazine, alongside the bylines of Mark Twain and Bret Harte.
He also completed his first and only novel, based on the perhaps fanciful stories of a Californio bandit, “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta.” It may have been the first novel written in California and the first ever by an American Indian author. But Ridge wrote his cousin: “I expected to make a great deal of money off my book. And my publishers, after selling 7,000 copies and putting the money in their pockets, fled and left me, with a hundred others, to whistle for our money!”
Trahant has written that Ridge, as a “hired gun” editor, organized a group of Sacramento business leaders and launched the Sacramento Daily Bee on Feb. 3, 1857. He wrote, “The name of the Bee has been adopted as being different from that of every other paper in the state, and as also being emblematic of the industry which is to prevail in its every department.”
By July of that year, according to Trahant, the Bee was sold to James McClatchy, whose family owns it to this day. (However, Trahant writes that the official history of the Bee claims that McClatchy was the editor when the paper was founded.)
Like other members of his family, Ridge seems to have been a champion of lost causes. He had owned slaves in Arkansas and found himself in sympathy with the “Copperheads,” a faction of the Democratic Party that believed in preserving the Union with slavery intact. His newspapers strongly supported the Copperhead view, and his critics accused him of establishing several chapters of the pro-slavery Knights of the Golden Circle.
As editor of the Red Bluff Beacon in 1862, he protested Lincoln’s election and wrote that the Emancipation Proclamation went against democratic principles. While with the National Democrat, he spoke favorably of the Confederacy and blamed the Civil War on abolitionists.
As the war raged, 1863 found him publishing the Trinity National in Trinity County. However, he quickly learned to his dismay that Trinity was a hotbed of Republicans, and he headed for Grass Valley – his final stop.
There he bought a fourth interest in the Grass Valley National, found a wealth of Copperhead support, and fomented the bribery incident that tried to subvert The Union’s backing of Lincoln that led to Ridge’s beating of The Union’s editor, Blumenthal.
Students of journalism history will note the echo of the caning of James Gordon Bennett by James Watson Webb in 1836. Bennett’s New York Herald was one of the new nonpartisan “penny papers” that would drive Webb’s staid, party-affiliated Courier and Enquirer out of business. This was an era when duels and beatings were widely practiced, and obviously Ridge was participating in that tradition.
But why beating rather than a duel? Historian David Mindich notes that duels were not practiced by two men of different “classes.” For instance, masters did not duel with slaves – they beat them. Thus, the decision to administer a beating was often a comment on the victim’s character: Ridge saw the Lincoln supporter as no higher on the social scale than a slave.
While clearly the beating incident was not Ridge’s finest moment (he was assisted by two other men), the editor of the Grass Valley National seems to have been held in high regard here. An account in “Chronicles of Oklahoma” quotes a resident: “Ridge gave to the columns of that paper a brilliancy such as few journals enjoyed, and won for him a statewide reputation.”
After the war, he traveled to Washington and worked hard to win admittance of the Cherokee Nation as a state, but failed. He returned to Grass Valley and died here Oct. 5, 1867, in bed at his home on Church Street. The legendary editor was 40 years old.
His newspaper, the National, didn’t specify the cause of death, but noted, “As a writer probably no man in California had a wider and better reputation than John R. Ridge … . His remains were yesterday interred in Greenwood Cemetery [near today’s Lyman Gilmore School], his funeral cortege being a very large one … .”
Ridge’s wife later planted a tree in his memory at the intersection of Neal and School streets. The red brandywine maple still stands today with a commemorative marker telling its story
The maple, known as the “Tremoureux tree” for the current owner of the property, was brought by Elizabeth Ridge in 1876 from the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa. The giant tree is sickly but is still standing.
Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears each Saturday.