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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes John Rollin Ridge (Yellow Bird) (1827-1867)

[1190] Anonymous, Joaquin, the Mountain Robber (c. 1848), courtesy of the California State Library.

John Rollin Ridge was born in the Cherokee Nation (present-day Georgia) into a prominent Native American family. Both his father and his grandfather were Cherokee chiefs, landowners, and slave-owners. During Ridge’s youth, the tribe was troubled by white settlers’ increasing encroachment on its lands and by mounting pressure from the United States government to relocate to less desirable lands in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). A rift developed in the tribe between those who were determined to defend their homeland against white incursions and those who advocated compliance with white demands. The Ridge family led the faction that wished to accommodate U.S. federal policy and was instrumental in signing the treaty that led to the infamous Trail of Tears migration (1838-39). More than one-third of the Cherokee who made the forced march to Oklahoma died in the process, leaving many members of the tribe bitterly angry at leaders like the Ridges, who were viewed as traitors for having advocated the disastrous treaty. In 1839 three members of the Ridge family were assassinated, presumably for the role they had played in agreeing to the migration. John Ridge, just twelve years old at the time, determined to avenge his father’s death and to reassert his family’s leadership of the tribe.

Despite his commitment to Cherokee politics, Ridge also identified with his white mother’s cultural heritage. He frequently wrote about the need for Native Americans to assimilate to white culture and become “civilized.” He believed that Native Americans risked extinction unless they acculturated themselves to white values and customs. Sent to school in New England for a time, he received a classical education and showed an early love for literature, writing his first poems around the age of ten.

Ridge’s life was radically disrupted in 1849 when he shot and killed a man during a brawl. Rather than face prosecution for the crime, he fled first to Missouri and then joined a Gold Rush party headed for California. There he worked briefly as a miner, but found the labor strenuous and unprofitable. He soon found work as a writer, journalist, and editor in the newspapers and literary journals springing up in the boomtowns of northern California.

In 1854, Ridge published The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit, which is considered the first novel written in California and the first novel published by a Native American. His editor used Ridge’s Cherokee name, “Yellow Bird,” on the title page of the original edition, perhaps to highlight the novelty of the author’s ethnicity. The work is a fictionalized account of the experiences of a legendary Mexican bandit who, though fundamentally a noble person, is driven to a life of crime by the persecution he suffers at the hands of Anglos. After having his profits stolen, his land seized, his brother unfairly executed, and his mistress raped before his eyes, Joaquin Murieta vows revenge and embarks on a crime spree, targeting the authorities of the Anglo establishment. While Ridge’s story of Murieta is loosely based on a series of actual robberies and raids carried out by Mexican outlaws in California in the early 1850s, the tale is not modeled strictly on fact. Ridge’s hero is a composite of several shadowy bandit figures about whom little historical information is known–though at least three of them do seem to have shared the first name “Joaquin.” Despite its fictional status, Ridge’s account of the adventures of Joaquin Murieta quickly came to be accepted as fact (by the 1880s, respected historians were citing details from his novel in the footnotes of their books on California history). As it gained currency, Ridge’s story was also widely pirated and embellished by other novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters. Although Ridge’s literary endeavors did not make very much money–he had received no profit from his novel by the time he died in California in 1867–he did create an enduring California legend and folk hero.

Teaching Tips

  • Some critics have claimed that the story of Joaquin Murieta appealed to Ridge because it shares some important similarities with his own life. Ask students to consider this theory. How does the disruption of Murieta’s life by sudden violence compare to Ridge’s early history? How does Murieta’s obsession with revenge resonate with Ridge’s own experiences? You might also ask students to consider the more general similarities between the Cherokees’ forced migration from their traditional lands in Georgia to less desirable land in Oklahoma and the dispossession of Mexican miners and ranchers in California in the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Ridge concludes his novel by citing its “lesson” for his readers: “There is nothing so dangerous in its consequences as injustice to individuals–whether it arise from prejudice of color or from any other source… a wrong done to one man is a wrong to society and the world.” Ask students to contemplate this moral and its applicability to the story of Joaquin Murieta. How does the novel justify this moral? How does Ridge use his narrative to generate sympathy for Murieta?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What drives Joaquin Murieta to a life of crime? What groups are the targets of his criminal activity? What groups and individuals does he spare? What kind of code does he live by?
  2. Context: Compare Ridge’s portrait of Joaquin Murieta to the corridos’ descriptions of Latino bandits living on the border between Texas and Mexico. How do these texts participate in similar traditions? How do their descriptions of outlaws differ? How do these different kinds of texts (novels and ballads) use different strategies to shape their readers’ attitudes toward the outlaws and border cultures that they portray?
  3. Exploration: In 1967, Chicano activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales published an epic poem which took the life of Joaquin Murieta as its subject. Compare Gonzales’s I Am Joaquin–Yo Soy Joaquin with Ridge’s earlier novelistic account. How does Gonzales’s position as a late-twentieth-century activist and as a Chicano shape his portrait of Murieta?
  4. Exploration: Although Ridge’s narrative of Joaquin Murieta’s life owes more to fiction than to fact, it was quickly accepted by many readers and even some professional historians as an accurate historical account. Why do you think the figure of Joaquin Murieta (or at least Ridge’s description of him) was so appealing that people were anxious to believe in his reality? Why has the story of his life become such an important myth within California history? Can you think of other outlaw figures who occupy similarly important positions within the mythology of other regions of the United States?

Selected Archive Items

[1184] Anonymous, John Rollin Ridge and Daughter Alice (c. 1860),
courtesy of Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries.
John Rollin Ridge was born into an important Cherokee family in Georgia. His father was assassinated for signing the treaty that led to the Trail of Tears. Ridge later married a white woman and rejoined the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Issues of assimilation and resistance resonate in his literary works as in his life.

[1190] Anonymous, Joaquin, the Mountain Robber (c. 1848),
courtesy of the California State Library.
The fact that no verifiable portrait of Murietta exists only enhances the legend of the California outlaw. Murietta’s exploits were often exaggerated, and many acts committed by other bandits were erroneously attributed to him.

[4246] John Rollin Ridge, First page of Joaquin Murieta (c. 1854),
courtesy of University of Oklahoma Press.
This sensational novel tells the story of a Mexican American outlaw who seeks revenge on marauding Anglo American miners during the California Gold Rush. The work was originally attributed to “Yellow Bird,” Ridge’s Cherokee name.

[4249] John Rollin Ridge, Title page of The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit (1955),
courtesy of University of Oklahoma Press.
This is considered both the first novel written in California and the first novel written by a Native American. Its publishers identified author John Rollin Ridge by his Cherokee name, “Yellow Bird.”

[5832] Charles Christian Nahl, Joaquin Murieta (1859),
courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.
Charles Christian Nahl and John Rollin Ridge are two of the many artists inspired by the legend of Joaquin Murieta. Here Murieta is depicted as a Spanish American-style hero.

[6403] McKenney & Hall, John Ridge, a Cherokee (c. 1838),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-3157].
Author John Rollin Ridge was born into a prominent Cherokee family. His father, John Ridge, was educated in New England and married a white woman. The family favored assimilation and accommodation.

[8277] John Rollin Ridge, Excerpt from The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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