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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
- Cherokee Memorials
- Louise Amelia Smith Clappe
- James Fenimore Cooper
- Corridos
- Caroline Stansbury Kirkland
- Nat Love
- John Rollin Ridge
- Catharine Maria Sedgwick
- Walt Whitman
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: John Rollin Ridge (Yellow Bird) (1827-1867)

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

John Rollin Ridge Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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