Edward Everett Dale
There is no more picturesque and romantic figure in all the annals of the Cherokee people than that of John Rollin Ridge, poet, scholar, adventurer, argonaut, journalist and man of letters. Yet, few white, people in Oklahoma have ever heard of him, and his name is little known even among the Cherokees themselves. It is the distant state of California which claims him as one of her most prominent minor poets of the early days. Every anthology of California verse and literary history of that state mentions him with admiration and pride, forgetful apparently that he always regarded Calfornia as an alien land and all his life wished and longed for the day when he might go back to his own Cherokee people in Oklahoma.
In the manuscript collection of the University of Oklahoma may be seen a number of letters of this gifted Cherokee, most of them written during the period from 1848 to 1858, and addressed to his cousin, Stand Watie. These, together with a large collection of Stand Watie’s private papers, were found a few years ago in an old farmhouse a few miles east of Bernice. Also among the rare books in the collections in the Department of History of the University is a precious thin brown volume of Ridge’s poems published in San Francisco in 1868, and now very rare and of great value from a collector’s standpoint. These letters and poems give an intimate glimpse of the heart and life of this picturesque and remarkable character, and show him to have been a man of real literary ability with wonderful power in the use of the English language.
John Rollin Ridge was born in the old Cherokee Nation east of the Mississippi in 1827. His father was John Ridge, a well-known chief and leader of the Cherokees, and his grandfather was Major Ridge, a distinguished Cherokee orator and warrior. John Ridge was sent by his father to an Indian Mission School at Cornwall, Connecticut. Here he received an excellent education, and here he wooed and married a beautiful Yankee girl, Miss Northup, and brought his bride back to his plantation home near the site of the present city
of Rome, Georgia. It was here that John Rollin Ridge was born, half New England Puritan, and half Cherokee aristocrat, surely a curious mixture of blood that was destined in his case to produce real genius.
In 1838, the Cherokees removed from their old home in Georgia westward to Oklahoma, and joined their brethren the Cherokees West who had been living west of the Mississippi for over twenty years. This removal created bitter feuds and factions within the nation. The removal treaty had been signed in 1835 by the Ridges and their kinsmen, the Boudinots, and Watie, while Chief John Ross and some of his adherents were in Washington. Ross and his party hotly accused the Ridge or Treaty Party of having betrayed their country, while the Ridges retorted that they had done the only thing possible to save their people from complete ruin, agreed to remove far to the West beyond the reach of the greedy and unscrupulous white men who were crowding in upon them, destroying their property and corrupting their people.
In their new home in the West, Ross as chief remained in control of the government and a feeling of intense bitterness against the Ridges and Boudinots persisted among his full-blood adherents. Accordingly in 1839, Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot were all murdered on the same day.
John Rollin Ridge was at this time twelve years of age. In a long letter to a friend which has been published in the introduction to his book of poems, he tells with eloquent pen of the sad scene of his father’s death and of the grief of his mother and old white-haired grandmother, a scene which he says "has darkened my mind with an eternal shadow."
His mother, feeling that the boy, was not safe in the Cherokee Nation, removed to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Here John Rollin attended school and was later sent to Great Barrington school in New England. After some years here his health failed and he returned to Arkansas where he read Greek and Latin under the direction of Reverend Cephas Washbourne, formerly a missionary to the Cherokees.
Affairs in the Cherokee nation were much disturbed. Stand Watie, the brother of the murdered Elias Boudinot had succeeded to the leadership of the "Ridge party," but Ross still maintained his position as chief of the Nation.
Eager to help his own people, John Rollin Ridge removed
with his young wife to the Cherokee Nation to join his kinsmen. But the enemies of the Ridge faction were still active and some of them recognized the ability of this young man and plotted to put him out of the way. One of their own number was chosen to go to see young Ridge, pick a quarrel and kill him. To pick a quarrel with John Rollin Ridge was not difficult, but the killer had not counted upon the quickness and skill of his intended victim. Young Ridge beat his antagonist to the draw and shot him through the heart.
Fleeing from the Cherokee Nation with a price upon his head, Ridge went into Missouri where he lived for a time in retirement upon a farm. The first lengthy letter penned after his flight from the Cherokee country, that is to be found in the University collection, was written from this farm near Springfield. It is beautifully written on pale blue paper, addresed to Stand Watie and bears the date of July 2, 1849. That it is a document of rare human interest few Oklahomans will dispute.
Springfield, Mo., July 2, 1849.
Your letter of June 25th. I have just received. I was rejoiced to get it, as I had received letters from every other quarter and I was more particularly anxious to hear from you than from any one else. My mother and the family are very desirous that I should leave the nation forever, and have nothing more to do with it—so that information from them with regard to affairs in the Cherokee country wouldn’t do me much good, because they would represent impossibilities to return, and dangers thickening every time I might happen to mention the name of the Cherokee Nation. But from you I would expect (of course) the true state of the case. There is a deep-seated principle of revenge in me which will never be satisfied until it reaches its object. It is my firm determination to do all that I can to bring it about. Whenever you say the word, I am there. Whatever advice I receive from you, therefore, will always presuppose that I have not left the nation forever, and be given in view of that object. I believe you understand me fully on that point.
I have talked with a great many persons out here on Cherokee matters, and carefully drawn the distinction between the two parties; the feeling here is that of indignation against the Ross party. They would be glad to have every one of them massacred. I have been out a few days in the country on a visit, by invitation, to an old fel-
low’s named Weaver. Yesterday there was a "reaping" which took place in the neighborhood, and I attended. While I was there a good many common Hoosiers gathered round me and wished me to enlighten them somewhat about the differences in the nation. I gave them a statement of what Ross had done; described the murders of ’39 and with all the aggravations of the act (such as killing the best and truest friend of the Nation etc., etc.) described the events which took place previous to your collecting your men at Fort Wayne, etc. They all listened with intense interest, and when I went intro particulars, how young men were dragged out into the yard and murdered while their mothers were crying over them, and begging the inhuman assassins to have mercy, and how husbands were taken out of their sick beds, and butchered to death in the presence of their distracted wives, several of the rough old fellows spoke out.
"The whole Cherokee Nation can’t take you out here."
I had thought that there was a feeling of apathy existing toward the Cherokees, but I find it is the very reverse. The whites out here, and I have seen a great many, say, if Government would only hint to them to go in, they’d slaughter "that damned Ross set" like beeves.
This man Weaver, Who is quite a rich old fellow, owning some fine blooded horses, and young colts, besides a good many breeding mares, and who, lives about twelve miles from town, is very anxious to induce me to raise a company of some twenty-five or thirty white men, to go and kill John Ross. He says it can be easily done, and he will furnish the horse’s to escape on. I thought I would mention the fact to you, as I wish, since I am out in the States, to keep you informed of whatever is said and thought, with respect to matters which concern you and me. If you think it best to undertake such a thing, I will try it, and I have no doubt I can succeed. Other persons have urged me to undertake the same thing, that is, white persons out here. I have, however, held back my sentiments on the subject, not knowing but what you might have something better in view.
I’d like it well, if we could finish matters pretty shortly. But patience may be necessary. One thing you may rest assured of, the whites are with us.
I was out at Osage (as you understand). I went for the, purpose of getting some funds, if I could raise them, but I could not. My mother is not able to do anything for me. My only dependence is my Grandmother. I told Lizzie, as I was, starting back to this place, to go down and see her, and get her to let me have my share of the, property now, because now is the time that I need it more
than I ever will again in my opinion. Lizzie writes me that Grandma says, she must have a letter from me, before she will do anything, a letter expressing what I intend to do. I must therefore, write her a letter, and get you to mail it to her, or cousin Elizabeth, one. It is not worth while to be so very particular about waiting for everything to go in due process of law, dividing the property and so on, just let Grandma say how many negroes she will give me, and send them on to, me by Lizzie or someone else. You see I haven’t time to wait so long. I need money, or what can be converted into money, right away. I might sell the negroes, or I might hire them out as it suited. I would like very well to take the trip out to the East as you recommend, but I haven’t the where with at the present. I will board out in the country at Weaver’s until I can get money. He is a man of great respectability out here. I have Simon hired here in town for only three dollars a week.
P. S. I suppose I need apprehend no danger from the U. S. Marshall.
However, a great historic movement was taking place in 1849. The California gold rush was on and Independence, Missouri, was the outfitting point for many of the caravans of gold seekers. John Rollin Ridge, evidently failed to find funds for his journey to the East, and joined a party of argonauts bound for California where his wife later joined him. The next letter of his found in this collection is written from Marysville, California, and bears the date of September 23, 1853, four years and two months after the date of the letter given above. It is couched in beautiful English showing clearly the development of Ridge’s literary style. The letter gives some of the details of the writer’s life after his arrival in California, as well as some of his hopes’ and dreams and ambitions. But let us allow the young Cherokee to tell his own story.
Marysville, California, September 23, 1853.
Dear Cousin Stand:
Several years have elapsed since I left my beautiful home in the Cherokee Nation, and since I bid you amongst my other friends and relatives adieu—and during all this time a line has not passed between you and me. We, who were once such warm friends, bound closer even by the ties of friendship than by the ties of blood, we have been as silent and as cold as if we were strangers! I think it is
wrong, and I am going now to break the silence which has existed unnecessarily and too long between us.
I suppose you know pretty well from different sources what my history has been in Cailfornia. It has been a series of bad luck. I have worked harder than any slave I ever owned or my father either. All to no purpose. I have tried the mines, I have tried trading, I have tried everything, but with no avail, always making a living but nothing more. If I could have contented myself to remain permanently in the country, I could have succeeded in making a fortune, but I have been struggling all the time to make one in a hurry so that I might return to Arkansas, and (I will say it to you,) to the Cherokee Nation also. I am engaged at present as a Deputy Clerk, Auditor and Recorder in the county of Yuba, California, at a renumeration of $135 a month, which gives me a pretty decent living and some surplus money. I am about to settle a place in this vicinity, a fine patch (160 acres) of government land, which happens to be free from Spanish grants, and all other encumbrances, with a view of locating my family upon it. I will proceed to have a house built upon at in a short time hence. I am tormented so by the folks at home whenever I talk of going back to the Nation, and they urge me in their letters so much not to venture to stay even in Arkansas with my family, that I am resolved to quiet their fears, by providing for my family in this country so as to place them above all want; and then I will be at liberty to follow the bent of my mind which leads me back to my own people and to my own country. It is only on my mother’s account that I have stayed away so long. It was only on her account that I did not go back in ’49 or the spring of ’50, and risk my trial. I am not afraid to do it at any time, provided my friends will only agree to back me. But let that be as it may, I intend some day, sooner or later to plant my foot in the Cherokee Nation and stay there too, or die. I had rather die than to surrender my rights. You recollect there is one gap in Cherokee history which needs filling up. Boudinot is dead, John Ridge and Major Ridge are dead, and they are but partially avenged. I don’t know how you feel now Stand, but there was a time when that brave heart of yours grew dark over the memory of our wrongs. But we’ll not talk about it because I believe you feel right yet, and I admire your prudence in keeping so quiet. I want you to write me freely and frankly. Tell me exactly how things stand, what are the prospects of coming safely out of a trial, etc., etc. I never mention the subject to my folks at home because they only answer me that there is "danger, danger, danger," as though a man had to be governed by his fears in place of
his reason and his judgment. The Lord deliver me from the advice of women. They never think of anything but the danger—the profits and advantages all go for nothing with them, if there is any risk to run at all!
I send this to the care of Woodward Washbourne, who will see that it is delivered to your hands. I will write more fully on the reception of your answer. Love to all, Has Charley got back? I haven’t heard from him in a long time.
A little over two years later Ridge wrote a letter to his mother to which he appended a lengthy postscript with the request that it be passed on to Stand Watie so that the latter might know something of his kinsman’s plans. This half sheet postscript was also found among the Stand Watie letters and shows the further development of the writer’s literary ability and reveals much of the real heart of the man himself.
At home in Marysville, Oct. 5, 1855.
Lizzie has explained to you the prospects before us. I have only to add to what she has said, that I will not practice the law unless I am driven to it. The general science of the law I admire—its every day practice I dislike. But for the sake of having something upon Which to rely in case of necessity, I have patiently burned the midnight oil since I have been in Marysville. I was determined, that if untoward circumstances gathered around me, and I was thrown out of employment, I would have some sure thing to depend upon, so that I might stand boldly up and say to the world, "I ask you no favors." I prefer a literary career, but if I cannot place myself in a position as a writer, I will even go into the drudgery of the law. I have been promised, by the State Printer elect, a lucrative situation as a writer for his paper. If I get that, of which there is every probability, I will locate at Sacramento, and go to making money. If I do not, my knowledge of the law is sufficient to enable me to obtain a license, and I am therefore independent, and fearless of consequences. In either case whether I get the expected position under the State printer, or whether I begin the more slow and tedious task of building up a legal reputation in California, (as I have already established a respectable literary one,) in either case, I will act with a view to carrying out the project which I proposed to Stand Watie, namely—the establishment on the white side of
the line, (where it will be safe from the commotions in the nation!) of a newspaper devoted to the advocacy of Indian rights and interests. If I can establish such a paper, I can bring into its columns not only the fire of my own pen, such as it may be, but the contributions of the leading minds in the different Indian nations. I can bring to its aid and support the Philanthropists of the world. I can so wield its power, as to make it feared and respected. Men, governments, will be afraid to trample upon the rights of the defenceless Indian tribes, when there is a power to hold up their deeds to the execration of mankind. What prouder object could a man propose to himself, than the great idea of civilizing and improving these mighty remnants of the Indian race—bringing all these scattered tribes one by one into the fold of the American Union—saving those at least who can be saved, and perpetuating the memories of those who cannot—handing down to posterity the great names, of Indian history, and doing justice to a deeply wronged and injured people by impressing upon the records of the country a true and impartial account of the treatment which they have received at the hands of a civilized and Christian race! If I can once see the Cherokees admitted into the Union as a state, then I am satisfied. Until then, whether I win laurels as a writer in a distant land, or whether I toil in the obscurity of some mountain village over the dull routine of a small legal practice, winning my way by slow and painful steps to wealth and influence in this far off state, I will bear that holy purpose in my heart of hearts—And if I fail in all I undertake, and lie down to die, with this great purpose unfulfilled, my last prayer shall be for its consummation, and the consequent happiness of the Cherokee People! Stand has written to me, that he is in favor of going into an arrangement with me for starting a newspaper, such as I have spoken of, as soon as he is pecuniarily able. I shall wait anxiously for him to get ready for the enterprise, and as soon as he is I want him to let me know, the sooner the better.
Jim, Rogers is in the mountains above here, at least I have been told there is a Rogers up there in the mines somewhere, and I take it to be him. I hope, dear mother to be able sometime before many months are over, to send you something more than letters.
I wish you would send this half-sheet to Stand, that he may know what I still think of our plan.
Your affectionate and ever devoted son,
Young Ridge never realized his dream of establishing a newspaper in Arkansas devoted to the advocacy of Indian
rights and interests. Apparently Stand Watie could not at once see his way clear to furnish any funds for such an enterprise and in the meantime, the clouds of Civil War were rapidly gathering.
In 1861, the storm burst in all its fury. The Cherokee Nation became hopelessly divided into two factions with John Ross at the head of one and Stand Watie the other. When the war finally closed in 1865, peace was made with the Indians at the Council of Fort Smith in September 1865, and the following year delegations from the Five Civilized Tribes made their appearance in Washington to negotiate new treaties.
As a matter of fact the Cherokees sent two delegations to Washington, one, under the leadership of the Ross adherents, wished to preserve the unity of the Nation and bring it back into proper relations with the government of the United States. The other, under the leadership of the friends of Stand Watie, came with the avowed purpose of dividing the Cherokee country into two nations, one of which should include those Cherokees that had remained with the Confederacy to the end. John Rollin Ridge had kept in close touch with his friends and relatives during the period of the war and now journeyed from California to become the head of this southern delegation of his people.
For a time it seemed as though they might succeed, but it was not to be. A bitter quarrel arose between Ridge and another member of the southern delegation, E. C. Boudinot, Stand Watie’s nephew, who had represented the Cherokee Nation in the Confederate Congress at Richmond. The government of the United States at last recognized the northern delegation as the rightful representatives of the Cherokees and made a treaty with them by which the Cherokee Nation remained undivided. Ridge returned to California and died a year or so later.
So passed one of the most brilliant men that the Cherokee Nation has ever produced. He was for years one of the best-known newspaper men of his adopted state, but he also wrote fiction, essays and poems. California points to him with pride as one of her earliest men of letters. Yet he properly belongs to Oklahoma and Oklahoma may well do him honor. A tragic figure, that cloud which "darkened his mind with an eternal shadow" never lifted and his whole life was a series of disap-
pointments. This is reflected in his poems, some of which are of great beauty and undoubted literary merit. In conclusion it seems well to give one of these which is typical of his entire work and in which we may see something of the tragedy and loneliness which filled his entire life.
THE HARP OF BROKEN STRINGS
A stranger in a stranger land,
I love to hear its funeral voice
Well may this harp of broken strings
—EDWARD EVERETT DALE, University of Oklahoma.