By M. A. Ranck
A few years ago Chronicles of Oklahoma printed several letters from the private correspondence of a great Cherokee Indian, John Rollin Ridge, and together with these a brief sketch of his life prepared by Dr. E. E. Dale.
It so happened that certain college associations and some years residence within that section of Northern California in which John R. Ridge spent nearly the half of his life brought to the attention of the writer some few notes of interest about those years. Nearly all of these brief notes are the words of those who knew him well. It is hoped that they will give to those interested in this remarkable member of a remarkable Indian family some little intimate insight into his life and personality during the years of his mature manhood—a man of Cherokee Indian blood and tradition filling a place of outstanding prominence in the white man's civilization of the Pacific Coast.
A few words from his own account1 will serve to recall the story of his earlier life in the Cherokee Nation.
"I was born in the Cherokee nation east of the Mississippi river on the 19th of March, 1827. My father, the late John Ridge, was one of the chiefs of his tribe, and son of the warrior and orator distinguished in Cherokee councils and battles, who was known amongst the whites as Major Ridge."
Major Ridge educated his son at Mission schools of the Nation and at the Cornwall, Connecticut, School for Indians; and from this latter experience came about the marriage of John Ridge to Sarah Bird Northup. John R. Ridge wrote that his father took his "pale-faced" bride to the wild country of the Cherokees. "In due course of time, I, John Rollin,
1This account is from a letter of John R. Ridge written to a friend in 1849 and published in part in the collection of his poems.
came into the world. I was called by my grandfather, 'Cheesquat-a-law-ny' which interpreted means 'Yellow Bird.' "
The happy days of John Rollin's childhood were ended by the "demon-spell," as he called it, which fell upon his people,—the removal of the Cherokees to the West and the tragic events which preceded and followed it.
"In 1837 my father moved his family to his new home....Two years rolled away in quietude but the spring of '39 brought in a terrible train of events. Parties had arisen in the Nation."
Out of these bitter disagreements and those which had arisen before the Removal came the assassinations of the father and grandfather of the young John Rollin, then twelve years of age. Of these things he wrote at the age of twenty-three.
"It has darkened my mind with an eternal shadow."
But this shadow was indeed eternal. A close friend of his last years wrote of it—
"We have frequently heard him tell the tragic story of his father's horrible death, but never without observing in his earnest eye a shade of the deepest sorrow."
It seems that the story of his life among the Cherokees was familiar to all who knew him in California. Various accounts of the life and work of John R. Ridge found in periodicals and book collections of this state give the romantic and tragic stories of his early life as things which stimulated a vast interest and a deep sympathy among all his friends.
After the death of Ridge's father his life was more or less that of an exile from his homeland, for regardless of home, friends, and success in another land his heart was always with his own people.
Of the beginning of this period he wrote—
"My mother thinking her children unsafe in the country of their father's murderers and unwilling to remain longer where all that she saw reminded her of her dreadful bereavement, removed to the State of Arkansas, and settled in the town of Fayetteville. In that place I went to school till I was fourteen years of age, when my mother sent
me to New England to finish my education (Great Barrington School)....Owing to the rigour of the climate my health failed me about the time I was ready to enter college, and I returned to my mother in Arkansas. Here I read Latin and Greek, and pursued my studies with the Rev. Cephas Washbourne (who had formerly been a missionary in the Cherokee Nation) till the summer of 1845, when the difficulties which had existed in the Nation ever since my father's death, more or less, had drawn to a crisis....
"I shall not return to the Nation now until circumstances are materially changed. I shall cast my fortunes for some years with the whites. I am twenty-three years old, married, and have an infant daughter. I will devote my life to my people, though not amongst them...."
The year after this was written (1850) found John R. Ridge in Northern California and in this section of the state he spent the remainder of his life. His daughter and niece stated that he worked during the first two years of this time in the mines of Shasta County, although he was also doing some writing and newspaper correspondence. It was in 1852 that he wrote his poem, "Mount Shasta," considered by critics in California as one of his best. The majesty of the opening lines seem characteristic of the loftiness of his mind and spirit in later years as well as of his sensitive response to the splendors of his mountain environment.
"Behold the dread Mt. Shasta, where it stands
Elizabeth Wilson Ridge and the baby daughter, Alice Bird, remained in Arkansas when John R. Ridge set out for the west coast. Sometime in the year 1852 they made the long journey by way of the Isthmus to join him in California.
The years 1852 to 1864 were spent in at least six towns and cities—among them Sacramento and San Francisco—
of the northern part of the state. It appears that during this period John R. Ridge gave his time and energy chiefly to writing and to newspaper work, including the editorship of at least three important and influential papers and several of lesser note in his part of the state. Political articles and essays on various subjects were among his literary efforts. His daughter stated—
"He wrote for nearly every magazine in the state in his time."
It has been said that most of the poems of John R. Ridge were written before he left Arkansas, yet there are many which could have been written only after he knew his adopted land, and some were written and delivered in connection with special occasions at which he served as "poet of the day." It seems that as a poet he is best remembered and on this talent and on the romantic Indian background his fame—whether justly or not—chiefly rested in after years.
As others of his family John R. Ridge seemed fated to be a champion of lost causes. His brilliant service as political editor faded out in 1863. It was in that year that he founded the Trinity National in Trinity County. One who knew him has told that story—
"That county had been a virtual democratic stronghold until 'the clash of resounding arms' came. So quickly and with such determined precision did the change come that the advocates of a 'Pacific Republic' were dumfounded. Sincerely believing that candid argument and mild mannered exploitation of the situation might stay the march of non-democratic encroachment, he (John R. Ridge) went on a defensive rather than an offensive mission. But the edict had gone forth that the people of Trinity preferred the Union as it was and as it must be. Not that the secession heresy had any serious standing, for very few Trinity Democrats sympathized with that heresy. Most of the votes thrown for Abraham Lincoln were by those who had been identified with the Douglas Democracy. Ridge discovered this in time and his heart failed him. The handwriting became so distinct that the valiant editor decided to retire from the field.
"I can remember one occasion during his tarry in Trinity on which the majestic Cherokee was cut to the quick. He had started on his first journey to the mining camps along Trinity river from Junction City to Taylor's Flat. We met at and passed the night in the North Fork Hotel. During the evening Ridge disturbed the progress of a quiet game of poker in one corner of the bar room long enough to invite 'all hands' to imbibe. In liquidating he produced a buskskin gold-dust sack nearly a foot long, remarking that on his return from down the river it would be filled to the brim with coin and gold dust. Mine host, himself a Simon pure Democrat, replied good naturedly,—'If you do it will be with Republican money. There are not Democrats enough between here and Hoppa Valley to fill it.' Ridge was chilled to the very bone but only replied,—'Must be a——poor lot of Democrats.' When he returned and told one of the faithful that he had only taken nine subscriptions on the trip...."
Some time after this Ridge settled in the quiet old town of Grass Valley. It is recorded that it was June of 1864 that John R. Ridge bought a fourth interest in the Grass Valley National. In connection with another of the owners he edited the paper. Nearly a year later his co-editor disposed of his interests and Ridge became editor, a position which he held until his death in 1867. A comment on his work there was given long afterward,—
"He will be remembered by the old timers who knew him best as editor of the old Grass Valley National. Ridge gave to the columns of that paper a brilliancy such as few journals enjoyed and won for him a state-wide reputation."
Grass Valley, although a town famous in the annals of early mining days and their stirring events, was perhaps a fitting place for the close of a life as that of John R. Ridge—a retreat of peace and beauty after strenuous years in centers of political stress and storm. Did the rolling hills perhaps recall the homeland woods and hills, and his part in the flaming days of the early sixties in California now over, did his mind turn more often to his own people?
As the writer once stood with the now aged niece of Elizabeth Ridge before her little brown house in Grass Valley and looked across the narrow mountain stream valley to the tree-clad hills beyond the scene somehow faded into the recollection of the beauty of the Cherokee hills and woods and streams about Tahlequah.
It was here long ago that Elizabeth Ridge and her niece,—Aunt Lizzie and Fanny—stood and looked across the valley at the colors of the poplars.
"Aunt Lizzie, did he write of this in 'October Hills'?" asked Fanny.
"I do not know. Perhaps. His head was always in the clouds."
In the Grass Valley paper of December thirtieth, 1866, is found the following,—
"Among the passengers who came up by yesterday's stage was our old friend John R. Ridge, editor of the Grass Valley National, and one of the finest gentlemen with whom it has been our pleasure to associate. Mr. Ridge has been several months in Washington City looking after matters of importance to himself. He returns to his old home improved in health, and was warmly welcomed back by a numerous circle of friends."
On October eighth, 1867, was published the following,—
"John Rollin Ridge, whose serious illness we have frequently mentioned in these columns during the past two weeks, died at his residence on Church Street, Grass Valley, at a few minutes after ten o'clock on last Saturday evening, the fifth inst.
"For over three weeks he was confined to his bed...His physical sufferings were undoubtedly acute, but to his family he expressed his deepest regret, or feeling of pain, using his own words, at the thought of his brain failing to perform its functions even after the physical man had become powerless....
"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. He was not vain of his gifts, and he knew no envy for a colaborer in literature....
"John R. Ridge was a companionable man, a friend to those who were his friends and he contained in his composition, so to speak, no element of littleness....
"His remains were yesterday interred in Greenwood Cemetery near this place, his funeral cortege being a very large one...."
The collection of his poems2 was published the following year and a review of that time follows,—
"One turns from a reading of these poems with a feeling of sadness imbibed from the spirit of writer, who never rises to any breezy heights of exaltation of heart; a thread of melancholy, almost of morbidness, runs through all these verses, and their smooth melody is somewhat marred by a bitter cynicism that sounds like a discord; yet a broad and generous humanity pervades the whole work...
"So far as literary merit of the work is concerned a considerate public, appreciating the affectionate partiality of the true wife whose hand has compiled these pages, will charitably overlook whatever might have been better omitted and will
2This little volume of poems is now in the library of the Oklahoma Historical Society. It was published by Henry Payot and Company, San Francisco, California, in 1868.
John R. Ridge was editor of the California Express published at Marysville before the Civil war and was after the war editor of the Daily National Democrat, which paper was merged with the Marysville Appeal, and this paper is yet being published at Marysville, California.
treasure the nobler utterances of the poet as enduring memories of a life untimely ended."
In 1857 Ridge, while editor of the Sacramento Bee, contributed to that paper his idea of what constituted poetry.
"Poetry lies in our very being and is a component and exalted part of the great frame-work of nature....
"The speech of the North American warrior or chief in council is full of metaphor and the essence of poetry....
"It is not alone in books. Heroism, filial love, every exaltation of sentiment; all this is poetry; and he is the true poet who gives us back with his pen, his chisel, or his pencil, these pictures of our nobler selves."
The memory of John R. Ridge never died in California. The stories of his life and work have been written again and again through the years, in books, magazines and newspapers.
"We write to the music of the rain. We cannot exactly keep time to its rhythm on the roof or its patter on the pane, but its influence is so much upon us that we feel at this moment, no inspiration whatever from any other theme.
"With each drop, distinct and individual as it is, seems to come a memory or a bygone dream. How they throng upon us from the depths of the past! What form is this that bends over us with a loving look from those tender eyes and fall of raven hair threaded with gray like a midnight cloud that is riven by the glances of the moon. Alas, it is a vision of the by-gone times—those eyes are dust, and she who wore that silver-threaded mid-night hair is a thing of vaguest mystery to us lost in the unknown and the unseen. A memory of boyhood and of budding youth, a being kind and loving, patient, forbearing, good.
"How melancholy are the whispers of the rain, of those far distant graves that cover what was
dear and valued beyond all that the world can ever give again! What tearful remembrances too sacred to be named, are woven with those raindrops as they fall! What hopes have we not all buried, and what dreams have we not all mourned, that come to us again with the soft music of the rhythmic rain? Have we trusted and been deceived? Have we lost what we loved? Have we seen joy after joy fade in the sky of our fate! All comes to us again in sad and mournful memory as we listen to the patter of the rain."
Some little time after the death of John R. Ridge his brother, Andrew Jackson Ridge, a lawyer, removed with his family from Texas to Grass Valley. To-day those who are left of his family, though they go and come, still call Grass Valley their home. Elizabeth Ridge lived thirty years after the death of her husband, most of this time at Grass Valley. Alice Bird Ridge became an accomplished musician, married and lived on at the old home. An old time resident of San Francisco recalls once meeting her over thirty years ago. His memory of her was that of her marked courtesy and of her striking appearance—dark eyes and hair, but fair skin—and of their talk about her Indian father. It is said that Elizabeth Ridge was always deeply loyal to the Cherokee tradition and contended that her daughter's ability was an endowment from the old Cherokee blood.
A few years ago the following appeared in the Grass Valley daily newspaper,—
"That the grave of John R. Ridge remains year after year unmarked in Greenwood Cemetery is the cause of considerable wonderment among the rather frequent visitors who seek information concerning that noted character of early California history. The suggestion has been made that the matter should be brought to the attention of the various California literary societies with the expectation that something might be done to perpetuate the memory here of the writer of that noble poem, 'Mt. Shasta' and others equally inspiring."
But those now living of the poet's family know that one of his last desires was that his grave be left unmarked
except for the wild flowers which he trusted would grow upon it.
Preserved in Grass Valley is the splendid oil portrait of Major Ridge, said to be the original handed down from father to son each generation. Another treasure of the Ridge descendants is said to be a journal kept by John Ridge in 1835 and 1836 during his negotiations at Washington at that time. It begins with a noble tribute to his wife and his tender parting with his children, the baby, Andrew, and the young John Rollin, and ends with the treaty at Washington.