B-Sides: The Poems of John Rollin Ridge, or Yellow Bird (Chees-quat-a-law-ny)

“These were not just celebratory poems praising nature as the genre required, but practical ones recording California’s resources, peoples, and events.”

Journalist, editor, lawyer, and activist John Rollin Ridge/Yellow Bird (Cherokee: Chees-quat-a-law-ny) was a complicated ideologue, best remembered today for The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit (1854). He was right to think of that novel as a contribution “to those materials out of which the early history of California shall one day be composed.” Now considered the first novel published by an American Indian and one of the first written in California, it is also a telling critique of anti-Mexican racism following the Mexican-American War.

The works in his 1868 Poems, however, did more to construct the idea of California in his own day—and they should be better known, not least because they illustrate how fraught it was to be Cherokee (and American) at this formative time. Perhaps because it was published posthumously, or because many of its verses had already appeared in periodicals, Poems has largely been overlooked. True, several of its lengthier compositions are occasional verses, a genre often maligned as rote and sycophantic. These include poems he performed to celebrate the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable; the dedication of Oakland College; and Independence Day 1861. To make matters unimaginably worse for a verse-averse modern reader, most are in heroic couplets of the “All hail, the fairest, greatest, best of days! / With heaving hearts, and tongues attuned to praise” variety. Yet Ridge’s work deserves a second look because of both who he was and what he wrought.

Born to a mixed-race couple in 1827 in what is now Georgia, Ridge lived a life marked by murder, bigotry, and continual travel across the coalescing US. His family, who profited from the violent practice of slavery, broke with many other Cherokees by supporting cession of tribal lands to Georgia in 1835. For this his father and grandfather were assassinated in 1839, causing his mother to flee with him to Arkansas. In the 1840s, Ridge was educated in Massachusetts, then returned to Arkansas, where he met Elizabeth Wilson of Tennessee, whom he married and with whom he had a daughter. In 1849, Ridge killed a man he deemed complicit in his father’s murder. That also sparked a family flight, first to Missouri, then to California. Ridge arrived there in 1850, just before it became a state. Aside from representing the Southern Cherokee delegation in Washington, DC, in 1866 as part of post-Civil War treaty negotiations, Ridge spent the rest of his life in California. When he died in 1867, he was buried in Grass Valley.

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I knew none of this when I first opened Poems. The more I learned, though, the more I came to see that volume as mapping out the new state, literally and figuratively. Like Ridge, I hail from the East Coast, so California’s Bay Area felt foreign to me when I moved there for grad school. Wherever I went, however, Ridge had a poem for that.

Take, for example, the 14 pages of couplets uninspiringly titled “Poem” that Ridge delivered in 1860 before the Agricultural, Horticultural, and Mechanics’ Society of the Northern District of California. Not a promising start.

But it’s his most thought-provoking poem. It tells a panoramic tale of human interaction with nature, from antiquity (“Roman tongue,” “Egypt’s kings,” “China’s wall,” “Parsee worshiper,” “Afric Carthage,” “Ninevah [sic],” “Babylon”) through the New World (“Montezuma’s golden reign,” “Cortez … with red right hand of war,” “Aztec genius,” “Inca’s sway,” “Alpacca’s [sic] fleece”) to the 19th century buzzing with electricity, telegraphs, steam engines, and irrigation. Ridge even marvels at

                                                       how science found

New modes to fertilize the failing ground—

Ammonia’s properties, the silicates,

The strength of guano, phosphates, and their mates

Couplets aggrandizing actual scat-tering might smack of the occasional verse immortalized in anthologies such as Very Bad Poetry. Oh, the belabored cataloguing, the jingling rhymes, the didacticism! Still, consider that without such lowly chemicals, the new state would’ve been—would still be—unable to support its burgeoning population. Ridge isn’t afraid to muck in, as it were, to glorify mundanity itself. These were not just celebratory poems praising nature as the genre required, but practical ones recording California’s resources, peoples, and events. Ridge (like poets before him, stretching back to Homer with his “Catalogue of Ships”) was using known and predictable poetic forms as mnemonic devices geared toward knowledge dissemination. His performances delivered an eco-techno manifesto (silicates and Silicon) advising new residents on how not to screw things up in this promised and promising land.

As much as he praises 19th-century tech, however, Ridge recognizes its abuses in “Poem” too. His indictment of the cultural and technological exclusion of Indigenous peoples by Europeans still rings true: “Were peace and plenty but the Spaniard’s right? / The Aztec barbarous because not white?” In building to the poem’s most emphatic line, he compares Euro-American civilization unfavorably with the “Peru Indian’s plan”:

             Not all the Old World’s civilization vast,

Nor yet our own, the grandest and the last,

To that one culminating point has come—

To give each man a competence and home.

A competence and home. Mundane but indispensable. Silicon Valley—its startups, social media, self-driving cars, and apps of all kinds—dominated my California, causing enormous economic inequality, often along racial lines. Employment, education, housing—the Bay Area I knew struggled to provide access to all of them. It still does.

Make no mistake, Ridge was deeply perplexing and blatantly racist. In addition to seeking revenge, he condoned and engaged in the brutal enslavement of Black people; he opposed Abraham Lincoln, even before his presidency, and later the Emancipation Proclamation; and he regarded California’s “Digger” Indians and Chinese immigrants as inferior. There’s no overlooking that. At the same time, he tirelessly extolled the Union; championed Cherokee statehood; and exalted the Indigenous peoples of Central and South America.

 

Ridge himself was a roiling amalgam of everything the U.S. comprised in the 19th century, and “Poems” documents that story.

In “Poem,” he also advocates for amalgamation, comparing the synergy of mixing races to that of cross-pollinating flowers:

             The cultured flower expanding into size

Unknown before and tinct with richer dyes,

New forms assuming from the fecund dust

Not left to chance and to the zephyr’s trust,

But, like with unlike pollen mixed, till strange

Creations bloomed and wonder marked the change;

The human soul, the Man, expanded too.

And found in realms of thought the strange and new.

These lines betray unmistakable prejudice: only “cultured” flowers, like “civilized” races, are encouraged due to Ridge’s espousal of assimilationism. Yet they also embrace the idea of a state where mixing is as vital to people as it is to nature. Ridge himself was a roiling amalgam of everything the US comprised in the 19th century, and Poems documents that story. Acknowledging “the beauty and the brutality” in this book therefore means acknowledging them in ourselves.

“Poem” is full of such prescient critiques for the 21st century, and so is Poems. The rest of the volume displays the extraordinary range of Ridge’s interests. His Greek, Latin, and biblical studies flavor his assessments of Washington, Adams, Clay, Jackson, Webster, and Douglas. He dedicates whole poems to analyzing “Mary, Queen of Scotts,” “The Arkansaw Root Doctor,” and a “Queen of the Gipsies.” He even wrote poetry about “The man twenty feet high, having the features of the Indian race, said to have been recently discovered in a cave somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.” (That last poem isn’t in the book, but how could I resist?) Anything was fair game for Ridge’s inquisitive, acquisitive, and vehement mind.

Ridge’s contemporaries recognized the importance of his poetry. He was one of the few poets whose work (an homage to Sappho’s fellow female poet, titled “Erinna”) was included in Gold Rush chronicler Bret Harte’s Outcroppings, being Selections of California Verse (1866). To boot, a historic marker placed on his grave in 1933 identifies him as a poet, not a novelist.

Before Bret Harte and California’s first poet laureate Ina Coolbrith, there was John Rollin Ridge, whose poetry helped make California California. As that state continues to reshape our world, from environmentalism to AI, we can better understand its complex roots by reading the poetry of this paradoxical polymath. icon

As a land-grant institution, Utah State University campuses and centers reside and operate on the territories of the eight tribes of Utah, who have been living, working, and residing on this land from time immemorial. These tribes are the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indians, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Northwestern Band of Shoshone, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, San Juan Southern Paiute, Skull Valley Band of Goshute, and White Mesa Band of the Ute Mountain Ute. We acknowledge these lands carry the stories of these Nations and their struggles for survival and identity. We recognize Elders past and present as peoples who have cared for, and continue to care for, the land. In offering this land acknowledgment, we affirm Indigenous self-governance history, experiences, and resiliency of the Native people who are still here today.

This article was commissioned by John Plotz.

Featured image: John Rollin Ridge, 1850. Print. Found here. Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.