Wednesday, June 19, 2013
THE STORY OF YELLOW BIRD AND ELIZABETH WILSON by CHERYL PIERSON
John Rollin Ridge, called Cheesquatalawny, or “Yellow Bird,” by his fellow Cherokee tribesmen, was the son of John Ridge, and the grandson of a prominent Cherokee leader, Major John Ridge. Major Ridge was one of the most powerful and wealthy members of the eastern Cherokee tribes in the early 1800s. By the time John Rollin Ridge was born in 1827, the State of Georgia had discovered gold on Cherokee lands and wanted them relocated. Cherokee leaders, at first, were opposed to signing treaties with the U.S. Government, refusing to go.
But the State of Georgia confiscated Cherokee lands in 1832, including the homes and thriving plantation owned by some members of the tribe, including another prominent family, the Waties. Major Ridge and his son John opposed the removal, but because of the inevitability of the outcome of the situation, they and some of the other leaders reversed their stance on negotiating with the federal government. Major Ridge, and John Ridge, along with Stand Watie and his brothers, formed the powerful Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction of the Cherokee council, standing in favor of the Cherokee Removal. Their signing of the Treaty of New Echota sold Cherokee lands and facilitated the removal of the Cherokee people to Indian Territory—what is now Oklahoma—an act considered treasonous by many.
Another faction of Cherokees following John Ross refused to ratify the treaty signing. This segment was known as The Anti-Removal National Party. The word was out—traitors were to be executed.
Blood Law (also called blood revenge) is the practice in traditional customary Native American law where responsibility for seeing that homicide is punished falls on the clan of the victim. The responsibility for revenge fell to a close family member (usually the closest male relative). In contrast to the Western notion of justice, blood law was based on harmony and balance. It was believed that the soul/ghost of the victim would be forced to wander the earth, not allowed to go to the afterlife, unless harmony was restored. The death of the killer (or member of the killer's clan) restored the balance. READ MORE HERE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_Law
Members of this group targeted Stand Watie and his brother, Elias Boudinot, along with their uncle, Major Ridge for assassination. On the morning of June 2, 1839, John’s father, John Ridge, was dragged from his bed by some of the tribesmen of The Anti-Removal National Party and murdered as his wife and children, including young John, looked on. This event would color John’s life until the end.
Mrs. Ridge took her family to northwestern Arkansas. Young John’s thirst for vengeance was tempered only by a young woman he met and fell in love with, Elizabeth Wilson.
They first met when John was studying Latin and Greek with a local missionary. Elizabeth worked for the missionary. John wrote to his cousin, “There is a prettily shapely girl of about 16 or 17 years, who is very friendly and gives me a quantity of enjoyment in her company, whenever I get tired of dusty pages of legal technicalities.”
Elizabeth was part Native American, and John was half Cherokee. To her, he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen, and she believed him to be a talented writer—one of the most intelligent men in the country. John was not only entranced by Elizabeth’s beauty, but the sweet honesty and goodness of her character, and her brilliance. They married in May, 1847, and though they were happy, their love couldn’t overcome the bloody images that John tried to forget, the tragedy that consumed him.
As an adult, he often dreamt of the morning of his father’s murder, awakening from sleep screaming. Elizabeth was at his side, calming him. She promised to help him fulfill his desire for revenge any way she could.
“There is a deep seated principle of revenge in me which will never be satisfied, until it reaches its object,” he told her.
Eventually, they traveled to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where they joined forces with other allies of the Ridge faction, all of them eager to track down and punish those responsible for the deaths of the Major Ridge, and members of Stand Watie’s family. In the end, thirty-two of the thirty-six men who had been responsible for the murders were found and killed.
John squared off against one of the four remaining assassins, Judge David Kell. When Kell advanced on John, John shot him, claiming it was done in self-defense. But John had no faith in getting a fair trial (Cherokee court) and he and Elizabeth ran to Missouri, settling in Springfield.
John became a freelance writer, selling articles to various newspapers to supplement his salary in the county clerk’s office. He and Elizabeth now had a baby girl, Alice.
When news of the discovery of gold in California hit Springfield, John left his clerk’s position and joined a group of men heading west to seek their fortunes. He promised Elizabeth that he would send for her as soon as he could. During the time he was gone, he had no luck mining, although he loved the West. In 1853, he left mining in search of other work, accepting a clerk position in Yuba, California.
During this time he wrote for a New Orleans newspaper under the name “Yellow Bird.” About this time, he also contributed poetry and drawings to The Pioneer, a San Francisco publication.
But in 1853, something else happened to John. He wrote a letter to his mother, describing an illness he’d come down with, “billious fever,” which caused “ulceration of the bowels.” He was alone, with no one to care for him, and was, in fact, dying. Leaving Alice in the care of John’s mother, Elizabeth headed west in the company of a family going to California.
John was near death when Elizabeth arrived, but through her constant care, she got him through it and back on his feet. “You bless me with your love, dear Lizzie,” he told her.
Elizabeth returned for their daughter, and once again traveled to California. John had, at her encouragement, sold several sonnets he’d written about the beauty of California. He seemed less angry, and gave credit for his improved temperament to his writing endeavors.
John wrote a book about the notorious outlaw, Joaquin Murieta, a crowning literary achievement. He never received any royalties, since his publisher went bankrupt, but because the book had been so popular, he was able to rise to full time editing jobs for such newspapers as the Marysville Democrat, the Grass Valley Union, and the Sacramento Bee.
After the Civil War, Ridge was invited by the federal government to head the Southern Cherokee delegation in postwar treaty proceedings. Despite his best efforts, the Cherokee region was not admitted as a state to the Union. In December 1866, he returned to his home in Grass Valley, California, where he and Elizabeth had made their home for more than fifteen years. Their daughter, Alice, married.
The Ridges lived an idyllic life. But John’s health failed him at the age of thirty-nine. He became afflicted with “softening of the brain,” a disease that took its toll quickly through the spring and summer of 1867.
John Rollin Ridge, Yellow Bird, died on October 5, 1867, leaving behind a collection of fine articles, sketches and poetry. In 1868, Elizabeth published an anthology of his poetry.
Elizabeth died in 1905 and was buried beside her husband in Grass Valley.
OF HER I LOVE
I read but a moment her beautiful eyes,
I glanced at the charm of her snowy-white hand
I caught but the glimpse of her cheek's blushing dyes
More sweet than the fruits of a tropical land;
I marked but an instant her coral-hued lips,
And the row of sweet pearls that glimmered between--
Those lips, like the roses the humming bird sips
On his bright wing of rainbows, when summer is green.
I timidly gazed on a bosom more white
Than the breast of the swan, more soft than its down--
To rest on whose pillows were greater delight
Than all else of rapture that heaven may own.
I gazed but a second on these, and on all
That make up the sum of her angel-like form,
And ere I could think I was bound in her thrall,
And peace fled my breast, as the birds flee a storm!
I am bound in love's pain, and may never be free,
Till the bond is dissolved in her own melting kiss:
Till her loveliness, like the embrace of a sea,
Enclasps me, and hides me in the depths of its bliss.
John Rollin Ridge
(Credit to WIKIPEDIA article for many of the facts of this blog.)