Wednesday, June 19, 2013


This love story starts many years before the lovers ever met. It begins with something that happened when John Rollin Ridge was an eleven-year-old boy, and witnessed his father’s bloody murder.

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:

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.


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.)


  1. Yellow Bird AKA John Rollin Ridge was not just the first American Indian novelist, he was a good writer period.

    One of the ironies of the Ridge family's story is that Major Ridge, when he was a young man in 1807, was the leader of the group that executed Cherokee chief Doublehead for signing away the land that comprises the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee. Prior to that, as a young warrior, he had served under Dragging Canoe in the Chickamauga Wars.

  2. I didn't know that, Troy--I always love your comments! John Rollin Ridge wrote some beautiful poetry. I really enjoyed researching his story. And Elizabeth must have loved him more than anything to have done the things she did for him. That's true devotion, especially with having a young child and as difficult as travel was for a woman in those days.

  3. Cherokee politics then was as complicated as -well, Cherokee politics now.

  4. Some things never change, do they? Politics are like a big tangled ball of twine you have to try to unravel and make sense of...and sometimes (most times) there IS no rhyme or reason to it all.

  5. What a powerful tale of human endurance and of human love. It makes me want to cry for the injustice done to the Cherokees. After reading this, I couldn't believe he was only 39 when he died. Thanks, Cheryl. It was a fascinating read to the very end.

  6. What a beautiful tribute, Cheryl, to a fascinating man and the women who loved him. And he ties your homeland (Oklahomas) to mine, (California). I wonder what the ailment, softening of the brain, really was. Great research, pictures and love story today, my friend!

  7. Thanks, Celia. He sure crammed a lot of living into 39 years, didn't he? His poetry is just beautiful. I only included one poem, but there are many others online. Thanks so much for coming by today!

  8. Tanya, thanks so much. I really loved reading about him and Elizabeth, and finding the pictures, etc. I was like you, wondering about the "softening of the brain." Maybe if Keith reads this, he can shed some light on the subject. I'm so glad you came by today, Tanya!

  9. Choctaw Principal Chief Peter Pitchlynn (say that three times fast!) was a pretty good poet too.

  10. What a fascinating man--such great talent and he sure did luck into a dedicated wife, too. I'm also curious about his illnesses and will check back to see if Dr. Keith weighs in.

  11. Wonder what kind of a poet Chief Greg Pyle is? LOL I bet there are a lot of poets among the tribes that are not well known, don't you, Troy? I will have to look Chief Pitchlynn up.

  12. Jacquie, he was very fascinating and talented. And you're right--of all the accomplishments in his life, his best one was to marry his wife, I think. She stood by him through everything.

  13. Great post, Cheryl. Very informative.

    I had wondered about the bilious fever and the ulceration of the bowel. That is likely to mean either typhoid fever or dysentery. The former is caused by Salmonella typhi and the latter by amoeba or micro-organisms belonging to the Shigella genus. Good nursing, attention to his hydration and good luck could certainly see him recover, provided there were no complications.

    These conditions are associated with many potential complications, including perforation of the bowel, which would certainly have been fatal then if it had occurred. Even with advanced surgery and intravenous fluid replacement, perforation is still very dangerous. I speak from experience of seeing these conditions in a fever hospital in India back in the 70's, including assisting at surgery for enteric (typhoid) peroration.

    Softening of the brain could mean several things. In pathology it relates to several types of change that can occur, but these would not have been known about then.

    This description would have been a clinical diagnosis based upon his symptoms. That means that he would probably have had progressive neurological and psychiatric symptoms. These would have been untreatable and probably led to death.

    One possibility is GPI. This stands for 'General Paresis of the Insane.' This is neurosyphilis. This is a progressive tertiary stage (third stage) of syphilis. It causes increasing paralysis and deterioration of intellect and profound depression. It accounted for about 20 per cent of asylum admissions in the past. The cause was unknown at that time.

    I hasten to add that the last mentioned condition is merely a possibility. I realise that in the context of this blog this may be undesirable to think about, but if one is trying to consider conditions that may have caused such a process at such a young age, one has to consider it. Pre-senile dementia would not really occur at this young age.

    There were many talented people who contributed much to society and to the Arts who suffered from this condition, including Bram Stoker (author of Dracula), Van Gogh (the artist), Mrs Beeton (of cookbook fame) and Guy de Maupassant (short story writer extraordinnaire!)

    There are other possibilities, of course.

    I am certainly no expert in these matters and I merely put forward possibilities.


  14. John died so young. I've never heard of "softening of the brain." What was it? How wonderful that he was able to make a success of his writing. I had not heard of Yellow Bird until I read your article. What a devoted and loving wife Elizabeth was.
    This was such an interesting article, Cheryl.

  15. Keith,

    I think everyone is wondering what it could be--so all the possibilities should be considered--just wish we knew more. He probably wasn't celibate, living alone so far away. Thank you so much for chiming in and giving us more food for thought. Thirty-nine was a young age to die, but he sure had a hard life. (So did Elizabeth!)

  16. Sarah, I'm so glad you came by, and happy you enjoyed the post. This was one I truly enjoyed researching--I didn't know much about this couple either, until I started researching them. Thanks so much for your support!

  17. A beautiful post, Cheryl. Sad but lovely.

  18. Thanks, Gerri. It touched my heart so much to learn about this deep devotion and pure love between these two. Elizabeth went to such lengths to show him her love and care for him, and his for her shows through in his poetry. I'm so glad you stopped by today.

  19. Just a wonderful post. People are people and their talents are the gifts they leave to us if we are lucky. Doris

  20. Thanks, Doris. When I was researching this article, I just got lost in his poetry. I started reading it and couldn't quit. So glad you enjoyed this!

  21. I loved this post, Cheryl. Weren't Elizabeth and Alice lovely women? Even the stilted photos of the time couldn't hide that. Sad about John dying so young, but he had a sad life except for Elizabeth and Alice, not much good happened to him. I visited his grandfather's home in Georgia. Since I am supposedly 1/8 Cherokee, I am always fascinated by information about the Cherokee.

  22. Caroline, I think they were both beautiful. So many of those old photographs make the women look so frumpy, but they both just had such beauty it couldn't be hidden. Yes, it is sad about John. The "softening of the brain" might have been going on for some time. Who knows what Elizabeth went through for him? She was quite a woman.

  23. Somebody oughtta write a book about 'em. I'm just sayin'.