Monday, May 28, 2018

The Story of Yellow Bird and Elizabeth Wilson Ridge by Cheryl Pierson

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. (From Wikipedia)

Members of this Ross 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.

(Elizabeth Wilson Ridge--John Rollin Ridge's wife)
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.

(Alice Bird, daughter of Elizabeth and John)
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 and his daughter, Alice)
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.
The Maple tree on the right was planted by Elizabeth (Wilson) Ridge's - Rollin's wife. The tree was brought back from Gettysburg by Alice Bird in 1876. On 10/10/1976, a plaque was mounted on the tree for a dedication.

Inscription on tombstone:
John Rollin Ridge
California Poet, Author of "Mount Shasta"
And Other Poems,
Born March 19, 1827 In Cherokee Nation,
Near What Is Now Rome, Georgia,
Died in Grass Valley, October 5, 1867,
In Grateful Memory

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

Isn't this beautiful? What a love they had, and how eloquently he expressed the depth of what he felt for her! Have you ever read a fictional story that came close to this real-life love story? What was it?

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Thanks for stopping by and reading today!


  1. My father's family (supposedly part Cherokee) was from Rome, Georgia and came to Texas in 1876. His stories of events that happened are what ignited my interest in history in general and especially Texas history.

    1. Caroline, my mom was the eldest of 11 kids during the Oklahoma Dustbowl days. She was the "historian" of the family, and in her younger days, knew who was married to this one or that one, and where they were from, and what they did, etc. She knew the history of our family and how I wish I had been more attentive when I was younger, but kids just don't know what they're missing. But she was the one that got me interested in history and "old things"--my family on both sides came to Oklahoma by way of TX. Lots of great history both from those early days and after they arrived in Indian Territory.

  2. You had me at poet. I love poetry and this one is elegant in its simplicity. I'd read their story before, but you've brought a renewed interest.

    I find it interesting that as time has gone by the joy of Indian blood has waxed, waned and waxed again. My ex's parent were part Indian, but would never talk or admit it. How sad to deny that part of your culture, but that was what was acceptable when they were growing up. Doris

  3. We have a lot of Indian blood in our family on both sides, but as you say, it was something that was not talked about in their generation, but better hidden. I had ancestors who would not sign up on the rolls because they didn't want to be "found" by the government. Now it would be near to impossible for me or my kids to prove it and get on those rolls.

    I think to read this entire book of his poetry would be wonderful. Judging from this poem, I think it would be thoroughly enjoyable. I posted this blog before a while back but it's so interesting and just such a good story, I thought I would put it up again today (since it's a holiday and I had not had time to prepare a new one!) LOL

    So glad you enjoyed it, again, and thanks for stopping by!

  4. Cheryl,

    What a great story. The revenge aspect for creating balance has always intrigued me, because it 'works' (for me, anyway). *wink* It's a shame you have no paper trail to document your Native American heritage, but it's easy to see the situation from their point of view. The government let them down and broke so many promises.

    1. I agree, Kaye--it's something they couldn't have foreseen as being an inconvenience or something anyone might WANT to do in the future. I'm like you--the revenge aspect, especially in a story such as this one, is all-important and really what made him who he was. If not for Elizabeth, there's no telling what might have become of him, and you can see from his poetry the depth of his emotion for her, and his intelligence and caring. I think that's part of what makes this story so fascinating to me.


    Cheryl, John and Elizabeth's story is so very beautiful! Is there a biography or novel telling their full story? I wonder about how and when they came to CA and their life in Grass Valley. Thanks for this special treat! Arletta

    1. Hi Arletta, please DO NOT WORRY. I have done that very same thing I can't tell you how many times. I only regret there doesn't seem to be an easier way to fix it to schedule it once it's been "put back in the queue" somehow. Oh, you should have seen me when I was first learning to blog. LOL You would have laughed yourself silly.

      I am not sure about a biography about them, but I think that would be so interesting--even a story based on their true life love story would be wonderful, wouldn't it? Out of everything I've read, this is one story that touched me so deeply because of how hard times were in general, and how much harder times were for Indians, and how very very rough times were for these two individuals on top of all the other things they had to deal with. Yet their love shone through and there was just never any doubt of it.

      Arletta, please keep us posted on your surgery, will you? Hugs!

    2. Cheryl, You are more than kind. The SOTW sisterhood is very supportive and generous. Thank you for letting me know of your problems blogging. I'm relieved not to be alone.
      I hope in late summer or the fall to go to Grass Valley to learn about Cornish miners there; I'll have to check out the local museums and the plaque about John. Surgery is tomorrow and I'm very hopeful!

    3. Arletta I was asked to join a blog when "blogging" was a very new thing. I was so "unknowing" (to put it mildly) about the computer, and blogging was a new-ish thing. But the lady whose blog I'd been asked to join for a monthly post thought everyone knew about blogging...she was very good on the computer, and my brain has to WORK to be able to learn "new stuff" on the computer--but hers didn't. LOL She was very little help--when I asked questions I felt so dumb by the way she replied to me. As if I should already know THAT (whatever it was). Finally, as the first time for my blog day neared, she realized I was desperate--and it wasn't that I wasn't trying, but back in those days blogger was a pill (it still can be, but THEN it was terrible) and I was having all sorts of trouble and was really not understanding, anyhow. She wrote to me and told me she would publish my post "this time" but went on to say, "You're really going to have to learn how to use blogger if you're going to be part of the blog." OMG, I was so crushed. I was trying so hard and didn't understand a lot of what I was supposed to be doing. She asked me to send her my images for the blog. I sent her the LINKS instead of the actual pictures. LOL OH LAWZIES. She wrote me back very quickly and told me NO, she needed the PICTURES. I managed to get them to her, but I went to bed in tears that night. I lasted for about 5 or 6 months on that blog, and it was nerve-wracking, but I learned a lot from other people behind the scenes who were having the same troubles I was. Turned out nobody knew anything much about blogging except her. LOL

      Keep us posted about the surgery. Hope all went well today! XOXO

  6. I can't help wondering what "soft brain" really was.
    This true account almost reads like a romance story. I can't imagine how much John suffered at the sight of such a gruesome murder of his father. To have such a loving partner like Elizabeth.
    I am amazed he was able to exact revenge on the responsible men without being caught. In any case, this is an amazing historical story, Cheryl.

    1. Sarah, I have wondered that same thing. It must mean what we call "soft in the head" --not physically, but maybe emotionally/mentally somehow? I don't know, but...I wonder if Keith would know?

      I know what you mean about him suffering at the sight of his father's murder. I can't even imagine how he must have relived that moment over and over, and how sweet revenge must have been to him!

      So glad you enjoyed this, Sarah. It's a "rerun" but one of my favorite posts.


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