By Steve Cottrell
Nevada City and Western Nevada County’s roster of literary figures, past and present, is impressive. Poets Gary Snyder and Molly Fisk, nonfiction authors Peter Collier and Jordan Fisher Smith, historians David Comstock and Wally Hagaman, novelist/playwright Sands Hall, and illustrators/political cartoonists Dan O’Neill and Bob Crabb come to mind.
Also contributing to the local literary scene have been spectacular art-filled coffee table books from David McKay and LeeAnn Brook, true-crime accounts from Joe Harrington, hiking guides with historical context from Hank Meals, and works from other talented local folks to whom I apologize for not mentioning here.
Long before any of these creative men and women ever touched a computer keyboard or put pen to paper, however, there was John Rollin Ridge. Born in Georgia in 1827, Ridge was the grandson of Major Ridge, chief of the Cherokee Nation, and son of Cherokee leader John Ridge.
After his grandfather and father signed a treaty that led to the brutal Trail of Tears forced removal of more than 16,000 Cherokee men, women and children from their Georgia homes, the family settled in the Oklahoma Territory.
In a previous Our History column we wrote about the assassination of Major and John Ridge (carried out in 1839 by a faction of the Cherokee Nation that opposed the treaty) and how the younger Ridge, wanted for murder, found his way to California in 1850. What I’d like to chronicle this month is Ridge’s contribution to American literature.
After trying his hand at mining, he became editor of several newspapers in Northern California including, in 1857, founding editor of the Sacramento Bee. His final editorship was with the Grass Valley National, which began in 1864.
In 1854, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit was published. Part fact but mainly fiction, it was the first novel ever published by a Native American and reportedly the first novel written and published in California.
Besides his iconic novel and many years editing various California newspapers, Ridge gained national acclaim as a poet.
Lizzie, written about his wife as he traveled to California alone, is a beautiful love poem: I think of her whose bosom sweet/Has pillowed oft my sleeping head/Whose eyes would brighten at my voice/Whose ear was quick to know my tread.
In 1852 he penned his most famous poem, Mount Shasta, observing, Behold the dread Mt. Shasta, where it stands/Imperial midst the lesser heights, and, like/Some mighty unimpassioned mind, companionless/And cold.
Later, he wrote a poem commemorating the 1858 completion of the Transatlantic Cable. Ridge saw the undersea telegraphic connection as a giant step forward in global communication –– bringing nations closer together and, he hoped, closer to universal peace.
He included in his poem Atlantic Cable an anti-war message as powerful as anything Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs ever wrote: Now may, ere long, the sword be sheathed to rust/The helmet laid in undistinguished rust/The thund’rous chariot pause in mid career/Its crimsoned wheels no more through blood to steer/The red-hoofed steed from fields of death be led/Or turned to pasture where the armies bled/For Nation unto Nation soon shall be/Together brought in knitted unity.
On October 5, 1867, Ridge, only 40, died in Grass Valley from what newspapers described as “softening of the brain” –– likely encephalitis.
Following her husband’s death, Elizabeth Wilson Ridge assembled a collection of his poetry for publication. The Poems of John Rollin Ridge was printed in 1868 and is available to read online.
Born near what today is Rome, Georgia, editor-novelist-poet John Rollin Ridge is buried at the Greenwood Memorial Cemetery in Grass Valley, as is his wife, Lizzie, who died in 1905, and daughter, Alice Bird (Ridge) Beatty, who died here in 1912.
Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
About the photo:
When her husband died in 1867, Elizabeth Wilson Ridge (1829-1905) saw to it that 50 of his poems were published as a collection.