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Friday, January 9, 2015

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 want to offer an e-copy of my novella, FOUND HEARTS, today to one lucky commenter. Please leave your contact information along with your comment to be entered in the drawing.

You can find my works here:

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


  1. It's hard to imagine the power some leaders used to control groups of people, visit cruelty on them and turn their lives upside down. I remember this article and the feeling I had then and now after reading it. Power plays, injustice, and cruelty still abound. John was lucky at least to have find a woman like Elizabeth who had such courage, conviction, and love. How wonderful that he honored her and she lifted him up. It is so sad that he died so young. Great article, Cheryl. I hope you're feeling better since your bout with the flu.

    1. Hi Sarah! Yes, I'm much better--I still have the cough, but mainly at night--and codeine cough syrup takes care of that. LOL Now if I could just get my energy back! LOL

      Yes, John was very lucky to have found Elizabeth--she was certainly a strong-willed lady who managed, no matter the circumstances. I'm amazed at what she did--especially for the times.

      Thanks for coming over and commenting, Sarah! Hugs, dear friend!

  2. Good Morning Cheryl. I hope you are feeling better. I did not know you were down with the flue. I love your article. I did research on the Cherokee Indians of Georgia for a book I wrote, (yet to be released.). They had their own alphabet, had slaves, cultivated corn, tobacco, rice. In the articles I read, forts were built supposedly to protect the people and insure they had food and shelter. In reality it was a land grab and women and children were beaten and raped by the soldiers sent to protect them. Such a great story. My email

    1. Hey, Barb! Well, I feel about 1000% better than I did this time last week, for sure. LOL It's great to be able to WANT to eat again.

      The Cherokee people were very advanced in their civilization and I believe that's why the whites were so intimidated by them. When gold was discovered in Georgia, they ousted them from their homes there, and when they were moved to Oklahoma, it was with the hope that they'd all die.

      Thanks for coming by today!

  3. Wow, what a tale, Cheryl. Beautiful and heart-rending. Crazy--we came through Grass Valley just last week. I am planning a "fall color" trip next October for Hubs and me in that "Gold Rush" area and now have another site to check out!

    1. OH MY GOSH! Too bad you didn't know the story of Yellow Bird and Elizabeth then--yes--you'll have to check out the area when you do the fall color trip--speaking of which, there's one in West Virginia I would love to do---it's on the Cass Scenic Railroad, and you ride this old old train up to the top of a mountain--think you have dinner in the dining car, etc. I would love to do that--but we always go to WV in the summer before everything changes...BOO HOO!

  4. What a beautiful story, Cheryl, even with the tragedy. The Cherokee peoples story is so tragic in that they did everything they were supposed to do and assimilated into the white culture. As my grandmother used to say, they did too good a job at assimilating and people got greedy and scared.

    The poem "Of Her Love" is so beautiful.

    1. Kirsten, I found a ton of poems he had written to her--and just written, period. That one was the one I picked because I just thought it was so beautiful. He was actually a very good poet.

      Yes, that's true--the whites did become greedy and scared--your grandmother was a wise woman--my mom used to talk about how the Cherokees had such "strong carriage and forceful bearing"--she was always proud of our Cherokee heritage--and we have it on my dad's side, as well.

      Thanks for stopping by today, Kirsten!

    2. Elizabeth was a classic beauty, as I see by her photo. Plus she looked somewhat regal. They had quite a love affair, and I'm so glad it's all written somewhere as part of Oklahoma history.
      It's all a wonderful story. I had a vague recollection of this tale, but not this many details. Well done. And I'm glad you are on the mend. No fun and no fair being sick during holidays.

    3. Wasn't she beautiful, Celia? I thought she looked regal, too! Yes, what a love story it was--over way too soon--But I love that she vowed to stand beside him no matter what and she DID, by golly!

  5. Cheryl,

    Love history, adore love stories and have a passion for poetry. I have all three with this post. Not only did you share a beautiful love story, but also dispelled some of the images we have of the Indians from the past.

    The poetry, well, as a fan of Tennyson, HH, Rosetti you made my day. Thank you. Doris

    1. Doris, some day I will post a picture of my great great grandmother, Zania Casey -- I named my son Casey and did not know it was a family name--do you hear the eerie music, up and over? LOL She was so pretty, and nearly full blood Cherokee. She married an Irishman, James Casey. I'm sure that was one hell of a marriage!

      I love all the poets you mentioned, too...btw, I think somewhere on line, once, I found an actual recording of Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade--it was scratchy, but what a marvel!


  6. Cheryl, this is repetitive, but this was such a beautiful story and thank you so much for sharing it. Being from NYS, I've heard many stories, hadn't heard this one. Wonderful story-love and strength and endurance.I've a best friend, part Cherokee, who I grew up with in NYS but she now lives in OK. I'm sure she knows of this- will ck. with her. And thank you for sharing his lovely poem. Hope you're feeling better. I'm just getting over pneumonia so I know what you're going through. Long haul. But I've joined the living again. Can't wait to read your story.

    1. Oddly enough, this story is one that is not widely known--I found it by accident in a wonderful little book about "old west love stories". I was so glad to find this and read about it--so amazing. Elizabeth was such a strong woman, the true soulmate for John. I'm so glad they found each other and had their time together!

      Oh, bless your heart--my sister got this same thing I have had and it turned into pneumonia. I still have that cough, but it's fewer and farther between--slowly but surely...LOL Yes, I've joined the living again, too. And I'm so glad of it! LOL

      Hugs, Bev!

  7. There was an excellent series on PBS (I think) that covered a series of native american incidence. This series of events was one of the situations covered. The whole affair is sad. Each faction did what they felt was in the best interest of their people. It was inevitable there would be conflict. Personally, the way the way the US government handled the whole affair was responsible for the chain of events. It is nice that John found some peace. He was lucky to have found Elizabeth to be by his side and support him.
    Thanks for the interesting post. It filled in information that was not included in the TV series. It was the type of information that made the people and situation more real.

    library pat AT com cast DOT net

    1. Hi Patricia! So glad to see you here--I would give anything to have seen that story on PBS--well the whole series, but especially this story. It just haunts me--for him to have witnessed the murder of his father and his whole life to be consumed with revenge--I'm glad for his sake that he saw most of it through--it must have just eaten him up--and it was good that he had Elizabeth by his side through it all. He must have loved her so much, and she, him.




    Congratulations, Patricia, and I will be sending you your prize ASAP! I'm so glad you joined us today! Thanks for popping over!