John Rollin Ridge: Journalism trailblazer in California

John Rollin Ridge

TAHLEQUAH – The creation of the Cherokee Phoenix blazed a trail for Native journalism, and in the mid-1800s a Cherokee was a trailblazer for journalism in California.

On June 22, 1839, John Rollin Ridge had witnessed the murder of his father, John Ridge, a prominent leader in the Cherokee Nation. On the same day, his grandfather, Major Ridge, and his cousin, Elias Boudinot, the former editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, were assassinated as well. The three men were members of the Treaty Party, which had taken part in signing away what remained of Cherokee lands in the east and opposed Principal Chief John Ross.

After the assassinations, Sarah Ridge, the widow of John, fled their home near Grove with her and John’s seven children to nearby Fayetteville, Arkansas. Later, John Rollin killed a Ross supporter named David Kells after a dispute over a horse belonging to Ridge. Fearing reprisals from Kells’ family, he fled to Missouri and then California.

In California, he unsuccessfully took part in the gold rush and found it hard to make a living. He also wrote under the name of Yellow Bird.

In 1856, Ridge and his cousin, Charles Watie, the brother of Stand Watie, were hired as editors of the California American newspaper. After a year, Ridge organized a group of Sacramento business leaders to start a newspaper called The Sacramento Bee, which first published on Feb. 3, 1857.

“The name of The Bee has been adopted as being different from that of every other paper of the state and as also being emblematic of the industry, which is to prevail in its every department,” Ridge wrote.

As The Bee’s editor, he also called for a new kind of journalism. He attacked the fiercely partisan newspapers as “nothing more than the sneaking apologists of scoundrels who pay them for the trouble of lying.” Ridge also defended the entry of women into journalism.

He emphasized The Bee’s editorials carried the soul of an American Indian. In an essay Ridge wrote: “The speech of the North American warrior or chief in council is full of metaphor and the essence of poetry. It is up the true poet to use his pen, his chisel or his pencil…to give us pictures of our nobler selves.”

In July 1857, The Bee was sold and Ridge moved on to edit and own several newspapers in California and “all carried the unmistakable mark of a political journalist who cared about this country and its policy toward the Native Americans.” The Bee is still published today. 

Source: “Pictures of Our Nobler Selves – A history of Native American contributions to news media,” Mark N. Trahant, 1995