John Ridge, born Skah-tle-loh-skee (Yellow Bird) (c. 1802 – June 22, 1839), was from a prominent family of the Cherokee Nation, then located in present-day Georgia. He went to Cornwall, Connecticut to study at the Foreign Mission School. He met Sarah Bird Northup, of a Yankee New England family, and they married in 1824. Soon after their return to New Echota in 1825, Ridge was chosen for the Cherokee National Council and became a leader in the tribe.
In the 1830s, he was part of the Treaty Party with his father Major Ridge and cousins Elias Boudinot and Stand Watie. Believing that Indian Removal was inevitable, they supported making a treaty with the United States government to protect Cherokee rights. The Ridges and Boudinot were both signatories to the Treaty of New Echota of 1835, by which they ceded Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for lands in Indian Territory. The land cession was opposed by the majority of the tribe and the Principal Chief John Ross, but the treaty was ratified by the US Senate. In 1839, after removal to Indian Territory, opponents assassinated the Ridges, Boudinot, and other Treaty Party members for their roles in the land cession and to eliminate them as political rivals. Stand Watie survived an attack.
John Ridge was born to the Cherokee chief Major Ridge and his wife Sehoya around 1802 in their village of Oothacaloga, near present-day Calhoun, Georgia. The Cherokee were a matrilineal tribe, so he belonged to the Wild Potato Clan through his mother, Sehoya (Susannah Catherine Wickett). Ridge was often sick as a child. He studied at the nearby mission school run by the Moravian Brethren at Spring Place, Cherokee Nation (now Georgia). It was founded on land given to them by his father’s mentor and fellow former warrior, James Vann.
Ridge’s father sent him to the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut in 1819, where he learned reading and writing in English and other subjects typical of middle-class education at the time. Many families in the town supported the school and were hospitable to its students. As the top-ranked student, Ridge was asked to write an essay for President James Monroe, to be presented by Jedidiah Morse. His cousin Elias Boudinot also studied at the school.
Marriage and family
While at school in Cornwall, Ridge fell in love with Sarah Bird Northrup, the daughter of the school’s steward. After two years, he convinced her parents to allow them to marry, which they did in January 1824. The Cornwall community reacted angrily to the marriage of a Native American man and a white woman. Their hostility decreased Ridge’s admiration for European Americans and altered his hopes for future relations between the Cherokee and whites.
After Ridge returned with Sarah to the Cherokee nation, his fortunes in the political affairs of the Nation rose quickly. He became a leading member of the National Council, along with his cousin Elias Boudinot and his father’s protégé, John Ross. Ridge was highly respected by all the tribes across the Southern United States for his abilities and faithfulness to Indian welfare.
Creek land negotiations
In 1825, the Creek Nation retained two young Cherokee men to serve as their lobbyists in Washington, D. C. during the debates over the removal of the Creeks from the southeastern U. S. This was because there were no Creeks who spoke fluent English at the time. The Creeks also knew that Andrew Jackson thought highly of Major Ridge, who had served with him in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The men, recommended by Major Ridge were John Ridge and David Vann. Since President John Quincy Adams would not negotiate with Cherokees regarding Creek affairs, they were officially designated as secretaries to the Creek delegation. John and David set to work preparing remarks to be presented by Chief Opothleyahola to General Edmund P. Gaines, the commander of the U. S. Army in Georgia. That speech was successful in winning General Gaines’ support for the Creek position.
Ridge’s marriage was unusual for his marrying a European-American woman. In the past, marriages between Europeans and Cherokee took place most frequently between European men, frequently fur traders, and high-status Cherokee women. They were strategic alliances believed to benefit both peoples, at a time when Cherokee chiefs sought more influence with the European Americans. Generally the man would live among the Cherokee; in the matrilineal culture, the children were accepted into the Nation as Cherokee and gained status from their mother’s clan.
But, descendants of a Cherokee father and white mother could have no true place in the tribe, as they would not belong to a clan. In 1825 the Council passed a law enabling children of such unions to have full Cherokee citizenship, as if they were of Cherokee descent on their mother’s side. By this time, Ridge’s cousin Elias Boudinot (the oldest son of David Watie) had announced his engagement, also to a woman from Cornwall, Connecticut. Given the high status of the two young men, the new ruling recognized their future families and protected their children within the Cherokee Nation.
As clerk of the Cherokee National Council, Ridge participated in tribal delegations to Washington, DC to consult with United States officials. In 1831 they protested Georgia’s illegal annexation of that part of the Nation which lay within its territory. (Congress had passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, but Georgia did not wait for removal). In 1832, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Worcester v. Georgia, that Georgia’s unilateral extension of its laws over Cherokee territory was illegal and unconstitutional. It ruled that the Cherokee Nation had sovereign status and appropriately would deal only with the US government. The delegation were dismayed to learn that President Andrew Jackson continued to support removal of all the Southeast tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River. Ridge reluctantly began to think that removal, which he had previously opposed, was inevitable.
Ridge and Boudinot both became leaders of the “Treaty Party,” a group that advocated negotiation of removal under a treaty in order to protect Cherokee rights. They had begun to believe it was the only way to preserve the Cherokee Nation, as European-American settlers continued to encroach on their lands, leading to conflicts. They believed they had to give up the Cherokee land illegally annexed by Georgia. The majority of the Cherokee sided with the Principal Chief John Ross in opposing removal. Ross hoped to make a settlement with the US allowing the Cherokee to stay in the east. Ridge hoped to persuade the Nation of what he saw as the only way out of its dilemma.
Together with his father and Boudinot, Ridge signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 after final negotiations with a delegation in Washington, D.C. They were part of the National Council’s delegation, headed by Principal Chief John Ross, who still was trying to negotiate staying in the East. Since the treaty surrendered all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi River, the opposing Ross faction, known as the National Party, regarded the Treaty Party representatives as traitors. Despite the known divisions within the tribe and the lack of signature by the Principal Chief Ross, the US Senate ratified the treaty. President Jackson used it to justify the forcible Cherokee removal in 1838, in what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
The treaty provided for Cherokee who wished to remain in the east to do so. They would have to become citizens of the states where they resided (and the United States) and give up their Cherokee tribal status. This provision was widely ignored during the removal. The US Army rounded up most Cherokee and their slaves from Georgia to take west. Among the Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee held the most slaves.
After the treaty signing, Ridge moved with his family, his father and most of his siblings, his uncle (David Watie), and Watie cousins to what is now Indian Territory. This was three years before the forced removal in 1838 of most of the Cherokee. The Ridges and other families joined the “Old Settlers” of the Cherokee Nation West under Principal Chief John Jolly. Some of them had migrated west in the 1820s from North Carolina or Alabama.
On June 22, 1839, a group of 25 pro-Ross partisans of the “Late Comers” killed Ridge, his father, and Boudinot in revenge for having signed the treaty to cede Cherokee lands. They also attacked Stand Watie, but he survived. Later they killed other Treaty Party members.
- “The Murder of Elias Boudinot.” Chronicles of Oklahoma. Vol 12, No. 1 March 1934. Unnamed author. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
- “RootsWeb.com Home Page”. wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 23 January 2018.
- Johansen and Pritzker, 777
- “We Shall Remain: The Trail of Tears”. The American Experience. WGBH-TV. April 27, 2009. Retrieved January 30, 2011.
- Jedidiah Morse (1822). A report to the Secretary of War of the United States, on Indian affairs. pp. 275–276.
- Carolyn Thomas Foreman (September 1929). “The Foreign Mission School at Cornwall, Connecticut”. Chronicles of Oklahoma. Oklahoma Historical Society. 7 (3): 242–259.
- Langguth, pp.50-59.
- Yarbough, Fay. “Legislating Women’s Sexuality: Cherokee Marriage Laws,” Journal of Social History 38 (2004), p. 388
- Gaul, Theresa Strouth, Ed. To Marry an Indian: The Marriage of Harriett Gold and Elias Boudinot in Letters, 1823-1839. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005, p. 16
- Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy: The Story of the Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People, pp. 229-339. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
- Johansen, Bruce Elliot and Barry Pritzker. Encyclopedia of American Indian History, Volume 2. ABC-CLIO, 2007. ISBN 978-1-85109-817-0.
- Langguth, A. J. Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War. New York, Simon & Schuster. 2010. ISBN 978-1-4165-4859-1.
- Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge family and the Decimation of a People. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma Press, 1986; ISBN 0-8061-2188-2 (1989 paperback edition).