Yellow Bird at Sedgwick Institute

Main attributes of this Native American place: Archaeological; Native practices; Landmark.

John Rollin Ridge, America’s first Native American wordsmith of professional stature, was educated in Great Barrington. Born in the Cherokee Nation in Rome, Ga., in 1827, Ridge’s given name was “Chees‐quat‐a‐law‐ ny,” or Yellow Bird. His father, John “Shah‐tle‐loh‐skee” Ridge, who was a chief, and his grandfather, Major “Ka‐nun‐ta‐cla‐ge” Ridge, who was a warrior, orator and council member.

Father Ridge was raised in the Indian way until he was about 12, when he went first to a local mission classroom then on to the Cornwall Mission School, which had begun with native Hawaiians as students and later enrolled Indians. Ridge found a white wife, Sarah Bird Northrup of Cornwall; she was the daughter of an official of the Cornwall Mission School. Ridge’s cousin, Elias Boudinot (or “Buck Watie”), who also attended the school, married another Cornwall woman, Harriet Gold. The controversy begun by Ridge and continued by Boudinot led to the closing of the Cornwall Mission School.

The older Ridges, along with most Cherokees in Georgia, resisted pressures from the white community around them to uproot and move out — preferably way out west. With time, the remaining Cherokees saw the fruitlessness of their situation. They negotiated a treaty. The later “Trail of Tears” (1838‐39) was the forcible removal of the Cherokees from their ancestral land.

Tribe members upset with the Ridges grabbed John from his bed one night and killed him. In a separate incident the same day, they murdered Major. Young Yellow Bird witnessed his father’s death. His mother took him to Arkansas. When he was 14, she sent him east for an education. Cornwall Mission School had closed by 1827, thus Yellow Bird ended up at the newly opened private school of Williams College graduate James Sedgwick (1812‐65) in Great Barrington (near the present post office) called Sedgwick Institute.

In a letter to a friend, Ridge mentioned “Great Barrington School,” and explained, “Owing to the rigor of the climate my health failed me about the time I was ready to enter college, and I returned to my mother in Arkansas. Here I read Latin and Greek, and pursued my studies….”

Ranching on the Arkansas border with the Cherokee Nation, Ridge married a white woman, Elizabeth Wilson, and they had a daughter. Trouble reared in 1849. Yellow Bird fought with a man over a horse. That man, David Kell, was a Cherokee who despised the Ridges, still sore over the tribe’s removal from Georgia. Ridge shot Kell and fled to California.

Ridge’s efforts to find gold didn’t pan out. So he reported for newspapers in Gold Rush towns. He composed poetry for literary journals in San Francisco. His romantic and autobiographical verses at times dealt with the natural environment. Critics noted his writing reflected his resignation to the unstoppable march of progress. (One of his better known verses, “The Atlantic Cable,” mused about the accomplishment of Stockbridge son Cyrus Field.)

Ridge was editor of several California papers, among them the California Express and Sacramento Bee. He often editorialized in favor of assimilation.

In 1854, he produced his only novel, The Life and Adventures of Jaoquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit, with a rough‐and‐tumble hero.

As the Civil War approached, Ridge, ironically, considering his treatment at the hands of Southern whites, allied himself with anti‐Abolinist Democrats, or Copperheads. As reflected in his writing, he believed various races could achieve different plateaus of success. He felt his Southern family, which had owned slaves, had made the leap into being successful, civilized people even while Western Indians might not. He was an enigma. Ridge opposed Abraham Lincoln’s election and eventual anti‐slavery stance.

His last political effort was a failed negotiation in Washington, D.C., to bring recognition to the Cherokee Nation as an independent state. He died in 1867 in Grass Valley, Calif.

The Grass Valley National observed, “As a writer probably no man in California had a wider and better reputation than John R. Ridge. He possessed a good education, had a clear and viborous mind, was well up in classical lore, and in the possession of these essentials to journalistic distinction it is not surprising that he was professionally successful….”


— Bernard A. Drew


  •   Drew, Bernard A., “Yellow Bird at the institute,” Berkshire Eagle, 19 June 2004.
  •   Foreman, Carolyn Thomas, “Edward W. Bushyhead and John Rollin Ridge, CherokeeEditors in California,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 14 No. 3, September 1936.
  •   Sedgwick Institute news item, Berkshire Courier, 21 November 1841.
  •   Taylor, Charles J. History of Great Barrington. Great Barrington: Clark W. Bryan & Co., 1882.