- “Let Paler Nations Vaunt Themselves”John Rollin Ridge’s “Official Verse” and Racial Citizenship in Gold Rush California
On July 4, 1860, the people of Marysville, California, gathered for a public celebration to commemorate U.S. national independence. Taking pains to demonstrate that the “spirit of ’76” was alive and well in the newly established state, a group of local men in the mining town assembled “all of the accessories of that day’s proper observance, viz.: an orator, a poet, a preacher, a band, a banquet, a ball, supper, champagne, cigars, whisky, and other fireworks.” A correspondent’s report the following day was overwhelmed by the population’s uninhibited enthusiasm for “our ‘ger-reat and gel-lorious’ anniversary.” In his overview of the official ceremony, the reporter declared that Marysville’s “wilder set” were “too full of the Fourth of July to be seated, and therefore stood up on the frail benches” that had been arranged for the ceremony’s audience. As a consequence, “the poem and oration were enlivened by a running accompaniment of crashes, not of an orchestral nature, but caused by seats giving way, precipitating whole rows of masculine lookers on to the floor.” The poem, supposedly spliced through with the intermittent crashing of chairs and bodies, was recited by local Cherokee editor and writer John Rollin Ridge. And amidst the “wilder set” of the Marysville audience stood the “most conspicuous of the groups of strangers that enlivened the streets on this day”: the “Digger squaws” (“Celebration at Marysville” 1).
This article places Ridge and his publicly performed poetry at the center of an examination of U.S. citizenship in midcentury California. Poetry written to be recited at public celebrations—a genre nineteenth-century readers called “official verse”—structured popular nationalist narratives for its audiences and furnished men and women on the western frontier with a sense of their national community. In 1860, on the eve of civil war and little more than a decade removed from the [End Page 66] Mexican-American War, the parameters of this national community were the topic of intense debate. The ironies of U.S. nationalist discourse are everywhere in the Marysville correspondent’s report: as Ridge, the so-called poet laureate of the Cherokee Nation, recited a poem intended to honor the birth and progress of the United States, in the audience stood arguably the most politically maligned group of Indigenous peoples on the U.S. frontier, the so-called Digger Indians (qtd. in Whitley, American Bards 132).
In what follows I argue that Ridge relied on the familiar formal and generic gestures of official verse to modify a narrative of U.S. national identity that excluded the California Indians. As some in the Marysville audience likely knew, Ridge’s poetry and editorial writings frequently addressed the plight of the “Digger” Indians. The term, coined by European American settlers in the 1850s, made reference to a diverse set of peoples who purportedly survived by “digging for wild roots,” including the Maidu, Nisenan, Miwok, Washo, Yokuts, Monache, Pomo, and Northern Paiute. As anthropologist Allan Lönnberg notes, “The use of [“Digger”] often served to encapsulate Indians as being treacherous, bloodthirsty, dirty, squalid, lazy, comic, and/or pathetic as the time and place dictated, and such portrayals were often accompanied by violence” (215–16). The term “Digger,” from its beginnings in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, became a racial category used throughout the new U.S. territory to assist in the advancement of “a war of extermination” against the California Indians, as Governor Peter Burnett described it (qtd. in Hurtado 134). As he published editorials on the genocide of Native Californians, Ridge’s official verse frequently invoked the figure of the “Digger” to reveal the limits in popular thinking about a strictly white citizenry after 1848. I link this poetic imagining of national identity to the simultaneous formation of racial categories in California to suggest that inclusion within the United States may have appeared to Ridge as necessary to the immediate survival of these Native communities.
“written to be recited”: official verse in gold rush california
As the growing body of scholarship on nineteenth-century print culture makes...