American Sensationalism and Cultural Representation in John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta

My paper examines John Rollin Ridge's 1854 novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, which was the first published novel written by a Native American author. The story details the life of the infamous, fictionalized Mexican-American bandit, Joaquin Murieta, as he travels through California during the Gold Rush and commits crimes. While the focal point of this story is Joaquin's trajectory as a civilian to a criminal, the people he interacts with provide the most context about the discriminatory social institutions that were in place during this time period. Unfortunately, although Ridge is the first Native American writer to have published a novel, rather than challenging many of the Anglo-American ideals, he aligns his work with the dominant perspectives that subjugated a wide range of social groups. Specifically, Ridge's portrayal of minority cultures and women aligns with white patriarchal standards that demonstrate his awareness of his audience and, potentially, the prejudices he also maintained. Because Ridge's Cherokee family was involved in a treaty scandal that initiated Indian removal through the Trail of Tears, his background also contributes to complex questions that speculate about this author's detachment from his Native identity. I therefore examine The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta as a complex text that significantly initiates the category of published, Native American literature-though it is simultaneously problematic for its reliance on popular, sensationalist tropes that contribute to a narrative of marginalization and a conquering of minority characters in California. I also compare Ridge's novel to other interpretations of Joaquin Murietta folklore to explain how portrayals of Native Americans have been rewritten and reproduced in these stories.