Despite being the first Native American to author a novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854), John Rollin Ridge and his writings have long troubled scholars. Ridge’s focus on Mexican Americans, racist portrayal of California Indians, and embrace of US belonging refuse easy analysis within the single identity category-focused frameworks of Native studies and Chicanx studies, and his presence in gold rush California as a Cherokee settler complicates scholarly approaches to the racial history of California. This essay uses a historicized engagement with racial formation theory to reevaluate Ridge’s work, including his novel, newspaper article in The True Daily Delta, and Hesperian magazine articles. Diverging from prior scholarship that reads Ridge’s work through the lens of present-day racial categories, this study approaches racial categories as shifting, connected to structures of power, and imbricated with gender to understand how Ridge thought of himself in relation to both California Indians and Mexican Americans and how he tried to intervene into the American racial discourse. Ridge desired recognition and inclusion from the US settler state, and he used hegemonic notions of masculinity to make his case. This prompted him to distance himself from those unable to conform to standards of appropriate manhood. I contend that Ridge’s desire for recognition led him to suggest that his own Cherokee people were more closely related to Mexican Americans than to California Indians. The complexity of Ridge’s stance and racial positioning in California demonstrate the possibilities of a reading practice informed by a relational approach to racial formation.

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