Red Clay, Running Waters by Leslie K. Simmons is a biographical novel about John Ridge, a Cherokee leader determined to protect his people from the harmful effects of the 1830’s American Indian removal crisis, and his wife, Sarah Northrup, who was white. Readers can purchase the novel here. If you enjoy historical fiction based on U.S. history, this book is for you. If you like reading about the Native American experience in particular, you'll especially like it.
Following a brief prologue, chapter one opens in 1818 with John Ridge leaving his ancestral Cherokee home near modern-day Calhoun, Georgia. At 16, he is on his way to attend a mission boarding school in Cornwall, Connecticut.
John is the son of Chief Kanuntaclage—The Ridge—a highly respected Cherokee warrior and political leader who fought with Andrew Jackson during the Indian Wars, where he earned the rank of major. As the eldest son, John carries the burden of continuing his father’s legacy upon his return from school.
Chief Kanuntaclage—The Ridge (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Raised in the Cherokee way but also educated from a young age by white missionaries, John is adept walking both words. At the mission school, however, he quickly sees how hard it is for whites to accept Indians and begins to wonder if white society will ever view his people as equals. His teachers chastise him for having too much pride in his Indian heritage. Yet he plays the game, knowing that an education is necessary. The Ridges are open-eyed about changes coming to Indian lands and are determined to navigate it successfully.
A medical condition he’d had since childhood that left John with a permanent limp revisits him at school, and he is sent to the home of the school’s steward to recuperate. There he meets the steward’s daughter, Sarah Northrup. Sarah is a bold, outspoken young woman with deep convictions that all are created equal. She does not see John as an Indian but as a man. The two fall in love, and John asks her to be his wife.
Their racial intermarriage is frowned upon by all except John and Sarah’s families, who eventually give their blessing. After John graduates, they marry, and the couple returns to Cherokee land, where the Ridges own a large plantation of peach orchards, animals, and grains. The Ridges are wealthy. Sarah goes from having been a servant at the missionary school where her family served boarding students and faculty to a woman of a grand house complete with servants of her own, along with china and fine furnishings. She didn’t expect the Cherokee Nation to be so advanced in its ways.
And she didn’t expect them to have slaves. The Cherokee have adopted this white institution. Sarah struggles with the irony of Indians, whom white society considers inferior, having slaves. She asks, do the Indians not see their shared plight with Negroes? No one is able to answer this for her. Sarah feels she has no choice but to go along with her new family’s use of slaves, but she adopts a nuanced view, seeing the Negroes as employees rather than as slaves, as do John and the elder Ridges. When John and Sarah establish their own plantation, Running Waters, however, they bring with them the slaves John’s parents gift to them. The morality of slavery is a tension that runs throughout the novel. The abolition movement is on the rise, leaving all Americans having to wrestle with their conscience, Sarah and John among them.
While settling in as a gentleman farmer, John works as a lawyer defending Indian treaty rights. Nature and training have given him the skill of diplomacy, and he is elected to the Cherokee National Committee. Being elected to the Cherokee National Committee is akin to being elected a U.S. Senator. The Cherokee are a sovereign nation with their own form of self-government, complete with democratically elected leaders.
John’s responsibilities take him to Washington, where the Indian Removal Act is under debate. The future John and Sarah imagined for themselves is suddenly under threat. The Act would remove all American Indians east of the Mississippi to desginated areas west of it, stripping them of their ancestral lands and devastating their way of life. John seeks to find a win-win solution. Sarah stands by his side and manages the home front. Politics, however, soon sweeps them up in forces beyond their control when the state of Georgia becomes determined to take over Cherokee lands.
John Ridge (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Leslie K. Simmons is an author who spent decades conducting the research that led to her taking up a novelist’s pen. The book is long at 659 pages, but the breadth and depth of this historical novel set it apart. Simmons takes readers into the little-known story of John and Sarah Ridge by immersing them in facts without letting the finer details become overbearing. In addition to placing people and events in just the right places, she deftly weaves actual letters and news clippings into the narrative, providing readers with yet another portal to being there in real time. Her attention to visual imagery further enables readers to see the story in vivid aspect. Reading it was like watching a mini-series. I could picture everything as it unfolded, as in the example below, when John leaves Sarah to return home. They are just recently engaged. His time away at school has changed him, and we can feel his apprehension as he embarks on his journey:
“Dawn came, misty and damp, a mournful dripping from above. Stomping hooves and jingling harnesses mixed with the scrape of baggage loading on the wagon. John’s head swam somewhere outside his body, the dissonance in his brain deafening, the desire to stay, the need to go, the time past, the time forward, this foreign place, now home, his home, now foreign.”
The story covers decades, and I would have liked to have seen more time and location stamps between scenes. This would have helped me know how much time had passed and more quickly placed me in the setting to which the story had shifted. And there are a lot of characters to keep track of. A section at the end of the book listing them and a brief biography for each would have been helpful. These two things did not distract me from the story, however. I savored every word.
Most of all, the story of John and Sarah Ridge moved me. Admittedly, the novel was hard to read at times. Simmons didn’t hold back on truth telling, nor would we have wanted her to. I walked away with a renewed and deepened sadness over what America's native people have suffered. For this sorrow, I have no words, only empathy and compassion, and hope that something like this never happens again. The injustices the federal government foisted upon the Cherokee (and other native tribes) reveal a gross misuse of power. Lies were told. Truth did not matter. In one passage, as John Ridge contemplates the political machinations around him, his “blood chilled, witness to the splayed underbelly of power, ripped open by the foul workings of personal politics.”
Hard as it is to have to face this tragic period in American history, seeing the governmental manipulation and deception as presented in Red Clay, Running Waters is one reason why this story is so important. It offers a chance for modern readers to look again at the circumstances leading up to the Trail of Tears, a historic tragedy they likely only skimmed the surface of in U.S history class. I can’t count the number of times I looked up people or events noted in the novel. It was like taking a mini-history course.
And we need to learn from the past. As I reflect on Red Clay, Running Waters, I think about today’s fierce political debates and wonder, what will history say two hundred years from now? The Indian Removal Act deeply divided America and passed by a narrow margin. The final outcome was dependent on who was elected president in 1828 and who served in Congress. Had voters granted John Quincy Adams a second term, the Indian Removal Act might never have passed. Had the opposite party prevailed, the outcome in Congress might surely have been different as well. We’ll never know, but it is a reminder how important elections are. Who’s in office truly does matter. The U.S. government has since apologized for the Trail of Tears and other transgressions against it's native people, but the apology came late, and the question remains, are words ever enough?
Leslie K Simmons writes historical fiction about people in the center of defining moments in American history. She grew up in Philadelphia, following in the footsteps of the founding fathers, aspiring to be a Williamsburg re-enactor. A lifelong reader and lover of all things historical, she is fascinated by the lesser-known lives of those who changed history. When I asked her what compelled her to write about John and Sarah Ridge, she said that after decades of researching the Five Civilized Tribes, Indian Removal, the Ridge family, and the Antebellum Era, she followed a path marked by serendipity. “There is always more to learn about the struggles and triumphs of the Cherokee and our [America’s] First Nations people.” John and Sarah Ridge remain controverial figures in the Cherokee community to this day, and she wanted to tell their story. What she hopes modern readers take away from reading Red Clay, Running Waters is a sense of who the Ridges were, what their moral and human struggle might have felt like, and to remind readers there is always another perspective to the stories we accept as true. “Long as it [the book] is,” she says of Red Clay, Running Waters, “read it twice. There’s a lot to unpack, and layers upon layers. It’s quite clear history repeats itself. It’s not just the famous people who make history: everyone leaves a legacy.”
I couldn’t agree more. If you’d like to connect with this author, you can follow her blog at this link. Thank you to Leslie Simmons for providing me with an advance reader copy of Red Clay, Running Waters. Comments are welcome below.
If you're like me, always looking for the next book to read, check out the new book lists I've started on my website, one for biographical fiction—those novels based on real people from the past—and my other list for what I call straight up historical fiction. I'll be adding titles weekly.
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