When I was a child, I became convinced that in a prior life I had been an Indian Princess.
Perhaps I’d seen too many TV Westerns. Maybe it was because my mother grew up on an Indian reservation on farmland leased by my grandparents or perhaps I’d read too many tales of Sacagawea and the Lewis and Clark expedition. Whatever the source of my fantasy, I wept bitter tears at the injustices laid bare in Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. The intricate beadwork of Native American artists awed me and I yearned to have a buckskin dress just like the ones I’d seen in photographs. Even as I write this, I’m wearing a pair of beaded moccasins I’ve had for decades.
Eventually I faced the reality that I was of German, Irish, and Scottish ancestry.
Before my father died, exploring family history was his raison dêtre. It wasn’t easy for him to unravel his past, because of a catastrophic fissure in his personal story from which he never fully recovered. It took extraordinary fortitude and perseverance for him to unearth information about his roots.
Despite this, he slowly pieced together a pedigree chart, including news that my great grandmother was a McCoy, related to the feuding Hatfield and McCoy families of 1880s Kentucky and West Virginia whose accelerating violence prompted the governors of those two states to call out militias to restore order. My kin had always seemed so traditional that I welcomed the idea of a clanking skeleton in the family closet. Here is a group photo of the Hatfield clan. I guess my relatives couldn’t afford the photographer.
In 1996, I saw a father-daughter bonding opportunity and began helping with my dad’s research. The quest for knowledge took me from the National Archives in New York to the LDS family history library in Los Angeles and eventually led me to a great great-grandmother name Susannah Smiley who was born in Hancock County, Tennessee, an impoverished area both then and now. Almost 30% of today’s residents live below the poverty line. The discovery prompted me to wonder. Was this guy a distant relative?
According to census records, Susannah was a weaver who could not read or write. She had four children, including my great grandfather, but I never found evidence that an adult male (read husband) lived in the household. My investigation went cold after I was unable to find additional facts about her. What the heck, I thought, a liberated single mom and a weaver to boot. In my book Susannah rocked.
When my father died, I lost my motivation to follow Susannah’s trail until a few days ago when I received an e-mail from a distant relative, informing me we shared Susannah’s DNA. She sent photographs and evidence of a mysterious lineage.
Apparently, our great grandparents were two of Susannah’s children. She also told me Susannah’s husband was a doctor whose name was Jacob. She, too, could find no evidence that they had ever lived together. Then she dropped a bombshell. She told me Jacob may have been “related to the melungeons.”
Melungeons? I had never heard that term before.
Apparently, Melungeons “are believed to be of mixed European, African, and Native American heritage. In spite of being culturally and linguistically identical to their white neighbors, these multiracial families were of a sufficiently different physical appearance to invite speculation as to their identity and origins…Melungeons themselves claimed to be both Indian and Portuguese.”
Even more shocking, my new-found relative told me her research indicated that Susannah was part Cherokee Indian. She sent me an old photo. True, Susannah looked anything but Swedish, but if my great great-grandmother was part Cherokee then I was too. The realization gave me a woo-woo flashback to that old childhood fantasy.
Regardless of Susannah’s genetic makeup, I have added one more book to my To Be Read pile, one that is guaranteed to cause more bitter tears. Another example of our government at work.
“With the discovery of gold on Cherokee Indian lands in 1828 and Andrew Jackson's 1830 Removal Act, calling for the relocation of all native peoples east of the Mississippi River to Oklahoma, the U. S. government forced the Cherokees from their homes in 1838. Almost 14,000 Cherokees began the trek westward in October of 1838. More than 4,000 died from cold, hunger, and disease during the six-month journey that came to be known as the "Trail of Tears."
Do you have any pedigree skeletons in your closet? Any interesting relatives?
Paul Levine's latest novel ILLEGAL will be released tomorrow. "Inspired by real events, ILLEGAL is a tale of broken borders and shattered hearts. A thriller with a social conscience, the book combines the moral decay of Chinatown with the sudden violence of No Country for Old Men. Woven throughout are the universal themes of love and loss, courage and redemption. And above all, the strength and resilience of family ties."
If you haven't done so already, buy it. And buy Ms. Winspear's AMONG THE MAD while you're at it. I'm going to be at Paulie's signing at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood this Saturday, March 28th at 4:00 p.m. If you're in the neighborhood, come join the party. Here is a complete list of his appearances.
Also, my friend kc dyer has a new book out called A WALK THROUGH THE WINDOW, the story of Darby, "a young girl forced to spend the summer with grandparents she doesn’t know in a place she feels she can never belong. But when a boy down the street extends a hand, it is more than friendship he offers. Together they discover a magical stone window frame that transports them to the very centre of the dramas of our past: the Underground Railroad; the coffin ships of the Irish Potato Famine; and even the Inuit as they crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America." Darby, is interviewing some author friends (including moi) on her very own blog. Check it out.