Monday, March 23, 2009

In search of myself

Patricia Smiley here…

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.”

A Melungeon Family

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?

Happy Monday!


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.


  1. Enjoyed your post on the possible Melungeon connection in your family.

    You will also want to read N. Brent Kennedy's book - The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People.

    There may be some health issues connected to the Melungeons and others from the Appalachian areas. Please see my blog for some data on the illness that I share with lots of other Appalachian folks - called Familial Mediterranean Fever - My ancestry is documented about 300 years in Appalachia:

    I also have some other info on the following health site:

    The Melungeon Health Education and Support Network:

    A Melungeon mailing list that is family friendly - to join, see:

    Reading the clues - a recent interview I gave my local paper:
    Genealogy research helps unravel a mystery of Appalachian medicine:

    Melungeon Printed Resources:

    ONE HUNDRED and SIXTY-NINE Melungeon and associated websites:

    Melungeon Definition:
    Also includes several urls.

    Melungeon Information and Common Surname List:

    Diagrams of physical characteristics

    Fibromyalgia in YOUR family? Inherited? Maybe!!

    Love and health in family ties,
    (Nancy Sparks Morrison)

    Sparks Genealogy:
    (Select: Index/Nancy's Corner/The Melungeon Connection)
    (Select: Index/The Melungeon Media Release)


  2. Wow, Nancy. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for the info. It's truly amazing to me that I have never heard of the Melungeons. I did see references to Mediterranean Fever when I was surfing the Internet but didn't have time to thoroughly check it out.

  3. Funny thing, but generally the Brits aren't really as interested as Americans, when it comes to ancestry. We're all a bit of invading this and invading that - Saxons, Vikings, Visigoths - you name 'em, they came in and had their way with the gene pool.

    I do, however, know that my great-grandfather was French, and that he was something of a bigamist. And I don't know if this is true, but according to family lore, one of his French daughters was murdered by the serial killer "Bluebeard" who terrorized women in early 1900's Paris.

    I always wanted to be related to Audrey Hepburn - who wouldn't want to share those genes?

    Thoughtful post, Our Patty - you Melungeon, you!

    Sorry I won't be there on Saturday, but I'm off to Old Blighty tomorrow. Have a great time!

  4. Oh, my. Bluebeard? How exciting. I always think of the Brits as a homogeneous bunch but of course, we're all a mixture of this and that, aren't we?

    Have a great trip, Our J.

  5. And what, pray tell, is a Visigoth?

  6. My kids' pedigree from my wife and I is interesting to me. German on my side and Polish on my wife's side. In the past they haven't mixed so well.

    Paul has a new book? Wow, I didn't realize it.


  7. Yeah, Paulie has a new book but I actually wrote it for him. Don't tell anyone, though.

  8. Ms. Smiley,
    As your barrister, I will seek to recover any and all monies to which you may or may not be entitled to from casino revenue on Cherokee reservations. Further, I believe you are entitled to royalties from the song "Cherokee Nation" by Paul Revere and the Raiders.

    You're welcome,
    Paul J. Levine, Esq.

  9. Good job, Paulie. That's why I pay you the big bucks.

  10. probably because i'm just german as far as we traced our family back, that i always find it very interessting to see what comes out of gods great big melting pot.

    at least our kids are german and scottish with a bit of english on the side.

    patty, the visigoths are a devision of the goths and one of the six major german tribes. no, i didn't know that either - i googled it because i always wondered what it is that runs through jackies vains!

    fantastic post,

  11. Sybille, after all those jaunts out with the girls in your VW Beetle, you are still wondering what runs through my veins???

  12. Sybille, I'm totally German on my mother's side of the family but my dad's gene pool, as you can see, is a bit murkier.

    I always lusted after a VW convertible. Maybe someday...

  13. yes patty, but it would have to be one of the old/original convertible beetles. the new ones are nice, too, but as they say - you can never go back.

    oh jacky, how could i forget our drives through the london rush-hour and how well my little orange jery k. (for "kraut") beetle suited you!

    btw, my smartass nephew gave me the german word for visigoths. so now i really know what you are made of and i'm not quiter sure wether i should be scared of you or worship the ground you walk on, lol.

    wiedersehen, sybille

  14. oops, jacky?
    sorry, jackie!
    the kids are in the middle of cooking dinner and corinne keeps asking me which pasta she should use. so my concentration wasn't all there and i can't even use my usual excuse that my little fat fingers always hit two keys at the same time because the "y" is too far away from the "ie"

    anyway, welcome to the old world my friend. enjoy your stay and bring us some sunshine!


  15. Sybille, I almost bought one of the new ones when they first came out and in lime green, no less. But it wasn't the lime green I remembered from the old days (too minty) and the car itself just wasn't quite right, so I cancelled my order. The original Bugs ROCKED!

  16. right on, patty!!!