Buried in an unexpected corner of the National Archives – in the “Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury” – are some of the most detailed eyewitness accounts of the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” on which about 12,000 Cherokees were forced by a fraudulent treaty to leave their ancestral home in the southern Appalachians and march a thousand miles west to Oklahoma.
These long-overlooked documents describe in granular detail the difficult conditions of that cruel trek across the country in the winter of 1838-1839 – harsh cold and snow, sudden melts and flooding rivers, delays, and food shortages. They’re tucked away in the records of the Treasury because, unsurprisingly, the costs of moving, feeding, and ensuring the safety of thousands of people on a forced march in winter escalated far beyond what the federal government had budgeted. Chief John Ross and his brother Lewis, who were permitted by the US to in charge of the Removal in hopes it would make the Cherokees more willing to remove, were initially denied payment for the cost overruns. They appealed the decision and made their case through depositions by eyewitnesses.
One of the most dramatic depositions came from Thomas B. Emmerson, a white man from east Tennessee hired by Lewis Ross to be the “commissary agent” for one of the dozen wagon trains, called “detachments,” that led the Cherokees to the west. This detachment (led by an Anglo-Cherokee named James Brown) was made up of about 800 people and half that many animals – horses and oxen that hauled the wagons. Emmerson, with no storage capacity, had the difficult job of keeping all the humans and animals fed each day.
Even though he bought only three basic foodstuffs – corn meal, wheat flour, and bacon – his deposition tells of shortages and the extravagant prices he had to pay on the road due to harsh weather, local crop failures, and price gougers. His statement also offers a devastating account of the conditions the Cherokees had to endure on the long march, even when those in charge were doing their utmost to try to make the journey safe.
Emmerson started his narrative when they left their camp near Chattanooga, Tennessee on October 25, 1838. Dozens of wagons carried food, blankets, camp supplies, and those Cherokees who were too aged, weak, or young to march. They took a northern route through Nashville Tennessee, Hopkinsville Kentucky, and up to Illinois. Along the way they had to cross three major rivers (on ferries) – the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi – and to ford innumerable streams and smaller waterways. In perfect conditions it took them two and a half days simply for the whole detachment to cross the Tennessee; the Ohio took more than a week due to high winds and a burst boiler on one of the ferry boats. But that was nothing compared to what they would face in southern Illinois as they neared the Mississippi River. On Christmas day, winter crashed down on them with a blizzard that stopped them in their tracks. Emmerson wrote:
“The snow being very deep, the conductor deemed it dangerous to travel as the roads were in the most desperate order & the dangerous places thus covered with snow, which rendered it impossible to see them. The Detachment consequently remained in camp until the morning of the 3rd of January up to which time the most excessive cold weather was experienced.”
When the weather warmed a bit, Brown ordered the march to continue, but this was done, Emmerson said,
“at the imminent hazard of the lives of those who were in the wagons. The road being entirely covered with frozen snow & ice, several of the wagons were upset [i.e. turned over] by sliding from the road in steep places. The next day the conductor thought it best to remain in camp as the roads were no better, the snow & ice still remaining.”
Meanwhile, Emmerson wrote,
“I had great difficulty in procuring the regular supplies. Nothing but the most extravagant prices would induce persons to haul [food] to us, so cold was the weather & so bad the roads. By constant exertion & extravagant offers I was enabled to furnish regular supplies…”
Eventually when those supplies ran out, he had to buy “corn on the stalk as it stood in the field,” which turned out to be strangely plentiful in Illinois in early January. Then the weather suddenly turned warm – good news you would think, except that it released an avalanche of ice in the Mississippi River.
“The ice in the river above us gave way & on the morning of the 7th was coming down in such quantity as to render it impassable. The ice continued running for several days which prevented our crossing until the evening of the 9th when crossing was again commenced. The last of the Detachment finally got over on the evening of the 11th.”
That was not the end of their ordeal, however. Next came the rain.
“For two days, after we crossed the river, it continued to rain so incessantly that the conductor did not think it prudent to leave the camp. [On the] 14th, the ground having become so thoroughly wet, rendered traveling almost impossible, several wagons having sunk so deep in the ground as to make it impossible for the teams to draw them. Others mired down on the road & remained all night in that condition. So muddy was the road that up to the 19th the Detachment had only been able to travel 16 miles [from the Mississippi].”
Eventually the road got easier. But Emmerson had to pay ever steeper prices as they moved through Missouri to the Arkansas territory. Finally in early March they arrived at their destination in present-day Oklahoma.
The horrific conditions in December and January must have taken their toll in human life. On their own ancestral land, the Cherokees had generational knowledge of how to survive harsh weather and even famine conditions, but they did so with a deep knowledge of their local environment and forest resources that could carry them through the disasters of war and nature. The Trail of Tears, however, was unlike anything they had experienced. They were herded into wagon trains, unable to freely hunt or forage, dependent on official suppliers for their diet and their medicine. And, even if they had been allowed to forage and hunt, the terrain and plants were unknown to them.
It is impossible now to know how many Cherokees succumbed to exposure, fatigue, and illness along the way. The stated numbers are unreliable. For example, Emmerson reported over one hundred more Cherokees on the detachment than the figure usually cited – which tells us that the official numbers were significantly off. As demographers have demonstrated, the overall death toll of this forced march into exile was far larger than the official statistics show. The toll on the survivors, likewise, is immeasurable. But documents like Emmerson’s help us understand, at least a little better, what they experienced.
With permission from the Museum of the Cherokee, we are posting our article from the most recent issue of the Journal of Cherokee Studies (vol XXXIV, Summer 2019): 36-47. This is a preview of sorts of our book to come; stay tuned for much more.
By Elizabeth Avery Thomas and Kirk Savage
In 2015, Michell Hicks, the former chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, wrote a preface to a novel about my great-great grandfather, which began, “William Holland Thomas has long held a place of honor among our people, but what we know of his life is a blend of fact and fiction.” For Hicks the most problematic fiction was the elevation of Thomas to the status of “white chief.” The myth effectively put the Cherokees in a subservient role, “as though our friendship with him was valid only if he held that title.”2
As a child I was raised on myths about Will Thomas, the more fantastical the better. There was one about Will taking twenty bags of gold to Washington to pay for the Cherokee lands and how we would be millionaires if the government ever paid us back. There was another about us being part Cherokee and how my lawyer grandfather had destroyed all the evidence because of anti-miscegenation laws. And, of course, there was the myth about Will Thomas being the chief of the Cherokees. I believed them all because I was a kid and because that was what loved and trusted grownups told me. There are, in fact, important truths to be found in these long-held myths, but usually these truths are less about the story’s subject than its teller.
In researching and writing a new history of Will Thomas and his world, I have come to see how the white-chief myth was born in my family, took root in a world that was eager to believe it, and erased not only the truth about the Cherokees but also the truth about Will Thomas himself. In deconstructing the myth, I have begun to know the complex man my great-great grandfather truly was and to see more clearly the fascinating world in which he lived.
William Holland Thomas, born to a penniless single mother in Buncombe County, North Carolina in 1805, had, over the course of his long life, many identities: he was poor and rich; a country boy and an urbane gentleman; a white man and an adopted Cherokee. But of all the things he truly was, the identity that has adhered most firmly to him is something he never was: the white chief of the Cherokees. In its fully elaborated form, the story claimed that Will succeeded to the chiefdom at the urging of his adopted father, Yonaguska, on his deathbed, after the Cherokee chief had successfully led his band to evade removal in the late 1830s and to stay on their ancestral land in North Carolina. The myth took shape long after these events of 1838-39 had passed, in second-hand accounts written by whites for white audiences. Once in print, these accounts were transformed from hearsay to “documents” and from documents into fact. To tell a more authentic history of the Cherokees, we have to deconstruct these kinds of “documents” and look at other sources, starting with the voices of the Cherokee people themselves.
It is telling that the one surviving eyewitness account of Yonaguska’s death, which can shed so much light on the subsequent myth, has never been published and never even been seriously examined in histories of Will Thomas and the Eastern Band – although it is preserved in the archives of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This beautiful brief account of Yonaguska’s life and his death comes from Yonaguska’s brother Wilnota, and was transcribed into English in 1844. It ends with an extraordinary vision of “God” sitting at Yonaguska’s deathbed and, as it comes to a close, we get a glimpse of Yonaguska in his world:
He then became speechless & departed with adding “now, now, now,” andshook hands with his daughter & then handed his hand all around him in like manner & with a smile raised his hand towards heaven and breathed his last.3
What Wilnota does not say – and what Yonaguska does not do – is highly significant. Nowhere in the entire account does Yonaguska give any orders of succession, for anyone. Nor is any mention made of Will Thomas, who at the time Yonaguska died was probably at the Cherokee agency in Tennessee doing what he did best – business for the North Carolina Cherokees. In Wilnota’s eyewitness account, the myth of the white chief is nowhere to be found.
THE ORIGIN OF THE MYTH
The white-chief myth was built over time by three white informants who had known Will and talked to him about his life with the Cherokees. In each of these sources it is not easy to disentangle what Will may have told them from what they embroidered or even fabricated outright. Like a game of historical telephone, we can see the story shifting over time, taking agency away from the Cherokees and transferring it to the white man, Will Thomas.
The first source, and the only one published in Will’s lifetime, was Charles Lanman’s popular travelogue, Letters from the Alleghany Mountains (1849). Lanman was a journalist, and it is clear from reading his account that both Will and the Cherokees orchestrated virtually every detail of Lanman’s visit. It was an elaborate show of assimilation designed to camouflage the Cherokees’ real goal of maintaining their traditional life on their ancestral land. Lanman was delighted by this show of “civilization,” but in his account we can catch oblique glimpses of the careful line Will and the Qualla Cherokee were treading in this bit of public relations:
The Indians of this district, having formed themselves into a regular company, with appropriate regulations, they elected an old friend of theirs, named William H. Thomas … to become their business chief, so that the connection now existing between the two parties is that of father and children.4
The sentence starts by acknowledging the local Cherokees as a self-governing group, but ends with the reassuringly paternalist formula of Will as their father.5 In between, the term business chief limits Will’s role and suggests that the Cherokee have some independence, but not too much.
The first time, however, that Will was claimed, in print, to be a full-fledged political chief of the Cherokees is in a short biographical article published in 1899 by Will’s daughter, Sallie Thomas Avery. She wrote that sometime after Will’s adoption her father became “the adviser in all the business of the tribe, and was soon declared to be their head-chief.”6 While Lanman had conflated Will’s business role with the idea of the chief, Sallie Avery separated the two. In her formulation, the role of “head-chief” clearly exceeded and superseded his business role as advisor.
The next and most influential iteration came from James Mooney’s landmark book, Myths of the Cherokee, first published a year after Sallie’s essay, with an acknowledgement to her.7 As an anthropologist working for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology, Mooney spoke to both Cherokee and white informants, but he was most profoundly affected by a long conversation he had with Will in the insane asylum where Will had been living for almost twenty years. Mooney actually left us two texts to consider: the notes he took while interviewing Will, and the book he wrote from those notes. At times the two versions are in conflict.
In his notes Mooney wrote that, at his death, Yonaguska “left word for Thomas to advise [the] Indians in his place.” This vague statement can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it does point firmly to Will as an advisor. In his book, however, Mooney extravagantly embellished that modest account:
Extended on a couch, [Yonaguska] made a last talk to his people, commending Thomas to them as their chief and again warning them against ever leaving their own country. Then wrapping his blanket around him, he quietly lay back and died.8
In Wilnota’s first-hand account, Yonaguska made none of these declarations; his vision was spiritual, not political. Mooney’s version not only strays markedly from the eyewitness account but also transforms his own notes in two key ways: first by changing the message from a communication to Will into a directive to the Cherokees; and then by changing Will’s role from trusted advisor to the more exalted status of chief. Mooney underscored this transformation by adding that, after Yonaguska’ s death, the Cherokees “knew no other chief than Thomas until his retirement from active life.”9 Mooney’s claim of “no other chief” is all the more stunning given that he talked to Cherokees who actually were chiefs, and that he did know something about how the Cherokee governed themselves. But his version of events is even less plausible if we look more closely at the world Yonaguska and his adopted son knew.
YONAGUSKA AND THE ROLE OF THE CHEROKEE CHIEF
Yonaguska was, first and foremost, proudly and almost militantly traditional. He was born before the American Revolution at the mythic heart of the Cherokee world, in the sacred mother town of Kituhwa, at a time when the only whites who dared to enter their world were traders. Just as he refused to leave his ancestral land, he steadfastly refused to speak English or adopt Christianity.
Yonaguska made it his life’s work to keep his people on their land and to protect and promote the Cherokees’ right to continue to live according to their ancient customs. According to Cherokee origin stories, the Great Buzzard had made the valleys and the mountains where they came to be as a people. For the Cherokee, and specifically for Yonaguska, Cherokee traditions of place, language, belief, ritual and governance were all inextricably bound together into their collective identity. This is why he – and after him, Will – worked so desperately hard to keep the mountain Cherokee on their ancestral land and to reestablish a version of traditional Cherokee town governance.10
The primary unit of Cherokee governance was the town, which was governed by a council that was, effectively, the people of the town. The chief presided over the town council, in which all could participate. Council decisions were made by a formalized process of coming to consensus. Everyone could discuss and debate until there was general agreement among them. While an important function of the chief was to speak, and sometimes even try to persuade, ultimately his job was to articulate the will of the council, which was indivisible from the will of the town and its people. “His authority [never] extended beyond specific instructions issued by the council on each occasion,” according to the leading scholar on the subject. Headman was the term the Cherokees themselves used, which represents much better this position that had no coercive power and answered to the collective will.11
By all indications, Yonaguska’s mountain-dwelling Cherokees – later known as the Qualla Cherokees, the forerunners of the Eastern Band – took this governance system very seriously. The Qualla Cherokees were considered, even by other Cherokees, to be the most traditional and “backward” of the tribe because they were the least assimilated into Anglo-American culture.12 Yonaguska would most certainly not have betrayed all he believed in, lived by, and worked for in order to run roughshod over consensus governance and autocratically choose a new chief for his town. And even if he had, his people would not have accepted it.
WILL AND HIS WORK FOR THE CHEROKEES
Just as the Qualla Cherokees’ own beliefs and practices make the succession story implausible, the patterns of Will’s work life were also plainly inconsistent with the nature of a chief’s job. To fulfill the most basic requirement of that office, which was to preside over the town council, the chief or headman had to be present in the community and at councils. Will did participate in councils, particularly when he had business to present. But his attendance was, we know, intermittent at best. By the accounts in his own daily business diaries, he was constantly on the move. He often rode as much as twenty-five miles a day attending court sessions, overseeing his various stores, managing road projects, as well as working on Cherokee matters. His work on behalf of the Cherokees also took him away to Washington, sometimes for years at a time. Although he always remained active in the life of the Qualla Cherokee, at the most basic level he could not have been their chief simply because he was not with them much of the time.
Furthermore, while we often see in the diaries that he was “attending to the business of the Indians,” or “making out claims,” or “buying land for the Indians,” he never noted that he presided over council meetings. He always “attended” them. On one emergency occasion, he “sent for the chiefs” and “started to call a council”; he noted the next day that they had “consented to hold a council.” Even here in a personal document meant only for his eyes or his clerk’s, he was careful to distinguish his own standing from the chiefs’ and to observe the traditional procedures of governance that remained firmly in place.13
This pattern holds in all the public documents produced by Will and the Cherokees themselves. Before his decline into insanity, Will never called himself a chief in public. When he introduced himself, shortly after Yonaguska’s death, to Hartley Crawford, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, he identified himself as “the constituted agent or attorney in fact for most of the Cherokees remaining in the States of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee authorized by them to settle all their business with the United States arising under the treaty of 1835 and 1836.” Crawford in turn treated Will as a legal representative and later as a disbursing agent working as a liaison between the U.S. government and the eastern Cherokees.14 In Will’s various petitions to Congress he would call himself an “attorney” for the Cherokees east and an “adopted Cherokee.” In one such petition of 1846, he described himself as the “adopted son” of “a distinguished chief of [Qualla] town by the name of Yamaguska [Yonaguska].” Decades later, when he responded to a lawsuit filed against him, he asserted that he had acted for the Cherokees under powers of attorney that “were signed by the chiefs and head men and a great many of the prominent individual Indians on behalf of themselves and the balance of the tribe.”15
The Cherokees in turn never called Will their chief. In their various petitions and powers of attorney written in the 1840s and 1850s, they clearly laid out the nature of the relationship. In 1841, for example, the Qualla Cherokees submitted a power of attorney that Will delivered to the Office of Indian Affairs. In it they presented themselves as the “chiefs and heads of Cherokee families,” again putting the lie to Mooney’s claim that “the band knew no other chief than Thomas.” They referred to Will as their “long tried and worthy friend (or Willosteka), an adopted Cherokee.”16 One hundred and twenty Cherokees signed the document. The signatory at the top of the list was Flying Squirrel indicating his status as what we would call “head chief.” [See illustration at top of post for another example dated 1845.]17
When Will wrote to the Qualla Cherokees from 1839 into the 185Os, he often addressed his letters to “the Cherokee chiefs” or “chiefs and people.” After Qualla Town formalized its sub-towns, he would write “to the chiefs and Cherokee Indians of Paint, Wolf, Deer, Bird, and Pretty Woman Towns.” These long letters did not condescend in any way to his Cherokee correspondents. He carefully explained his activities on their behalf and the political negotiations going on in Washington – writing in great detail, as one member of a group does to others. He often did close the letters with advice, harkening back to the theater of assimilation they all engaged in for Lanman’ s benefit. He advised them to be temperate, peaceable, honest, and industrious, and “lay by your corn in such a manner as superior to the whites.” Will was reminding them to be what we would call today a “model minority.” He did so because they still remained under threat of removal, from both the federal government and from local whites who continually petitioned the state legislature to get rid of the Cherokees. Will did not want to give these hostile forces any additional ammunition.18 To maintain their language, customs, and governance, the local Cherokees found it increasingly necessary to present an exemplary face of good citizenship to the white world.
In his relations with the tribe, it is clear that he knew his place among them and not only adhered to that place but valued and respected it. Among whites like Lanman, Will typically kept a low profile, letting the Cherokees and their accomplishments speak for themselves. But when it served the group’s larger interests, Will too would participate in the theater of assimilation by assuming a more paternalistic stance. For instance, in a lengthy 1845 newspaper article on the Qualla Cherokees that was reprinted nationwide, deep in the second column account Will inserted the nugget that Yonaguska at his death “assigned the care of his people” to “an orphan boy, who became an adopted Cherokee.” While the word chief remained unsaid, Will was clearly playing to a sentimental paternalism to reassure the publication’s national audience that the Indians were under appropriate white guidance. 19
The only time that Will – in his right mind – ever used the word chief in association with himself was in private correspondence to his bride-to-be, Sallie Love, in 1857. He wrote, “I look forward [to] the time when we will ride through [the Qualla Cherokees’] settlement on our way to our mountain home, when you will witness the affection of these people for their ‘so-called Chief.'” The Love family were among the wealthiest of the local white elite, and Sallie Love had led a very protected life. Though she spent her entire life in western North Carolina, she never interacted with the Cherokee before she met Will. When he brought her to a Cherokee dance, she was extremely uncomfortable. It seems likely, then, that by calling himself the “so-called chief” Will was suggesting a hierarchical framework that would be recognizable and palatable to her, without fully claiming the title.20
THE WHITE CHIEF AND WHITE SUPREMACY
The evidence is voluminous and compelling. No one – not Will, not the Cherokee, not the Commissioner of Indian Affairs – saw or represented Thomas as the chief or even a chief. Why then has the myth proved to be so durable for so long?
An answer starts to emerge in the mindset of Will’s daughter Sallie, whose article was the first to declare Will the Qualla Cherokees’ “head chief.” Sallie was born in October 1861, five months after the start of the Civil War. The war was a dramatic turning point, a breaking point even, in Will’s life. Before he went to war for the Confederacy, he was a calm, affable, and non-confrontational man. Whether that was because he spent much of his life hiding his mixed Cherokee white identity from the world, or because he absorbed the Cherokee harmony ethic from his adopted people, we cannot know. But before the Civil War he was the kind of man who, watching hostile militia tear down his store during the Cherokee removal, stayed utterly calm and treated his aggressors “with friendship.”21
Sallie Thomas Avery never knew that man. He went to war before she was born and, when the war ended, he was insane. One of the ways his insanity manifested itself was in delusions of grandeur. In an 1868 letter to the Cherokee Nation, he signed himself “Will Ooh-coo-wi-you-hih” (in Cherokee, “u gv wi yu hi”), which translates as chief.22 That same year he claimed to be “a lineal descendant of Pocahontas[,] the King of the Cherokees of which tribe all others were but tributary.” That was the man that Sallie Thomas knew – a man who could be wild, unpredictable, and given to insane flights of self-aggrandizement.23 It seems likely that she, and Mooney after her, chose to believe at least one part of his delusion, his assumption of the mantle of white chief.
But this begs the question why she did so, knowing that her father was insane. Her own life and its social context can help us understand. She came of age after Reconstruction, when elite white Southerners reestablished their power by enforcing racial segregation and black disenfranchisement, which they justified on an openly stated platform of white supremacy. In 1888 Sallie Thomas married Alphonso Calhoun Avery, a former slaveowner, Confederate officer, and leader of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan. By then he was also a State Supreme Court justice.24
Though unable to vote herself, Sallie Avery was deeply involved in the politics of white supremacy. She wrote letters exhorting the men in her life to stay true to the Democratic Party and the white supremacist rallying cry. She joined the United Daughters of the Confederacy and was involved with them in reframing the cause of the Civil War from slavery to “states’ rights,” and in erecting Confederate monuments to codify that new history.25 Sallie, whose father had been the devoted son of a Cherokee man and member of the tribe, had to find a way to fit that aspect of his life into her world view of strict racial hierarchy. The only way she could do that was to see her father as their leader. Will Thomas, adopted Cherokee, was recast as Will Thomas, Chief of the Cherokees and benevolent savior of a backward benighted people. That new Will also fit nicely with the white-supremacist rhetoric that Sallie and her husband shared, of the “good master” who brought Christianity and civilization to enslaved Africans and to “suffering Indians” as well.
In 2015, I attended a reenactment of the final skirmish between Will Thomas’ Legion and the Union troops of Lieutenant William Bartlett, which had led to the (supposed) “last shot fired” in the Civil War. As I was waiting for the reenactment to begin, I wondered if the Will Thomas we would see would be the true Will as he appeared on the day of the surrender – deranged, stripped to the waist, and smeared with war paint.26 Unsurprisingly, the Will Thomas the reenactors presented was the sanitized Colonel Thomas, fully dressed, fully sane, gallant, and brave. That Will Thomas, the Confederate Colonel and White Chief, is beloved in the white imagination: he gives them (us) an unthreatening model of interracial relations, with whites in power and brown people grateful and subservient; he tells us we are benevolent civilizers rather than rapacious colonizers.
Sallie’s statement that her father was “declared head chief,” and its embellishment soon after by James Mooney into “the only chief they knew,” took root in this collective white imagination and was then repeated so often that it has erased the truth. Will Thomas was many things to the Cherokees: he was taken in as a son, a member of their tribe and their kin networks; he was their agent and attorney; and most importantly, he was the tireless defender of his adopted father’s vision of keeping his people on their ancestral land. The term that sums all that up best is the quiet, unassuming description that the Cherokees themselves used – their “long tried and worthy friend.”
1 Though both authors worked equally on this piece, we have chosen to narrate this from Elizabeth’s point of view since it is about her family and her reckoning with them.
2 Robert Conley, Wil Usdi: Thoughts from the Asylum, A Cherokee Novella (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), xi. More recently, Andrew Denson has challenged the “white chief” myth and asserted that it would be more accurate “to describe him as their legal representative and interlocutor when dealing with non-Indians”; Denson, Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest Over Southern Memory (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 42-43.
3 Wilnota, “The Life and Memory and Death of my brother Yonah Guskah,” February 21, 1844, Catalog No. 815, National Park Collections Preservation Center, Townsend, TN. The handwriting may be that of Samuel Sherrill, clerk for Will Thomas at his Qualla Town store.
4 Charles Lanman, Letters from the Alleghany Mountains (New York: Putnam, 1849), 94.
5 While the term “father” was often given to the U.S. President in treaty language and petitions, the Cherokee did, in fact, use familial titles such as “father” as expressions of inter-generational respect within their own community; William Harlen Gilbert, Jr., Eastern Cherokee Social Organization (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1934), 41, 82-83.
6 Sallie Thomas Avery, North Carolina University Magazine, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 5 (May 1899): 292. One additional early textual source we have found is a little-known history of the Cheraw tribe published in 1867, in which Will Thomas is identified as the “head man, or chief” of a small group of Catawbas in western North Carolina who had left South Carolina and joined with the Qualla Cherokees; Alexander Gregg, History of the Old Cheraws: Containing an Account of the Aborigines of the Pedee (New York: Richardson and Co, 1867), 3. Thomas did in fact help arrange the Catawbas’ move to North Carolina but did not call himself their chief or headman.
7 James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900), 162. Mooney corresponded with Sallie Avery about her father’s biographical details; Mooney to Mrs. Avery, November 19, 1890, William Holland Thomas Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
8 Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee, 163.
9 Mooney, Myths, 161.
10 Yonaguska was non-literate, and reliable sources on him are scanty. Our biography uncovers some new material, but the outlines of his perspective can be seen in Lanman’s account of a remarkable speech he gave during the removal period, which was probably recited to Lanman by either Will or one of the local Cherokee elders; see Letters from the Alleghany Mountains, 108-110.
11 John Phillip Reid, A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation (New York: New York University Press, 1970), 50-52 (quotation on 52). On Cherokee governance, see also John R. Finger, The Eastern Band of Cherokees, 1819-1900 (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1984), 4-5, 67.
12 Finger, Eastern Band of Cherokees, 13-14, 42. The long-running federal agent for the Cherokees, Col. Return J. Meigs, wrote that the mountains were a “nursery of savage habits,” Meigs to Benjamin Hawkins, February 13, 1805, available at: https://www.fold3. com/image/260/205473910.
13 For example, January-February 1844, October 22, 1841, December 11, 1841, February 18, 1852, April 1, 1852. The emergency council meeting is noted December 18-20, 1841. All diaries are in the Museum of the Cherokee, with accompanying transcriptions.
14 Thomas to Hartley Crawford, May 20, 1839, National Archives, M234 Reel 83.
15 “Memorial of the Cherokee Indians Residing in North Carolina,” June 25, 1846, Senate Document 408, 29th Congress, 1st Session, 23, available at: http://toto.lib.unca.edu/ booklets/memorial_cherokee/default_memorial_cherokee.htm; “Separate answer of Wm. H. Thomas to the Bill of Complaint of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians,” June 28, 1873, Equity Case 701 (1874), U.S. Circuit Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Asheville Term, Record Group 21, National Archives at Atlanta.
16 Will was sometimes referred to by the Cherokee name “Wil-usdi.” “Will-osteka” may be a variant of that [usdiga] or another name for him.
17 Thomas to Crawford, November 13, 1841, enclosing power of attorney from the Qualla Cherokee, National Archives, M234 Reel 85. See also, for example, Memorial of the Qualla and Buffalo Indians, January 1, 1845, in 28th Congress, 2nd session, Senate Document 90; original in Record Group 46, National Archives [see illustration at top of article].
18 Thomas to Chiefs of the Qualla Town Cherokees, January 11, 1840, Letterbook 1839- 40, University of Tennessee; Thomas to Cherokee Chiefs and people of Qualla Town, June 25, 1845, and Thomas to chiefs and Cherokee Indians, March 6, 1850, both in Equity Case 701 (1874), National Archives at Atlanta; Thomas to the Cherokees at Qualla Town, July 12, 1839, Letterbook 1839-40.
19 Raleigh Weekly Standard, June 4, 1845, 1, reprinted from the Washington Union.Thomas to Sally Avery, January 4, 1857, William Holland Thomas Papers, Duke University, Microfilm reel 1.
20 Thomas to to Sally Avery, January 4, 1857, William Holland Thomas Papers, Duke University, Microfilm reel 1.
21 Statement of Capt. Moses Cunningham, enclosed in letter from Thomas to Governor Dudley, October 29, 1837, Thomas Papers, Duke University.
22 Letter to the Cherokees of the Cherokee Nation West, November 15, 1868, Thomas Papers, Duke University, Microfilm reel 3; the letter is signed by sixteen Cherokees and Will Ooh-coo-wi-you-hih at top. Many thanks to Bo Lossiah for transcribing this into Cherokee phonetics and translating it.
23 The Pocahontas claim comes from trial testimony recorded in Thomas v Everett, Jackson County Civil Actions, 1891, at: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:l:33S7- 916D-37N?i= 704&cc= 1916185&cat=2013489. The testimony recounts many other examples of grandiose delusions continuing long after the Civil War.
24 Avery’s activism for the Klan in the 1860s and 1870s is proudly recounted in Josephus Daniels, ”Address by Josephus Daniels on Presentation of a Portrait of the Late Judge Alphonso Calhoun Avery,” April 11, 1933, published in North Carolina Reports 204: 824-825.
25 One representative letter to her husband urges her male relatives to hold the line for the Democratic party against the “gold bugs” and explains that “I wanted you and Joe to stand by “White Supremacy and the white metal [silver]”; letter from Sallie to A.C. Avery, May 1, 1896, in authors’ collection.
26 Philip Gerard, “Little Will’s Cherokee Legion,” Our State, 80 (September 2012): 70; William Williams Stringfield, Memoirs of the Civil War, 75, manuscript, Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library, at: http://cmdc.knoxlib.org/cdm/re:Ucollection/p15136coll4/id/1624. Will showed up for the surrender parley with twenty Cherokee warriors, and it is not entirely clear from the Stringfield memoir whether both Will and the warriors were bare-chested and painted. There is every likelihood, however, since it is clear that he was in a manic state at the time. Testimony from James Terrell in a later court case indicates that “he grew very much excited[,] vowed he would never give up – that he was dictator of W.N.C. [western North Carolina] and intended to make a Switzerland out of it and be President”; Thomas v Everett, Jackson County Civil Actions, 1891. Testimony from that case also verifies that he did strip and paint himself on other occasions.
During the writing of this book I’ve thought a lot about heroes – who gets to be one and who doesn’t, whose story gets told and whose doesn’t. We’ve come across so many amazing stories that will only be told in passing or in footnotes in our book. Like this one.
In 1815, Big Bear, the Headman of the mountain Cherokees, wrote a letter to President James Madison asking for someone who knew their regional issues and needs to be assigned as their federal agent. Reasonable request, right? Madison never answered it. So in January of 1816, he and the other chiefs wrote another letter. To ensure Madison received it, they got two men, Roman Nose and Junaluska, to volunteer to hand deliver it. Roman Nose was a local headman and Junaluska was a seriously badass warrior who had saved Andrew Jackson’s bacon (and maybe his life) during the battle of Horseshoe Bend!
Think about what those two men did and how they did it. This trip – in JANUARY, from the mountains of North Carolina to Washington DC – was 500 miles each way. On horseback it would have taken a *minimum* of 20 days to get to Washington. I say on horseback, rather than by coach, because it’s likely they weren’t welcomed on stage coaches, as well as at many taverns along the way. Most white people were terrified of Indians at that time (which meant the two men were also in danger of being attacked). Where did they sleep? In fields? By the side of the road? Where and what did they eat? And did I mention that this was in January?
And when they got to Washington, how would they have been received? People did pop in and out of the White House back then. But what happened when two Cherokee men marched up to the front door of the White House and said, “We have a letter for President Madison.” Imagine the butler or maid’s face when they said, “No, we won’t just leave it with you. We have to give it to HIM ourselves.” I like to think of them marching into the White House, into the Oval Office maybe, and handing him that letter they’d come 500 miles to deliver.
Now those are some heroes! By the way, Madison didn’t answer that letter either.
Today I came across yet another narrative recounting how my extended family “settled” the frontiers of western Virginia and North Carolina. In this, as in every one of these stories, my ancestors were described as brave, doughty settlers taming the wilderness and bravely fighting off “warlike” Indians. We’ve written before in this blog, about reevaluating the language that we use, not in an effort to be “politically correct,” but to be historically correct. If you want a serious thoughtful examination of those words, revisit the entry, “The words we use, the stories they tell.” http://tangledhistories.org/cherokee/the-words-we-use-the-stories-they-tell/
But if you want a frivolous but fun little exercise, read on. Today, in a fit of annoyance, I decided to replace all the “brave settler” language with historically accurate terms and descriptions. The result was both silly and yet deeply satisfying.
So here’s a recap of some of the most common “brave settler” vocabulary with my replacement term.
Settlers and pioneers = “invaders”
To call a people “settlers” implies that they are moving into a land that is not already settled. I’m replacing those terms with “invaders.”
Hardy or restless pioneers = “desperate”
My Scotch-Irish forebears are frequently referred to using words like hardy, restless, and independent. What those terms really mean is that they were so desperate for land that they were willing to live in areas where they might be killed by justifiably angry Natives. I’m replacing those terms with “desperate.”
Frontier = “Native homeland”
Implies the edge of OUR territory rather than the place where YOU fight to maintain your territory. Instead I describe what the land was being used for by the Natives or call is simply “Native homeland.”
Here’s the original:
“Soon after his marriage to Ann Johnson in December 1766, Martin Gash moved to Virginia. This move was on the western frontier in an area then known as Augusta County. The Dennis families were hardy adventurers, brave enough to move where few white men ever lived before. These pioneers were often forced to barricade themselves in a community fort for protection against the fierce warlike Indians who continuously stalked the white invaders of their land.”
Here’s the translation:
“Soon after his marriage to Ann Johnson in December 1766, Martin Gash moved to Virginia. This move was to an area then called by the English “Augusta County,” but was situated along the Great Indian War Path and within a well-used tribal hunting ground. The Dennis families were desperate for land, desperate enough to move to Native territory. These white invaders were often forced to barricade themselves in a community fort for protection against the justifiably angry Indians who tried to push the white invaders from their homeland.”
Handy Glossary of replacement words: (Try it with your own family myths! It’s kind of fun!)
Terms describing slavery:
Plantation – forced-labor camp
Master/mistress – wardens
Slave – enslaved person, prisoner, forced laborer
Overseer – prison guard or labor-camp guard
Sex between owners and enslaved – rape
Terms describing colonial expansion:
Colony – usurped land
Settler – invader
Pioneer – invader
Hardy – desperate
Restless – forced to move
Indian fighter – Indian murderer
Frontier – native land
(military) expedition – violent invasion
Civilization – lifeways the colonizer values
Savages, barbarians, etc. –
Those who live on land colonizers want
Those who live in ways different from the colonizers
As the family story keeper – the one who receives and passes on family tales – I have always been fascinated with the moments when the story doesn’t quite add up – the jump in the film, the glitch in the Matrix. I remember, as a kid, annoying my mother repeatedly by interrupting her and saying, “But Mama, that doesn’t make any sense!” I’m still at it. And what I’ve learned from researching this book is that the moment where the story jumps is also where that treasure called the truth lies. Because that is what your people are afraid of facing and that is often who they really are.
In my family history, we seem to emerge, like Athena from Zeus’s head, full grown in the 18th century as well-to-do frontier gentry using the term “Scotch-Irish” to cover over a multitude of things – some of them sins, but and some of them just the hard-scrabble white-trash history of who we were before we became the cultured educated people we are now.
In our family history, my fourth great grandfather, Robert Love, is remembered as a well-to-do member of the elite. He was the “founder” of the town of Waynesville, NC and donated the land for the Haywood County courthouse. Within the family we remember proudly that the Loves brought the first piano into western NC. We are founders, we are cultured, and how we got to be those things is not examined.
But Robert Love did not start out as either of those things. He was the grandson of a poor Scotch-Irish immigrant and he was born in a border settlement in the Shenandoah mountains, known as “the drunken tract,” where the Scotch-Irish had been shunted off by the English coastal elites. At the age of sixteen he set off, like so many poor sons, to make his fortune in the world by joining the army. The year was 1776 and Robert was a wagoner in an armed campaign to “chastise” the Cherokee. It was an ugly, vindictive campaign, purposely attacking innocent noncombatants. Its purpose was not reprisal or retribution, but instead a warning to all the Cherokee not to ally with the British in the American Revolution. It was essentially a bloody message saying, “See what we can do to your most distant and protected of your people? We can do worse to you.” This warning, timed just before harvest to ensure maximum suffering, entailed the mass burning of Cherokee towns and fields of unpicked crops as well as the murder of any Cherokee – regardless of age or gender – they encountered. The whites had far superior firepower, so most of the population hid in the mountains surrounding their towns. Among them was another sixteen-year-old boy. His name was Yonaguska. This was the second time his town – the sacred mother town of Kituwah – had been destroyed by white armies. The first time was when he was one year old. He wouldn’t remember that attack, but he would have been told of it by his mother, in whose arms he had then been carried to their hiding place in the hills. But he might remember the widespread hunger afterwards, and the work of rebuilding their home and town in the following years. What he felt watching his home burn, watching the council house on the mound at the center of town be desecrated, isn’t known. What young Robert Love did is not known either, but one of his fellows left this account:
“[Some men] found an Indian squaw and took her prisoner, she being lame, was unable to go with her friends; she was so sullen, that she would – as an old horse is – neither lead nor drive, and, by their account, she died in their hands; but I suppose they helped her to her end.”
I think often of those two sixteen-year-old boys: one watching the cruel and unprovoked destruction of his home, the sacred mother town of Kituwah, from the hillside above it; the other somewhere below, lighting a match, holding a gun, destroying a world. That is the moment where my family history became inextricably tangled with the history of the mountain Cherokee. Yonaguska, the helpless witness of white destruction, would go on to become a “peace chief” – one who eschewed violence and pursued negotiation. He would also lead the only successful resistance to the Trail of Tears. The tactics he used were those he used on that day – withdrawing deeper into the mountains, camouflage, evasion. Some of it done with the help of a young white boy named Will Thomas that he later adopted as a son.
Robert Love would move to “pacified” territory in Western North Carolina, become a merchant, slave owner, and a wealthy man. He would mentor a young man named Will Thomas, just starting out his life as a merchant. They were deeply involved in each other’s lives. Robert Love chose Will, who was exceptionally personable and capable, above his own sons, to be executor of his estate. Will, taking the tactics he’d learned from his adopted father, used charm and evasion to persuade Robert to write letters attesting to the harmlessness of the local Cherokee to legislators who were trying to oust them. I like to imagine this too: Will saying, “Oh, don’t worry, they’ll leave eventually. They’re just not quite ready to do it now.” And Robert, wanting to please the young man, writing to his friends in the legislature that the Cherokee were very civilized now, model citizens, and would no doubt join their people in Oklahoma … eventually. And so, Yonaguska, who watched his world burn and learned from it, and exacted justice from the young wagoner who helped burn it.
Later Yonaguska’s devoted white son would marry Robert Love’s young granddaughter. The mingled descendants of these men would choose to erase this part of the story. They’d focus on Robert Love’s wealth, Will Thomas’s heroism helping “those poor Cherokee.” But there would be a jump in the record, a glitch in the story, discernible to anyone, willing to look hard. And as one who always chooses to take the red pill, go down the rabbit hole, unravel the comfortable lie and see how far the uncomfortable story goes, I want to urge any of you who are willing and interested to do the same. You might not love what you find, but I guarantee you that you’ll know yourself, your family, and your nation better. And the ride is wilder than any rollercoaster and incredibly fun! Go ahead, take the red pill.
Right now I wish more than anything that somewhere, in some dingy church basement, there was an Academic-Morons Anonymous support-group meeting I could go to tonight. I’d stand up in front of them and say, “Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m a moron.”
They’d all say “Hi Elizabeth!”
Then I’d say, “Guys, I need help. It’s only been three hours since I realized I’ve been stuck in another moronic assumption about our collective American history. I’ve only just realized that the heartwarming story of my great-great grandfather’s adoption by the Cherokee chief took place at a crisis point when white incursion had become an unstoppable tide, the Cherokee were frightened and angry, there was violence on both sides, and the Cherokee were looking for white allies to manage their increasing legal problems. This was precisely when the head chief of the mountain Cherokee just happened to decide to adopt a white kid who was literate, numerate, fluent in Cherokee, and had a brilliant encyclopedic mind.”
“How,” I would ask the other Academic Morons before me, “could I have not seen the obvious connection? The white boy who lived and worked in Cherokee territory needed protection from justifiably pissed-off Cherokee and the chief who was looking for white allies probably thought that having a white son could be pretty useful! I mean, DUH.”
And then I’d tell them that I’m feeling shaky about whether or not I’m up to this task. They’d all nod supportively and murmur encouragement. I’d sit down and someone else would come up to the front of the room and admit their struggle with moronic assumptions and I would feel better about the fact that now I have to go back and totally rewrite chapter four, just when I thought I was done revising it. Maybe I could even have a sponsor I could call at two in the morning when I felt an uncontrollable urge to relapse into my old comfy and intellectually sloppy white-person assumptions.
But, seriously, unlearning everything I thought I knew, and getting Kirk to unlearn all those years of believing in the sanctity of documents created by white people, has been the hardest thing we’ve had to do. I’ve always prided myself in not buying into my family’s white, Southern narratives. But working on this project I have had more I can’t believe I didn’t SEE that before! moments than I would have thought possible.
Here is a short list of things I’ve had to unlearn and learn differently:
My Scotch-Irish ancestors weren’t “fiercely independent” pioneers who wanted to replicate their lives in the mountains of Scotland and Ireland. They were people who had been ethnically cleansed, multiply displaced, and in North America were simply desperate for any land anywhere.
The adoption of my great-great grandfather by Chief Yonaguska is a heartwarming cross-cultural story. But it is also a story taking place in a less than heartwarming desperate and violent political context. (Duh.)
The North Carolina Cherokee weren’t saved by my great-great grandfather. They were a collectively governed group who decided, with their chief, to save themselves. My great-great grandfather helped them with their plan and was the interface between them and the white legal system.
Anyway, I’d like to think that every one of us is some kind of recovering moron – whether we’re recovering from gender, race, or colonialist assumptions – and that if we take it day by day, page by page, we can overcome our addiction to safe, unexamined assumptions. And if we are tempted to fall off the wagon, we can always turn to that higher power, people who are part of the dispossessed group we’re trying to write not-stupidly about.
For several years I’ve wanted to make faux-historical-style “engravings” that told the true stories of some of my ancestors. Here’s my first one! (If you click on the image you can see it larger.)
The standard histories will tell you that Robert Love (my gr. x 4 grandfather) tell you some version of this: “Colonel Robert Love (11 May 1760 – 17 July 1845) was an American Patriot, Frontiersman, Statesman, Benefactor and Founder of Waynesville. He would conduct the 1820 Robert Love Survey, establishing the North Carolina and Tennessee border.”
He did fight in the Revolutionary War. But in 1776, at the age of 16, he was a wagoner on the Christian Expedition that systematically destroyed Cherokee towns, burned all their crops, and killed any Cherokee who got in the way. After that he became a “frontiersman,” which means he moved into Cherokee territory, took their land, and killed the Indians who were defending that land. He was a “benefactor” because, after taking Indian lands, he became a slave owner and got rich on the exploitation of enslaved Africans and their descendants.
As I write this I’m sitting on my front porch looking at a tidy row of houses on precisely surveyed plots marked by hedges and fences. It’s a scene I take for granted and a marking of the land that seems normal to me. If I close my eyes and think beyond this porch and this street, I can see this grid of habitation and ownership extending, with variations and some interruptions, in all directions across this country like graph paper blanketing the land.
Four-hundred years ago this was not the case. North America, at that time, was settled as much of the world was, by various peoples who moved around as they needed to and did not answer to centralized authority. John Winthrop wrote, “The Indians … have [no] settled places, as Townes to dwell in, nor any ground as they challenge for their owne possession, but change their habitation from place to place.” And “They inclose noe Land.” Their non-ownership of individual pieces of land, more than anything else, marked the native population as “savage” in the eyes of the colonists.
Over two hundred years ago – when New England was already full of “settled places” and “townes” – tens of thousands of Scotch-Irish, including many of my ancestors, moved into western North Carolina, which was then the western frontier of white settlement. Land was cheap and the new nation needed white bodies to displace the natives, who were oddly inclined to do things like “challenge for their owne possession” people trying to take their land. My ancestors had originally been lowland Scots who lived near the border between Scotland and England and raided both sides with impunity. To pacify the border, James I moved many of them to Ulster in the 17th century, where they were to colonize the native population there on behalf of the English crown. Ireland was made up of multiple kingdoms or “tribes,” and like the Native Americans, the “wild Irish” were semi-nomadic. Many of them lived by “creaghting” – migrating seasonally with their cattle – and, as a result, they didn’t need permanent habitations. Cattle roamed rather than being fenced in, and the people roamed rather than being boxed in. Roaming, of course, was understood to be barbaric and wasteful, but it also made the population more difficult to control by a central authority. One of the first things the colonizers did in Northern Ireland was build stone houses and “bawns,” or stone walls, surrounding them, delineating their land and keeping the wild Irish out.
I wanted to understand these Scotch-Irish, my ancestors, who had colonized first the Irish and then the Cherokee. I dug deeper and found a description of lowland Scotland and its inhabitants, on the eve of the great migration to Ulster, from one of the standard sources, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (1962), by James Leyburn, himself a North Carolinian. “Agricultural methods were of an unbelievable primitiveness. The people were utterly ignorant of any improvement elsewhere … since the Dark Ages.” Leyburn goes on to say disapprovingly, “There were no enclosures, no dykes or hedges between the fields, or even between farms….The cattle had to be … put into the care of a cow-herd or shepherd, who took them out every morning … and who chased them out of the unfenced fields of grain.” He adds, “The dirtiness of the hovels in which people lived was accepted … as one of the inevitabilities of life,” and, “some of the people had to be content to wear skins of animals for clothing.” So the lowland Scots, like the “wild Irish” and the Native Americans, had once been semi-nomadic “savages” who did not own or fence the land they lived on. They had their traditional life and land taken from them by the English. And then the colonized became the colonizers.
Who brought “civilization,” central government, and colonization to the English? The Romans, of course, who invaded what we now know as England but which was then a land controlled by multiple tribes. So I looked into the Romans and found Tacitus’s fascinating account, not of England, but “Germania,” as the Romans “discovered” it when they invaded. He writes, “It is well known that none of the German nations inhabit cities; or even admit of contiguous settlements. They dwell scattered and separate, as a spring, a meadow, or a grove may chance to invite them. Their villages are laid out, not like ours in rows of adjoining buildings; but every one surrounds his house with a vacant space, either by way of security against fire, or through ignorance of the art of building. For, indeed, they are unacquainted with the use of mortar and tiles; and for every purpose employ rude unshapen timber, fashioned with no regard to pleasing the eye.”
He goes on to say, “Nor do they attempt to make the most of the fertility and plenty of the soil … in planting orchards, inclosing meadows, and watering gardens.” And they “live in a state of amazing savageness and squalid poverty…. Their food is herbs; their clothing skins.” Once again we see a native population, living in a system of decentralized power and communal land use, characterized as ignorant and barbaric and in need of correction and control by those who are “civilized” (and who want land, resources, and the power civilization grants). So the English, like the Scots, were a colonized people who became a colonizing people. How does that happen? How do a people forget what was taken from them by force and then use force to take those same things from others? Is it a kind of Stockholm syndrome where we identify with our captors. Or perhaps it’s simply people doing what they must to survive.
Coming back to the present, to my front porch, and feel the touch of Caesar’s hand. Because in it I see Tacitus’s Roman village, “laid out … in rows of adjoining buildings” and “inclosed meadows.” I see that my street, my world, is the result of the centralization of authority on the land, an authority that needs to commodify, count, and control the land and its people. And like my Scotch-Irish ancestors, we in America are both colonized and colonizers
On my way out of Sylva last week, I passed a ramshackle farm stand with a hand-lettered sign that read “ramps.” They are native to the Appalachians and grow plentifully in the wooded hills. I pulled over and bought several big bunches – at $2 per bunch – for my husband who’s part French and so a natural-born foodie. Ramps grow wild, are foraged rather than cultivated, and are only available in the early spring. Their flavor is a mix between scallions and garlic, with an undertone of sweetness softening the pungency. These days ramp season is an EVENT in the culinary world where, as food writer Josh Ozersky said, “The Church of the Ramp is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the religion of seasonality.” Hip farm-to-table restaurants advertise special spring menus around this humble member of the lily family.
In the 19th century, my ancestors and their neighbors, white, black, and Cherokee, would have been excited about the appearance of ramps as well, but for entirely different reasons. In a world where spring crops like spinach, lettuce and asparagus are available all year round because it’s always spring somewhere, it’s hard to imagine how desperately eager our ancestors must have been for spring. By the dog-end of winter, the last jars of beans and peaches canned the summer before would have been brought up from the basement storage shelves, and meal after meal would have been just grits and cured salty meat. So imagine the thrilled relief of seeing those hardy green leaves carpeting the woods; the joy of seeing something fresh and green on your dinner plate, of biting into the bright tangy taste of spring, at last.
All over the country right now, the first wild greens are growing in scrubby woods, drainage ditches by the side of roads, even in back yards. And in parts of the country, heavily tattooed hipsters are roaming the suburban wilds foraging. My grandmother, who wasn’t above harvesting dandelions for their greens, might laugh herself silly at the fuss being made over these edible weeds. But it’s also touching and beautiful, this return to our roots – mythic, cultural, culinary, and literal. It’s a ritual, whether it’s Persephone or ramps we are bringing out of the ground, marking and celebrating the turning of the earth, once again, to warmer days.
My mother lived with us for the last four years of her life because she had dementia. We had a rotation of agency in-home care givers to help us with the hard job of caring for an adult who could no longer care for herself. Much of the time caring for her – moving her, cleaning up messes – was more than one woman could easily do alone, so the care givers and I spent a fair amount of time together and became quite friendly. One evening, in the quiet, relieved minutes after we had at last wrangled my mother into bed, the aide – I’ll call her Mary – and I were standing there just looking at my mother asleep now on the bed. Mary, who was black, turned to me and said hesitantly, “She looks like my grandmother.”
“Hold on, “ I said. “I want to show you something.” I pulled out a photo album, leafed through it, and pulled out a picture of my mother’s grandmother when she was a girl. When I showed it to Mary, she gasped. “You know what she looks like….” She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t have to. My great grandmother had wild frizzy hair, black eyes, and non-Aryan features. Anyone looking objectively at the photo, not knowing who it was, would say that she wasn’t white – in the American one-drop definition of whiteness. She looks “high yellow.”
My mother had always said we were part Cherokee. She never said how that might have happened, or which ancestor slipped out of our well-documented history of white-to-white marriages to mix up our gene pool. Of course, many Americans claim to be part Cherokee. The Cherokee, now that they’re no longer inhabiting lots of land that we want, have the dubious honor of being the most popular native tribe for whites to claim relationship to. Now, given that my great-great grandfather was an adopted member of the North Carolina Cherokees, and given that no one knew precisely who his father, “Richard Thomas,” was, we had more basis for that belief than most. But still, was my mother implying that her great grandfather, Will Thomas, was actually illegitimate and the product of an affair his mother had with a Cherokee? Not at all; she liked, I think, the romance of the relationship without wanting to know the particulars. Me, I always want to know the fascinating, gossipy particulars.
So when we started this project, I had my mother’s dna tested. She is 94% Scottish/English/Irish descent and 6% mystery. Now, for my mother to be 6% something-or-other, she had to have inherited it from a great-great grandparent, someone whose name and history we know. Genetic tests determine ethnicity by comparing your genes to the genes of populations around the globe. 94% of my mother’s genes are similar to the genes of people who live in the British Isles and Scandinavia. But that remaining 6% is uncertain and interpreted differently depending on the testing service. My mother has been tested three times and had three different explanations for it. The first test said she was 6% Native American. The second test said Western European and Middle Eastern. The third interpreted it as Mediterranean, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian.
Interestingly, some dna analysis of the Cherokee themselves, show them to be (by current limited testing definitions) part Mediterranean and/or Middle Eastern. Does this mean, as some people have speculated, that the Cherokee mixed with early European invaders and that what we’re seeing is the traces of that? It’s possible. Just as it’s possible that my 3rd great grandmother, Temperance Thomas, had an affair with a Cherokee before or during her marriage to Richard Thomas. (My fondest hope was that we would discover she’d had an affair with the Cherokee chief Yonaguska and that was why he’d adopted Will Thomas.) Again, not impossible but, given the social mores of the time for women anyway, unlikely. And having almost certainly identified Richard Thomas (an Anglo-American) I have no idea where that 6% came from.
Which leaves me thinking about race in America. We European-Americans invented the Frankenstein monster of race to justify the taking of land and the taking of humans, and so race is encoded into our national dna. “Whiteness” and “blackness” are constructs created when we left the tribal/clan boundaries – whether Celt, Gael, Viking, Mayan, Iroquois, or Yoruban – that had defined “us” and “them.” In North America, we had to find a new us and a new them. The Atlantic slave trade and racial slavery created the lumped ethnicities we now have of white, black, and Native American, and left us, in America, with an obsession with something we call “race,” which doesn’t really exist. What exists are shared geographic and genetic origins. My mother’s genes tell us she is a mix of peoples who came from Scandinavia (the Vikings), Scotland (which the Vikings invaded), and England. Not long ago these groups, that we see now as simply “whites,” would have forcefully denied any similarities; they all hated each other, warred with each other, and considered each other barbarians. So now, in the U.S., each of us – whether the majority of our genes are Native, Caucasian, or African – is a mix of once-warring tribes that saw only their differences and yet, are now mixed and unified in our American bodies.
It would be a beautiful thing if this newly widespread tool of genetics could bring us to the realization that race doesn’t exist. If Mary, standing with me looking at the worn out, sleeping body of my mother, could have said, “She looks like my grandmother,” and meant only that, without the ellipsis of unspoken racial identity hanging in the air. If she didn’t have to cautiously state it so that I could ignore or misunderstand it if I chose, or worry that I would take umbrage if I did understand. Someday I hope my children – who have varying geographic/genetic origins and various amounts of pigment in their skin – might begin to see a world where marking difference by skin pigmentation will seem as bizarre and arbitrary as the Scottish hating the Swedes who once, long ago, invaded them.
But, honestly, even in that imagined post-racial world, I’d still want to know who slept with whom and where that 6% came from. I’m just nosey that way.