Romanticizing the exotic
My Great-uncle Lyle used to tell the story of how his grandparents (my great-great grandparents) married. Great-great-grandpa had been raised a good Irish Catholic boy. He wanted to marry a Native American girl. His priest didn’t believe in interracial marriage, so they ran off to Kansas until they found a minister who would marry them. And that’s how we ended up being Baptists.
Once he told that story within earshot of his brother, my Great-uncle Roy. Roy said that wasn’t quite right. He’d been told that the state they lived in when they met didn’t allow interracial marriage, they’d had to run off to Missouri to marry, then settled in Kansas.
Lyle shrugged, said that great-great-grandma had said it was the priest. Then they both started speculating that it might have been something a bit less noble, such as that they were already living together, so the priest didn’t approve for non-racial reasons.
There are a few problems with the story. One: Missouri didn’t repeal it’s law against interracial marriage until the 1950s. Now, some of those laws only prohibited Whites from marrying Blacks, and didn’t specifically mention Native Americans. I haven’t been able to find out the specifics of Missouri’s law back in the 1880s, but it renders that part of the story a little suspect.
The other is that there’s some doubt about great-great-grandma’s ethnicity. Clearly she told her grandsons that she was full-blooded Choctaw. In the couple of photographs that have survived of her she certainly could pass for Native American. One of my cousins who is into genealogy has found contemporary documents that list her race as either Indian or Choctaw.
But going back one generation further, we find that at different times in his life her father claimed to be from the Choctaw tribe, and other times from the Cherokee. Her mother apparently told at least one person she was “half Indian” at least once. No official records list them as such, but then, since great-great-grandma’s father was born only four years after the passage of the Indian Removal Act, if they had recent Native ancestors, their families would have had reason to keep it secret, or at least minimize it.
Also, the geographical location of the families of both of great-great-grandma’s parents for several prior generations in northwestern Virginia, doesn’t make the Choctaw connection very likely, as the tribe’s traditional territory was south of Virginia.
Finally, records indicate Great-great grandma was born in Kansas in the county where she married Great-great grandpa. No indication of an elopement at all. He was born in Ohio, and appears to have met her after coming out west to “seek his fortune.”
A lot has been written about why some U.S. white families claim some Native American heritage when little evidence exists, and also why virtually no U.S. whites ever admit any African ancestry. I’m sure those sociological reasons play into our family’s excursion into this genealogical conjecture.
The whole thing amounts to a personal “just-so” story—an unverifiable and unfalsifiable narrative to explain a tradition, a biological trait, or a behavior. For instance, my Great-grandmother I. wanted white hair as she got older. Her hair stubbornly remained black, with only a very modest sprinkling of silver right up to the end. She always attributed it to “Mother’s people,” saying that her mother and maternal grandmother had dark hair that never went gray. My two great-uncles both took pride in their versions of the story because it seemed to cast our ancestors as independent people unfettered by societal conventions. Great-uncle Lyle usually brought up the story whenever someone in the family made any sort of racist comment, and concluding with an admonition against racism.
My amateur-genealogist cousin has uncovered a lot of family stories indicating that other descendants of our great-great-great grandparents would bring up the supposed Native American heritage as an excuse for being short-tempered; a bit less noble than my great-uncles’ take, but not really any more sensical.
For a long time I thought of the story as a sort of affirmation of my own non-heterosexuality. If these ancestors could defy the social and legal forces that condemned their love, raise five daughters who all went out to have families of their own (all seeming to live happy lives as productive members of society), then no one in my family had the right to condemn my love.
The narrative each generation of the family wove fit their own sensibilities, projecting our own notions about what is right and proper (and whether “proper” is a good thing or a bad thing) onto the previous generations’ stories. I don’t think that’s wrong, per se. I loved and admired my grandmother, great-grandparents, and great-uncles for various things they did while we were together, and am happy to keep their memories alive now that they’re gone. They were each attempting to do the same thing for the previous generations that I didn’t get to meet personally, and hoped that perhaps I would help keep those memories alive, too.
Memory isn’t the same thing as fact. Even in our own lives, so we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that memories passed down have taken on a life of their own that strays away from the purely factual.
Did my great-great grandparents elope? Doesn’t look like it. Was Great-great grandma Native American? Can’t verify it. Was Great-uncle Lyle correct to condemn racism? Absolutely.
Maybe his facts weren’t right, but the point he always made was that despite appearances, we’re all descended from the same big, tangled family tree. That it doesn’t matter where some of the intervening ancestors came from, because ultimately we’re all human. And that’s truth, which sometimes is different than fact.