“He’s overboard on the subject. Hasn’t shown any interest before, and now he spends every spare moment on it. It’s just not normal.” This was Mom talking about Dad’s newfound passion for genealogy. Funny thing was, she’d been overboard on the subject most of her life. Finally, after all the years, they could have had something to talk about, but instead, it was a turf battle. Dad had invaded her territory.
Curious too how it happened. Shortly after his retirement in 1988, Dad purchased a computer. Before a year was up he’d clogged its forty-megabyte hard disk with software of every conceivable variety and was soon working on gagging the 120-meg drive of a new model. One of those programs was genealogical software that Mom had given him for a birthday, or Father’s day or some such day. Guess she created her own Frankenstein. Before long, he had eight-hundred names in the family tree, a lot of ‘em Pruett’s. Can you believe there are at least eight ways to spell “Pruett”?
To hear Mom tell it, all the relatives on her side were saints, preachers, or war heroes. She was in the D.A.R. and could trace back to Adam Keeling, a Virginia gentryman who fought in the Revolution. So I took more than a passing interest in Dad’s new preoccupation, secretly hoping he’d uncover a few riverboat gamblers, prostitutes, or maybe even a horse thief or two to balance out my blood line. But more than that, I secretly hoped Dad would find that Cherokee. According to rumors, there’s Indian blood in our family, and it’s been screaming to know its origins.
The Cherokee are a noble, resilient people. Their original territory encompassed all or parts of eight Southeastern states: the Carolinas, Alabama and Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, the Virginias. According to the archaeological evidence, that stomping ground has been trod by Cherokee moccasins for at least four thousand years, probably a lot longer.
Like most Southeastern tribes, the Cherokee are matrilineal. And like the Celts, they are organized into seven clans, seven being a sacred number. Birth determines which clan. The only way out of one’s clan is to commit a crime so severe as to require banishment.
Following the end of the French and Indian Wars and the subsequent appropriation of vast French territories in North America, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763. It prohibited colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, land that was to remain forever as Indian Reserve.
Among the first major tribes to face intense colonial pressure, the Cherokee naturally sided with King George when the American Revolution erupted a decade or so after the Proclamation. They paid dearly for that allegiance. In 1776, Captain William Moore, under the order of Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford conducted the infamous Rutherford Light Horse raid, burning six Cherokee villages east of the Appalachians, killing every living soul who could not escape, and dragging down Cherokee corn to starve the survivors.
The Cherokee sporadically fought colonial encroachment until 1794. But by the early 1800s, colonists were flooding Cherokee territory. Many “Tslagi” tried to acculturate, despite the difficulty of the transition. Men, hunters and warriors by tradition, held farming to be women’s work. Moreover, to farm, one must own land. Although the federal government permitted land ownership by Indians, southern states did not. Hundreds of Cherokee were forced off their own land with nowhere to go, particularly in North Carolina and Georgia.
Some tried to remain by cunning and enterprise. Recognizing that missionaries could help establish the notion of their people’s equality with whites, Cherokee elders encouraged missionaries and established missions. Prominent Cherokee sent their children to Eastern colleges. Others became successful entrepreneurs, owning toll roads, saw mills, even plantations.
Enamored of the “talking leaves” of the whites, and recognizing the utility of written language in the preservation of culture, the Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah spent six years developing a syllabary. When completed in 1821, it consisted of eight-six characters, each a phoneme. Within three years of the adoption of Sequoyah’s syllabary, ninety percent of the Cherokee were literate. It is one of but few instances in human history of a written language created intentionally from whole cloth.
Despite these and other efforts of Cherokee to acculturate, on May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which permitted the relocation of five “civilized” Eastern tribes to west of the Mississippi. Under Chief John Ross, the Cherokee fought the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and lost.
In 1838, federal troops rounded up 16,000 Cherokee from the mountains of their ancestors and forced them into temporary, unsanitary camps to await removal to western lands, principally Oklahoma. The months-long “Trail of Tears” began in the fall and continued into a winter so cold the Mississippi froze. John Ross’ wife died of pneumonia after giving her blanket to a child. Only 11,000 survived.
Today, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the largest tribe in North American, is 300,000 strong. These are the descendants of the survivors of the Trail of Tears.
Despite the atrocities faced by his people, Cherokee anthropologist Russ Townsend admits that circumstances conspired to make the Cherokee the “lucky” ones. He says this somberly, after roll-calling the names of numerous Eastern tribes whose peoples, languages, and cultures vanished without trace from the face of the earth.
The Cherokee village of Kituwah lies on a small flood plain at a bend of the Tuckasegee River. Even a non-Cherokee can sense the sacredness of the site. There, a broad burial mound marks the motherland of the Cherokee. Prior to the Trail of Tears, most families of the Kituwah Band, led by Major Ridge, voluntarily relocated to Oklahoma. By signing the controversial Treaty of New Echota, Ridge had ceded Cherokee tribal lands in exchange for promises of annuities and new land in Indian Territory. Many considered Ridge a sell-out, and enough bad blood persisted to get him assassinated following the arrival in Oklahoma of Ross’ Cherokee. Nevertheless, today, Kituwah descendants remain the primary keepers of the fire: Cherokee traditions and spirituality.
And thanks to Yonaguska, a portion of Cherokee ancestral land remains in Cherokee hands. Yonaguska, a chief known also as Drowning Bear, adopted a white son, Will Holland Thomas. Will learned the Cherokee ways and language, established a successful trading post at Qualla Town, studied law, and ultimately rose to become a North Carolina state senator. His fictionalized life is portrayed sympathetically in Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons. As a white man, Thomas could, by law, own property. And so, from 1821 until 1838, he quietly acquired enough adjacent tracks of land—purchased with Cherokee money entrusted to him—to create the Qualla Boundary, home today for 16,000 Eastern Band Cherokee, descendants of the eight-hundred holdouts who avoided the Trail of Tears.
Through some combination of luck and resilience, Townsend marvels, the Cherokee successfully preserved—against all odds—their people, their culture, and a small but representative portion of their native lands at the edge of the Great Smokies.
Dad grew up in Tazewell County, Virginia, where there was considerable comingling of whites and Cherokee holdouts. I have this photo of my sister as a high-school student of seventeen. Even without a feather in her hair, Barb could pass for Indian, no questions asked. Dark eyes, high cheekbones, beautiful bronze complexion, and hair flowing absolutely straight to her waist. And the men in the family are all barrel-chested with hardly a trace of body hair. My third cousins, the Neal* girls, of which Susan was my high-school classmate and friend, all look Indian, especially Cathy. And me? I’m more at home on a trail in the mountains than I will ever be in a civilized place. Animals I can talk to; it’s people I don’t understand. Nowadays, it’s much easier to embrace the Great Holy Mystery and the Thunder Beings than the babe in the manger.
The clincher about Indian blood in the family, though, was Grandma Sheila’s story that Granddad’s grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. And so when Dad called to say he’d found an old sepia-toned photograph of Granddaddy’s ancestors, I got pumped to meet the long-lost Indian relative among all those Scotch-Irish from Tazewell county.
It didn’t turn out as expected. My wife Suzanne and I met my folks in Richmond, where Dad and I spent the day in the genealogical archives of the main public library. We didn’t turn up much, but had a good time together nonetheless. Earlier, on the steps of the library, waiting impatiently for it to open, Dad had shown me the photo. There they were: patriarch Benjamin F. Pruett, born circa 1835, and his wife, my great-great grandma Mary (Polly) Rose, born roughly 1838. There too was son Oscar Raleigh, my great-grandad, known for some unknown reason as “Doc.” And there also were sons Thomas and Sam Tilden and William, the latter being the namesake of Granddaddy, William Crockett Pruett, Sr., my wild uncle Bill, William Crockett Pruett, Jr., and my brother William Estil, a.k.a. “Willie.” And there was the lone daughter, Nannie Elizabeth Jane.
Well, now I’ve got to tell you that Great-great-grandma Polly didn’t look a bit Cherokee. Pale and more wrinkled than the state of West Virginia, nearly toothless, she looked more like an apple doll than a Cherokee.
There is something haunting about that photograph, though. Doc’s eyes bulge just like Granddaddy’s, a hereditary thyroid condition I’m told. All seven of those Pruett’s seem to stare right through me. It’s as if they’re all saying, “We know who you are,” but it doesn’t seem in their hard-shell nature to approve, at least not to let on. Patriarch Ben looks tired but mellowed by the years. There’s a trace of kindliness in him, and in Polly too. I can see myself in that photo. All the men, excepting William, have that deeply receded hair-line or semi-baldness I’ve come to accept. My wife says I look most like Thomas, my least favorite, because of the harshness on his face. Nannie, bless her soul, my great aunt and the Neal girls’ great-grandmother, looks worried, like she doesn’t want either the Pruett or the Neal kids to stray too far off the straight-and-narrow. I can’t read much from Sam Tilden, the youngest, maybe thirty at the time of the picture, and stone-faced. A few years without trimming and my beard could look just like Ben’s.
But where was the promised Cherokee?
Years later, still in pursuit, I spent several hours pouring over Indian census records at the main library in Cherokee, North Carolina. I was greeted with some suspicion, understandably given the number of whites who try to claim Cherokee blood for a cut of the tribal proceeds of the lucrative Harrah’s Casino at the edge of town. The records were tantalizing but inconclusive. On the Cherokee rolls, I found many of the names in our family tree—Rose, Neal, Webb. But important dates—birth, marriage, and death—failed to match decisively.
Well, there you have it. After biting Mom and then Dad, the ancestry bug bit me. The symptoms of the disease are countless frustrating hours suffused with occasional surprise, shock, confusion, disappointment, and satisfaction, in varying proportions. Through the historical records, I’ve now met some long-lost ancestors, and no doubt about it, I’m pleased to meet them. In a strange way, they’re all trying to help me along my path. But there is a restlessness in me that won’t quiet until I track down my Cherokee blood.
Grandma Sheila died in 1991. I still miss her. She had lots of good stories, and I only scratched the surface. There are so many things I would ask her if I could. But the first question I’d ask is: “Grandma, was that Cherokee on Granddaddy’s paternal or maternal side?”
Epilogue: First written in 1993, two years after Grandma Sheila died, this vignette was edited twenty-five years later. Mom died in 2011 and Dad in 2014. Two years ago, my wife gave me a DNA kit for Christmas. The results reveal just a faint trace of Native American ancestry. Damn. But then again, a trace is more than zero.
*Names have been altered to protect privacy.