Digging up my ancestors

You have probably noticed that I have taken a break from my regular posting of rewilding matters. I also haven’t spent much time over at rewild.info either. This results partly from increased civilized issues. I filed for bankruptcy last week and had to spend a lot of time gathering information for my lawyer. Also my job has demanded more from me than usual. But the main distraction from learning new physical skills lies in an invisible technology that I have spent a lot of time pursuing lately: getting to know my ancestors.

All my life I have heard about the fact that I have Cherokee blood. I get it from both sides of my family. You couldn’t tell it by looking at me, though. Only splotchy freckles break up my pasty, white skin — freckles and a bushy red beard. So even though no one ever told me such explicitly, I have also come to believe that I have Celtic blood as well. I supported this belief by noticing how many of the men’s names in the White family have a Scots-come-to-America flavor: all the Jameses and Andrews and Josephs and Williams.

But as for the Cherokee, I wondered if perhaps I could prove my descent from someone on the Dawes Rolls and thus obtain citizenship in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. I spent a lot of time in high school studying Scottish history and trying to learn a few Gaelic phrases, but I had never had a resource by which to get to know my Cherokee heritage. So I started by calling my mother and trying to put the pieces together.

My great great grandfather, James L. White

My mother has always had an interest in genealogy. For as long as I can remember, she has spent time talking to relatives and taking notes on both her and my father’s family history. When we moved from the Denver area to Cleburne County, Arkansas, after my dad’s father died back in 1982, we realized all of the sudden that we had relatives all over the town of Heber Springs. They all had different last names like Martin and Moorehead and Foust and Southerland, but we could trace our lines back to James L. White who had two sons and seven daughters in the last half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

My great grandmother Agnes Lucindy Melvin

As far as my mother had figured out, though, the Cherokee blood on my dad’s side must have come from Agnes Hall, my dad’s mother’s mother. Dad says he always remembers her looking “as Indian as you can imagine”. He also remembers a story that one of his aunts told about how Agnes’s father James “Barefoot Jim” Melvin had traded his daughter to some riverboat men on the Mississippi for a pot-bellied stove. When he got home, his wife asked where Agnes had gone. When he told her, she flew of the handle and made him go get Agnes back. Barefoot Jim left their home in Missouri and didn’t catch up with the boatmen until somewhere in Louisiana, but he eventually brought Agnes home.

I also supposedly have Cherokee blood on my mother’s side as well. My great-great-grandfather Richard Barrett reportedly married a full-blooded Cherokee woman. My mother had this story in her scattered genealogy notes. I reproduce it here with underlining and emphasis to match the original notes my mother had.

Verbal materials from Aunt Betty 30 May 1999

Richard or John? Barrett’s Father came from England. He married a full blooded Cherokee squaw. He went to Missouri and fought in the [Civil] war. People in the South didn’t take kindly to his wife. There were also others in the same situation. His wife gathered up a load of wives and they went to Missouri in a wagon train to find their husbands. She found her husband.

Richard or John? Barrett came from Georgia. He was born in 1849. He fought in the Civil War. He was 16 years old when the Civil War ended. He had enlisted. He died in 1915. He is buried in Greenhaw Cemetery NNE of Newport, Arkansas. Jackson Co, Rd #43. He has a tall headstone. Very old & ornate. He married Joella Gifford (parents Frank & Mary). She was born 1865 – Died September 1943. She is also buried in Greenhaw Cemetery. They had a number of children. 4 of the children married and reproduced. Two lived to be teenagers. The other 4 died younger. Letitia died in childbirth – 1 daughter. Minnie Leigh married Letitia’s husband and raised his child and had 3 girls. Effie had a number of children as did Myrtle.

1900 Census showing my great-great-grandfather Richard Barrett and his family

I did some digging around and found a man named Richard Barrett on the 1900 census. As a budding genealogist, I love the 1900 census. Most of the censuses merely have the age of the person at the time. In 1900, however, they noted both the year and month of the person’s birth, as well. This man named Richard Barrett did indeed come from Georgia. He had a wife named Joella (or Jorella or Josella — the census taker’s handwriting makes it look like some squiggly letter sits between the “O” and “E” but I can’t quite read it) and had children named Luticia, Minnie, Myrtle and Ethel at the time.

However, the census data pretty much stops supporting my Aunt Betty’s story at that point, as it shows Richard Barret’s birth as 1855 and not 1849. At age 10 at the end of the Civil War, I doubt he could have joined the action. Also the fact that according to Aunt Betty’s story Joella entered the world at the end of the Civil war in 1865 (moderately corroborated on the census with a birth year of 1863,) makes it hard to understand why she had to flee to Missouri to find her husband fighting in a war that ended around the time of her birth.

And with that mystery, I got hooked by the genealogy bug in a way I never had before. I probably had no chance of proving my descent from someone on the Dawes Rolls and therefore no possibility of entering the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. All my ancestors had passed for white during that time and avoided the reservations. However, I had hints about the relatively recent indigenous history of my ancestors, and I wanted to seek it out.

My dad Bill White (the tall one in back) with his brother Gene, mother Bertha, and father Clyde

Did the name John Barrett come up because Richard’s father bore that name? Perhaps John Barrett married the Cherokee woman and fought in the Civil War. Or perhaps Richard lied on the census or merely couldn’t remember his birth year. Maybe Joella really did have to flee from Arkansas into Missouri, just not during war time.

Aside from all these mysteries, I also noticed that so many of my ancestors for about six generations back lived in Arkansas in either Jackson or Cleburne county. I moved to Cleburne County, Arkansas, at about age 10 where I started school at Quitman. Until that point I lived in Aurora, Colorado, as did a lot of my dad’s family: his brother Gene, his dad Clyde, his mother Bertha and her second husband Barney, his aunt Betty (different from the previously mentioned Aunt Betty). Arkansas remained in my mind for the first 10 years of my life as the place where my mother’s parents lived and had no association for me with my father’s family.

My mother (the littlest one in front) and her parents and sisters

We would come to Fort Smith a lot in the summer or for Christmas. My mom’s parents had three daughters, and my mother’s two sisters each had three kids. My memories swirl with the sweltery heat of Fort Smith, Arkansas, tempered by cold, ice-filled glasses of Co-Cola (as Grandpapa Jim called it) or sitting in front of the little window-unit air conditioner they had blowing into the den. The rhythmic sound of cicadas measured the heat of the day and left their brown, brittle skins behind when they molted. My cousin Aaron and I would gather the skins off of the trees in our grandparents’ back yard and crush them underfoot into a powder that my cousin told me I could mix with water to make Kool-aid.

Until my paternal grandfather Clyde White died in 1982, leaving his property in Cleburne County to my father and uncle, I had never experience much of Arkansas outside of Fort Smith. My family had taken a trip to visit Grandpa Clyde’s home on the shore of Greers Ferry Lake earlier that year. I remember playing video games on the Intellivision console they had sitting on the kitchen breakfast bar with my new step-“aunt” Yvonne (younger than me) and my new step-“grandmother” Dianna (younger than my mother).

My paternal grandfather Clyde Eugene White, Sr. (1920-1982)

Aside from his family coming to visit, 1982 did not offer much promise for Grandpa Clyde. His house on the lake burned down later that year from an electrical fire started by a thunderstorm. And in November, while returning from a trip to Amarillo, Texas to look at some Angus cattle for his ranch, he got caught in a storm in his 4-seater airplane. Supposedly, he realized how bad the storm looked a little too late and while changing his course away from the airstrip on his cattle ranch to try to land at Fort Smith and spend the night with his son’s in-laws, he flew the little Cessna 172 into the side of Mount Magazine and crashed. Both he and his passenger reportedly died on impact and did not suffer in the flames that melted his silver and turquoise bola tie that I remember so distinctly.

As I mentioned before, when we got to Cleburne County, we suddenly discovered relatives all over the place. Cousins of varying degrees lived all over Heber Springs. My Great Grandma Willie Coker White gave birth to my Grandpa Clyde in Ida, just across the lake from the ranch we inherited from Clyde. I didn’t realized it, but Clyde hadn’t left behind his life in Colorado in which I had known him so much as come back to his roots, back to the place of his birth and his father’s birth. Back to where old James White first met Malviney Foust and got married in 1880. And I didn’t realize it until pouring over census information, but I had come back to the land of my fathers as well.

James L. White (front, second from left) and his wife Malviney (front far right) with some of their daughters (back) and son Andrew Joseph (between them) with a family friend (front far left)

I enjoyed living on the ranch. My first memories there involve playing in the fenced-in garden with my new-found dog Trixie and a couple kids that lived down the road. The caretaker of the ranch had filled the garden with big, round hay bales, and we kids would climb up on them and jump from one to the next. Somehow, Trixie figured out how to climb them too, and she would jump with us. We found a copperhead nest underneath one of the bales, and my dad, after dispatching the living snakes, showed us the leathery eggs in their nest.

We must have sold that hay the same way we sold Grandpa’s Angus cattle. I don’t think my dad had any intentions of turning into a cowboy. But the landing strip that Grandpa Clyde had built on the ranch definitely interested Dad who had gotten his pilot’s license long before his father. Unfortunately, we didn’t inherit Clyde’s plane as well.

One of the ponds I used to fish in on my family’s ranch

I remember going catfishing in the big pond down by the road every day after school. Growing up in the suburbs of Denver, I would read Huckleberry Finn and pretend to live out in the country. Now I actually got to live it. I would bring home a mess of catfish every night, and my mom would fry them up or freeze them for later.

Eventually, the rest of Clyde’s family trickled back to Cleburne County as well. His ex-wife Bertha moved back there as did his sister Betty. I remember going with Dad and Grandma Bertha to help Uncle Gene move to the ranch in the early 90’s. I met my cousin Shannon’s kids for the first time on that trip, and then Shannon ended up moving to the ranch as well, not too long after that. I remember how clever my little cousin Trevor seemed. How he used a broom handle to open the safety latch his grandfather had put on the refrigerator to keep him out. When I see my own son acting clever, to this day, it still makes me think of Trevor.

The first Andrew Joseph White

I also remember great times spent with my dad’s cousin Andy and his family. Andy got his name from Andrew Joseph, my great-grandfather, who named his own son Andrew Joseph as well (although, everybody called him June — short for Junior, I suppose.) And dad’s cousin Andy, June’s son, ought to have received the name of Andrew Joseph III, but his birth certificate simply reads Andy White. Although he may not legally qualify as The Third, he always referred to himself that way, sometimes jokingly calling himself “The Turd”.

I have lots of fond memories of “Uncle Andy” and his wife and kids. His son Zach, a few years younger than my sister Lindsey, always felt like a little brother to me. And I remember Andy’s wife Kris pregnant with their daughter Amanda who later toddled around the ranch with my sister while Zach and I went off to do more adventurous things. Uncle Andy always seemed to come around with new business ideas to share with my dad. Andy became a Cleburne County deputy and then my dad followed suit. Later Andy got his HVAC certification to do heating and air conditioning work, and dad went to school to get his right after that.

My great grandparents (and Amanda’s too), Andrew Joseph White I and Willie Viola Coker White

Andy and his family moved to Florida several years back, and I hadn’t heard from them for a long time. So imagine my surprise when I found someone named Amanda White asking in a genealogy forum about her great grandmother Willie Coker. I sent her an email with a picture of our Great Grandparents attached. We started conversing and sharing information digging into census records and emailing the results to each other.

All these new connections — and remembering all the old connections — with my family made me realize how far I had removed myself from my kin. I had let lots of things get in the way of keeping those connections fresh, and I had lost touch with a lot of people that I hold dear.

When my son came along, my wife and I lived in New York, and I knew I didn’t want to raise him there. The City has lots of wonderful opportunities for a kid growing up, but it doesn’t have the old catfishing pond or hay bales to jump between. It had friends, but it didn’t have family. We definitely felt the lack of family those first few months we lived in New York with Simon. We came back to Fayetteville where my wife’s parents live and where lots of my friends from college live, and I have rebuilt a lot of those connections. But I realized that my family lives in Cleburne County and that I love them and miss them.

My dad Bill, my son Simon (with Thanksgiving dinner on his face) and me

My parents have come to Fayetteville to visit us a few times, so has my sister. But I have other family that I have yet to see since we came back to Arkansas. We spent last Thanksgiving with my folks and with my cousin Shannon. I loved seeing Shannon’s adeptness as a mother, the kitchen full of food that she and her kids had prepared. When my son’s acid reflux kicked in and he threw up all over her new couch, she didn’t miss a beat. In fact, it barely seemed to phase her. She helped me handle the situation with such ease, that it made me want to sit down with her and study her talents. I still felt like a fish out of water with this parenting gig, but Shannon knew all the tricks of the trade.

Me on the roof of our apartment on Broadway in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, with Riverside Church in the background

As much as I wanted to escape Cleburne County as I first reached manhood, I feel it drawing me back, now. I went to college, travelled overseas, moved from place to place, wound up in New York City — the one place in America that probably bears the least resemblance to Cleburne County — but in all of that traveling around to find myself, I lost part of myself as well.

Jason Terrell made an important observation in The Cherokee Observer when talking about what it means to consider yourself a Cherokee. He said, “It means that no matter where you go, you come home to family and friends and you want to make a difference. It’s the way you live and the way your family has lived. It’s knowing who your relations are and where you fit into our society.”

This digging into my past has really caused me to take a good look at my present. I want to come home to family and friends, to know my relations and where I fit in. For me, right now, that starts with placing myself on a family tree. I draw the branches of the tree with copies of census pages and birth, death and marriage certificates. But the sap that flows between the leaves and the roots of the tree consists of the stories.

My family tree stretching back four generations before me

So in an attempt to get to know my family better, and while looking for an appropriate way to spend my Samhain last night, I decided to dig up the history of the dead. I called my Aunt Betty, the last surviving child of Andrew Joseph White and Willie Viola Coker. And Betty told me some stories. She uncovered secrets about my grandpa Clyde that I had only heard hints of before. She painted pictures for me of her childhood, living like an orphan at age 5 after her mother died of tuberculosis and her dad went off to find work.

All of these things — the stories, the history, the memories — they make me miss my family. They also make me think about how disconnected from family we live today. The old farmers in my past who dug up the soil of Cleburne County lived the American dream of Manifest Destiny, tumbling over the Mississippi River from Tennessee and Georgia to find land that would still push up crops. But by the 1930’s, you can see the families start to dissipate as the soil turned to dust. After all that running around, though, trying to make the ends meet, they always came back home to meet their own end. Andrew Joseph left, but he came back to Arkansas and lies buried there. Clyde left, and returned. So did my dad. So did I. Did the land call us back? Or the bones of our forefathers?

Panoramic view of Greers Ferry Lake from Miller’s Point

I used to walk from my parents’ house to a place called Miller’s Point. My family’s ranch sits on a bluff that looms over Greers Ferry Lake. From Miller’s Point, you can see across the lake in so many directions. You can see Heber Springs glinting to the east. To the west, you see the town of Greers Ferry, named for the lake itself. But if you look to the north of Heber, you see Tumbling Shoals and Ida where the White family first settled in Cleburne County, where James and Malviney gave birth to Andrew Joseph, probably with Malviney’s mother Harriet Foust (renowned as the best midwife in the county in her day) right there. Malviney later helped Willie Coker deliver her son Clyde there as well.

Me at Miller’s Point – Heber Springs in the distance

I wonder now if maybe my great great grandfather’s bones called me to that place. I would go there at night, walking the 3 or 4 miles from the house where I grew up, listening to the sounds of life in the woods on either side of the rural, one-lane road. I would pass all the big, new houses that had sprouted up there and transformed the old country hill top known as Miller’s Point into the high-dollar development known as Diamond Bluff. I would walk down that crumbly, sandstone descent to the point itself and sit on a throne-like rock right at the edge of the world. The stars would glitter in the sky above and their light would reflect dimly in the lake hundreds of feet below me. And in that place, with the wind rushing past my face on the brink of my realm, I could find peace for whatever set my troubled feet to walking so late at night.

I need to go to that cemetery where Jim and Malviney rest. I need to look at the carved rock that sits at the head of Jim’s grave. I need to tell him that I came home.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Aside from hosting my teenage years, Quitman, Arkansas, also bears distinctions as the home town of the GI Joe character Hollow Point. So, now you know…


  2. Wow. This is really inspiring Rix. I’ve been wanting to do the same thing for a while now. Maybe this will get me off my ass!


  3. Posted by Rix on 11/06/2007 at 8:43 pm

    Thanks, Scout.

    I forgot to mention a couple really great resources for anyone interested in genealogy:

    Personal Ancestry File (PAF) – this free program (provided by the Mormons) does a really great job of helping you organized all your relatives into a tree chart and print them up in family group sheets, wall tree charts, and various other formats.

    ancestry.com – I will probably sound like shill for saying this, but I highly recommend this site for its functionality and the way it automatically looks up documents to support your research like US censuses, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), draft cards for WWI and WWII, and other indexes and documents. You can upload photos and stories and attach them to multiple family members. Whoever designed this site really did a nice job (remember, that recommendation comes from a developer of databases and web applications.) And the best part: you get a 2 week trial of the full functionality of their deluxe package. Just cancel before the 2 weeks end, and you don’t have to pay a thing. Though you will likely miss the deluxe functionality, you can still keep your family tree with all the pictures and stories.


  4. this is beautiful and inspiring, Rix. you’ve done such amazing work!


  5. Thanks so much for writing all of this down, Rix. And especially for the links. I have (gratefully) inherited some genealogy work my aunt has done tracing our family back to the blacksmith for Lewis & Clark. Even further back from that, our family can be traced back into the 15th and 16th centuries. It completely blows my mind.

    Of course, it pales in comparison to a good Kazakh, who would know their genealogies back at least 20, and often as far back as 40, generations.

    I’m off to check out that PAF you mentioned– it could get my scribblings and random papers in better order. Thanks!

    p.s. hope you and Susan are doing well. I think of you all often.


  6. Posted by vernon prewitt on 12/07/2008 at 8:07 pm

    dear sir, my name is Vernon Prewitt, I think we are related, my great- grandfather was George denton Barrett and I think his father was the man who married the cherokee woman you wrote about, please let me know if this is true.
    yours sinserly: Vernon Prewitt


    • Posted by vernon prewitt jr. on 12/16/2009 at 8:53 pm

      i would be courious vernon where you are from?? as we share the same first & last names…im in new york..family roots from canada & england..


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