Memories are often tricksters and take you to unexpected places. I started this post to honor National Indigenous Peoples Day, which is celebrated on the second Monday of October. However, I ended up finding a surprisingly personal connection. It was a sad but noble discovery. My DNA travel research for a Midwest road trip led to the Trail of Tears.
DNA Travel Revelations
I’ve never leaned into my family’s genealogy much. My mother’s family came to the US from Croatia in the 1920’s but my father’s background remained mysterious. He once joked that he was a ‘mutt,’ and would laugh, then change the subject. One afternoon as his health was failing and our visits became more poignant, he proudly handed me a photocopy of an old pamphlet. It was a few pages from the Trail Drivers of Texas. One page was dominated by a dark picture, no doubt copied dozens of times from the 1925 book. In it a man, James Marion Garner, sat on horseback. As he peered into the camera, a diagonal shadow from his wide brimmed hat blurred the left side of his face. I could just make out the glint of a gold watch near his waist. A dark tie contrasted with the white collar at his throat. My great, great grandfather was dressed up for a special occasion.
A few paragraphs highlighted his story about cattle driving in the late 1800’s and running herds from Kansas through Texas. With a letter of recommendation in 1873, he became boss of 2,000 cattle. Before he finished he’d bettered the bandit rustlers, the Marlow Boys, and shared camp meals with Indians. Then he settled down to raise eight children in Corpus Christi, Texas. One of his son’s settled in New Mexico. One, Clyde, married Ivy Downs. She and her siblings were part Cherokee, according to my father’s records and I recall him mentioning that his family home burned down in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
The Trail of Tears Gets Personal
My father stapled a bare-bones family tree to the back of the pamphlet. On one line, Ivy’s father married unknown (A dash-? on the paper.) I wish I knew Ivy’s story but imagine her family ties lead back to the First People who settled in the Oklahoma city. I surmise that her mother was an Indian woman, one of the over 16,000 Cherokee, and nearly 2,000 of their slaves, who were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma.
Broken Arrow was a final stop on the Trail of Tears, the forced march that relocated thousands and left thousands dead along the way. I don’t remember learning about it in school and the term, ‘Trail of Tears’ is a bit too emotionally removed to reflect the horrors of the march, especially for peoples with sacred ties to land and their ancestors buried there. Regardless, on that march they were herded from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama to the new Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma.) My family tree reaches into that past from the un-named woman and her daughter, Ivy Downs, my distant relatives.
The US government claimed Southern lands that had been cultivated for generations of First Peoples so white settlers could grow cotton, build towns and homes and industries. But before anyone gets righteous about what happened in the Southern States, the North was implicit in “Indian Removal” as well. The Black Hawk War of 1832 opened up lands of the Sauk, Fox and other Native nations to white expansionists.
“In the winter of 1831, under threat of invasion by the U.S. Army, the Choctaw became the first nation to be expelled from its land altogether. They made the journey to Indian Territory on foot (some “bound in chains and marched double file,” one historian writes) and without any food, supplies or other help from the government.* Thousands of people died along the way. It was, one Choctaw leader told an Alabama newspaper, a “trail of tears and death.” (* My Italics)
Broken Arrow’s name comes from an old Creek community in Alabama. It was originally called, ‘Rekackv’ (pronounced thlee-Kawtch-kuh,) meaning broken arrow. Does broken arrow mean broken promises? If only stone, soil, and wood could speak.
Reading Between the Lines
Ancestral stories often have to be created from spaces between lines in memoirs, old pamphlets, and Wikipedia entries. Hints come from stories told at reunions and whispered revelations. It’s a familiar situation across the United States for those of us willing to look and then plan DNA travel.
Since road trips are one of the only ways many of us can travel right now, my sister and I are planning to visit Broken Arrow. In the meantime, I visited traditional First People’s territories in New Mexico.
Last year, I rode near Abiqui and the Ghost Ranch lands outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. According to my father’s family tree, one of my part-Cherokee great, great grandfather’s sons moved to New Mexico. I wonder if my trail ride crossed his lifeline but haven’t found a clue. Yet.
How Will You Commemorate Indigenous People’s Day?
Indigenous Peoples‘ Day is a holiday that celebrates and honors Native American peoples and commemorates their histories and cultures. In Brazil it’s Indian Day, while other locations and states in North America call it First People’s Day, Columbus Day or Native American Day.
It first became a national holiday in 1992 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.
Whether you plan DNA travel this year or not, consider the unique ways to celebrate the day in this link to the Smithsonian activities for home.