Roots as Red as Blood
Searching for My English Cherokee Ancestors
In the black season of deep winter
A storm of waves is roused
Along the expanse of the world.
Sad are the birds of every meadow-plain
Except the ravens that feed on crimson blood
At the clamor of harsh winter
The iron pot is put on the fire
After the dark black day
Celtic poem, 11th century
(Disclaimer…all the research represented here is my own interpretation of data collected from many sources. It may or may not be true. Welcome to the world of genealogy and historical research.)
Ten years ago I began a quest to find my ancestors. More than any other reason, I needed to claim my Cherokee roots. And now I have. Like many people here in Kentucky, I probably have more than one Indian line. But the first one I found was Nikitie. Finding her was the beginning of my quest. I found her and was then led along a winding path to all the others. Genealogical research is a labyrinth, a maze, a house of mirrors. Just when you are certain you have traced a line, it goes off in a completely different direction leaving your head spinning.
Nikitie was married to Gabriel Arthur, an Englishman. This is where the timeline gets confused. Gabriel Arthur is considered to be the first white man in Kentucky. He came through the Cumberland Gap in 1673 as a scout for the man he was indentured to, Abraham Wood. Nikitie was, I believe, the wife of Gabriel Arthur who was probably the grandson of Gabriel the scout. There are many variations of the spelling of her name which was passed down to female descendents.
But, this is not the entire puzzle here. We, their descendents, know we are descended from them. What we can not yet explain is the missing piece. Gabriel who came through the gap would have been too old to have fathered Martha Arthur, born at the Cherokee capitol of Chota in 1751. It seems that he must have had a son, or grandson, named Gabriel Arthur and it is he who married Nikitie and then had Martha.
Somewhere in all this, I have become a historian of the colonial south. This may seem like an absurd claim for someone who has never even sat in a history class, let alone taught one. After a lifetime of being denied the history of my ancestors, it is now an open door that I have walked through and will never leave.
By searching for Gabriel I learned about Abraham Wood, the man he was indentured to, and who financed the expedition in 1673 and then wrote a very lengthy letter describing it. I then realized that the letter was suppressed in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and that this may have had to do with Wood’s rival, William Byrd I. Then, in researching John Bannister, the missionary who was given a 1,730 acre land grant which a Gabriel Arthur settled with 34 other ‘persons’, I found that Bannister was “accidentally shot while on a scouting trip with William Byrd. The man who shot him, Jacob Colsen, was suspected of murder but then acquitted and soon after moved on to North Carolina.
My research has led me back right to the core of colonial history and with it to the British Empire that had extended its power to this continent in the 16th century. The Kings and Queens of England are no longer distant figures who have nothing to do with me. They were my history. I am the future they envisioned in the New World. This land that I now walk upon called Kentucky carries the place names and holds the artifacts of Great Britain. We still live that history here.
For me, the quest is no longer about proving exactly who an ancestor was. In reality, the further we go back in history, the less probability there is. As with all spiritual journeys, it isn’t just the destination that’s important, it is the journey itself. This research will take you back in time. Along the road you will meet many ancestors. Although you may not in actuality be descended from them, they shared with your ancestors common places and times, dreams and visions, language and art. You will find pieces of who you are.
There was very little curiosity on the part of my family about our origins. It is only myself and my two sisters, out of thirty-two first cousins, who seem to in any way identify with being Indian. I have come to the understanding that it takes imagination to imagine the past, just as it does to imagine the future. Modern life robs us of that imagination.
Our family names on my mother’s side are Drake and Spencer. When I was young I remember asking my aunts and uncles, “Aren’t those English names…from England?”
I got blank stares, “Well, I guess they probably are.”
I look at the faces of my uncles and see the genetic strains that have come through from England, Scotland, and Germany, and the people indigenous to America. In my mind, I can see them, my uncles, in kilts walking across the moors or on horseback with feathered head pieces blowing in the wind. How sad to spend your life looking in the mirror at your own face and not wonder who the men were who came before you, what tools did they use, were they kind or mean, did they dream of America as they looked out across the ocean?
There is a book I read that describes the people of eastern Kentucky in the early 1900’s as being “contemporary ancestors”. This still seems so true to me. The culture and folkways of the Old World have been preserved here. There are expressions of speech I have been hearing my whole life that I now recognize as Old English. When I hear an old woman say something like, “Lawd o mercy, it’s a fixin’ to rain on us down yere in this holler”, to me it just seems like the way people talk.
There were millions of people who fled the British Ilses in the 17th and 18th centuries. The American Plantation represented a new beginning, religious and political freedom, a chance to till your own soil. Of course they established that freedom by a diabolical system of enslaving others and committing genocide against the native inhabitants. Kentucky truly was the “dark and bloody ground”. But I believe that for the exiles from Great Britain it held all the promise of recreating their homeland. These hills and hollows were their England. And now, when I see the gently rolling pastures and the barns and sheds that have been standing for over a hundred years my soul is transported to England and Scotland. What joy they must have felt when they staked out their land and built their first cabin next to these springs.
In this book, I will be using the research I have done on my maternal side, and only a few of those lines. Normally, we would each have four maternal great-grandparents, all going back in separate directions. Not so with my mother’s family. I have one Drake line and three Spencer lines. My grandparents, Thurman Drake and Ila Spencer Drake, were cousins. They both were born in and died in Wolfe County, Kentucky. My granddaddy Thurman’s mother was a Spencer, and my grandma Ila’s father was a Spencer, and her mother’s mother was a Spencer. They all go back to two sons of Joseph and Mary Spencer.
Joseph Spencer was born about 1731, and died in Lee County, Virginia in 1837 in a place called Poor Valley. If the dates are accurate, he would have been 106, which is not impossible. My great-aunt died a few years ago at the age of 104. More likely, no one knew his exact birth year.
I will limit myself here to these lines; Drake, Spencer, Lester, Arthur. It will be plenty. Consider how many ancestors we each have. Two grandparents multiplied by two by two by two…going back six generations from our grandparents we already have 252 ancestors. My genealogy chart will be included in the back, to the extent that I feel fairly confident in its accuracy.
You will meet my ancestors here. But, you will also come to know how to make your own quest. I can’t imagine how we can ever find who we truly are without letting them speak to us. In a world that is so fragmented and uprooted I believe the ancestors beg us to find them.
They hide under stones and in the ocean and the heavens and perhaps in hell. But, this is the age of technology. You can find all the data and records you will ever need simply by learning how to do the research on the internet. If you have money and are able to purchase subscriptions and books and software, all that much easier. But I have not been able to. I have done most of my research for free.
The most frustrating and disheartening aspect of this research is all the information out there that simply isn’t correct. What has happened is that too many people, in their enthusiasm for this research, input inaccurate data into these sites and then everyone starts citing everyone else’s inaccurate information. Then it becomes “I know Joseph Drake must have been John’s father because I see it everywhere.”
Genealogy researchers use the term “primary” sources. This is the information which is the closest to actual fact. If there is an old family cemetery on the land your family has owned for 200 years and your great-grandfather’s headstone says he died in 1875, then there is an awfully good chance he died in 1875. An actual copy of a census record in the census takers handwriting is more conclusive than a transcribers notes 80 years after the fact.
The key to authoritative genealogy work is corroborate…corroborate…corroborate. You believe that your great uncle owned land in North Carolina and was married to a woman who had a twin sister. Where do you go to prove this? You begin with any information you can get your hands on, and then do whatever you can to prove or disprove it.
Being an effective researcher requires, not just knowledge of how to do research, but also knowledge of history and psychology. The last area is my primary field and it has been invaluable in tracing ancestors and understanding their behavior. You can’t trace African American ancestors and Native American ancestors without a grasp of the political system that held them captive. You can’t understand why great-aunt Polly ended up in a mental hospital in 1870, after bearing fourteen children and then discovering her husband had three other children she knew nothing about, unless you understand something about lust, rage, ego, terror, and shame.
I came across a record yesterday while researching someone else’s family that there was a man named John who wanted to marry a woman named Martha, but her sister Rebecca was the oldest and their father needed to marry her off first. John married Rebecca but then also moved in Martha and proceeded to have children by both women.
Two for the price of one! Incest and polygamy in the south is not just a vicious rumor. It was a reality then; and it is now.
At the back of this book will be a bibliography of genealogical materials to guide you through your own quest. This book then becomes both a history book and a genealogical resource guide.
This is my song to my ancestors. They have been singing to me my whole life.
Surnames; Drake, Spencer, Johnson, Robbins, Caudill, Wyatt, Pennington, Daughtery, Deaton, Brantley, Adams, Landreth, Grayson, Lester, Arthur.
Given names; Dora, Thurman, Ila, Nathaniel, James, Mary Polly, William, Nancy, Catherine, Joseph, Sarah, Margaret, John, Joanna, Jemima, Alexander, Juliana, Moses, Elizabeth, Sampson, Mary, Virginia, Isabelle, Abigail, Gabriel, Hannah…and my Cherokee 5th great-grandmothers…Nikitie and Farabe. They came from a time before the last names began.