The Lore of Native Americans in the Southern Family Tree

Dignity-NativeAM

Dignity

I’ve not met many Southerners whose family has been down here for a while, not get around to sharing that there is a family story of a Native American in the family tree, usually a great-grandmother one or more times over (only story more common is the 3 brothers who immigrated or moved to America). That isn’t really all that surprising from a human relationship standpoint. Southerners are a wonderful mix of European, African and Native American ancestry. Nearly all of us who have been Southerners for many generations can find a bit of all of these if we test our DNA.

Our culture in the South has been significantly contributed to by all three races. Do a little research on some of our favorite foods, like cornbread, peas and butter beans and fried-green tomatoes and you will find major contributions by our predominate racial groups in the cultivating, growing, harvesting, preparing and eating rituals for these foods. But it wasn’t so long ago that Southern families did not admit to any Native ancestry. After the removal of Native Americans from the Southeast, many who chose to remain and integrate into white society, had a strong desire to disregard any Native ancestry and blend into the predominate white culture. Native ancestry remained a taboo subject in many Southern families until the mid-20th century. My maternal grandmother told me, and a number of other members of the family, that her father had some Native ancestry. Her younger sisters were adamant that there was no Native ancestry in the family. Today with the rise of interest in genealogy, the claim of Native ancestry is everywhere to be found and unfortunately, not always backed up by any concrete evidence. Let’s explore this problem a bit.

For those of us in the Florida panhandle, there are a couple of points to keep in mind when developing a strategy to try and determine if there is actually Native/Indigenous ancestry that can be documented.

1) When did this ancestry enter into your family tree and where was that ancestor living at birth? The Southeastern U.S. had numerous Native tribes at first contact, fewer when Florida became a territory and fewer still after the forced migration west. Where and when the ancestor lived at the time will guide you to the right records to explore and possibly provide a clue to whether they were full-blood or less. That, however, may not even be clear. My grandmother indicated her father had some “Indian” blood but she didn’t know whether it was his parents, grandparents, or even further back. And she believed him to be from somewhere “down state” which for her was anywhere in Florida east of Okaloosa County. That turned out to be inaccurate. His parents had moved into the Florida panhandle during the Civil War from southeastern Alabama, although they did originally settle in Walton County before moving west across the Yellow River and some of the collateral lines stayed in Walton County. His paternal grandparents had come to Alabama from South Carolina and his maternal grandparents are not yet clearly identified but appear to have been in Georgia before moving to Alabama.

Postcard Collection

Seminole Family Postcard

If the Native ancestry was supposed to be within the time of the census, you might find your ancestor listed as “M” for mulatto or “I” for Indian or “A free person of color” if before 1850. These designations were applied to black, brown, red and any skin-tone in-between. I have one of these in my family from early censuses. I know the ancestor who moved to GA before the 1820 census immigrated from South Carolina. But I’ve not been lucky enough to find anything in terms of evidence other than another descendant who grew up with the family story that John Pitts who moved from South Carolina to Georgia was Native American. This John Pitts also appears to have served with Francis Marion’s men in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. A possible avenue to explore for clues.

1820PittsJohnSrTelfairCoGAp454

John Pitts, Sr., second from bottom.

2) A lot of people, including me early on, thought taking a DNA test would answer my question. Unfortunately, unless the ancestry was within the last 4 generations or so and full-blood at that time, the percentages will fall to the point of being negligible very quickly. That is with an autosomal (the chromosomes carried in every cell in the human body with half coming from the father and half from the mother) DNA test. With y-DNA (passed from father to son) and mitochondrial DNA (passed from mother to all children, men do not pass to their children), there is a fair amount of data on the haplogroups of the Indigenous populations in North America so if your ancestry is directly up through your paternal line or directly up your maternal lines, it might give you some good information as to Native ancestry. Otherwise, you might find yourself in the same boat Elizabeth Warren found herself in a few years ago. Wonderful family stories but the full-blood ancestry was too far back to provide much meaningful information in autosomal DNA.

new-echota-896712_640

New Echota, Georgia

3) In my own experience, I’ve found that family stories often have a kernel of truth to them but may not be completely accurate. It is a bit like the game “telephone” we’ve all probably played at one point. One person whispers a sentence to the person next to them and that person is supposed to say the same sentence to the next person and on around the room. The last person is supposed to say out loud what they were told. It is seldom, if ever, the same, and sometimes it doesn’t even resemble the original sentence. That happens because we are humans and humans don’t always listen well or repeat exactly. The same happens through multiple generations of families. Don’t discount family stories but remember that they are stories and stories need documentation if you are trying to do the best genealogy. One of my favorite occurrences in my own research was my interviews with my paternal grandmother. I have found that for the most part her memory was spot on but in one family, the above mentioned Pitts family, her information sent me on a wild goose chase.

She remembered her great-grandfather to be John Dooly Pitts married to Melinda. I spent several years back when you had to wade through microfilm census records looking for John Dooly Pitts with no luck. She remembered visiting them in Georgia as a teenager. Then I found her grandfather in Holmes County in the 1885 Florida census and he was in the household of J. C. and Matilda Pitts. J. C. and Matilda were in Telfair County, Georgia in 1900 and going backwards I was able to find them all the way back to the 1850 Telfair County census. Their son, John E. was in the household in each census after he was born and listed as a son in the 1880 census. In the 1885 census, John C. had a brother who was in the same household, married to a Melinda, and the brother was co-owner of the property according to the agricultural census. In studying the family I think I figured out what happened with my grandmother’s memory. Matilda died in 1915 and George, John’s brother, died in 1914 so when my grandmother visited with the family they were likely both deceased. She remembered John and Melinda (who was Matilda’s sister as well as her sister-in-law), her direct ancestor and her direct ancestor’s sister-in-law. The middle name of Dooly is a bit harder to understand but there is a county by the name of Dooly close to Telfair and the name may have stuck because they visited some family there. Long story short, use family stories as a starting place, or a clue, but don’t get wedded to them. People’s long-term memory can get distorted over time.

4) Be willing to not only explore every possible data source used by genealogists, as well as read as much as you can find that includes first-hand accounts (compilations, newspapers, etc.) to look for clues to possible sources of information or understanding of the Native cultures you think may be your ancestor’s. Try to understand the social structure of these cultures. The few “Indian” census records for southeastern Native peoples prior to the forced migration can be frustrating to use since we may know an ancestor by their “white” name and the census may have only recorded their “native” name.

5) Words and concepts may not be the same through time and culture. Natives in the Southeast in the early 19th century did not conceptualize “race” and membership in their tribe the same as people in the white culture. Traders who were white and married to, or living with a Native woman, and followed the customs of his wife’s people, was considered a part of the tribe. Words have also developed new meanings over time. The word “native” did not mean an American Indian in the 19th century, it meant that a person was from a particular area, as in “he was a native of Florida”. People in the 19th century called Native peoples either Indians or something much more pejorative. Genealogy is a complex merger of genealogy, history, sociology, geography, language, and understanding of legal structures and policies over time. All of these come together to give the right analysis of evidence we accumulate.

6) There is some questionable information out there on communities of Native peoples in the panhandle after the forced migrations. Yes, the panhandle was populated by Native peoples up to and including Florida becoming a territory of the U.S. and I suspect that isolated families of mixed race were able to re-settle in the panhandle after the forced movement of the southeastern Native peoples to Indian country. The one I am familiar with is in Holmes County and then of course we have the Poarch Creek community just across the Florida-Alabama line. Keep in mind European peoples were not especially interested in having Native people in large numbers near them, even though both the Cherokee and the Creek had adopted many of the same lifeways as the dominate white culture. The forced migration was about getting them out of the way and their land available to European-Americans. They were offered the option to remain and integrate into the larger population which did occur. While one or two families who were mixed-race may have settled in an area and integrated without much interference, the chances of a large band of people settling in and among the European-American communities would have been much harder to accomplish without leaving any indication of that. This is not to say that many of us in the panhandle don’t have one or more Native ancestors. It does mean that claiming whole communities of mixed-race Native peoples is likely stretching the data a bit. I will talk about this more next month.

Next month we will look at ways to try and identify Native ancestry or do cluster research to provide good evidence of the likely Native ancestry. And I will talk about the claim that many of the people who settled in the upper Yellow River area and founded the Yellow River Baptist Church were re-settled mixed-race families, primarily from the Creek/Muskogee Nation.

Until Next Time

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