Saturday, February 6, 2010

sepia saturday, we are who we were


In the last several years of genealogical research, I discovered my maternal Great-Great Grandmother, Mahala Ray, born in 1812, is said to have been full-blooded Cherokee. This is almost impossible to prove on paper, considering many Native Americans carefully hid their ethnic roots, completely disappearing into white families, to avoid atrocities such as the Trail of Tears. The word "squaw" was an epithet of utmost disgust. Many census takers presumed them to be white, and recorded them so in the records.

Mahala was born in Tennessee and spent most of her life in Jackson County. She married William E. Smith, had nine children, was widowed, and then married her widower neighbor James Spivey, 37 years her senior. Their son, George Washington Spivey is my Great Grandfather. Sadly, other than this, I know nothing else about her.

"We have come to understand that who we are, is who we were," said Anthony Hopkins, in the role of John Quincy Adams, at the climactic moment of Steven Spielberg's Amistad. This haunting quote from the film has often made me wonder exactly how much influence DNA, as well as the life experience of our ancestors, have on who we are today.


Pioneer life was harsh and childbirth unending. I would love to know Mahala's dreams, her fears, and what bearing her ethnicity had on her life. I also can't help but wonder what effect her life has on mine, apart from the obvious things, like the color of my eyes and hair. My DNA is tingling to know, since her story is also part of my story.

Family Tree DNA has my sample, on which I plan having additional tests run, to check for Native American genes. I'll be sure to keep you posted on the results. This would confirm the oral history that's been handed down through the generations.

vintage postcard from my collection

Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


For more Sepia Saturday participants click [HERE].

68 comments:

  1. I will be very interested in your DNA test.
    I have a Cherokee great-grandmother. The family tradition is that they also did want to blend in with those around them.

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  2. There was a story on the news about Charles Darwin's grandson, having his DNA matched to African Apes. This would go a long way to proving Darwin's theory of Evolution.
    Isn't it marvelous how technology can link us to the past. :)

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  3. My maternal grandfather was supposedly Native American, as well. Like you, I have the cheekbones and coloring to support that assertion. Let us know what you find out.

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  4. How completely fascinating to be able to follow the path back and forth the way you do. I would love to find my traces back to Persia and Arabia, and also discover why my grandfather had the soft grey green eyes he did, but none of us have :)

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  5. How interesting.
    My husband's family are all Jackson County residents, not too far up the road about seventy miles east of out home.
    It was a County filled with sharecroppers and farmers, rural, and destitute, but nonetheless proud and hardworking people.
    I could find out more for you, as far as some of the older cemetaries and burial grounds.

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  6. Brit, that would be fantastic! Are you serious? Send me your email address and I will give you my info. Thank you!!!

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  7. Oh how I love that little baby's cradleboard. I was drawn to the beautiful deer and trees wrap. In the postcard can you see if it's beadwork?

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  8. My roots are all orally passed along. I don't even have my own birth cerificate!

    I had this idea that they needed the male's dna for proper ancestral roots? I might have mixed up with something......

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  9. wow what an interesting story I stumbled upon. A real life mystery... very cool stuff

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  10. Monica, yes, male DNA for direct ancestral lines, but there is testing for females, as well, to prove parenthood and sibling matches, as well as ethnic groups, like Native American or African American. Click on the Family Tree DNA website for additional info.

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  11. Everyday I find similar types things you and I are interested in. I have all of our family info on Family Tree and had DNA testing done on HH since his father was an orphan. I found everything between Ancestory.Com and the DNA testing. It is fascinating. My husband's gggrand mother was Cherokee from eastern Kentucky. We all thought the Indian features came from his mother but no they were from his father. I still get e-mails from Ancestory.Com about new leaves on our tree.
    QMM

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  12. Fascinating; I didn't know they could do that. I know a fair amount about the genealogy on my father's side but less about my mother's. I do know that my Cherokee genes are from her side, but I don't know how far back.

    I really should just get on Ancestory.com and figure out what I can.

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  13. Whitney, Ancestry.com is easy to use, in fact, I think they have a free trial period. You can sometimes find out a lot in a short period of time!

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  14. We also have family legend of having a native american ancestor. I can't remember which one right right now without looking it up. My sister does all the family history stuff.

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  15. What a coincidence. All of my Dad's family comes from Clay and Overton County, TN and what an interesting area it is. Looking forward to you sharing more about the excavation of your family history.

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  16. I wanted to pass this site along. It's the history of Clay county which also explains that Clay county was formed from Jackson county.

    In case you are looking for some local research assistance you might want to look on page 2 for the genealogy contact.

    http://www.dalehollowlake.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=36

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  17. Jane, yes, it is beadwork on the postcard! Gorgeous, huh?

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  18. Jojo, thank you very much for the link! :)

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  19. You are right, we owe so much appreciation to our ancestors who suffered thru everyday life back then. When I think life is getting hard w/ 2 small kids, I can't imagine if I had to drawn the water, light the lamps, lay the fire ... not to mention having nowhere to go to get away. Truly, they were strong.

    Have you ever heard of the Melungeons? Another U.S. ethnic group that often hid their identity. If your family roots go thru Tennessee, you may well have some Melungeon in you as well. I recommend the book "The Melungeons: the resurrection of a proud people: an untold story of ethnic cleansing in America" by N. Brent Kennedy. It's the only book I've ever read about the group. There are other books about the Melungeons out there, but it's hard to imagine they could be as fascinating and readable as Kennedy's.

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  20. It really is amazing to learn about our ancestors, isn't it? Good luck with the DNA information--I'll look forward to hearing what you learn, Willow!

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  21. I do hope you find out more about your ancestors - it's hard work digging but perhaps easier now you can do so much online.

    I can only go back to my great grandparents on my mother's side, and even that is sketchy info. My father was raised in foster care and I know nothing about his background other than a photo of his mother that somehow turned up recently in a deceased aunt's belongings!

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  22. Fascinating stuff! It should be very interesting to get the results of the DNA test.

    I do love the new blog sub-title, by the way. It is perfect and captures your variety so well. The image is beautiful.

    It's always fun to stop in at a favourite site to find some interesting renovations.

    Kat

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  23. Willow,
    I am so impressed you are interested in your great Grandmother. Today most people have no thoughts or cares about what it took from so many people. They went thouugh a lot to
    have put you where you stand.
    I ask people If their name is Irish, What part of Ireland were your family from?
    THEY DON"T KNOW. Then a bewildered look comes on their face.
    Like WHERE DID I COME FROM???
    Great Post as usual.Good Luck
    Stay warm, That photo is great.
    yvonne

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  24. I am quickly learning that a visit here is a unique adventure. There are many things on my intend-to-do list, and genealogical research is one of them. You just bumped it to the top of the list.

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  25. Interesting, Willow. Many folks in my neck of the NC woods have a Cherokee gggrandmother or two. I feel totally left out.

    But I have a paternal ggrandfather from Alabama who sure looks Native American in his pictures -- though there have never been any family reference to this.

    Hmm... I may have to do some exploring. I've wondered ever since I found out that my blood type was more common among Asians and Native American than among Caucasians -- which my family has always identified as. A DNA test would be interesting.

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  26. So that's where the brown eyes come from! And I think you have her mouth! Would be great to find a burial plot from Brit in TN!

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  27. most definitely keep us posted...that would be so fascinating...

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  28. I love your sepia Saturday posts. All the photos are so amazing -- I can just sit here and stare at them for minutes and minutes.

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  29. What a nice post! Mahala looks (in my opinion) like someone who was perhaps very kind.

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  30. Willow, My daughter works for the Cherokee Nation. They are set to open a new Law Museum in Talequah, OK within a week. I will find out some names for you to research with. The Cherokees do extensive research on their tribal members. Most of my Native American ancestors, like yours, did not get on the Dawes Roll. One on my husbands side, a Delaware, was supposedly a scout for the US Army, and was one of the first on the scene after Little Big Horn.

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  31. Love that line "My DNA is tingling to know" . . . though Willow, I think I've come to a place where I trust my intuition often times more than science. And that's an odd place to be, seeing as half of my DNA comes from a scientist. But my other half is Mexican (probably Toltec or Aztec mixed with Spaniards) and my Native American friends accept me as native owing to that. If you feel Cherokee, by golly, I'll bet you are!

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  32. Its wonderful that you are tracing your lineage Willow. I absolutely love your new header...it looks fabulous. Have a happy weekend, xv.

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  33. It will be interesting to know. I wonder if oral history is generally right or generally wrong? I suspect it's often right, and that when it's wrong, people often got (and get) it wrong at the "point of origin".

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  34. DNA tingling indeed, wouldn't it be great to learn more?

    sepia saturday has got me really itching to do some family history-hunting, I can see why some people get so totally drawn into it.

    this is a great post and photo

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  35. Willow,
    GREAT POST !!
    I like the DNA testing. Its amazing what can be done today to discover connections to the past. I agree that our ancestry is living through us. I guess I've been determined as an end result as far as DNA goes since I have no blood children. Hopefully, I have passed on some good through my two beautiful spirited adopted children. At least I like to think so. :) The Bach

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  36. Mahala certainly seems to be speaking to you Willow. You mentioned the DNA test. Well, I know it sounds a bit 'off the wall' but I understand that some theories around deep DNA memory have been aired in recent years.

    Wouldn't that be something, to be carrying ancient memories of our ancestors somewhere deep within our instincts?

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  37. Wow, Donna, thank you very much! This is so exciting! xox

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  38. Martin, I am fascinated by this deep DNA subject! It is exactly the theory I've been thinking about and feeling. I've got to do some further search on this. It's certainly not off the wall thinking for this wacky magpie. Thank you!

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  39. How wonderful to have a photo of that age. Your Great-Great Grandmother, Mahala Ray looks so stern in the photo. Hard to know if that was due to the technological requirements of the time or a hard life.

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  40. I too have questions of my paternal grandfather, all my life I heard whispers of his Native American relatives in Colorado...I must dig into the archives...it's a simple thing that we want to know our roots and reasons for being who we really are.

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  41. I am amazed by this blog. The creativity, the VOLUME of stuff to see and read. btw, I love your soup recipes. The picture of the baby reminded me of a story told by my ex mother-in-law. She grew up in the west and her mother was a very accomplished homemaker. An early Martha Stewart. An Indian woman who did housework for her used to hang her little baby wrapped in a papoose board in a tree outside the house. "Martha" worried for a long time about that Indian baby needing a bath. One day she decided to do it. She was trying to unwrap the baby when it let out a loud scream and the Indian mother came running. The baby hung in the tree undisturbed after that.

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  42. Love your blog header pic too!!
    You are a magpiety for sure :)
    The Bach

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  43. how fantastic! i hope your DNA tests bring great results and the answers you're looking for.

    it's rumored that my maternal great grandmother was the offspring of my german missionary great-great grandmother and a chippewa indian, but the people who knew the truth has all passed. my mom just remembers hearing her aunts gossip on the porch as a young girl. maybe we'll look into the DNA testing ourselves!

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  44. willow - look at that beautiful cradleboard!!! perhaps your ancestor slept in something similar. i hope that your search is fruitful. steven

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  45. Love the quotes, Willow. My parents have done quite a bit of genealogy work and the stories are fascinating (and really explain a lot about our quirky nature!) But, so many women with so many babies... yikes! Thank the goddess for the birth control measures we have today!

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  46. Many children indeed. my maternal grandmother gave birth 13 times. It boggles the mind. Only ten children lived to become adults.

    We who have photos and a small bit of history are so lucky. Those whose recent ancestors were killed in the holocaust lost not only the actual people, the most tragic part, but also much of their family history: photos and other records that would today help them piece together a bit of their story. The history--gone.

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  47. Barry, back in the day, the subjects were encouraged not to smile for photos, since they had to hold perfectly still for a number of seconds. I can sense a deepness, wiseness, as well as kindness in her eyes.

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  48. I was unaware of an DNA test. I found my biological family some ten years ago and told I was 1/16th or 1/32nd Cherokee.

    I have a number of Native American attributes, deep eye set, brown eyes, high cheek bones, originally dark but not black hair.

    May have to pass this on to my half-sister.

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  49. Hello Willow,

    I think you know a wonderfully large amount already about your ancestors. So often, photographs aren't saved or those pictured are no longer known. You seem to have a rich family history on which to work.

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  50. I have a picture from about 5 generations back of a family member who looks exactly like me! I wish that I had a scanner.

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  51. I definitely want to look into my traceable DNA..can't go back as far as you're able to. It is a blessing that you go exploring..I daresay your great, great, gran had that trait.

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  52. Mahala is such a pretty name - has it been given to any new generations of women in your family? Looking forward to hearing more about your DNA test!

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  53. A wonderful story, and family roots are always a mysterious and tricky road to travel. I have a colleague from Kenya whose grandmother confessed on her death bed that she was Masai and that her village was wiped out by a conquering tribe when she was a baby and they took her as part of their bounty.

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  54. Great Emerson quote.

    You are so rich in family history.It's wonderful.

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  55. Your post today is one of the finest ever .... just fascinating to read. Thank you.

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  56. Your DNA results will be intersting. Having a photo from 1812 is amazing!

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  57. Most pioneer North Americans have native roots. Finding my "Mahala" being, I believe, a Chippewa (called Obijway in Canada) from Three Smokes near Detroit (not sure what this means either). Rumour has it that small pox wiped out a great deal of the community in the 1800's. 6 degrees of separation is all there is between all of us and I feel if not directly related to most of you at least connected in the Great Spirit to a great number of you. Does anyone know how mitochondrial dna stores the geneology? This is how the Basques were thought to have active mitochondrial dna. Truly fascinating a study Willow. Please keep us up to date with all the boat manifests etc. The number of native tribes is amazing and their history vast. Did you know that Native Americans started the first democratic government in N.A.?

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  58. what a treasure that you have inherited this photo along with your great great grandmother's wonderful bone structure.

    look forward to hearing about your experience with family tree dna.

    love the emerson quote!

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  59. Stephanie, well, this photo is not from 1812, for obvious reasons! ;^) 1812 was Mahala's birth year.

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  60. This is fascinating stuff. I do hope your discoveries are interesting.
    I do get so bored of RACISTS who insist we are different or better/inferior/superior just based on skin color when really we are all pretty much in the same boat.

    As regards yesterday

    I, too, was a Peterman catalog fan and wearer of the right dresses which delighted me though I did not have the matching adventures or cool life.

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  61. Fascinating stuff--that's actually a ton more than I know about any of my great grandparents, of whom I know zilch. Love that Emerson quote!

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  62. Just found your fascinating blog...will be holding my breath for your DNA.
    Such a rich heritage...this journey of life is an amazing ride, xoxo~Kathy @ Sweet Up-North Mornings...
    Do stop in when possible...love to have you!

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  63. It really is a wonderful thing that you know as much as you do. I always thought my maternal grandmother's side was native American, purely because of their looks, facial features, and the pigment color of a lot of my cousin's skin including my brother and mother. After watching a PBS on genetics, anything is possible. They should be able to find out a lot of genetic background.

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  64. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  65. Not that it means much but one of my grandmothers was won in a horse trade and she was a Native American. So little else is known except that the card game bet ended up with one of my relatives winning the jackpot and part of that was what he called a squaw. I suppose the tribe she belonged to was in native West Virginia where they lived.

    Brookville Daily Photo

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  66. Like you, I have the cheekbones and coloring to support that assertion. Let us know what you find out.

    Work from home India

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  67. : ) Dear Tess, thank you for sharing this v interesting family history, about your great-great-grandmother. She looks like a v strong woman, of firm character and courage and determination; and in the light of what youve written and many historical accounts of the 'colonisation' of Native Americans back then, even more admirable for having adapted to a new/different life altogether. It would be most interesting indeed to have been able to discover more about her antecedents and the circumstances of her early life.
    Simply fascinating.

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Inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence.
― O. Henry (and me)