Family Myths and Facts–The Value of Research

When I was growing up and I’d ask my mom where we were from, what were we, she’d always answer, “We’re Heinz 57; a little bit of everything.” I love my mom and I know she was trying to be funny, but I always hated that answer. All I took away from it was that our history was lost and we didn’t know where we were from. Mostly, she assumed, we were some combo of Great Britain and Western European. So, you know, very specific and unique.

But she did know two ingredients for sure. She knew my birth father was Irish, and thought he was probably wholly Irish, so that would make me half, and she knew she had a Cherokee grandmother or possibly great grandmother.

Here’s the thing about Cherokee grandmothers: everyone in the South has one. That’s not something I knew growing up but it is a wide-spread myth in the American South. We’re all Cherokee and we all come from Cherokee grandmothers who were once Cherokee princesses. Apparently there were a lot of Cherokee princesses marrying white men and having a lot of white babies.

Obviously we’re Indian, we have high cheekbones and prominent collarbones. Obviously we’re Indian, look how well we tan despite all that British Isles blood.

So I grew up knowing just two truths: I was half Irish and a little bit Cherokee. I clung to these two things because I had nothing else. I was a Navy brat for the first part of my young life and then a Construction brat for the rest, which meant we moved a lot. So I didn’t even have a state that I could call home. Of course I now call Southern California home because I’ve lived here so long and I sound like I’m from here but it wasn’t until the internet became what it is in the last ten years that I was finally, finally able to figure out what was truth and what was myth.

Because I’d always clung to the idea that we were part Cherokee I’d studied a lot about them, I’d done many reports on them in school, I’d given myself a better education about what happened to that nation than anything even honors history classes could give me. But I was never sure who my Cherokee grandmother was. I’d always wanted to write a fantasy novel featuring a Cherokee heroine, but as I got older and the internet got better and I learned a few things about white people and their “connections” with being Cherokee, I stopped myself.

It was a little embarrassing to realize that we’d been perpetuating those bizarre, made-up claims and we probably weren’t even the tiniest of Cherokee or any other native nation for that matter. But it was also disappointing. It was one of only two clues I had about my heritage and I was sad to have that pop like a bubble.

Even as I was coming to terms with the idea that our family myth about a Cherokee grandmother was probably just that, a myth, I still wanted to know my family history. I wanted to know where we came from, when we got to the states, what made up my genetics. I wanted facts, not myths.

So, like any good writer, I began researching.

I plumbed U.S. Census Reports (by the way, I hadn’t realized just how important these things are until I needed them), combed through marriage licenses and birth records, mapping out years and decades and centuries.

Mostly I started only knowing my mom’s information, her mother and father, and some of their mothers and fathers. Luckily my mom was able to get some information, like maiden names from my grandfather.

Also, when people tell you women just aren’t important when it comes to history beyond who they give birth to, they aren’t exaggerating. If I didn’t know a maiden name, the line would just stop with her marriage. I was literally able to follow my grandfather’s paternal lines into the Crusades and early Scottish Royalty and so far I was sure I’d fallen into the Dark Ages to point where years were only three digits. But the women? The women were footnotes, asides, shadows that fell away with the years. So remember women’s names beyond their husbands, please.

But I digress.

With the little information that I had–and I know it’s more than a lot of people had–I was able to find out very quickly on my grandmother’s paternal side, that we were, in fact, English. Not a little bit of everything. English. Now I struggled learning about my grandmother’s mother’s side of the family. There are some hints of vikings and there is some lore about forest witchery and mountain men with great scraggly beards that live in cabins, which is all obviously spot on and doesn’t need research to be proven correct.

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But back to Granddaddy and his family. I was amazed to find out that our family name is an ancient and proud Scottish name. Scottish. Now that rang a bell in my soul. The family eventually moved into England, Kent, specifically. So English yet again. But that Scottish line was amazing to read about and I don’t know if I’d ever had so much pride in my body before. But there was one spot–one name that didn’t match the rest. Grandma Katie. Katie was my grandfather’s grandmother.

And according to the U.S. Census, when she was a little girl, she lived on “Indian Territory.” You’ll see the further back you go on the Censuses the more offensive and belittling they get when documenting certain groups of people. But Katie lived in a house on “Indian Territory” with her sister and father.

Mom confirmed with Granddaddy that Katie had a sister (whose name was butchered by the Census takers). And my heart fluttered a little bit.

To be considered Cherokee you have to be able to trace your family back to the Dawes Rolls, which were taken 1898-1906. Not a lot of time. But Grandma Katie’s Census record was from 1900. So, with trembling fingers I searched for Katie on the Rolls. And my stomach about dropped out.

There she was, with her little sister and father, all on the same card.

Reader, I cried.

And not because I wanted to point to this things and say, “See! I’m Cherokee!” No. It was more like, relief? Maybe? I’m not quite sure what emotion is the right one. But there was happiness, seeing her name there, giving me back this piece of history that I’d held on to as a child when I had so little. We actually had a Cherokee Grandmother–no she wasn’t a princess. If you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s not a thing.

And no, I am not claiming to be Cherokee or Native because I didn’t grow up that way. I didn’t grow up with lessons and stories and history and culture. But it was exciting to find out what made up part of me. The bio father side is still mostly assumption but I’m okay with that.

So I sat down and wrote a story to honor Grandma Katie. Yes, it’s a story with a Cherokee sister and brother as the MCs. Yes, it’s based on a Cherokee legend. No, I didn’t suddenly feel like I had “permission” to write the story now that I found Grandma Katie, and I’m certainly not claiming #ownvoices with it (but please go check out that hashtag on twitter for some awesome books), but it was something I’d always wanted to do and now that I knew Grandma Katie (and did research about her family), I wanted to honor her, like I’ve done with books from the rest of my background. And I was inspired. I was inspired to write something wholly different than anything I’ve ever written before.

If you’re interested in reading the story, I am going to be sharing it on Patreon, serialized into chapters. I’m making the first post free to the public so everyone can read it and get a taste, but beyond that it’ll be available to people who pledge $3 or more. If you’d like, pop over here to read.

I guess this was a post about inspiration. Or maybe the value of research. Or finding and separating the threads of myth and fact. I guess the post is about what you take from it, dear reader. But this is what led to me writing my story about the Ravenmocker and his sister.

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7 thoughts on “Family Myths and Facts–The Value of Research

  1. LivRancourt

    What an awesome journey! I’m impressed by your tenaciousness. Did you think about doing any genetic testing? My oldest got tested, and the results showed that a solid percentage of their DNA originated in a town in Ireland – the same town my great-great-(great?)-grandparents immigrated from in the 1860s. It was pretty cool.

    1. Shauna Granger

      I have! My hubs did his and the results were interesting but he didn’t get anything *that* specific. Which one did your son use?

      1. LivRancourt

        They used AncestryDNA…the website even gave them a list of their closest relatives, and I recognized (or made educated guesses at) some of the names.

      2. Shauna Granger

        Now that’s awesome. Hubs used 23 and Me, but I’m interested in Ancestry. That website actually helped me so much once I got past the Census reports. The information available now is amazing once you find the right trail to follow.

  2. I love this! I can definitely empathize with how exciting it must have been to feel that thread of heritage reconnect you to something you felt you’d lost.

    I also totally understand how you feel about family “myths”–we have several whoppers in my family that, as I’ve done my own research, have turned out to be massively apocryphal. But I guess I can see the other side of it too. As someone who has come from at least 20 generations of “peasants”–laborers and washing women and stonecutters–sometimes the stories we tell ourselves about who we are become more important than who we factually are. Maybe it’s about feeling significant in a world that has made us insignificant? I don’t have a strong theory yet, but I do like hearing the family tales, even when they might be tall.

    1. Shauna Granger

      Totally agree! On the flip side, I think what was the strangest for me was finding some awesome, impressive ancestry and I just thought, “Why aren’t we bragging about this?” Maybe it’s the reverse, not wanting to think about what parts of the family used to be and, in coming to the states, lost some of that status. But I don’t care, I’m excited to find these gems and I want to horde all of them!

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