My Cherokee Connection in Only One Way Home
“Cherokee blood, if not destroyed, will win its courses in beings of fair complexions, who will read that their ancestors became civilized under the frowns of misfortunes & the causes of their enemies.”
—John Ridge, Cherokee chief.
Fortunately, John Ridge’s fear of his people’s extinction or total assimilation did not come true. However, there are plenty of blond-haired pale-skins like myself with Cherokee blood “coursing” through their veins. I grew up knowing there was Cherokee in my ancestry. You can see it clearly in this photograph of my grandmother Ethel Woods. My siblings and I took great pride in this, considering it a mark of distinction. I found out much later that Grandpa sometimes called her “Squaw” in a pejorative way that indicated he did not feel quite the same way about her Indian heritage as we did
This is her grandmother Mary Ann Jones Bohannon, who was born in 1827 in Nash County, North Carolina, to Jesse and Susan Jones. In case you’re wondering, many Indians by that time had taken on English surnames in their conscious efforts to become “civilized.” Indeed, the Cherokee were one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeast.
In the early 1800s the Cherokee made tremendous social and cultural progress in a very short time, successfully transitioning from a hunter-gatherers society to an agrarian one. With Thomas Jefferson’s guidance, they gave up their ancient blood-feud system for a representative form of government with a constitution and court system. They tended their farms well and lived in homes every bit as nice as most of their white neighbors. Furthermore, their literacy rate was climbing fast, and they even had their own newspaper, printed in both English and Cherokee. Plans were in the works for a Cherokee museum.
But their efforts to become “civilized” were in vain. During the Indian Removal of 1838, over 16,000 Cherokee were forced from their Georgia and North Carolina homes and herded into military stockades where they were confined until they could be sent to Oklahoma. Their time there was a horrible ordeal, and that was just the beginning of their suffering. They called the trip to Oklahoma Nunahi-Duna-Hilu-I, the trail where they cried.
Learn more about Cherokee culture and the political maneuvering that led to their plight in my blog post “Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy.” And you can read first-hand accounts of the Trail of Tears in my article “The Trail Where They Cried.” Bring your tissue.
The worst part of the journey was the time they spent in southern Illinois that December of 1838. Only One Way Home tells that story. As always, I tried to be as accurate as possible. White Dove’s experiences at Golconda represent many actual circumstances that the Cherokee endured during their time in my state. I suspect some readers will think I exaggerated their suffering, but if anything, I downplayed it to prevent the story from becoming too painful to read. Naturally, with the Trail of Tears topic, the story is sad, but there are also moments of shining joy and hope, so don’t think it’s too depressing to read.
As for my Great, Great Grandmother Mary Ann Jones, she would have been eleven when the soldiers came to North Carolina to round up the Cherokee. Somehow her family escaped the fate of the others so perhaps they hid in the mountains, as some reportedly did. By 1845, Mary Ann was in Benton, Co., Tennessee, where she married James Henry Bohannon, a man of Scottish descent. (His ancestor Duncan’s ordeal is another story I plan to tell one day.)
Mary Ann’s white neighbors referred to her as the “Indian Woman,” because she retained many of her Cherokee customs. I don’t know if she was full-blooded Cherokee, but I do know that when Mary Ann died in Sugar Tree, Tennessee in 1882, they buried her outside the cemetery fence because she was not white enough to qualify for a proper spot inside it. When I visited her grave ten years ago, I found that the cemetery had expanded to the point that now she lies pretty much at its center, a fact that causes me to smile every time I think about it.
It was with great happiness and respect that I dedicated Only One Way Home to her.
For my Great, Great Grandmother Mary Ann Jones Bohannon, the “Indian Woman,”
and for my brother Kenny Woods who inherited his dark good looks from her.
Although the details of this family history were deconstructed and woven into the warp and weft of the story in a completely fictional way, they truly were the inspiration for Only One Way Home, the story I wanted—needed—to tell.
It would be so nice of you to share!