Finding Cherokee America: Deciphering My Convoluted Family History
It Took Margaret Verble Twenty Years to Write Her Novel and It Was Worth It
Early in my last semester of college at the University of Kentucky I went to Oklahoma for my granddaddy’s funeral. We held it in the Baptist Church in Ft. Gibson. I was a little outraged by that on my grandfather’s behalf. He despised churches and preachers. Never had a kind word to say about either of them. And until the casket lid was shut, I was half-afraid he’d rise up and sock somebody. Granddaddy didn’t have a lot of self-control.
But granddaddy stayed dead and we buried him in the Citizens Cemetery on a cold, windy hill outside of town. I think that was the first time I’d ever been in that cemetery. But maybe not; I like cemeteries. And with granddaddy in that one I started visiting Citizens a lot. Every time I was in Oklahoma. Which was two or three times a year because, except for my mother, my whole maternal family was out there, and I was worried about my grandmother. She was a widow after a long marriage, and out in the country at the end of a section line, with only a .22 for protection. Granddaddy had had a car, but she couldn’t drive.
When I visited in the summers I drove out alone. I was in Nashville by then, teaching school, living not far from my father and mother. But I liked the independence of making the drive by myself, and visiting separately from my parents spread our company out for grandma. It also prevented mama and me from getting on each other’s nerves. But it meant that I often visited the cemetery alone. And I quickly discovered that it wasn’t always named Citizens. When the eastern part of Oklahoma was Indian Territory, the northeastern part was the Cherokee Nation. Citizens had originally been the Cherokee National Cemetery. There were old Indian families buried there. After I’d chatted with granddaddy, I took up roaming among their graves.
On one of those jaunts, not long after granddaddy died, I spied in the distance a large black marble stone. It was nicer than the others and looked much more expensive. That pulled me to it. But as soon as I got there, my breath was taken by the woman’s name etched on the surface: “Cherokee America Rogers.” Her husband was next to her, and some of their children were buried around. It was a family plot, encircled by a little fence. But I could barely take my eyes off the stone. I thought, “What a fabulous name!”
That evening, it was hot in the kitchen. The sun was low in the sky, dropping toward the trees, but still burning through the screen. The air wasn’t stirring outside or in. Grandma and I were at the table eating something fried. Probably fish, maybe chicken. We were alone. Her back was to the west wall. I was sitting not exactly in granddaddy’s old place, but close to it. I wanted to ask grandma about the grave, but I had to be careful. I didn’t want to trigger her grief. So I said, “I saw a wonderful name on a stone in the cemetery today. Cherokee America Rogers.”
And grandma laughed. Her eyes squinted with pleasure. She said, “Ya found Aunt Check!”
I said, “You knew her?”
She nodded. Said, “Yeah. She was a good’un.” Then she told me that when her father and uncle had come to Indian Territory from Arkansas, orphaned by the Civil War, Aunt Check had taken them in. She owned a huge potato farm, and she’d given my great grandfather and his brother work and a place to live. They’d been destitute. She’d been good to them. And it was clear to me that my grandmother still had warm feelings toward Aunt Check, though she’d been dead for many a year by then.
That grandma told me the story at all was unusual. She lived in the present. Didn’t reminisce. I don’t know if that was just her nature, or some sort of old Indian thing, or, maybe, because her past wasn’t all that pleasant. Grandma had had a hard life. She was nearly 60 when she got running water, electricity, and in-door plumbing. Her childhood had been in allotment times, when treaties were broken and Indians were routinely cheated and murdered. She’d been raised skinning catfish and killing snakes. Then, as an adult, she lived through the dust bowl and granddaddy losing her land to the bank. As I grew older, grandma divulged a little more of the past to me; but at the time, that she told as much as she did struck me as remarkable. I decided she was grateful to Aunt Check. I could see she’d admired her.
Aunt Check and her whole world would’ve otherwise stayed buried in that lonely cemetery.
So I started visiting Aunt Check whenever I visited granddaddy. And I assumed she actually was my grandmother’s aunt. Our family’s allotments were clustered together in the Arkansas River bottoms. My grandmother’s siblings lived on adjacent farms. That potato farm had been on our section line. Some of our family were Rogers. It all fit so easily that I didn’t bother to confirm that relationship with Grandma.
I did start reading some Cherokee history, encouraged by my mother’s first cousin, Earl Boyd Pierce, who was the tribe’s head lawyer and a walking history book. I started with James Mooney’s, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees because it had recently been reprinted by Charles Elder, who owned a wonderful bookstore in Nashville. I found it in there one day, and paid, on a teacher’s salary, a lot of money for it. Then when I went back to the University of Kentucky for graduate school, I joined the Oklahoma Historical Society. I started reading their journals. After that, I slipped into Cherokee history bit by bit, a book here, another one there. I kept coming across John Rogers and Robert Rogers. And I found that my grandmother’s great aunts, Sarah and Lucy Cordery, had married brothers, John and Robert Rogers. Will Rogers was descended from Robert and Lucy.
By then Earl was dead and grandma was too old to ask about any of this. She was in a nursing home just down the road from the cemetery. Whenever I visited her, I visited granddaddy and Aunt Check. And I began looking for which one of grandma’s great aunts Aunt Check’s husband was descended from. What I found is that it’s often a mistake to get into genealogy. It’s a tangled web. And at the time I did it, the internet hadn’t been invented. So it was like a tangled web in a dark room. And a sticky one. I couldn’t get away from those dead people. I spent years with them.
And just when I thought I’d finally sorted them out, I discovered that there were two John Rogers living in the Cherokee Nation before the Removal, and that they were each well-known, but unrelated, and that they often gave their children identical names. If they hadn’t already been dead, I would’ve killed them both. To make matters worse, I also found out that Aunt Check’s husband was from Ohio. She was an Indian, but he wasn’t. She was no relation at all.
But I learned a lot of Cherokee history along the way. Trying to find Aunt Check took me to the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, to that hateful Andrew Jackson, to the Trail Where They Cried, and to the Civil War in Indian Territory, which was devastating, and which, until relatively recently, has been overlooked by historians.
So when the writing disease hit me, the most natural thing in the world was for me to try to write a novel about Aunt Check taking in my great grandfather and his sole surviving relative. I started Cherokee America almost 20 years ago. And I’d begun my romp through history a couple of decades before that. Big complicated books don’t get written fast.
Am I glad I spent so much of my adult life on this? Yes, I am. And not only because the book I’ve worked on for so long is finally being published. I’m glad because I’m almost certain that Aunt Check and her whole world would’ve otherwise stayed buried in that lonely cemetery on that windblown hill and entirely lost to our knowledge. One of the greatest gifts of writing is being able to bring the dead back to life. To give new substance to their existence. To feel them near, talking, prodding, and laughing. To introduce them to others. I’m not as tough as I was when I was younger. The power of the act of creation brings tears to my eyes fairly often.