Of Folk and White Folk (Forward Back to Babylon)

By Travalanche (MIX guest writer)

I saw this bar graph on social media this morning and found it very telling. It explains a lot.  The chart shows Democrats and Republicans differing wildly in their perceptions of whether the Trump administration is “uniting” or “dividing” the nation. How can that be? They’re looking at the same phenomenon.

So the irony is, at the very time I’m discovering how “American” my pedigree is, I find myself far, far away from the contemporary American poster boy with similar roots. I’m about the roots themselves, and maintain that I remain truer to those roots than the millions of angry, red-faced people who go around waving flags and demanding conformity to their values. I am forever seeking out the old, the fecund and the folkish.

…In recent months I’ve felt like I was really beginning to understand the ideological underpinnings of the American folk movement of the mid-twentieth century for the first time, and WHY there was such an uproar and feelings of betrayal when Dylan went electric and “commercial”.  I’ve always had misgivings about corporate control of popular culture, especially mainstream Hollywood films since the 1980s (for their violence, materialism, and encouragement of conformism).  And also the video experience, which happens alone, dispassionately, less empathetically.  The danger becomes more apparent when you see corporate forces so closely allied with government power as they now are.

In the age of corporate media, the message is disseminated from the top down. It is controlled and it is designed to condition spectators to conform.

READ: Of Folk and White Folk (Forward Back to Babylon) | Travalanche

When is a Cherokee Not a Cherokee?

Answer: When He’s William Holland Thomas

thomas

By Trav S.D. | MIX Contributor

There is apparently a maxim in the genealogy field, something along the lines of “Genealogy without documentation is fairy tales.’

It’s meant to be an aspersion, but frankly I am unmoved.  I like fairy tales.  I find them much superior to, much truer than “facts”.  Or…rather, I put things in perspective.  Where there is an unknown, a story will do very nicely.  When empirical facts emerge to replace the products of logic or imagination, who am I to argue?  The facts become the new story.  But until then….I work with what I’ve got, and that’s good enough for me.

And if it ain’t good enough for you — here comes a train; go walk in front of it.

Which brings us to to this gentleman, William Holland Thomas (1805-1893).  What an interesting guy.  He was born on the frontier of western North Carolina.  His father drowned before he was born, making it necessary for Thomas, an only child, to work for a living starting at a young age.  He ended up running a general store for Congressman Felix Walker.  When their contract was up, Walker found himself pecuniarily embarrassed.  Unable to pay Thomas in money, he gave him a large number of books, a certain percentage of which were law books.  Thomas studied hard and became a lawyer.

Meanwhile he’d been a storekeeper in a rural area.  He’d made a lot of friends.  Among them were a group known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee.  This was a small group of several hundred Cherokee who’d managed to avoid being marched off in the Trail of Tears with the rest of the Eastern Indians.  Thomas became their lawyer, and ended up winning several important Federal cases for them.  He became the adopted son of the tribe’s Chief Yonaguska and — remarkably — succeeded him as tribal leader when the latter died in 1839.  Thomas thus became the only Caucasian ever to be the official chief of an Indian tribe.  He bought large amounts of land for himself and for the tribe, and served as a state senator from 1848 through 1860.

In 1860 the Civil War broke out and the story gets even stranger.  For Thomas was made a Colonel in the Confederate Army, and led Thomas’s Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders.  That’s right.  He led a unit composed largely of one subjugated people in a war to ensure the continued subjugation of another people.  The motives for this mind-numbing tangle are complicated.  I’m sure to write about this some more.  But even Thomas appears not to have been able to wrap his head around it all.  Two years after the war was over, Thomas went insane, and was in and out of mental hospitals for the remainder of his life.

Here’s how and why I learned about Thomas:

  • I have a dead end in my family tree that stops with one of my great-great grandfathers, John Burkley Thomas (1837-1926)
  • John Burkley Thomas was born in North Carolina and moved to Tennessee prior to 1865
  • My paternal grandmother contended that she was part Cherokee, and that her Cherokee connection came from the Thomas line.
  • When you Google “Thomas”, “North Carolina” and “Cherokee”, guess what you get?

Oh, I know it’s an enormous leap.  I make no factual claim here.  But there are several other facts that intrigue.

Thomas didn’t marry and begin to have his recorded “official” children until 1857, when he was 52 years old.  His personal life prior to that is described in the book Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas by E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell.  Two facts interest me.  One is that, as an orphan himself, “Thomas was especially sympathetic with orphans and illegitimate children” and as tribal leader he adopted many of them.  The identities of several are known; many more are not.

Then there is this excellent paragraph:

“At what point Thomas abandoned his youthful vow to remain chaste before marriage cannot be known, but as he passed through his twenties, thirties and forties yet unmarried, he apparently surrendered to the demands of his sexual nature…If he fathered illegitimate children by both Indian and white women, their identities rest behind the veils of time, gossip, and legend.”

The latter two of which I fully acknowledge apply to this blogpost.  Yet there are times when they will do.  A possibility exists that John Burkley Thomas was either an orphaned child adopted by Thomas OR one of Thomas’s own illegitimate children.  Perhaps not just a possibility.  Perhaps even a likelihood. Perhaps.

Some other pieces: I have had my DNA tested.  There is no apparent Native American component. Yet there is a family rumor of Cherokee blood in the Thomas line.  Well…here’s a man named Thomas who is a legal Cherokee but not a blood Cherokee.

And lastly, there is no explanation anywhere for the origins of John Burkley Thomas.  Not only that, but the spelling of the middle name (as opposed to the much more common “Berkeley”) is rare and peculiar.  It exists here and there but it is rare.  But guess where William Holland Thomas lived and died? Burke County, North Carolina.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Until something better comes along.

P.S. February 5th was William Holland Thomas’s birthday.

 

ABOUT MIX CONTRIBUTOR

  • Writer and performer Trav S.D. has written for the NY Times, the Village Voice, American Theatre, Time Out NY, Reason, the Villager and numerous other publications. He has been in the vanguard of New York’s vaudeville and burlesque scenes since 1995 when he launched his company Mountebanks, which has presented hundreds of top variety acts ranging from Todd Robbins to Dirty Martini to Lady Rizo to the Flying Karamazov Brothers.  He has directed his own plays, revues and solo pieces in NYC since 1989 at such venues as Joe’s Pub, La Mama, Dixon Place, Theatre for the New City, the Ohio Theatre and the Brick.  In 2014 he produced and directed the smash-hit “I’ll Say She Is”, the first ever revival of the Marx Brothers hit 1924 Broadway show in the NY INternational Fringe Festival.  He is perhaps best known for his 2005 book “No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous“, recently cited by Bette Midler in people magazine as one of her favorite books.  His upcoming show “Horseplay. or the Fickle Mistress” opened Feb. 15 at LaMama and will star Everett Quinton, Molly Pope, Jan Leslie Harding, and Tim Cusack.

TOP HAT PHOTO:  Trav S.D. FLICKR

Two Interesting Irish Stories from My Background

Latest ancestry post: HERE

 

Mixed race? Me?

Album Cover: Indian Reservation
Album Cover: Indian Reservation

By Trav S. D.

Mixed race? Me? Scotch-Irish, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French: that’s not a very diverse ethnic cocktail. Oh, wait  – I left out one. I am part Cherokee Indian. 1/64th, in fact, though possibly more. It may not sound like much, but it’s precisely the same amount of Cherokee blood that Senator Elizabeth Warren can claim, and she hasn’t hesitated to check off the “Native American” box when asked her ethnicity! But I can and do claim my Cherokee ancestry proudly as a small part of my heritage, however – – and can bemoan the likely interactions with Native Americans likely perpetrated by the other 63/64 of my ancestors.  For my make-up is roughly 6.4% Trail of Tears and 93.6% Andrew Jackson.
Ezra and Flora Stewart, ca 1944
Ezra and Flora Stewart, ca 1944

America prides itself on its diversity; it’s boring to be all vanilla. It’s so damn common for people with a little bit of native blood to brag on it that it’s become sort of a well-known joke. Still, it’s a fact in my case, it’s been traced in my family tree, and you could certainly see Native American features in the face of my paternal grandmother (photo, right). This fired my imagination when I was a kid. In the third grade, my best friend was Don-Don Hopkins, of the local Narragansett Tribe, a descendant of Chief Ninigret. Somehow we decided that my “Indian name” was “Running Buffalo”. I was simultaneously proud and mortified when our teacher Miss Barber  announced the fact of my re-designation in front of the whole class. In retrospect I am impressed that she did so with a straight face.

At any rate, all this is just an elaborate lead-in to talk about why my 45 single of “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)” by Paul Revere and the Raiders was one of my most cherished records when I was a kid.
By the time the Raiders had their #1 hit single with this tune in 1971, it was already over a decade old. Written by John D. Loudermilk and first recorded by rockabilly singer Marvin Rainwater in 1959, the tune was originally called “The Pale Faced Indian”. Interestingly, neither Loudermilk nor Rainwater were Native American. The disk features some cool chanting, although it’s just as hokey, inauthentic and, well, vaudevillian as the later versions.
In 1968, a gentleman named Don Fardon released the first version of the tune to hit the chart. It went up to #20, and the psychedelic rock arrangement is much closer to the version we later came to know.
Finally, Paul Revere and the Raiders. I found this song really moving when I was a kid. There’s a melancholy tone (it’s in a minor key) that makes you feel sad, and the injustice stirs you to anger. Yet listening to it now, I’m delighted at the transparency of its gimmicks. That piano part reminds me of the music the elementary school teacher plays during the school play about Indians. And the relentless tom-toms, and the hallucinatory string section. And then that ending….what are we supposed to conclude? Are we supposed to be scared? It sure sounds ominous. And then, just to pull the props out, this hilariously cheesy and frivolous organ lick, as if it to remind us, “Hey, lighten up, it’s just a groovy record, man.”
Another of my favorite records, for many of the same reasons, was Cher’s 1973 #1 hit song “Half Breed.” Cher, too has a small amount of Cherokee blood. Cherokees are the largest tribe of all in the lower 48. The number of mixed-race people with some Cherokee ancestry is way larger. And the number of people who brag about being part Cherokee, even larger than that!
The cruel irony of that would not be lost on 1/64 of my ancestors. 
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poison-shirtBIO: Writer and performer Trav S.D. has written for the NY Times, the Village Voice, American Theatre, Time Out NY, Reason, the Villager and numerous other publications. He has been in the vanguard of New York’s vaudeville and burlesque scenes since 1995 when he launched his company Mountebanks, which has presented hundreds of top variety acts ranging from Todd Robbins to Dirty Martini to Lady Rizo to the Flying Karamazov Brothers. He has directed his own plays, revues and solo pieces in NYC since 1989 at such venues as Joe’s Pub, La Mama, Dixon Place, Theatre for the New City, the Ohio Theatre and the Brick. In 2014 he produced and directed the smash-hit, “I’ll Say She Is”, the first ever revival of the Marx Brothers hit 1924 Broadway show in the NY International Fringe Festival. He is perhaps best known for his 2005 book, “No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous”, recently cited by Bette Midler in people magazine as one of her favorite books. His upcoming show “Horseplay. or the Fickle Mistress” opens Feb. 15 at LaMama and will star Everett Quinton, Molly Pope, Jan Leslie Harding, and Tim Cusack.

Read his blog Travalanche daily: travsd.wordpress.com.