I know I’ve been wrong many times, but recently I learned just how very wrong I can be: I learned I’ve been wrong all my life about who I am.
In July 2011, my mother Wanda Jean Granot Cole passed away and left me to serve as the executor of her estate, which was promptly challenged in probate court. Since then there have been endless negotiations, an extensive inventory of personal property, and numerous third-party appraisals of the unexpectedly large collection of artworks, fine crafts, and historical documents my mother collected. In the process I’ve had to finger through 87-years worth of my mother’s papers, which include extensive genealogies she prepared for both sides of my family. A few times this dusty digging through her papers has turned up rather sad memories, but more often it has produced fascinating glimpses into the past.
Among my mother’s papers are about 100 letters written by and to my father Elmer Bob Cole while he served in the Army during World War II and after that in the Army of Occupation. My mother always told me that my father fought in the Battle of the Bulge—but that simply wasn’t true. Instead he served in the 103rd Division (Cactus Division) of the Third Army, field artillery, and fought in the Battle of the Upper and Lower Vosges.
I did a little research and learned that, like my father, mystery writer Tony Hillerman also served in the Cactus Division. Like my father, Hillerman was born in a small town in Oklahoma. So I bought a copy of Hillerman’s memoir, Seldom Disappointed, which includes vivid tales of the war in Central Europe—very similar to the tales my father wrote home about. I also learned that Hillerman is of German ancestry, not Native American, as I had thought.
My mother left dozens of notebooks filled with her genealogical research, including a little research into her mother-in-law’s family, the Atteburys. I am named after my father’s mother, Katherine Attebury. Granny, as I knew her, believed herself to be as much as one-eighth Cherokee, because her father Thomas claimed to be (according to my mother) either “one-quarter or one-third” Cherokee (the math is my mother’s, not mine). My father also firmly believed himself to be at least one-sixteenth Cherokee—and so did I and everyone else in the family—both sides—so much so in fact that it was a source of friction between my proudly all-white Scots-Irish grandmother and my father.
To give myself a break from probate hell, I joined www.Ancestry.com and began to track my great-grandfather Attebury’s roots. It didn’t take long for me to find him in a pre-Civil War census in Arkansas (Indian Country) with a child slave in his household. This didn’t surprise me (although it offended me) because I knew that Cherokees were slave owners.
Then, several months ago, Ancestry.com began offering its subscribers DNA tests for ethnic origins. I got on the waiting list, and one day received a package in the mail with instructions to spit into a tube and then mail my spit to a DNA testing lab. I wanted to know just how much Cherokee I had in my DNA.
I imagine you can guess the answer. Exactly zero.
All my ancestors (except 2% unknown) are from the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Central Europe. I’m a Celt by way of the British Isles and Scandinavia and a Viking by way of the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Europe around the Baltic. Even my Jewish grandfather (whose name was Sephardic) seems to have had nothing but Central European origins.
It’s really a shock. As a child I grew up very proud of my Cherokee heritage (in those days I didn’t know they were slave owners). I also suffered from several humiliating incidents involving my racist grandmother, who thought I was “a dirty Indian.”
Now the mystery I have to solve is: Why did Thomas Attebury, a Confederate Civil War veteran, tell everyone in Oklahoma that he was at least one quarter Cherokee?
I have several speculations, but it’s going to take some in-depth research to uncover the truth.
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