Earlier this week I got a text message from Randy Davis asking if I knew that Major Ridge grew up on the Holston River, not far from where my mother’s people lived.
This was news to me and meant that his family had roots in Southwest Virginia and Tennessee and he ended up in Rome, GA, just like me! Sort of. All I could think was, “We’re practically related!”
Isn’t it funny how often we discover unusual “six degrees of separation” moments?
The party game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” challenges players to figure out six degrees of separation between random actors, the more obscure the better, and the very prolific actor Kevin Bacon. It became a popular game because it is usually possible to trace just such a connection, even in some of the least likely combinations.
I feel like this brand of serendipity plays out in real life all the time, and I always find it fascinating when it does. It’s a small world, after all, so of course unusual connections would tend to reveal themselves.
Randy had discovered these details about Major Ridge’s early life while reading John Ehle’s book “Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation.” When I asked to read the part about his childhood, Randy gifted me an old copy he had from the first time he read it years ago.
It is pretty interesting reading, just from the short parts of the first chapter that I have read. The Cherokee culture was a staunch contrast to the traditions of the white settlers. Most interesting to me was the fact that, in marriage, the women had much of the power. They were recognized as the owners of the home and the children. The husband was expected to live wherever the woman chose, and was required to build her a house in the place of her choosing. The woman could secure a divorce by simply placing her husband’s belongings outside the door of their home.
I kind of like this idea of a more matriarchal societal structure, so why wouldn’t I want to feel some kinship.
But wait, there’s that part where Major Ridge signed the treaty with the white settlers against the wishes of the great majority of Indian chiefs, prompting one of our country’s most horrific actions, the Trail of Tears. While I trust that Ridge’s intentions were pure, it turned out to be a horrible decision, so I’m not so sure I want to be related to that.
For better or worse, Major Ridge had a tremendous influence on the history of Rome, and it is fun to wonder if my mother’s family might have crossed paths with him or his relatives. But, it’s probably for the best that I can assume we aren’t actually related.
Some years ago, my mother uncovered the possibility that her family was distantly related to former President Andrew Johnson. She never found definitive proof, but for years we have claimed a probable relationship to this historical character. After all, it’s fun to discover that you may have some famous bends in your bloodline.
Of course, laying claim to this particular kinship comes with its own lists of pros and cons. Johnson worked himself into quite a bit of success from very humble, downright impoverished, beginnings. He never went to school, and was trained as a tailor in what equated to ownership of him and his brother until their 21st birthdays.
Johnson and his brother ran away from the situation and had to leave the state as they were labeled with a reward for their return. After creating his own successful tailoring business, Johnson got involved with politics and served in various positions before he was chosen by Abraham Lincoln as his vice presidential running mate in his bid for reelection in 1864.
I don’t mind claiming a connection to such a scrappy entrepreneur and political leader.
But, when Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson stepped into the role of president, he ended up becoming the first president impeached in light of controversial decisions in the reconstruction efforts following the Civil War. While I don’t envy him, trying to fill Lincoln’s shoes in a terribly tumultuous time, impeachment isn’t really a point for ancestral pride.
An interesting six-degree sidebar to this story is that when Johnson married his wife Eliza McCardle — he was 18 and she was 16, by the way — they were married by Justice of the Peace Mordecai Lincoln, who just happened to be the first cousin of Thomas Lincoln, father to Abraham who would later become president. Lincoln and Johnson were practically related!
I’m sure that your family has your own versions of practically or possibly related royalty, but pretty much every hero has their Achilles heel, don’t they?
Back in 2003, a group of geneticists determined that 0.5% of the world’s population was descended from the treacherous Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan. That’s roughly 16 million descendants living at the time of the study. Who wants to know that they have the blood of such a ruthless conqueror running through their veins, and yet millions of people around the globe can claim it.
I think I’ll stick to the relatives I know, with all their finer points and faults. At least that way I know for sure from whence and what I came. Over the next couple of weeks, leading up to Valentine’s Day, I will be writing about the courtship between my father’s parents. It is a sweet and simple story, with no hoopla or scandal. Just the kind of story to which I’m proud to be akin. I look forward to sharing it with you.