Questions of the Week for February 22

QUESTION OF THE WEEK (February 22, 2015)

When I think about what it must have been like for Eliza and her children to move from western Georgia to western Arkansas in late 1871 to early 1872, I sometimes wonder what information they had access to about the so-called “land of opportunity” where they were headed.  In one of my reflections for this week, I will do my best to reconstruct what kinds of things they might have been able to find out about this area located between the Arkansas River Valley and the Quachita Mountains based on materials that were available during the fifteen year period between 1859 and 1874.  But I do not pretend to have the last word on this matter. I suspect that other members of the family might be able to offer reasonable guesses about what they could or could not have known before their wagon load of provisions arrived at the homestead that they were claiming near Shiloh in Scott County. Feel free to offer your own sense of the matter as you have time and interest to do so.

THE MONTHLY MYSTERY (February 2015):

Does anyone know when folks in the Cartwright family began to claim that the family lineage includes Native Americans? If you have read some parts of Billy’s memoir about Jess, you may have noticed that he identifies Grandma Millie as a Choctaw Indian (apparently through her father’s family), but from what I have gathered there is no stable documentation to prove that is the case. There is no listing in “the Dawes rolls” that demonstrates this. My brother Paul Cartwright and my cousin Karen Snyder Smith have uncovered some additional references that suggest that this claim may go back beyond Millie’s generation, but to the best of my knowledge there is no documentation that ties this down. What we find, however, is persistent storytelling about ancestors who are believed to have been “Indians.”

THE $64,000 QUESTION:

What kinds of  “silences” have been passed down in our extended family?

In remarkable book, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures, the Australian journalist Christine Kenneally devotes an entire chapter to the role played by silence. She discusses some fascinating examples, some of which she takes from the early history of Australia, which was a place where England sent convicts.  Many of these people reinvented themselves, and having turned their lives around, were quite deliberate about not passing on their previous histories.

Kenneally writes, “It used to be that people could expect their illicit pasts would die with them, but the personal computer and the internet revolution have changed all that. . . .The easy availability of all records means it will be harder and harder to invent your own past. For good and bad, the new historical transparency brings new responsibilities with it too.”  Some of those responsibilities are personal. Some are public. Kenneally describes the painful circumstance in which her father gathered her and her siblings to tell them that he had recently discovered that “The man who had raised him, who we thought was our long-dead grandfather, was actually our dad’s long-dead grandfather.” Her father felt a responsibility to tell the children about this instance of incest in their family history because he thought it might have implications for each of them, but he found it too painful to talk about beyond that.

There are all kinds of silences.  Not all silences are for reasons of shame. For years, I have joked with my brother Paul that I am reasonably confident that if we look long enough, we are likely to find a horse thief (instead of a connection to royalty) in our family’s past. The question is what do you do with such knowledge when you discover it?  The answer, I take it, isn’t straightforward for us or for those who come after us.  Some things that we used to think of as “private” are going to be harder and harder to keep from becoming “public” and in the process the significance of the silences will shift as well.

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About mcartwright1957

I am a member of the senior administrative team at the University of Indianapolis where I have served since 1996. I am married to Mary Wilder Cartwright. We are the parents of four children: Hannah, Erin, James, and Bethany. I currently live in Nashville, IN.
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