Being trained as an historian of American religion has provided me certain skills and methodologies to look at myth making and understanding its role in identity, and practice. Myths are made sometimes to legitimize, and other times to explain the unknown. As scholars, we are expected to get underneath or behind these myths, to look at their origins, their function, and their impact. But I wonder how often we use these skills to look at ourselves or our families, to get behind or underneath the myths that circulate at family reunions, and are passed down, generation-to-generation.
Over the last couple of months, I have been researching my genealogy, mine and my family’s history. In some cases I have been very successful, in others, less so. For instance, through my maternal grandfather, I have found that I am related to the Beebe’s of Northampton, Great Britain, and that this line relocated from England to America when John Beebe and his family migrated from Broughton, Kettering, Northamptonshire, England to the American colonies in 1650. Unfortunately he died during the trip on May 18 aboard the SS Speedwell. His family, however completed the migration and became established in Connecticut, and then later New York. Descendants of his fought in the Revolutionary War and helped found new towns in both Connecticut and New York. Much of this is documented in Monograph of the descent of the family of Beebe compiled by Clarence Beebe and published around 1904.
Another interesting discovery has been why my paternal grandmother, Imogene Brothers, was orphaned. Using a variety of records, including various newspapers, I discovered that Imogene’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her and her sisters in the care of their father, Marvin Brothers. Subsequently, Marvin was killed when he was hit by a truck. The orphaning of the five girls has had significant repercussions throughout the family history, one that is still present in the lives of relatives today.
While I have found the connection to the Beebes interesting, and the explanation of the Brothers sisters helpful, it has been the direct descent of the name Crow that has been my primary focus. Up until this round of research I could not get farther back in my direct descent line than James David Crow, my paternal great great grandfather, born in Stoddard, Missouri in 1874. I attributed this to the belief that he was, at least in part, Native American—from the Crow tribe—as has always been the assertion in my family. As being Native was a liability in the 19th century, many individuals with this background often ignored that of their heritage. Moreover, record keeping within tribes was inconsistent. As a result I believed this was the main reason I was stumped. I was supported in this belief too. My father lived his life believing he was descended from Native Americans as have my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Yet, I wanted to confirm this and so I kept digging, kept looking. During this round of research, however, I was able to find some connections and they revealed a whole different story.
It now appears that I am not descended from the Crow tribe, and that my Crow related heritage goes back to Europe. I have traced my Crow lineage to James Crow born between 1771 and 1774 in South Carolina. What is significant about this is that there were no Crow Native Americans in the colonies during the eighteenth century. So while I don’t know if the Crow name is coming from Great Britain or Germany, or somewhere else in Europe, I know it is not native. Moreover, I have found that there are seventeen unrelated (in modern times) Crow DNA family groups. They are named after colors. The green Crow DNA group is the oldest going back to Sir William Crow, born 1547 on the Isle of Man. James Crow is in the gold Crow DNA group. For Christmas I received a DNA testing kit as a present. I will be confirming my placement with in the Crow DNA project. (To any of my relatives reading this, I would encourage you to participate in the project too.)
In a strange way, I feel a loss by discovering I do not have a Native American connection through the Crow name. It has been such a foundational myth within my paternal family. To learn it is false has, in a way, stripped us of an important identity marker. I have always looked at my own body, the DNA that composed me, as a living testament to the complexity of the American story. How colonizer and colonized came to terms with the realities of the situation, going so far as to create families together, and spawn a new nation of new, Native-European hybrid people. While this story is still true, it seems it is no longer my story. My story is one of various Europeans coming together, and shedding their continental identity, in favor of one emerging from de Crèvecœur’s melting pot. One thing that was confirmed by this research is that my family’s heritage is one of agriculture. My distant kin were all farmers. From central Texas, to the Dakotas, from California, to Connecticut, one thing consistent, they were directly connected to the land, or at least until the early twentieth century. The Beebes became wealthy land owners, with numerous holdings. The Brothers were itinerant farmers, renting farm property by the season. To learn who they are and how they lived their lives is the least I can do to honor them since their lives are what have made mine possible. Yet, in doing so I must dismantle myths and rebuild based on fact. It is a stronger foundation to stand on, but it is not without its costs.