Tuesday, October 14, 2014

True Story or Family Legend

Sometimes when I find myself wrestling with a difficult decision or when I get stuck in a rut, a change in routine or environment helps. Routine works for me, but sometimes the same tracks  get a little deep and I hit high center. I have become a homebody, a routine person. Packing and planning trips were never my favorite chores and I just couldn’t seem to crawl out of the ruts. 

I planned a visit to one of my favorite (and oldest living) cousins to get more details on a fascinating story he told me about my great-grandparents. My mother had told me her father’s father was buried in his yard when he died because “the creeks were out” and there was no way to carry the body to town. When I related that story to a friend, he did not understand “creeks were out”. 

Before automobiles, roads were dirt trails and many rivers and creeks did not have bridges. With no way to preserve my grandfather’s body, they buried him in the yard. I have heard that from enough family members to believe it. He died in Texas, was buried in Texas, but one of his sons removed his body and buried him in Oklahoma years later.  My research said he was in Antlers.

I had never heard the story of how he died until the cousin I planned to visit told me my great grandfather had been killed and my great grandmother took vengeance on his killers. The story sounded sort of far-fetched because I couldn’t imagine the very small woman in a picture I have taking vengeance on anyone. 

But, then again, I had tried to prove or disprove a similar story from the other side of my family without success for thirty years before I found a bonanza of information in an unexpected place from an unexpected source. Turns out the unlikely story was true. The story I uncovered resulted in a novel. That was enough incentive to follow up on this one. But before I could visit my cousin for more details, he succumbed to old age at 93.

Irritated with myself for delaying my trip until it was too late and for missing the chance for one last visit with a remarkable relative, I packed enough clothes to last a couple of days and left for Oklahoma a few days later. I was reasonably certain my great grandfather was buried in the Choctaw Nation in what I assumed was a Choctaw cemetery. That would prove his heritage as a Choctaw and would authenticate (somewhat) the story that his son had removed him from his Texas grave. I hoped for another fluke that might lead me to the details of his death.

I left without GPS or even an Oklahoma map, but I knew where the Red River was and I figured I could stop and ask for directions when I crossed the state line. I didn’t have any plans after that. I stopped in Hugo and spent a couple of fruitless hours looking for information in the Choctaw Heritage Center. 

At Antlers, I was directed to the city cemetery, which was not exclusively Choctaw. I found an Alexander (my mother’s maiden name) stone within minutes. Memorial Day flags were still on veterans’ graves, so I thought my search would be easy if he was truly there. He was a Civil War vet.
I parked and walked between graves for two hours paying special attention to flags. Nothing.  

Then, just as I was about to give up and leave, I saw a stone leaning against a cedar tree in shade so dark it was almost hidden.  It was my great grandfather’s stone, complete with the Southern Cross of  Honor and his rank as a sergeant in the Texas 9th Cavalry of the Confederate States of America. Folks putting out flags had apparently missed it.  It was only twenty feet from where I parked. 

It told me he had died in 1895 at age 51. Death at such a young age might lend some credence to his being killed, but not proof. I will have to do more research to know for sure. His wife spent the rest of her life in Texas and is buried in Klondike. Had she really killed the two men who had killed her husband? 

He was buried in the Choctaw Nation, in Pushmataha County, but that did not prove he was Choctaw. The rest of my research for the day ran into brick walls, so I headed north through the Kiamichi Mountains and across the Kiamichi River to find another cousin I thought was still alive.

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