I am an American

I am an American.

Yes, you say, you were born in the United States and that makes you an American. While this is technically true, there is more to it. There is actually an ethnicity called “American” and I don’t mean the so-called “Native Americans.” An American is one who identifies themselves as an American rather than with some prefix, such as Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American, African-American, Mexican-American etc. and etc. In the 2000 Census more than 7.2% of respondents, almost 70 million people, identified their ethnicity as Americans. The majority of those who did were, not surprisingly, in the South, particularly Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. There is a good reason for this – those four states, and other Southern states, are populated largely by people whose ancestry dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who assimilated into the population as a whole while the population of the rest of the country is made up of more recent immigrants and their descendants who continue to identify with their country of origin. Those who identify as American are those who either don’t know where their ancestors came from or who have a myriad of ancestors from diverse countries. Such is my case.

Until recently, I thought my surname was Irish and that I have Cherokee ancestry. While it is, it is also a Scottish name and my ancestors actually were Scottish. It turns out I also have German blood, as well as English, Welsh and Irish and that the most recent of my ancestors to arrive in America  were here at least by 1842. That’s when one set of my great-great grandparents, both Irish immigrants, were married in Georgia. I do have Cherokee ancestry. In fact, I’m at least 1/16th, which is enough to be considered “Native American” (a term I hate) and probably more. I also have learned that with one exception, all of my ancestors originally settled in the South, mostly in Virginia. The exception is my German ancestor, an Anabaptist who fled Germany in 1721 with a group of Anabaptists who came to America to get away from Papist persecution. He settled initially in Pennsylvania but migrated south to what is now South Carolina. Many of his descendants moved to West Tennessee in the 1820s-30s.

Although there had been some Germans and Irish in America since the early 1600s, it was in the mid-nineteenth century that large numbers of mostly Catholic Irish and Germans started arriving. While the Irish tended to stay in the northeast, Germans continued to settle in the Midwest. Instead of assimilating into the society of their new land, they tended to stick to themselves and formed communities of people from “the old country” and their descendants tend to identify themselves by their parents and grandparents’ nationality. This is not true of those who came to the South, where new immigrants tended to assimilate as my German ancestor did. His daughter married a Scotsman and over time the German ancestry was forgotten except, perhaps, by those descendants who carried his name. He changed the spelling from Kolb to Culp so they may not have realized it was German. German and Czech communities were established in Texas in the 1840s but even though they still recognize their German heritage, they are as Texan as the descendants of those who came to Texas from elsewhere in the United States. For many, their ancestry is not exclusively German. The same is true of Texans with Hispanic surnames, many of whom are of mixed ancestry. Other Germans established communities in the Midwest. Immigration from Eastern Europe started around the turn of the twentieth century and continued until the 1940s. Most of them settled in Northern cities, particularly New York, Boston,Cleveland and Chicago.

In the mid-nineteenth century, native Americans became concerned about the influx of German and Irish immigrants, many of whom were Catholic. Due to their numbers, German and Irish Catholics, in particular, were gaining political power in the North. “Nativist” political parties were formed in opposition to immigration, mostly in the North, but they fell apart when slavery became an issue, or perhaps because of it because German immigrants were closely allied with New England abolitionists, not for moral reasons but because slavery reduced their employment opportunities. They had no opportunity in the South so they stayed in the North and took jobs in cotton mills and foundries where they were paid little and were treated as badly, or worse, than the slaves in the South. The Union Army depended heavily on German and Irish immigrants during the Civil War. Immigrants who came to the United States from eastern Europe in the early twentieth century stayed in the North because the South was still suffering economic devastation from the war. They tended to settle in urban areas because the land that attracted Germans in the mid-nineteenth century was no longer available.

Now, being an ethnic American does not mean that a person has to be descended from the early settlers even though most who identify as American are. It’s really more of a state of mind, an identification with North America rather than a European country or even Mexico. (Incidentally, the majority of those who identify as Mexican-American are mostly first and second generation Americans whose families immigrated to the United States in the early Twentieth Century. When the United States purchased what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase, the land was sparsely populated, as was Texas prior to the establishment of the Austin Colony in the early nineteenth century. Yes, cities such as El Paso, Santa Fe and border towns such as Presidio date back to the seventeenth century,  but most of the American Southwest was lightly populated and the population was mostly American Indian, who are themselves descended from people who migrated to the Americas at some point in history. Tennessee was more populous than California as late as 1909.) Thousands of early German, Irish and other immigrants threw away the trappings of the land they left and immersed themselves in their new land. For instance, although Jews are now associated primarily with New York City, the earliest Jewish settlers were in the South, with the largest concentration being in Charleston, South Carolina until large numbers of Jews began arriving in New York – and staying. However, later immigrants retained their previous national identity – or their descendants resurrected it in the 1960s after the civil rights movement made it politically expedient to do so.

Being an ethnic American is not exclusive to whites. The African-American identification that has become so popular since the 1990s is actually a misnomer that’s based more on skin color than actual ancestry. Large numbers of Americans who identify as African-American actually have more European ancestry than African. In fact, this may be true of the majority, particularly the more affluent. It’s not because of the “master raping the slave” myth either. There have been mixed-race children born of white women and black men since very early in this country’s history. In fact, there is a group in Appalachia that some researchers believe are descendants of mixed-race unions from the seventeenth century Virginia Tidewater.( No one actually knows where the people, who call themselves “Melungeon” actually came from. Melungeons themselves believe they are descendants of North Africans who were deposited in North Carolina in the sixteenth century and eventually made their way inland. I’ll say this much – one of my ancestral names is found among Melungeons and a recent DNA test showed that while my DNA is primarily found in Scotland and northern Europe, it is also found in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Turkey. That same test showed that my DNA is “weakest” in sub-Saharan Africa. Except for South Africa; the African countries where my DNA is found is in North Africa.) African historian Henry Gates Lewis discovered that his ancestry is more than 51% European.

It is those of us whose ancestors came here in the seventeenth to early nineteenth century that are descended from those who actually founded the United States of America (and Canada.) My family goes back at least ten generations in America with the most “recent” arrival, my great-great-grandparents, being five generations ago (or it is six?). It is also we whose ancestors assimilated into the population of their new country and became one. It is also we who are the most conservative while the descendants of those who came to America in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries are more likely to be “progressive.” In short, there are millions of Americans who cannot identify with any specific nationality or culture other than American because our ancestors came from a multitude of nations rather than one. We are not Irish-American, German-American (or German) Dutch-American, Italian-American, Polish-American, Lithuanian-American, Jewish-American, Mexican-American, Spanish-American, Portuguese-American, Hispanic-American, Latino-American, Turkish-American, Hawaiian-American, Asian-American Chinese-American, Japanese-American or any of the other “Americans” with a prefix that sociologists, politicians and activists have come up with for those who came to take advantage of what our ancestors established. We are American, native Americans, and not because we have “Native American” blood, (hich most all of us probably do) although we are native Americans because we and our ancestors for generations were born here. We are ethnic American because our ancestors have been in America for generations, unlike Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump whose American ancestry only goes back a generation or two.

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King of the Wild Frontier

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Back in the 1950s, Walt Disney’s Disney Land television program aired a series about “Davy” Crockett, the “King of the Wild Frontier.” As a boy of nine, I really wanted to watch the series but being that I was in Training Union and church at Lavinia Baptist on Sunday nights, I was unable to unless I played sick so I could stay home. The series was accompanied by a song that started out “Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, raised in the woods so he knowed every tree….” Every kid in America was singing it and many lusted for “coonskin” caps and Davy Crockett rifles so they could play at being “King of the Wild Frontier.”

What I didn’t know, or didn’t understand, was that the ‘wild frontier” Davy was king of was right there where I was growing up in West Tennessee (all of West Tennessee was and still is rural except Memphis, Jackson and a couple of smaller cities and towns.) When I did see the series, it indicated that Ole Davy lived in the Smoky Mountains. In fact, for much of his life he lived only some 40 miles from where I grew up and at the same time as my ancestors, who knew him. David Crockett was born in East Tennessee but not in the Smokies. He was actually born and spent his childhood west of the Smokies in the Appalachians southeast of Bristol and Johnson City. Actually, he spent part of that time on the road driving cattle, beginning at the age that many American boys were so enraptured with the Crockett story. He left East Tennessee as a young man and settled initially in Middle Tennessee nearFFayetteville, which is not far from where my MacGowan ancestors settled at about the same time. He moved several times, each time to counties in southern Middle Tennessee and finally ended up near Lawrenceburg. After a creek flooded and destroyed the grist mill he had invested in, he left Middle Tennessee in 1821 at the age of 35 and crossed the Tennessee River to find land for himself and his relatives in the new lands Andrew Jackson and Issac Shelby had purchased from the Chickasaw three years before. He found land on the Obion River in what was then Carroll County, the county where I grew up. According to one recent biographer, the land was owned by his father-in-law, who deeded it to David. A few years later, he was one of a delegation that went to Nashville to propose the formation of a new county out of the western section of Carroll to be called Gibson County.

Crockett’s narrative of his life is available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37925/37925-h/37925-h.htm. It covers his life  up until two years before he left Tennessee to meet his fate in Texas.

In the late 1970s I went to work for Taylor Aviation at the Everett-Stewart Airport at Union City, Tennessee. It is an old airfield, dating back to World War II when it was used as a primary training field. Several of the original buildings remained and were rented to various tenants. One was a somewhat eccentric woman in her late 40s named Mary. The wife of a professor at nearby University of Tennessee, Martin, Mary was an accomplished artist. Her wildlife art was fantastic. I wished then and I wish now that I had been able to afford to buy some. Mary was also a pilot. She either had or was working on her commercial pilot’s license. She loved to fly Taylor’s Piper Arrow, but she didn’t want to fly by herself. Shortly after I went to work there, I went up with Mary. We were flying south from the airport over the Obion Bottom. Mary pointed down and said “that’s Crockett’s Bottom.” After reading Crockett’s narrative, I realized that indeed it was.

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Crockett’s new land was on the edge of what was and still is pretty close to swampland. However, it was very rich land and there was an abundance of game. He sent for the rest of his family and several of his relatives to follow him to West Tennessee and claim land of their own. They did. After building cabins and clearing land, they raised cotton and corn to sell as well as vegetables for their own sustenance. Crockett supplemented his income by hunting bears, both for their meat and their fat which was prized for bear grease. He ranged far and wide around West Tennessee hunting bear. A few months ago when I was in West Tennessee for a family reunion, my aunt rode with us from Jackson, where we were staying, to Huntingdon where the gathering took place. I took a back road that passed by where my grandmother grew up. “There was a tree over there where Davy Crockett killed a bear.” After she said it, I vaguely remembered Daddy telling me something about there being a tree on his grandmother’s place where Crockett had killed a bear. My grandparents lived on that place for a few years before they bought a place of their own. My great-grandfather’s farm wasn’t far from the Obion River South Fork. There is  record in the Carroll County Courthouse where Crockett collected a bounty for a wolf he had killed in the Obion Bottom near Huntingdon.

Crockett was not a wealthy man. In fact, he was often deep in debt. He came up with a scheme to cut timber in the recently created Reelfoot Lake (the lake was created by an earthquake which changed the course of the Mississippi a few years before Crockett moved to West Tennessee) and float it down the Mississippi to New Orleans to sell it. He and his associates cut a large number of trees and constructed a raft. Unfortunately, they had not reckoned on the force of the river. Soon after they cast themselves on to the river, the raft hit a sandbar and came apart, spilling its occupants on to the river. Left with nothing but what they were wearing, the survivors somehow made their way to Memphis where a “wealthy benefactor” bought clothes and a hat for Crockett. The wealthy benefactor was Marcus Winchester, one of the founders of Memphis. Winchester would later be ostracized after he married a beautiful young woman from Louisiana who obviously had negro blood. Shortly afterwards, Winchester convinced Crockett to run for Congress and gave him money for his campaign. As soon as Crockett got to Washington, he drew a bank draft and sent it to Winchester to pay him back.

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Except when Congress was in session and he was in Washington, Crockett remained in Gibson County until he left for TExas in November 1835.. His last home was near Kenton. In the 1950s during the Disney Crockett craze, the town of Rutherford built a replica of Crockett’s last home and reinterred his mother Rebecca Hawkins’ remains from a nearby cemetery to the site.

Crockett, who detested the “Davy” moniker, spent almost half of his adult life in West Tennessee – from age 35 to age 50. Yet, both East Tennessee, which he left as a young man, and Texas, where he only spent some three months, lay more claim to him. When Tennessee built a state park and named it after him, it was located in East Tennessee near where he was born. Another park was located just outside Lawrenceburg, where he lived for four years before moving to West Tennessee where he spent the remainder of his life except for the last five months.

After David’s death, his family did not move to Texas. Although his son went to Texas, he didn’t stay. He returned to West Tennessee where he remained until just before the Civil War when he returned to Texas with his mother, who died in Texas but lived most of her life in Tennessee. Crockett’s son John Wesley ran for and won his Congressional suit. He lived for a time in New Orleans then moved back to Tennessee where he died in Memphis.

Was David Crockett really the “King of the Wild Frontier?” If he was, it was the same frontier on which my ancestors settled in the 1820s-40s.