How to Disappear People with a Pen

Tecumseh and Old Bethel Church, Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Tecumseh and Old Bethel Church, Cape Girardeau, Missouri


Old Mix Americans are often brought-up hearing family lore speaking of some indigenous American ancestry somewhere in the tangled branches of their family trees.

In this age of culture and identity wars, claiming any indigenous ancestry while presenting a “white” appearance and living within mainstream American culture can lead to attacks from both The Left and The Right.

One side will accuse mixed-ethnic Americans of cultural appropriation, while the other will scream “pretend Indian!”.  Some people might even deserve a certain level of mockery.  The number of amateur genealogists who claim a Cherokee “Indian Princess” as an ancestor, even when this supposed “Cherokee Princess” was born hundreds of miles from any Cherokee settlement, is all-too-common.

But our modern political world is also often lacking in any nuanced understanding of history and ethnicity.

Any thoughtful person will understand that claiming ancestry, and claiming a present ethnicity, are two entirely separate things.

The fact remains that vast numbers of Americans with deep roots in colonial times DO often have an indigenous ancestor or three.

Any curious-minded person will then start to ask questions:


“Exactly which of my ancestors were indigenous American?”

“When, and in what circumstances did they come to intermingle and intermarry with non-indigenous settlers?”


Indentured servants, upon completion of their terms of servitude, were among the very earliest people to take their chances on the frontier.  Others were runaway servants or slaves.  Some were outlaws.  Many were veterans claiming “Land Bounties” for fighting in America’s seemingly endless wars.

These people were traders, longhunters, craftsmen and simple subsistence farmers who simply took their chances in what was still Indian Country, before the tsunami of settlers which would lead to almost all-out war against indigenous tribes and nations.

Unmarried men (and men with wives back east!) often attempted to forge good relations among indigenous American trading partners.  This often meant taking a wife from the tribe with whom they were dealing.

For those with suspected ancestors among the Eastern Lenape, the Algonquian-speaking tribes of Virginia, the Siouan tribes of the Carolinas, or the Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee of southern Appalachia, tracing the contours of a story can be challenging, but often relatively straightforward.

But what about those with clear DNA connections to other less well-documented tribes – such as the Shawnee?

The Shawnee were raiding the Tennessee and Kentucky frontier settlements in the years after the Revolutionary War.  How on earth would Old Mix Americans such as the Melungeons end-up carrying the DNA of a people who were so openly hostile to encroaching settlers?

I have already touched briefly upon the life of the Shawnee war chief and political leader Tecumseh in various podcasts.

My own Bunch ancestors – Melungeons – fought in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames (in modern Ontario, Canada), where Tecumseh was slain while fighting the Americans alongside his Native American allies and British forces.

What many might not realise, is that the constant and vicious warfare along the Ohio Valley border had led many Shawnee, including Tecumseh’s mother, to re-locate to Missouri in 1779.  The Shawnee would receive a land grant at Cape Girardeau in 1793 from the Spanish who controlled that region at the time.

Tecumseh’s own father had been killed years earlier – in 1774 at the Battle of Point Pleasant, and Tecumseh seems to have been a driven man thereafter, participating in many raids, skirmishes and battles over the next three decades from his base on the White River in Eastern Indiana.

With his brother Lalawethica the leader of a pan-indigenous spiritual movement, Tecumseh leveraged his brother’s religious influence among disparate Native American groups to help drive his own political and military ambition – the formation of a confederacy capable of facing-down US government forces.

In 1811, while Tecumseh was in the south seeking to recruit the Creek Nation to his cause, US forces destroyed the Shawnee’s spiritual base at Prophetstown (in Ohio), defeating Tecumseh’s brother at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

Efforts to rebuild the confederacy were gravely hampered by the outbreak of the War of 1812, and Tecumseh chose to throw his weight behind supporting the British in Michigan, helping to capture Detroit.

Tecumseh would meet his doom the next year at the Battle of the Thames we mentioned earlier.

A treaty signed in 1817 gave a small parcel of land in NW Ohio to the surviving Shawnee.

And so it was that in 1824, there were about 2,200 Shawnee remaining, with 800 of these people in Ohio, and the rest in Missouri (which had by then passed from Spanish to French, and then finally into US hands).

Would the USA government leave things at that, and honour the Shawnee’s land treaty with the Spanish in Missouri?  Would the USA honour the peace treaty made with the Shawnee in Ohio?

Would they hell.

In 1825, the Cape Girardeau Shawnee were “encouraged” to trade their lands in Missouri for a 1.6 million acre reservation in Eastern Kansas.  With the signing of the 1830 Indian Removal Act by Congress, two of the three remaining Ohio Shawnee groups were likewise “encouraged” to swap their lands in Ohio, to join the Cape Girardeau Shawnee in Kansas.  The last Shawnee in Ohio signed a separate treaty in 1831, relinquishing their lands east of the Mississippi, and were removed directly to Oklahoma (Indian Territory).

Is this how things would finally remain?

No, of course not.

In 1854, the US government would take back 90% of the land in Kansas “given” to the Shawnee in 1825.

Things could scarcely have gotten any worse, but they did.  Civil War would come, and even though many Shawnee fought for the Union side, violence and abuses by white settlers during and after the Civil War would lead to an exodus from the much-reduced reservation in Kansas.  Most Kansas Shawnee escaped to Eastern Oklahoma where in 1869 they were forced by the US government to accept allotments and citizenship as members of the Cherokee Nation.

Only in the year 2000 would the Shawnee finally regain recognition as a separate tribe to the Cherokee.

Many Appalachian Melungeons had received land grants west of the Mississippi as payment for service in the War of 1812.

These people would go on to form the Ozark Melungeon communities of Southern Missouri and NW Arkansas.  And just like their recent forefathers had once done in Appalachia, along this newer frontier between the USA and Indian Territory, people mingled and intermarried, just as the poor underclasses have always done in such rough and ready environments.

My Great-Grandma Jo from the Ozarks and later Kansas was said to be “full-blood Cherokee”.  In her younger days she worked as a railway cook in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma – part of the railroad gangs once called “Hell on Wheels“.

They didn’t get the name for no reason.  Jo left the Ozarks for Kansas with my great-grandfather, where he got in a dispute with a pig farmer, shooting him dead.  He got hard time, and Jo got a divorce…

Like so many people today, I did a DNA test a few years back.

I’m pretty sure we can rule out the “full-blood Cherokee” story.

The dark complexions among the people of Melungeon descent in my family would seem to come more from Jewish and Romani ancestors.

And Shawnee people?


This is where connecting a paper trail to historical events brings everything much more into focus.

Where did Grandma Jo’s family live two generations before her, during the early 1800s?

Cape Girardeau, Missouri, among the Paw-Paw French and the Missouria, Otoe, and Ponca people.  And the many displaced Lenape and Shawnee from Ohio country…

In a supreme case of irony, did a family who fought Tecumseh end up marrying into his descendants?  Or is there a still secret history at play here?

Stories such as these are why good genealogy is “Citizen History”.


#history #shawnee #melungeons #tecumseh

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