Wednesday, June 29, 2011

1995 My First Genealogical Visit to Oklahoma

Chapter 3

Discovering the Dawes Commission Records

Throughout 1994 my father and I spoke on a regular basis. I was still compiling and editing the family photo history and with each new discovery there were more questions. Also about this time I became familiar with an online community of researchers who were able to give me some general knowledge and guidance for my family research.

Of all the people I met online it was Angela Walton-Raji who seems to have any knowledge about the genealogy and history of people from “Oklahoma.” Angela encouraged me to read more and when I had the opportunity she urged me to visit Oklahoma Historical Society as well as the National Archives in Dallas­-Ft. Worth, TX.

I located copies of Angie Debo’s book “And Still the Waters Run” as well as Arrell Gibson’s book, “The Chickasaw’s” and began to discover there was a history of blacks being owned as slaves by Native Americans. This was a history I was never taught in school and apparently very little is still being taught on this subject.

During this time I became familiar with the process of genealogy. One of the main things I discovered during this time was the use of the Soundex system for locating names in the census records. This was to become very useful when my father began telling me more names of relatives and ancestors he knew and who also originated in Oklahoma or Indian Territory.
The conversations I had with my father began to expose more and more of our family history and I was becoming more aware of a larger family of ancestor’s I never knew before. Other than my California Adair cousin’s the only name at this point I was familiar with was the Christian surname because of my “Uncle Willie Christian” and I was soon to discover there was more about Uncle Willie I had not known.

Now armed with these soundex codes I was able to locate more ancestors in the 1900 census records which became a lot easier because now I was more familiar with the census records and used the “system” known to genealogist as copy five census pages before and after the one you locate you ancestor’s.

Despite having all of this information and now realizing my family had a history far beyond anything I knew, I still had not come any closer to determining if my father’s story of his “Indian grandmother” had any basis in fact. I found census records for more of my father’s (our) ancestors and it proved the old adage of copying five pages in front and five pages in back of the census record for your ancestor is a wise practice.

The more I spoke with my father about my new learned knowledge he began indicating his desire to take me back to Oklahoma for a visit and see if we could locate some of the history on his family

My conversations with Angela and Robert helped me determine the places I needed to visit if I was going to be successful in locating more information on my father’s “Indian grandmother” and it meant I would probably need to make a trip to the Oklahoma Historical Society. We also thought it would be a good opportunity to visit the Chickasaw Nation Headquarters in Ada as well as take a trip down to Ardmore and visit with family, many I would meet for the first time as an adult.

I was able to get the week of Memorial Day for a vacation bid at work and this was the plan for our scouting mission as my father called it and I felt well prepared for the trip.

One early morning I was half asleep and half awake and evidently my wife left the television on when I suddenly sat straight up in bed when I heard something about a little girl by the name of Ligon had been injured in a bombing.

This was about a month before I was to fly down to Los Angeles to meet up with my father and together fly to Oklahoma for our scouting mission. This was of course the April 15th bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City and I didn’t know what to make of it or if it would affect our trip in May. I tried to get more information on the girl who was actually a Liggin as I recall or if she was somehow related because now every time I heard a name I would ask the question; is that one of my relatives?

We soon learned the bombing would not affect our trip and I made an appointment to meet with Robert at the Oklahoma Historical Society building so he could help me locate some records and this was also the first time we would meet face to face.

It was not until we made a trip to Ada where the Chickasaw Nation headquarters was located was I able to get copies of my father’s grandmother Bettie along with some records for his great grandparents John Taylor, Sallie Christian and his grandfather Caro Christian. We spent the night at a little motel just outside of Ardmore and it was then I began to piece together the first layer to our family’s genealogical history.

One of the more intriguing aspects of my visit to Ada was the exchange I had with a woman who was working in the archives. I noted that on this card for my great grandmother there was the section for “tribal enrollment.” Since my father was convinced his grandmother Bettie Ligon was an Indian I found this section very interesting. I didn’t know much about these records and I thought the woman who was supposedly a librarian or someone familiar with the documents could answer my questions regarding the document.

So I asked her, “What do these numbers in this category mean?” Her answer perplexed me and to this day I find it lacking credibility. In my mind this was a government generated document and everything on it should have some significance; but she was adamant that a form indicating several people with tribal enrollment numbers; as she said, “they don’t mean anything!”

Her behavior after that became suspicious because when she helped me locate the information she found it in a set of books that I later found out were hard bound copies of the Dawes Commission’s Final Rolls. Here again I found her behavior defensive and unwarranted; when I asked to look at the books myself she insisted I couldn’t be allowed to handle them.

Fortunately this has not always been the reception I received when visiting various repositories but I have noted there is a certain “politics to researching” the genealogy and history of the so called Five Civilized Tribes when it comes to the "Freedmen."

What I have observed through the years when visiting certain archives in Oklahoma you really need to know what you are looking for, if you don’t ask the right question some people will not be “helpful” when you require assistance. What was amazing about this, for the most part these were people who were providing a public service and except for the Chickasaw headquarters in Ada, they were workers paid in part or whole with taxpayer dollars. 

I was in a hurry because for some reason my father did not want to come into the Chickasaw headquarters while I did my research. It was in May and the weather was hot and humid, my father sat in the car waiting on me to return. Realizing I couldn’t leave a seventy three year old man in the car in that kind of heat I ignored the antics of the “librarian” gratefully accepted the assistance she provided, paid for the documents and headed back to the motel where we were staying; we grab some grub and pored over the documents trying to make sense out of what we found.

All of this information was new to me and my father! What he knew of these people were basically names he heard as a child. What was becoming more obvious to me was the idea that this story I thought my father was making up out of whole cloth may have had some validity to it. This was the beginning of a story that kept getting more interesting the more I dug for information. What was really amazing to me and my father was the wealth of documentation on his family! What I didn’t know was, this was just the tip of the iceberg and there was a great deal more to come when we traveled into Ardmore for the Memorial Day weekend.

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