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.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bettie’s List Chapter 2 Discovering Sallie Ligon?

When I first started working in the photo lab as a large reprint specialist, I initially signed on guaranteeing I would work for at least one year. It seems getting good people who had an eye for color correction was difficult and the owner’s wanted someone who would be around for at least a year. Committing to one year of work seemed okay for me and since it was paying me good money for part time work it seemed like a good deal.

During that year of work I made time to conduct some copy negative work so I could reprint the photos my father expected me to share with the rest of the family. Organizing all of the photos took time considering I was working full time and part time but I felt I would have plenty of time to finish the project. Needless to say that was an incorrect assumption on my part; things tend to have a rhythm of their own and this was no exception. However, when pushed for time I seem to work more efficiently.

When it was coming up on the anniversary of committing to a year of working in the lab I felt the desire and need to move on. With a deadline approaching I went into another gear to finish all of the copying and reprinting of the family photographic history.

During my year of copy work I began noticing more photographs of people I had no clue about and this began the process of calling my father on a regular basis to see if he could identify the individuals I was seeing for the first time.

During my copy work sessions I soon made another surprising discovery! The day I was going to copy the image of Bettie I had to take it out of the frame so I could eliminate the glare from the glass. What I found underneath Bettie’s portrait was an image of another woman. I was excited about this discovery but as usual I had no idea who this woman was or why her portrait was in the same frame.

Margaret Ann Wilson nee Alexander
Immediately I phoned my father and told him about the discovery; he was not positive about the woman but thought it was the mother of Bettie’s husband, his grandfather Hadley Ligon. My father then told me this woman’s name was probably Sally and since I had nothing else to go on, accepted this as a fact.

From 1990 through 1994 I occasionally took the time to organize the photos put them in various albums according to their generation and put together packages of photos that I would send to other family members.

It was also during this period that I became mildly interested in genealogy. My father was telling me this fantastic and in my mind unbelievable stories of his grand parents. Bettie was supposed to be part Indian but he wasn’t exactly sure which tribe. His grandfather, Bettie’s husband he described as a runaway slave from Louisiana. All of these stories were heard by me for the first time and I couldn’t understand why he never spoke about them before now.

It was around 1994 I purchased my first desktop computer with an amazing 425 mb hard drive! It had 4mb of memory and a modem that allowed me to go online and seek information on my family’s “Oklahoma” roots for the first time.

I still didn’t have much knowledge on genealogical research and only knew a few things about my father’s people however, it was around this time two things occurred that began to shape my research and lead me in the direction of knowledge that I am eternally grateful.

The first thing that happened was I became familiar with some people online who were also new to the internet but they were genealogist who knew how to conduct research. One of the people I became familiar with lived right down the street from me and knew a great deal about genealogical research; she and a few more people in the area thought we should form a genealogical society so we could help each other learn the proper way to conduct research. One day we all met at Electra Price’s home to form the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California which is still going strong today I’m proud to say. 

The other people that played a significant role in my development as a researcher was an online introduction to Angela Walton-Raji and Robert Broome, both genealogy researchers familiar with Oklahoma. Angela became very significant as I will explain later. It was these three people and events that finally got me on track to conduct research on my family and led me to the discovery of my father’s “Indian” grandmother.
From 1990 through 1994 I would talk with my father occasionally and ask him about a new face among the many photographs in the boxes he gave me. I would describe an individual and together we would determine who that person was and what relationship they were to my father.
Gladys Ligon

We would discuss the people he knew like his grandmother Bettie, his grandfather Hadley and his father Mitch. My father would  tell me about his aunt Gladys and other members of his extended family like his great grandfather John Taylor or grandfather on his mother’s side; Caro Christian.

Some of them he knew personally and some he knew through stories he overheard as a young boy eavesdropping on the stories of his elders. It was after seeing the photo of his aunt Gladys I began taking some of what my father said about his Indian grandmother a little bit more seriously. Like a lot of people I saw in her photo what are typically considered physical features of what an “Indian” looks like.

As I stated earlier, the AAGSNC was my first introduction to genealogical research methodology and subsequently I became familiar with census research and the Church of the Ladder Day Saints. It must have taken me three months to finally locate his grandmother and father on a census record. The first thing I learned was spelling on census records is not correct and prior to 1907, the state of Oklahoma to my surprise did not exist!
1900 Census Indian Territory E.D. 168 p17b; T3S, R1W

This was the first time I experienced what genealogists refer to as the “happy dance.” When I began my research all I basically had were photographs and my father's questionable memory. The "old man" could only provide a few names he recalled from his childhood; Bettie, Hadley, his father Mitch and Aunt Gladys.  Combine those names with the misspelling on the census form I was certain this was the family I was searching for and soon realized there was more to this story than I first thought.

The more I looked at this document the more something began drawing me in for more inspection. There was another person in this household that I was not aware of and someone my father didn’t have an explanation.

The 1900 census indicated that the mother of Hadley (Atty Liggon) Ligon was a woman seventy eight years old by the name of Margaret Ann Wilson!!! I couldn’t wait to tell my father how wrong we were about that picture in the same frame as Bettie’s. According to this record, Hadley’s mother was living with him and his family and her name was not Sallie but Margaret Ann. Talk about scoring big time this had to be it. I was soon to become more surprised because again, census records can be totally incorrect yet hold the kernel of some truth.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

How I First Met Bettie

I was visiting my father one day and before I was to leave he showed me two large cardboard boxes filled with photo albums, picture frames and other assorted items that I was soon to "discover" would drastically change my life.

My father explained to me how he wanted me to take possession of the boxes because he had been having trouble with his health and it was his desire I accept the responsibility of maintaining what amounted to a photographic and documented history of our family.

Many of the photographs and albums I was familiar but once I got them home and began to really look through the boxes I was surprised to find quite a few images of various people I had no knowledge.

The first image that caught my attention was of a woman that I never saw before and didn't have an idea of why it was in this box of photographs that were supposed to be "our" family history. I called my father and began to ask him about the woman and was totally surprised at the answer he gave me.

Encased in an oval convex frame was the image of what appeared to be a Caucasian woman which I had never seen before. His answer about who this woman was and her relationship to him AND me was the initial basis for my journey of discovery on my family's unknown heritage and remarkably unique history among the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians.

My father told me this was his "Indian grandmother" and her name was Bettie. To which I responded with plenty of sarcasm and disbelief; "RIGHT!" 

I mean, this was about 1989 and I was well into my third decade of life but this was the first time I had heard anything about his family and then he throws in the idea that his grandmother was "Indian" let me tell you, I was not convinced. 

However, he insisted this was his grandmother and she was indeed an Indian. He didn't have a lot of facts but assured me this was true! My father then began telling me what he knew about his "Indian grandmother."

So it began, my first step to preserve this visual history of my family was to begin by making copy negatives of all the photos. One of the promises I made to my father was I would share all of the images with my brothers and sisters. Because the majority of the photographs did not have negatives I had to copy them so I could make a print and send them to my siblings. Keep in mind this was in the stone age; before digital cameras and scanners.

Organizing the photos and copying them was a huge undertaking, fortunately at the time I was working a side job in a commercial photo lab specializing in large reprints. My background in photography and working in this lab allowed me the opportunity to cut some costs when I created the "copy-negs" and reprints.

It was during the course of the copy work that new questions arose about my family's history and this prompted what became a routine I developed with my father of calling him about once a month just to discuss the photographs in the collection and to ask about a lot of the faces of people I had no idea who they were and how they were part of our family. I was also curious about this notion that his grandmother was an "Indian."

Nathaniel W. LIGON Choctaw Freedman #106

Nathaniel LIGON Born September 2, 1886  52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Nathaniel W. LIGON If you are a family researcher like me, ...