by Richard L. Thornton, Registered Architect and City Planner
Happy Thanksgiving. Until the outside air warms up enough to rake leaves, I am continuing the seemingly endless process of triaging two centuries of several families’ detritus . . . which was in the possession of my late mother and somehow, I have been stuck with. My mother kept EVERYTHING in her life. She even had scrapbooks containing many of the greeting cards, she received throughout her life, plus all the guestbooks of all the funerals of her relatives. She also kept archives on every little event in the lives of my sister and I. I am holding on to several photos of my sister wearing dental braces to use in an extortion scheme! LOL
There is a lot of history in our family. We had no clue how “Indian” we were until the 1980s, when my Uncle Hal hired an Oklahoma Creek genealogist to trace it. A very high percentage of our ancestors were full-blooded or almost full-blooded Native, but intentionally used English names for government records. We were members of the Creek Wind Clan and Uchee Water Clan. Their native tongues were Itsate and Apalachicola, not Muskogee.
Three of my ancestors signed the 1773 Treaty of Augusta. They later commanded mounted troops of Creek-Uchee Patriot scouts in the American Revolution, but refused to sign the 1785 Treaty of Augusta. Around that time, their families disassociated from the Creek Confederacy because Tory Principal Chief Alexander McGillivray had repeatedly dispatched Upper Creek war parties to attack Creek Patriot families in Northeast Georgia. Conservative Creeks continued to attack the Northeast Georgia Creeks until 1793, but the attacks became increasingly ineffective as my ancestors gained white neighbors, who were also in-laws. Our family heads-of -household eventually were granted very large Revolutionary War and Cherokee War veteran’s reserves, which meant that their descendants were immune to the forced removal of Creeks from western Georgia.
My great-grandfather Jack Bone, served throughout the Civil War in one of the most famous units of that terrible tragedy, Cobb’s Legion – Army of Northern Virginia. He lost part of a leg due artillery shrapnel at the Devil’s Den in the Battle of Gettysburg. After the Civil War, he eventually became a Creek mikko (chief). He was 78 years old, when my grandmother was born. His wife was 28 years old at that time. They had two more daughters later on.
Great Uncle Sydney was in the first graduating class of what was to become Georgia State University, but simultaneously was a member of Georgia Tech’s ROTC unit. Upon graduation, he was sent to Camp Gordon, GA and was trained to be a cavalry officer in what is now Chickamauga National Battlefield Park . . . where Grandpa Jack Bone actually fought. Almost immediately after being commissioned, Uncle Sydney was dispatched to the Mexican Border and given command of a troop of Apache Scouts. They were to go in front of General Black Jack Pershing’s army in the pursuit of Pancho Villa’s army. Back then, it was the US Army’s practice to put Creek and Chickasaw junior officers in command of “wild western Indians.” Uncle Sydney’s assignment was to operate as much as 50 miles inside enemy lines. Oh, did I mention that he went there, hardly knowing a word of Spanish? LOL Fortunately, his Apalache scouts did speak Spanish.
One day, while he and two sergeants were watching a charro (rodeo) in a village about 35 miles inside enemy lines, three of Poncho Villa’s generals walked up and leaned against the wood rail beside him. Duh-h-h, although wearing typical Mexican campesino clothing, Sydney had forgotten to take off his US Army cavalry boots! One of the generals quickly noticed them and asked him in Spanish why he was wearing them. Sydney still did not know much Spanish and was expecting to be in heaven momentarily. A sharp Apache sergeant quickly intervened and said that his friend couldn’t speak and was a little crazy. He also told the general that Sydney had killed a Gringo cavalryman and kept the boots. The general congratulated Sydney and handed him a gold Peso . . . worth about $100 today.
During World War I Sydney’s cavalry troop was used for reconnaissance and artillery spotting. He was involved in very heavy combat during the Battle of the Ardennes Forest, when again operating behind enemy lines.
Ironically, the heaviest combat that Sydney experienced in World War II was again in the Ardennes Forest as colonel in the 101st Airborne Division, in the defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge! He was a slew of medals for bravery there.
I came across an astonishing surprise last week when going through Sydney’s memorabilia box for the “incursion” into in Mexico and World War I. I almost tossed aside a very small box, labeled with logo of the Republic of France. In it was the Croix de Guerre, plus two bars that had not been attached to the ribbon. OMG! France had awarded him the Croix de Guerre for bravery three times! We never knew that.
There was one more big surprise. My mother’s father was always either a yeoman farmer or owner of a general store. His chief claim to fame was the creation of the best sugar-cured smoked hams and bacon that Dixie has ever tasted. I knew that my Grandpa Obie had been a mayor of the little town of Bowman, GA, but I didn’t know that he had also served a term as an Elbert County Commissioner. My Uncle Hal would later serve as Mayor of a much larger town in South Carolina. In one box, there were Papa Obie’s campaign ads and his commissioner’s business cards, paperclipped to a local newspaper article about him.
He ran as a Progressive Democrat against the White Supremacist Dixiecrats during the height of school desegregation. His two main campaign themes were paving rural roads to serve hard-working farmers and treating all citizens as equals. The previous crowd had been firing all “Colored teachers” when a Colored school was closed. Papa Obie forced through changes, which kept black teachers in the system and offered teaching and administrative positions to those black educators, who had already been fired. That policy made him quite disliked by the “good ole boys” in the county. He only served one term, but the Black educators kept their jobs.
A forgotten newspaper article
Last night . . . laying loosely in one of my mother’s boxes for my childhood was a clipping from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday Edition from 1977. I had completely forgotten about it. It was the first article that the AJC ever wrote, which acknowledged the widespread existence of people with American Indian heritage in Georgia. Prior to that time, what few articles that reporters had written, assumed that there were only a couple hundred Indians in Georgia, as reported by the US Census.
Many families around the Southeast had been concealing their ethnic identity since the Trail of Tears Era. One of the first actions by Governor Jimmy Carter was to push through legislation, which removed all the many laws in Georgia, which stripped American Indians of even the most basic rights, like public education. He then sponsored legislation, which authorized Georgia to recognize Indians individually and as tribes, even if they were not considered Indians by the federal government.
By 1977, many thousands of Georgians had changed their ethnicity on official state documents and college applications to American Indians. Most “born-again Injuns” claimed to be Cherokee, although most lived in areas, where the Cherokees never lived. Four Indian tribes had been recognized. Two of them were developing “reservations.” It was obvious that at least 250,000 nominally white and black citizens in the state had substantial Native American ancestry and perhaps over million had known Native ancestors.
Those claiming to be Creek almost always had known Creek ancestors and still practiced at least some Creek traditions. Very few of the “born again” Cherokees could link their family to either a person on the rolls of historic Cherokee tribes or to any Cherokee tribal customs. Several Cherokee tribes of questionable authenticity had popped up in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Georgia recognized three Cherokee tribes, but refused to recognize the others.
At the same there were several fake Indians and fake Indian tribes popping up across the landscape. The article mentions some of these con artists. Many people, claiming to be Cherokee thought that they could get “free government money and health care” by merely calling themselves Cherokee.
By happenstance, much of the AJC article was about my family and me, but I certainly did not dream that I would be so heavily involved in Native American architectural research in the second decade of the 21st century. Even though the US Navy had unilaterally labeled me an American Indian after blood tests, I did not realize how much Native American DNA our family carried until the next decade, when the Oklahoma Creek genealogist researched our past.
After a Sunday service at Peachtree Christian Church in Midtown Atlanta, an elderly gentleman named Lloyd Grimes came up to me. He was the father of Wayne Grimes in the article. He asked, “You are Indian aren’t you?” That’s not the type of question that one normally gets after a church service in Atlanta. I responded, “Yes, how did you know?”
He responded, “Because you look like one, but you are not Cherokee. What are you, Seminole . . . Creek? “ I answered, “Creek and Uchee.”
Lloyd told me the AJC was planning an article about the American Indian descendants in Georgia, who were rediscovering their ancestry. All the people interviewed so far had claimed to be Cherokee. He wanted to know, if I would be willing to be interviewed and photographed by an AJC reporter. I said yes.
The AJC news team came to the office where I worked on Peachtree Street. They were super-impressed by the fact that I had just prepared the first Comprehensive Plans for Auburn, Opelika, Sylacauga, and Lee County in Alabama. I had just begun the preparation of Charleston, SC first comprehensive plan. You can see the Opelika Plan in the foreground of the photo. What was originally intended to be a small “head shot” photo and few words in the article turned out to be several paragraphs and a big photo.
My employer was so impressed that I was an Injun that he sent in a proposal for our firm to do work for the American Indian Housing Council. Within a couple of months, I was flying around the country as a land planning consultant for federally recognized Indian tribes. However, by the end of the year, Asheville, NC offered me job that would be the equivalent today of $185,000 a year . . . directing the revitalization of Downtown Asheville, plus designing the downtown plazas and parks. Thus, ended my first brief career as an official Injun. Many, many years would pass before put on that mantle again.
A big thank you
After going through those boxes, long maintained by my mother, I came to realize how much our current generations owe to the lives of people like those she documented. So, for this Thanksgiving Day, I would like to thank those who came before me. Their courage, intellect, talents and enlightened leadership made the world a better place. We honor you!