On this Memorial Day, I am thinking about the past. My daughter recently took one of those mail-order DNA tests, and the results were somewhat surprising. Roughly forty percent Irish—that came as no shock, though the percentage was higher than I would have expected. Quite a lot of European—southern, eastern, northern. A little mystifying, but then many mysteries have lingered, at least on my side of the family.
What came as the surprise was the lack of Native American DNA. Zero percent. This took me aback because the story in my family has always been that my mother’s side of the family contained quite a lot of Native American blood, especially on her mother’s side. Some oral histories indicated that my great-great-grandmother came with her husband from Oklahoma, and she was Cherokee.
Many stories, myths, even jokes (usually from my father against my mother) resulted from this assumed family history, but my daughter’s DNA test seems to have undone them all.
So I went back to my paltry store of family photos and got out one of my mother as a teenager. The image is bad, tainted by strips of light down one side and a badly-focused lens, but there she is, not as I remember her but as her mother would have remembered her. Very tall (six feet when she was young), very dark-haired and dark-eyed.
As I looked into the face of this girl who would become my mother, I tried to see her past in her features. My mother didn’t like to talk about her family, never took me to meet the grandmother who helped raise her and refused offers to return to the Hoskins family farm in southern Missouri. So the legend grew up—the family was filled with shame because of the Cherokee line, because of my grandmother’s misbehavior (divorce and subsequent remarriage) and mental illness. But the legend is, at least in part, a lie.
So what is the truth of the past? It’s probably impossible to recreate, but I’ve been interested in a long time in writing historical fiction, and one of the jobs of a historical novelist is to make a plausible past. But my own is no longer plausible. So I began what any novelist would do. I began to do some research.
I have a family tree of the Hoskins (my mother’s grandfather), but the line trails off as it reaches my grandmother and my mother. They only get a mention. Grandfather Daniel George Hoskins was a younger son of hard-working D.W. Hoskins, who may or may not have made his fortune on a purse of “blood money” gained during the Civil War. The Hoskinses were Union, but Missouri was criss-crossed by both Federals and Confederates, and an opportunity may have presented itself that he did not resist (more on that later!). George (as he was called) seems to have lived out his years on the family farm. He married Hannah Sanders.
Hannah is where my current search focuses. Her parents were not, as the story has gone, transplants from Oklahoma. They seem to have been James Sanders (origin still unknown) and Louisa Hooper (also still unlocated), both from Missouri. On the 1880 census, they appear, with a three-year-old daughter named Hannah. The only photo I have of her was taken when she was in her eighties:
But who was she? Now, another story rises to the surface of my mind, involving a Sanders trunk that was transported with the family from Ireland. But is this another myth? My mother claimed to have remembered seeing it when she was a child. But who knows whose trunk that was and where it came from. It, like so many facts, has disappeared.
Can the past be recovered? Probably not, not entirely and not certainly. But my daughter has set me a research project now, and it might be an interesting investigation. I don’t know if the climb up the family tree will reveal crime, shame, or honor. Maybe all of them. But it’s clearly the time to try, for my daughter’s sake, to set at least some of the record straight.