(Originally published on Our Black Ancestry website, 2007)
For the past 35 years of my life, I have spent many cherished weekends slogging around in cemeteries. During one recent excursion, the weather was so cold and blustery, I could barely keep my indomitable Jeep on the snow drifted and perilously slick road for the one hundred miles I had to drive. I blindly navigated through at least three white-outs to get to my destination and back.
When I invite people to join me for the fun, they cock their heads and respond with a facial expression that says I’m crazy without them saying it in words.
Why do I do it?
Because I am a grave hunter and I am looking for myself.
That particular weekend – the one with which I opened this story — my destination was Covert, Michigan. My point of departure was Chicago, Illinois, the place where I was born, raised and, after years of wandering around the world, now live.
Covert is a miniscule town — population 3,200 or so. Main industry: a nuclear power plant. That’s today. Back in the 1930s, when the people I was looking for moved there, less than a thousand souls called Covert home. Fortunately, they were some of America’s most enlightened. Either that or some of the country’s most humane.
The person I was hunting that day was Pattie Pearl Gavin Smith. She was one of 12 siblings, children of Bettie Warfe and Robert Gavin of Noxubee, Mississippi. This unlikely pair, a former slave, whom family stories say was traded for a horse, and a scion of the family who owned her, were my great-great-grandparents. They walked the earth during the last century. Pearl, their youngest, was born in 1883.
Pearl and her husband, John Gilbert Smith, left Mississippi sometime between 1910 and 1920. They passed through Chicago where they lived with one of Pearl’s sister’s children and landed in Covert sometime after 1930, no doubt relieved to reach their destination with body and soul intact. Their world in Mississippi was not a kind one. Covert represented a haven of sorts for black people trying to escape the brutal indignities of the South. I have no idea why they chose Covert, but my readings have shown me that it was a place where black people could vote, hold office and carry on their lives in peace.
Back to the present day…
After braving wind, snow, and grief, I found Pearl and John buried next to one another in plot number 507 at the Covert cemetery. The sexton, Jim (of an unpronounceable surname), led me right to it in his banged up pick-up truck that was obviously a mobile office. He guarded a hundred-year-old handwritten grave registry on the passenger seat.
- What is your name?
- What is your age?
That was Pearl’s mother, testifying in 1901 before the Dawes Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes at Meridian, Mississippi. Pearl didn’t testify. She was a minor then, not yet 18 years old. The Commission’s job was to determine who was and who was not a recognized member of the Choctaw Indian tribe. People who succeeded were entitled to land grants in Oklahoma. Bettie applied on behalf of herself and her eight living children for recognition.
Finding the Gavins
On a different, earlier excursion – to Mississippi, I found myself in the middle of a verdant field near the banks of the magnificently beautiful Pearl River. Not far from the historic marker for “Red Dog Road”, I saw a sign that read “Gavin Road.” Another marker commemorated the “Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” which, in 1830, ceded 11 million acres of Indian land in Mississippi to the U.S. Government in exchange for 15 million acres of land in Oklahoma. This was the land that was being granted during Bettie’s time. The treaty had been signed eight years before the government forcibly marched the surviving Indian population of the East to the West on the catastrophic “Trail of Tears.” That happened 70 years before the filing of Bettie’s claim.
While poking around for a town that doesn’t exist anymore, I found a place called “The Quarters.” There was no sign there, but I had to assume it must have been the former slave quarters for the Gavin plantation since it was located at Gavin Road. Eureka! I was finally home. I found many Gavins (black all) who welcomed me with open arms and – a century removed from the facts — searched my face for resemblance.
- Have you any children?
- How many?
Other than the remnants of a long-forgotten family graveyard where the “white folks” are buried, I didn’t find much else. The patriarch I was looking for is not there, even though I know Bettie bought him a casket. At least I didn’t find him. Maybe he IS there and there is just no marker to solemnize his final resting place.
This was just one of the many adventures I have undertaken over the last 35 years, on a mission to find out what I need to know.
- Who is the father of these children?
- How long did you live with him?
- Why were you not married to him?
- Because the law would not allow it.
- Was Bob Gavin a slave?
- He was no slave – he was a white man.
Bob Gavin, a Confederate war veteran, died in 1896. Bettie sued his estate, undertaking a battle that lasted six long years. Twelve kids later (not counting the four that died) Bettie was forced to settle in 1901 and got all of $125 for her trouble. Her son, Augustus, was accused of thievery for refusing to hand over his father’s surveying instrument. Bettie and her children were put off the land on which they had lived all their lives after the Gavin family designated him “a lifelong bachelor with no heirs” and divvied up his acreage amongst themselves.
Bettie filed her claim for Choctaw recognition the same year she lost the suit against the Gavin estate. It took a full year for the decision to be rendered. She appealed and was again denied. It took another year for the Commission to inform Bettie of their rejection. It’s written in bold black letters on top of a thick sheaf of papers provided to me by the National Archives.
- Where did you get your Choctaw blood?
- How do you know your mother was a Choctaw Indian?
- How much Choctaw was she?
- As much as darkies was allowed.
After the findings of the commission were handed down in 1903, as many of Bettie’s children as were able apparently fled Mississippi. I know from family memories that somebody was lynched. Somebody was raped. Somebody was driven from his farm by “Night Riders.”
After years of searching, digging around in dusty courthouses and archives – and more recently, surfing the internet for hours on end — I found Pearl’s sister Maggie in California and her brother Owen in Oklahoma – both adamantly claiming their Indian heritage in every document I can find. William Henry went to Chicago and passed for white. Ella went to Chicago and stayed black. Bettie Pauline went to St. Louis. I’m still looking for Catherine, Mary Elizabeth, Augustus, Ida and Fee. They either passed or died.
The cumulative results of what I have found have taken me all the way back to 1820, even before America proclaimed her Manifest Destiny to settle the West. Yet, despite everything I have discovered through arduous effort, I still have not found the knowledge (or perhaps I should say, the comfort) that I seek. I know it is lying in a grave somewhere.
- You were born in Virginia then?
- And how old were you when you came to MS?
- I was little – clothes all buttoned back behind.
- Did your parents come with you?
- No, I came with some white folks.
- How did white folks have possession of you?
- Just like they took me from my mother.
I still don’t know who Bettie was, other than a woman who didn’t willingly take abuse. All I know for sure is that she is part of me. Collectively, bits and pieces of her existence and that o her children will collectively enlighten me as to whom I am today.
“The applicant in this case has some slight appearance of an Indian. Her complexion is that of an Indian. Her hair is very nearly straight… She has the appearance also of having negro blood in her veins…”
- Were you ever a slave?
- Not that I know of. I have been with the white people all my life.
The evidence herein is insufficient to determine the identity of Bettie Gavin as a Choctaw Indian entitled to rights in the Choctaw lands under the provisions of article fourteen of the treaty of 1830. The applications for identification as such should be refused and it is so ordered.
Signed: Tams Bixby, Acting Chairman
Deep inside, I believe we all want to know who we REALLY are. I am not yet satisfied.
Sharon Leslie Morgan is the co-author with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012) and the author of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light (Morgan Publishing, 2016). She is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a genealogy community devoted to African American family history.