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A Literary Journey in Search of Family Roots

by Page Lambert
CAL author of the memoir In Search of Kinship
(Read her blog at


(Page Lambert was awarded a CAL Grant in 2008 to attend Salon Ada in Ada, Oklahoma, and to do ancestry research on a project involving the birthplace of her paternal grandmother, Helen Denishia Terry, whose birth certificate reads: Born November 11, 1894, Potapo River, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory.)

CAL memberships afford us many blessings and perhaps now, during the season of thanksgiving, is an appropriate time to talk about the CAL Writer’s Grant I received earlier this year.  I urge all of you to seriously consider applying for the 2009 Grant.

Last winter, when Choctaw author and professor LeAnne Howe (winner of the American Book Award for the novel Shell Shakers) invited me to come to a gathering of artists and writers in Oklahoma the following June, I quickly checked my calendar.

I had dreamed of doing research in Oklahoma for years, ever since discovering my grandmother’s birth certificate, which reads simply: Helen Denishia Terry, born November 11, 1894, Potapo River, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory. My first novel, Shifting Stars, was dedicated to her. I always dreamed of finding the creek where she was born and one of my writing projects involved learning more about this ancestral landscape. The June salon would be the perfect time. Not only would LeAnne Howe be there, but Chickasaw author Linda Hogan, Dakota Native author Susan Power (recipient of PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction), and Chickasaw storyteller Lorie Robins were expected to attend as well. I’d be in the company of people whose artistic sensibilities reflected the Native American perspective. My partner, an artist and member of the Cherokee nation, had been invited as well.

June already promised to be busy. I would be in Wyoming for a week leading the “Literature and Landscape of the Retreat and was anticipating a move from Santa Fe back to Colorado. Relocating a home and office wreaks havoc on schedules and budgets. Where would the time, or extra funds, come from? The fortuitous announcement from CAL urging members to apply for a Writer’s Grant arrived just in time.

LeAnne Howe, who is also head of the Native American Studies Department and Creative Writing department at the University of Illinois in Champaign, described Salon Ada as “a brand new, small literary and artists’ salon; a gathering place to meet and discuss our work, passions and pleasures. During this very first Salon Ada,” she wrote, “we will gather for meals and discuss our work and share our experiences. The goals are simple: the luxury of meeting and sharing our art, our passions, ourselves. There will be scheduled discussions and break-out sessions. I want us to create a place where we can share our lives and our work, as writers, thinkers, artists.”

The idea of an artistic salon had great appeal. I envisioned the ways in which creative salons differ from workshops or conferences, wondered how local writers’ groups might create their own salons, wondered how my ancestry research would be enriched by spending time in the exact location where my grandmother had lived, and pondered how authors of different cultural backgrounds might inform each other’s work. In some ways, CAL’s new PEG sessions for professional enrichment offer a similar chance for a more intimate learning environment.

“When writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and storytellers come together ‘to please and educate,'” LeAnne wrote about Salon Ada, “I believe we truly change the world with our art.”

That’s a tall order. But perhaps it’s why we write – to change the world, or at least our small part of the world. When we come together with other likeminded souls, we give birth to synergism.  The whole becomes greater than the parts.

Before leaving for Oklahoma, I spoke with the Historical Society at the Confederate Memorial Museum just outside of Atoka. I planned on visiting them, and also scanning the microfiche records at the county library.  But most importantly, with only a single day to do research, the biggest priority was to actually find Potapo River, which according to the maps is actually called Potapo Creek. Before McGee Creek Dam was built in 1983, the creek flowed for a long way, paralleling McGee Creek. But now nearly all of it was underwater.  Had I arrived in Atoka County twenty years earlier, I could have walked the actual shores along the creek where my grandmother had been born.  But now, I would only be able to study the upper portion of the creek. All else was underwater – part of McGee Reservoir.

The first of June, John and I flew to Oklahoma and headed to Atoka. I was armed with a few family documents listing important dates, including my great-grandparents birth information: Great grandmother: Esther Brock, born June 24, 1870, Breathett, Kentucky. Great grandfather: Ancil Daniel Terry, born March 13, 1872, Berryville, Arkansas, Carroll County on the King River. It seemed some of the pregnant women in my family gravitated toward water.

When John and I first met, he promised me that some day we would come to Oklahoma, the place of his birth, so that I could see the land where he was born, and so that we could also trace the journey of my ancestors. John, a full-blood Cherokee, knows intimately the mountain where his grandparents were born and lived.  He hauled sweet water from a hand-dug well for his grandmother to wash with, helped gather kindling from the woods for his grandmother to cook with, and bathe with. He listened to his grandfather tell stories about his own growing up in the backwoods of Oklahoma, helped hunt squirrels and skin them for supper.

John comes from a family of ridge-walkers. Proud, long-legged Cherokee people who adopted a new homeland after being forced from their original homeland. A photo of Dockie, the great-great-grandmother who walked the Trail of Tears as a child, hangs on our bedroom wall.  Dockie’s daughter Eliza would be born and later meet her Cherokee husband at the Battle of Pea Ridge, where she cooked for the southern soldiers. John shares this history with me while we’re on the plane en route to Oklahoma, warning me of chiggers and wood ticks, of cottonmouths and copperheads and rattlesnakes.

As we drive from Oklahoma City to Atoka County, I am overcome at the lush countryside and at the significance of the journey. We have come to find my grandmother’s river, and perhaps her ethnicity. Family lore says she was part-Cherokee. But it seems almost everyone’s family lore includes a Cherokee grandmother. Enrolled tribal members laugh at this, rolling their collective eyes at “wannabees.” But in 1824 a woman named Mahala was born in Perry County, Kentucky and she was my great great grandmother and she would grow up to marry my great great grandfather Aaron. My great aunt said Mahala was Cherokee, yet I learn from LeAnne, my Choctaw friend, that Mahala is a Choctaw name. I am eager to share what I find with her and the others at the Salon.  Perhaps they, too, have traveled a similar path in search of their ancestors….


ur stay at the Confederate Museum in Atoka is much too short, but reveals some fascinating information. Cindy, a member of the museum’s volunteer staff, is very helpful. John finds a book about the outlaw Belle Starr, who married into the notorious Starr clan, a group of renegade Cherokees who bootlegged whiskey, stole cattle, and thieved horses. We discover that in 1889 my great-grandfather Ancil Dan Terry was with her when she was murdered by a shotgun blast from a dirt farmer. He later testified at her murder trial. This same year, he married my great-grandmother Esther Brock, whose mother is listed only as “Mahala” on family records.


Display at Confederate
Museum, Atoka

Cindy, the volunteer, retreats for a moment into a back room and comes out with a hand-drawn map of McGee Creek, circa 1800s, labeled: “Some of the Early Sawmills that operated in Atoka County and McGee Creek Area.” The map shows more than a dozen drainages feeding into McGee, which then drains into Mudd Boggy, where another dozen creeks drain – Crooked Creek, Kennedy Hollow, Little Caney, Chitwood Hollow, and there, in the midst of them all, is Potapo Creek, the creek where my grandmother was born.

Written in the margins of the map are the names of 64 small sawmills. I read the scrawled names of the owners: Atchins. Markhams. Ingall. Henkley. Smith. Jenson. Miller. Beck. Newsom. Morris. Kirk. Unknown. Unknown. Houser. Fugate. Unknown.
Lee. Mitchell. Fugate.  Kennedy. Robinson. Unknown. Hankins. Morris. Several Fugates. But I find no Terry.


Page and her uncle study a map of the

“The Fugates were a big logging family in the area,” Cindy tells us. “Baby Doll Fugate still lives in a clapboard house near the old Fugate mill. You should talk to her. She’s knows all about the logging families up and down those creeks.”

As I stare at the map, a familial legacy begins to reveal itself. My father was born in a logging camp in British Columbia in 1917. His father, Jonathan Earl Dunton, my grandfather, had been a logger, but I hadn’t realized that my grandmother had also come from a logging family.  Logging life was not new to her – she had not only married into it, she had been born into it.

My grandmother Helen had been a tiny woman, short with black hair and dark eyes like my father’s.  When I was a little girl, she told me stories of working in the logging camps, of cooking flapjacks for 20 men and shooting wild grouse for their dinner. “Once,” she told me, “a mountain lion leapt out of the trees. I was sitting in the logging truck. It jumped straight over me, barely clearing my head, and disappeared down the other side of the mountain.”

In later years, she grew thick-waisted and her complexion paled into thin, pink-cheeked skin, more reminiscent of her Scots-Irish blood.  Had her father worked for a sawmill owner, or ran one himself?  What brought them to Potapo Creek? Where had they come from?  What was her mother’s life like on the creek? And what of her grandmother, the mysterious Mahala?

Cindy retreats into the back again and we wander over to a display of a man and a woman, Cherokee we assume, based on the man’s traditional hunting jacket, moccasins, leggings and turban. Cindy comes out with another book, Tales of Atoka County Heritage. I browse through the chapter, “Life in Stringtown, Indian Territory, 1889.” The same year Belle Starr was murdered. The same year my great-grandparents married.


Wilma Fugate researches the

We learn that Stringtown is a small community that sprang up near the logging camps and sawmills that peppered the area. I find a 1900 photograph of 44 school children (eleven years after Belle Starr was murdered). The children posing beneath the spread limbs of a large tree are of mixed ethnicity. About half are white (perhaps part Scots-Irish like my grandmother), and about half are Indian (most likely Choctaws, Chickasaws and Cherokees). My grandmother Helen would have been six years old when the photo was taken. These children of Stringtown would have been her contemporaries. I do not know if they are the children of loggers, or the children of a community that sprang up to support the loggers, or perhaps even the offspring of Cherokee outlaws like the Starrs.

Cindy disappears into the back room again and I examine a set of family records that I have brought with me to see where my grandmother’s brothers and sisters had been born, searching for a trail that will explain what brought the family to Potapo Creek.

Their first daughter is born in Arkansas in 1889, close to the Oklahoma border, the second in 1892. Then the family comes to Potapo Creek, where my grandmother is born in 1894. Two years later, in 1896, the family returns to Arkansas where a fourth child is born.  In 1898, a fifth child is born in Wahilla, Oklahoma. Their birth places begin to reveal part of the familial journey for a year later a sixth child, a son, is born in Stilwell, Oklahoma.


Old Fugate sawmill.

John smiles at me. His grandmother had been the first taxicab driver in Stilwell.  It was her great-grandmother who had walked the Trail of Tears.  Perhaps our families knew each other.  We search for the town of Wahilla in the Oklahoma Historical Place Name book but do not find it.

When I examine an official U.S. Census taken in Stilwell in June, 1990, it lists only my great-grandmother Esther and six children. She is listed as the head of the household, her occupation listed as “laundress,” and under the column for the “number of years married,” there is only an X. Where was my grandfather?

In May of 1903, a seventh child, a girl, is born in Stilwell.  Had my great-grandfather returned? Or did the child have a different father?  My great-grandmother dies that year, perhaps in child birth.  Fourteen years later, to a different mother, an eighth child is born in Boundary, Washington.

According to family lore, my great-grandfather left for Washington, leaving my grandmother Helen as an indentured servant with a family in Oklahom. She would have been nine years old. I don’t know what happened to her brothers and sisters.  My great aunt told me that when my grandmother Helen was about thirteen, she sent a letter to her father in Washington, telling him how badly she was being treated.  Months later, he sent her a train ticket to come join him.

Bits and pieces of family lore begin to weave together, creating a braid of the past.  My grandmother’s trail is also beginning to merge with the trail of the man she will eventually marry, Jonathan Earl Dunton, my grandfather, whose father logged the Canadian woods where my father would eventually be born.


Old Fugate Sawmill sheds.

The day is quickly disappearing.  John and I need to drive back to Ada, Oklahoma, that afternoon for the opening session of Salon Ada.  We thank Cindy, leave the museum, and head for Stringtown and the back-country road which will lead us to a wildlife management area north of McGee Reservoir, and hopefully to Potapo Creek.  I am almost as interested in the physical landscape of my heritage as in the genetic ancestry of it.  A tactile link to the past, something I can touch and smell and see.

We stop for a hamburger at the ChooLoo Café where singer Reba McEntire’s father is a regular.  The busboy gives us directions to the Stringtown Public Hunting area where the upper portion of Potapo Creek is supposed to flow into a 10,000 acre wildlife management area 11 miles east of Stringtown on Greasy Bend Road. The road crosses through the hunting area and leads to Fugate, where perhaps we’ll find Baby Doll Fugate, the heir of the historic Fugate sawmill.

Thick brush and tall grass flank the backwoods road down which we drive.  I do not know the names of the plants, nor of most of the creatures that live here in these thick woods and I feel lost without the vocabulary of the land.  Giant trees – pines and deciduous trees, hardwoods and evergreens, embellish the hillside.  One flamboyant tree (a Mimosa, I later learn) spreads out huge, flower-laden branches like the spines of a pink umbrella. Scissortails.  Mockingbirds.  Cottonmouths.  Copperheads.  Red tail hawks.  Southern roadkill – opossums lying dead on the county roads.  A few familiar words fill this journey with even more mystery.  The landscape becomes rich with the possibility of all that I do not know.

While John is driving, I refer to a brochure on the wildlife management area.  Bobwhite quail, eastern wild turkey, white-tailed deer, cottontails, coyote, bobcat, raccoon, doves, wood ducks and mallards, fox and gray squirrels, and screech owls all make their homes here.  In the winter, Bald eagles roost near the banks of Atoka and McGee Creek reservoirs.  Largemouth trophy bass, catfish and crappie populate the waters year round.

As the road winds in and out, I begin to wonder if we’re lost, or perhaps have taken a wrong turn.  John assures me we haven’t.  Nonetheless, as we come around a bend we see a tidy red farm house set back a ways, several out buildings, and a man working in the yard at the edge of the road.  John pulls over.

“You don’t happen to know if there’s a Potapo Creek around here anywhere?” John asks.  The man takes off his cap, wipes his forehead on the sleeve of his shirt, puts his cap back on and says, “Well, no, but my wife probably does.  She’s lived here her whole life.”  He invites us to come up to the house.  “Linda’s just sitting in the pool with the grandkids, keeping cool.  Come on up.”

So we do.  Soon we’re sitting in the shade of a gazebo, flanked by blooming trumpet vines and moss roses hanging from overhead planters.  We tell them about my grandmother and our search for the creek where she was born.  Linda makes a few guesses about the location of the creek, then offers to call her uncle.  “He’s lived around here even longer than me,” she says. “It’ll only take him a minute.”

Literally, within minutes, her uncle pulls up in a truck, steps out, and walks up to the gazebo.  “Howdy,” he says, “I hear you’re looking for Potapo Creek.”  I show him the hand-drawn map of the early sawmills and point out Potapo Creek.  He recognizes many of the names on the map.  “The Fugates were big in the lumber business around here.  There’s still some of the old sawmill buildings down the road,” he says.  “You need to talk to Baby Doll Fugate.  She lives just down the road a piece in a white house, right before you get to the old sawmill  You can’t miss her place cause it’s the only one around without a porch. You’ll cross a creek right before you get there – that’ll be Potapo.”

There is no sign announcing the creek, of course.  No drum roll.  No trumpets sounding from my ancestral heavens.  Only a narrow bridge, a meandering creek which quickly disappears into the dense brush, the feel of humidity on my skin, and the flutter of a few birds flitting from tree to tree.  John stops the car and I get out.  I try to imagine a logging camp set up alongside the creek, tents pitched about, women cooking over open fires, horses and mules harnessed up to hauling chains, the sound of trees being felled in the woods.  I try to imagine my great-grandmother washing clothes at the creek with an infant wrapped in a shawl beside her.  But the creek yields up only a few hints of earlier times, and even fewer of family lore.  Yet here I am, one hundred and four years later, at the creek where my grandmother was born, surrounded by trees rooted to the same landscape, bridging the generations.  It’s a bittersweet moment.

When we round the bend a short time later, we come to a white clapboard house – no porch.  Must be Baby Doll’s.  We pull into the yard and are greeted by two black dogs.  Their barking rouses a tiny woman with red hair, freshly coifed by rollers probably taken out only moments before.  She’s obviously expecting us.  She waves us out of the car and inside.  Brightly colored hand-knit afghans cover the couch and chairs.  A polished wooden banister leads to an upstairs.  Antiques are everywhere.

We introduce ourselves and she offers us sweet tea, then apologies for not having anything fresh baked.  Her accent is pure backwoods Oklahoma.  We explain that we only have a few minutes and she quickly leads us into her office and sits down in front of a computer.  Three-ring binders are piled on the desk, with books and file folders neatly stacked on the floor.  Oak filing cabinets line the wall.  I’m surprised, in this house full of antiques, to find a computer.

As it turns out, Baby Doll is the area’s resident and respected historian, actively researching and cataloging information about each and every sawmill that operated in the area during the late eighteen hundreds.  “I was sure I just came across something on the Terry family just yesterday,” she says.  She opens up a file and sorts through papers, sets it down and picks up another, sorts unsuccessfully through this one.  “I know it’s here somewhere,” she says, apologizing, “I was just reading about the Terry family.”  She slides a shoebox full of bits of paper toward her from the desk, plops it in her lap, and starts rummaging through it.  She laughs. “You can see how fancy my filing system is.”

She’s very accommodating, welcoming two strangers into her home.  When she finally does recall information on the Terry family, it turns out to be a family from Texas, the wrong family. She tells us that the main men operating sawmills on Potapo Creek in 1894, the year of my grandmother’s birth, were brothers Thomas and James Kennedy, and a Samuel Scratch. She promises to get in touch if she comes across any of their payroll records.

When I mention the town of Wahilla, she pulls a book off a shelf: Oklahoma Place Names by George H. Shirk.  She finds it: a small Cherokee settlement of between 20 to 30 homesteads located in western Adair county, about ten miles northwest of Stilwell.  The town is called Wauhillau, or Awa-hili, which means eagle in Cherokee. According to Shirk, a small post office was established there in 1879. “There might have been an Indian school there too,” Wilma says.  “There was an orphan home called Tiptin’s, too, about that time.”

I’m scribbling notes as she talks, taking down as much information as I can, grasping at these tendrils of fact and folklore, for they seem like the literal tips of my family roots.  I mention that my great-grandfather apparently abandoned the family and left for Washington.  “Oh, all the mills around here were drying up after the railroad got built,” she nodded.  “No more work.  My great-grandfather almost shut down the Fugate sawmill and headed to the west coast, too.  Changed his mind at the last minute.  You might want to read The Glory Days of Logging in the Big Woods,” she adds, “all about the logging in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.”

I have come full circle.  From the creek where my grandmother was born, to a logging camp in British Columbia where my father was born twenty-three years later.  I think of Steinbeck’s novelThe Grapes of Wrath, and all the families in Oklahoma who, during the Dust Bowl, when crops had dried up and hopelessness rode the unrelenting wind, began that long and desperate trek to promising California.  Perhaps the 19th century loggers had paved the way when they journeyed west, hunting work, hunting the big trees and wild forests of a new life.  Yet unlike Steinbeck’s Tom Joad, my great-grandfather had not taken his family with him.

Baby Doe seems disappointed when we say we have to leave.  We apologize for the quick visit, thank her, exchange phone numbers and email addresses, and are soon crossing Potapo Creek, heading back to Atoka and then onto Ada for the evening Salon dinner.  We drive down the backwoods road, where the pink Mimosas spread their huge, flower-laden branches across the landscape, where fur trees top the ridges, serrating the damp, blue horizon.

I feel as if I have caught the pungent whiff of a family legacy and must now go on, straddling centuries and cultures, caught between the desire to know more, and the realization that perhaps, this is enough, at least for now.


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