Thursday, November 6, 2008

Native American or Indian Heritage Month: A Personal Perspective

Though many may be unaware, November 2008 is 'National Indian Heritage Month,' an opportunity for myself and others to reflect on the diverse role 'Native-Americans' have played in our nation's history.

Later this month, I'll relate a couple of narratives or examples from our collections here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, relative to our Native American materials, but within today's post, I'd like to take you on a personal journey or reminiscence.

As a child growing up in northeastern Kentucky, with awe & wonder, I was always thrilled each time I visited my Uncle Wendell Mason's home, to venture into his den, where encased in picture frames and glass cases, were literally hundreds of Indian artifacts, collected by him through many years from fields and ancient or early camp-sites in our part of Kentucky and into southern Ohio, along with an Indian skull affectionately named 'Lulu.' Wendell himself was part-Cherokee in ancestry, as attested in his family's lore and in the physiology of his ancestors and his descendants, my first cousins.

Literally, like the time worn phrase, of 'a kid in a candy shop,' I was intrigued by what I saw at my uncle's home. Though I never became one, he was an avid hunter, and I spent many an hour in his basement, helping him skin rabbits, but I had ulterior motives, since for each rabbit I cleaned, he allowed me to scour through the many boxes in his basement filled with Indian arrowheads, and select one to add to my own small collection.

Also, across the Ohio River from my hometown, and up and down the Ohio, from Cincinnati to the West Virginia border, there are numerous ancient, pre-Columbian earthworks, burial mounds and artifacts from the Adena & Hopewell cultures, which I had the opportunity to visit many times over the years, many of which have never been excavated.

Some twenty-miles south of my home town, was Blue Licks, Kentucky, the site of the last battle of the Revolutionary War, fought on August 19th, 1782, and now a state park, where the famous frontiersmen Daniel Boone, originally from Berks County, Pennsylvania, was present and witnessed the death and scalping of one of his own sons, along with other pioneer settlers who were defeated by the British and their Indian allies, neither side realizing that the War was over, Cornwallis having surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia. Incidentally, a number of Boone's relatives also lie in the old pioneer cemetery in my hometown of Maysville, Kentucky, located behind the present-day Mason County History Museum.

Just outside Blue Licks State Park, heading south on US Route 68, are two deep bottoms. On one side mammoth and mastodon bones were found, while on the left-side, yours truly spent many an hour hunting the newly plowed fields for Indian arrowheads, a site where Native Americans camped for centuries.

Harry M. Caudill (my mentor and advisor in Graduate School at the Univ. of Ky), the famed author of Night Comes to the Cumberland, which in 1963 revealed to the world the economic plight of Appalachian Kentucky & its residents, wrote the following:

"And, while he fought the Indian as a beast, the frontiersman unhesitatingly mated with the red man's sqaws...By capture and by wooing, great numbers of dusky aborigine women found their way into the pole cabins of the borderers...To this date countless mountaineers display high cheekbones...and one hears repeated over and over from old men and women, 'My grandmother told me that her mother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian..." (p.16)

Such was the case in my own Rolph family. My great-grandmother's, "great-great grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian," an oral tradition given credence, as revealed by her own physiology, along with that of my Great Aunt's--her daughters, who were 'raven-haired,' and 'dark-eyed,' Aunt 'Lizzy' resembling particularly the traditional 'Indian squaw' in appearance.

Through genealogical research I had dis-proven the very old family legend, that we 'were direct descendants of John Rolfe and the famous Indian-Princess Pochahontas,' the Rolph/Rolfe family traditionally having 'crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains by ox-cart into Kentucky from Virginia.'

The family had indeed arrived in Kentucky by 1790, at a time when many families and individuals were being scalped up and down the Ohio River settlements, but my own Rolph line had emigrated from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, a lineage within which an ancestor named Ezra Rolfe, along with a young daughter, had been scalped by the Indians and killed during the Haverhill, Massachusetts massacre of 1689.

Hazen Rolph, my 5th-great grandfather had been one of the hundreds of 'Kentucky Volunteers,' who fought with the famed General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne (whose papers are housed here at the Historical Society) at the 'Battle of Fallen Timbers' in Ohio against the Indians in 1794.

Other family stories included tales of an ancestor who along with her daughter in frontier Virginia, 'had been attacked, scalped by marauding Indians and their bodies thrown into the cabin's fireplace to burn.'

Ellis Palmer, another ancestor from Pennsylvania, had 'seen his little brother scalped and murdered by the Indians" and made a vow 'he would kill every Indian he could get his hands on in revenge,' and so came to Kentucky in 1783 and became notorious as a frontier scout against the native tribes.

But not all family lore or history was negative or horrific in nature. My great-grandmother's brother was purportedly, 'cured from consumption,' the old term for Tuberculosis, by 'an old Indian woman, with herbs and liquor, who had long ago come into the area,' while much of the traditional 'medicinal lore' in the family was initially derived in part from old Native-American remedies.

What I call, 'Beautiful downtown 'Rolph Hollow' (or 'holler' in the Southern Mountain dialect), located in Fleming County, KY, was for generations the ancestral home of the family, which retains at this time, only piles of stone from early homes, lying near the multi-generational abandoned family graveyard or cemetery, all encompassed within the boundaries of a horseshoe-shaped ridge, which in turn, were once covered with numerous Indian stone graves.

In 'Rolph Hollow' or the 'holler' as well, family members claimed to have seen the 'spirits' of Indians riding on horseback and carrying out rituals, whose campsites are evident by the vast amount of arrowheads found over the years by myself and others in the hollow. It was the Indians who had also purportedly remarked at some time in the far distant past, "If you knew the riches that are in these hills, you'd be able to shoe your horses with silver & gold."

The point to my rambling, is that it is almost impossible to separate my own personal and family history from the Native Americans. I strongly believe, that part of my love for the past and the desire to pursue and obtain advanced, academic degrees in History, plus to currently teach and publish historical narratives, stems significantly from my initial exposure to the remains and family-lore connecting me to 'Indians' during my formative years.

The 'American Indians' have influenced our culture and society in so many ways, from topographical names such as 'Kentucky,' or 'the Wissahickon' and 'Allegheny' Mountains in Pennsylvania, to also linguistics and cuisine. Our literature from Colonial times to the present, as well as our cinematic experiences have been enriched because of this ancient and fascinating people.

I would truly be negligent, if I didn't at least during 'Indian Heritage Month,' recognize the legacies that derive from the 'Native Americans,' which are truly both a part of me and my own family's heritage. May we all reflect upon them and their role and contributions to the 'American Experience,' during not only this month, but for years to come.


Abby Ripley said...

My name is Abby Ripley. My paternal great grandmother was suppose to be a half-blood Oglala Sioux. Her name was Lizzie Ellis. I recently acquired photos of her and her parents, Mordecai and Eliza Ellis. The adults are not native Americans. In looking at Indian census records, I've discovered there were lots of Indians (not just Sioux) who had the surname of Ellis. There are also lots of Indian women with the given name of Lizzie. Do you have any idea where both names came from?

Unknown said...

Hazen Rollf (Rolph) was my gggg grandfather through David Ellsworth Rollf. I was very interested in reading this. Any chance you might know who his parents are and have any history?

Daniel N. Rolph, PhD said...

Mark, do you mind sending me your personal email & contact info to my work email? You can reach me at drolph [at] I look forward to hearing from you.