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Adventures in Field Research



This past week, I wandered around the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina conducting research for my second novel. I say "wandered" because when you're looking for hard-to-find information, it's not so much about visiting a museum, library, or welcome center as it is about strolling around and asking questions until you find the right person to talk to. The retired guy who just happens to be helping out in the gift shop that afternoon may be the most knowledgeable person you'll meet all day. I chatted with people in stores, parks, and coffee shops. I followed recommendations that took me to historical societies in other towns, county libraries to read out of print books, and down dirt roads in search of abandoned log cabins.


My second novel, working title Sequoyah Road, picks up where Henderson House left off and one of the main storylines is about a teenage boy, Johnny, finding his birth father. The search takes Johnny on a road trip with his Cousin Waya and his Uncle Eddie from Tulsa, Oklahoma to the town of Cherokee, North Carolina—roughly tracing the northern route of the Trail of Tears in reverse.


I always assumed my North Carolina Cherokee ancestors arrived in Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears in the late 1830s, but guess what? I was wrong. Turns out the Taylor side of my family avoided removal, stayed in North Carolina, and belonged to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. My great-grandfather, William Thomas Taylor, didn't arrive in Oklahoma until the 1880s.


Several factors allowed Cherokees who lived in North Carolina to avoid forced removal.


First, some Cherokee had representation in Washington through a white lawyer who had been adopted into the tribe. William Holland Thomas negotiated on behalf of the Quallatown Indians who were already abiding by North Carolina laws and secured their ability to stay. Side note: Thomas later served as the Confederate leader of the "Thomas Legion" in which 400 Cherokees, including my great-great-grandfather, James Madison Taylor, fought in the Civil War. Trust me, that was also a big surprise!


Second, in North Carolina, if a white man was listed as the head of the household, his wife and children were considered citizens of North Carolina. It did not matter if the wife was Cherokee and the children were mixed-race, the family was exempt from removal.


The same was not true in Georgia, Tennessee, or Alabama. If a white man was married to a Cherokee woman in one of those states or was part-Cherokee, the entire family was rounded up and held in an internment camp until they were forced to make the move west.


A woman I met this week shared the story of her white great-grandfather hiding her Cherokee great-grandmother by literally burying her alive in the woods behind their Georgia home. He dug a hole for her, covered her with straw, and shoveled dirt on top to conceal her. He snuck out at night to unbury her just long enough to feed her. This went on for weeks until the soldiers left. Then they fled to the mountains of North Carolina.


And this brings me to the third way Cherokees avoided removal—they hid in the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains until US Soldiers stopped hunting them down.


The Cherokee who remained became known as the Eastern Band. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wasn't officially recognized until 1889—fifty years after removal. Many Cherokees returned to North Carolina from Oklahoma. So many in fact that "Goingback" is a Cherokee first name in these parts. I heard mention of several prominent Eastern Band Cherokee men named Goingback this week. You can be sure that detail will make its way into the book.


So, after a week of wandering do I have answers to all my research questions? Absolutely not! I still have doubts about the exact sort of farm Johnny's father might have inherited when he returned to North Carolina in 1929. I'm still searching for photos of downtown Cherokee in the 1940s, before tourism and the enormous Harrah's casino took roost. But I made some great contacts this week and I've got people on the ground now who can help me from afar. I take with me a great sense of this place and the strength and resilience of the Cherokee people. Having collected a hundred new stories this week while wandering, I'm ready to sit down and start writing Johnny's.


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