Fairly early on in my reunion, I began to hear bits and pieces about my Seminole heritage. One ancestor in particular, my 4x great-grandmother, Margaret, stood out in these conversations. I’m not entirely sure why, but families often seem to focus on specific ancestors. And, in our family, Margaret was one of those people. Some said she was the Native American version of royalty. There was talk of her father being a Chief. Was my 4x great grandmother a Seminole princess?
I can lean on the skeptical side. While I wanted to believe that there was at least some truth in the stories, I figured that, at the least, the Native American part may be true. After all, my lineage in America goes back to 1620. But, the more I delved into family records, the more I noticed what wasn’t there – Native American heritage.
Henry, the Story Teller?
My research is document heavy. I prefer to look at whatever records I can get my hands on before drawing any conclusions. Birth, marriage, census, military, work, death – whatever is available. While it’s easy to rely on other peoples’ family trees for information, all too often it’s simply not correct. So, in researching Margaret and that line, I’ve had to dig pretty hard. And, the records just don’t match the stories.
Margaret’s son Henry, my 3rd great-grandfather, seems to have been the source of much of the Seminole lore. Based on everything I’ve heard from older relatives, and from what I’ve put together by way of documentation, I’ve come to the conclusion that Henry was a good story teller. And, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve decided that I can see why he might have felt the need to be.
What the Records Say
Unlike some of my other ancestors, I’m unable to find any record of Margaret prior to 1860. That’s when I first see her in the U.S. census, living in Florida. The census states the following details. She was a seamstress. Her race was Mulatto, a designation repeated in later records. It makes sense to me, given my African ancestry on that line.
Margaret had three children – Henry, Cecilia and Mary. One of the things I noticed right away was that all three of the children had different last names. And, in none of the census records do I ever find a man living in the home. It’s always just Margaret and at least one of the children. I don’t know why this was the case. I have only theories and questions. It’s not until 1880, when Margaret was around 40 years of age, that I find her married. By that time, her children were all grown and married themselves. Margaret had married a man named Levin Armwood, who appeared to have gained some notoriety in his community for having lived past 100 years of age. They were living next door to Cecilia and her husband, LeRoy.
Another thing I noticed was how early Henry stopped appearing as a member of Margaret’s household. Before the age of 18, Henry was out of the home. I’ve heard that he ran away, later taking an apprenticeship with a man who helped him to hone his mechanical skills. Apparently, Henry could fix just about anything. He is listed as the proprietor of a bicycle and motorcycle repair shop in many of Kenosha’s old city directories.
Based on what I’ve gathered, It seems quite possible that Henry never knew his father’s identity. When I’ve come across records that list a father for him, it’s a different name each time. I have to wonder if Henry felt the need to fill in the blanks in his life. And, this brings me back to the Seminole stories. Could Henry have embellished his background? Was he creating an identify for a father he never knew? At the same time, was he creating a more glamorous identity for the single, seamstress mother he did know? It seemed unlikely that the Margaret found in the 1860 census was a prominent Native American.
Perhaps Henry was simply passing down what he’d been told? If so, is it possible that what he’d been told left out some details that would lend truth to the Seminole aspect?
A possibility I’ve considered is that Margaret was Black Seminole. The Black Seminoles were Black people, often escaped slaves, living alongside the Seminoles. Where Margaret lived in Florida, this was certainly a possibility.
DNA Matches the Historical Records
But, there’s another thing. A number of my family members who are direct descendants of Henry have taken DNA tests. And, those DNA test have yielded zero Native American ancestry. Instead, they note mostly European ancestry with a smaller amount of African ancestry. Every one of us. Even those a few generations closer to Margaret than I. The DNA matches the historical documents better than it matches the stories. Unless, the Black Seminole theory is correct. Then, it could explain both. Margaret’s Mulatto designation in census records is still more likely explained by European ancestry, particularly given my family’s DNA results. But, the Seminole stories would make more sense, as well.
Margaret being a Black Seminole is just a theory I have. I don’t know if she lived among the Seminoles. I don’t know if she had been a slave. Someday, if I can uncover pre-1860 documents for her, they may answer these and other questions.
I once heard Henry Louis Gates, Jr. talk about the prevalence of Native American ancestry myths in families. He suggested that this seems to be more common in families of African descent. I’ve discussed this with a few family members. But for a number of relatives, it’s a discussion I simply cannot have. Alternative explanations are pushed aside. The powerful and cherised lore of great grandmother Margaret, the Seminole princess, is just too deeply embedded.