A family tree's American tale

Delving into his genealogy, a writer discovers a story of slavery and betrayal.

March 11, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance

THIS JOURNEY began innocently enough, a curious foray into my family's history. But I find it has led me into an unexpected place of greed and betrayal, slavery and cruelty.

For generations my father's family has passed down a legend. It is a story of an early white settler in northern Alabama named John Gunter who married a Cherokee "princess." My father's mother was a Gunter from Alabama, and as I grew up I was intrigued by the romantic tale. I always proudly added "Cherokee" to the list of otherwise European nations whose blood we believed moved in our veins.

But the story was always short on specifics. No one seemed to have all the facts. Who was this John Gunter? Where was he from, and who was this Cherokee woman he married? And more importantly, how, exactly, was he related to us?

So, when I was grown, and had children of my own to pass the story to, my curiosity grew. And I began to look into the historical truth of the matter.

Early in my search for John Gunter, I had managed to trace my grandmother, Sallie Gunter, and her family back to her grandfather, Augustus Gunter. He was born in Warren County, Tenn., in 1815, and later moved to Alabama.

I had precious little else to go on. But early in the 1980s, a foray to the Library of Congress turned up a history of Alabama that confirmed much of what my father had told me of his Gunter forebears.

John Gunter, it seems, was an American pioneer of Welsh or Scottish descent who made his way down the Tennessee River to a Cherokee town called Kusanunnahi, or Creek Path, sometime late in the 18th century. There, he cast his lot with the Indians and did, in fact, marry a Cherokee woman. The village later became known as Gunter's Ferry, and still later Gunter's Landing, for the town's flatboat stop. Finally, it became Guntersville.

The problem was this: The book said John Gunter's mixed-blood sons included John Jr., who in 1836 opened a store there, called the "White House"; Edward, who ran the ferry; and Samuel. But no Augustus. I could find no connection between the Cherokee Gunters, and my own. Unless I could connect John Gunter to Augustus, I was stuck. I could make no claim on a Cherokee heritage.

Then, a few weeks ago, a package arrived. My sister on Long Island had sent me a sheaf of papers, genealogical research done by our cousin - another grandchild of Sallie Gunter. I began to read, and quickly enough my romantic notions of a proud Cherokee ancestry were dashed.

John Gunter, my cousin had discovered, was indeed a descendant of Scottish or Welsh pioneers who settled in Virginia in the 17th century, and later moved into Halifax County, N.C. But he was the brother of an Augustus Gunter born in 1769 - grandfather to Sallie's grandfather Augustus. So we were not descended from John - he was the brother of one of my ancestors - and we had no Cherokee blood. It was a disappointment. But the news soon got worse.

My cousin also had discovered and copied John Gunter's will, signed in 1833. I began to read it:

"I John Gunter, Sr., of the Cherokee Nation and residing in the said nation do make and ordain this my Last Will and Testament... It is my will that my son Samuel Gunter have my Mill and Plantation situated & being near Brawn's Creek ... and also that he have one Negro Woman named Peggy now in his possession..."

Somewhere in the house, a pin dropped. John Gunter was a slave owner.

It is one thing to read about Southern slavery, quite another to find you're related by blood to its perpetrators. Repelled but curious, I read on as Gunter parceled out his property.

"It is my will that my Daughter Martha Henry have the following Negroes, viz Peter, Winney, Sucky and her children Viney and Lucy and all the increase of the said Negroes..."

How many people did this man own? Their names toppled off the page, each one like an indictment. "Olivar, Neor, Isaac, Judah, Amy and Old Lucy and all of their increase" were left to daughter Elizabeth Gunter.

"Bill, Andrew, Calvin, Polly and Peggy" and all of their children went to another daughter, Catherine Gunter. His son, John, Jr., was to inherit "Tom, Bobb, Mary, Augustis, Daniel and China and all their increase."

There seemed no end to it. Aaron, Jacob, Cloe and Mary went to his granddaughter. Will, Sophy, Jack, Abram, Bolivar, Rachel and Bonipart were left to his wife - Catherine, his Cherokee bride.

I counted 34 in all, not including their "increase."

Except for the Gunters, my father's people were all Northerners - Dutch and English rooted in New York, New Jersey and New England. My mother's family immigrated from Italy in the 1890s. Southern slavery was someone else's stain.

Yet this was ours. True, John Gunter and his family were not my direct ancestors, but they were cousins. And what were the chances that Augustus and his clan held no slaves?

This was also my first realization that some among the Cherokee nation were slave owners. But it made sense.

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