Sail of Tears: John Bemo and his Seminole descendants

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The Seminole Indian educator and missionary John Bemo and one direct line of his descendants, from 1825 to 1998.

Some folks find themselves sailing, lost at sea, forever in search of dry land, never at a loss for water and storm. The same goes for entire families. Here’s a story about both.

Following are are some materials from the Native American part of my ancestral line. They come from stories passed down by my maternal grandmother, my mother’s genealogical research, old family photographs and documents, and my own life experiences. Hopefully this will add a little to the rediscovery of our heritage. I may add more materials or commentary at a later date.

John Bemo, the noted Seminole educator and my great-great-great-grandfather, was born in Florida in 1825 and given the Seminole name Husti-Coluc-Chee. His family may have come from the vicinity of St. Marks, although a great deal of Indian wandering and migration occurred in those times.

John Douglass Bemo

John Douglass Bemo, from the 1860s or 1870s.

At the age of around nine or ten, while he and his father visited St. Augustine on a trading expedition, his father got into a drunken street brawl with another Seminole, both of them encouraged to fight by a mob of white men. According to at least one account, the other Seminole’s name was King Philip.

The father died of his wounds the next day, leaving the young Husti-Coluc-Chee to wander the city lost, alone and hungry. Shortly, he met a group of white sailors from a French merchant ship. He was surprised that these white men acted friendly toward him, having no similar experience except from the “round hats”, or William Penn’s men. They fed him and offered to take him home, so he boarded the ship and went to sleep. When he awoke, he found himself in the open sea, shanghaied.

Settling into his new life as a cabin boy, he traveling the world, learned ship’s carpentry and converted to Christianity. He also befriended a sailor named Jean Bemeau and adopted the man’s name for his own, anglicized to John Bemo. (He didn’t abandon his Seminole names entirely, though, for at some point in his life he also became known as Tal-a-mas-mico, which means “King of the Forest.”) Meanwhile, the Second Seminole War erupted in Florida, which would prove disastrous to his tribe and pivotal to the young sailor’s future.

Seminole prisoners

Seminole Indian Prisoners at Fort Moultrie”
by George Catlin (detail), National Gallery of Art.

Eventually he left the sea behind him in Philadelphia, where he remained for a year. He joined the Mariner’s Church, where the Rev. Orson Douglas took an interest in him and arranged for his education. At around the same time, as the highly unpopular war ended with no clear victory on either side, the US Army rounded up as many Seminoles as they could and force-marched them to Oklahoma on a “Trail of Tears.” This is why the Seminoles have two distinct tribal organizations, one in Oklahoma and another in Florida.

He decided to return to his tribe, and in 1843 the federal government sent him to Indian Territory (later part of Oklahoma) as a teacher and missionary at a salary of $300 per year. There he discovered that his entire family had died in either the war or on the Trail of Tears, and that the Seminoles in that region were destitute to the point of near-extinction. In 1844 he began teaching at Prospect Hill, in the nearby Creek Nation.

After a time he left school and pulpit in order to raise funds for his tribe’s survival. He traveled to various cities, giving one-man shows to packed houses and receiving as much as $1,000 per night. There he would dress in traditional Seminole garb and lecture on his tribal heritage and the injustices suffered upon his people. He also claimed to be a nephew of the late, renowned war chief Oceola, and there is evidence that he was related to him at least by marriage.

He married Harriet Lewis, a Creek who also lived in Indian Territory and who is described has having similar interests to his. The government had removed most of her tribe to Indian Territory a few years before the Seminoles’ arrival, so it’s likely that at the least they shared a common sense of loss. Following a matrilineal tradition common to both tribes, my family’s tribal affiliation is Muscogee Creek.

They owned a prosperous farm with an excellent orchard, northwest of Muscogee in the vicinity of Fern Mountain. Instead of selling their harvest, they gave it to the needy. John died in 1890, a respected member of his community. I don’t know when Harriet died. The original farm is still owned by the Bemo family.

John and Harriet had three sons and one daughter. Different accounts variously name the sons Alex, Douglas, Alson Douglas, John and John Douglas. They named their daughter Iona, after the Ionian islands to where he had once sailed.

John Douglas, my great-great-grandfather, married Mary Alice Erikson, a Swede who reputedly had hair long enough to sit on. They had only one surviving child, a girl, and Mary Alice died shortly after her birth. She also had a daughter by a previous marriage; at that child’s birth, it’s been said that someone wrote on a gate post, “Mary Louisa Alice Jane, That is Alice’s baby’s name.”

Myrtle Bemo Webb

Myrtle Bemo (married Webb), who reluctantly wore
an “Indian headband” for the photographer.

The daughter of John Douglas and Mary Alice was born in 1889 and named Ivy, and was my great-grandmother. Later her first name changed to Myrtle. Her middle name was Luella. Due to her father’s tuberculosis, the authorities placed her in the foster home of Samantha Depew, whose husband was a sheriff of some sort. They didn’t adopt her in order to preserve her Indian land rights.

But her father wanted her back, so he kidnapped her from a basket on the porch when she was tiny. The authorities, however, returned her to the Depeu’s. Although as a child she did meet her aunt Iona, she was kept away from most Indian contact, and her father died of tuberculosis when she was eleven, in 1900. Myrtle was said to not like to talk about her Indian half. Curiously enough, my grandmother — Myrtle’s daughter — had been told (erroneously) that Myrtle was sent to a foster home because Mary Alice had been “mean” to her.

Want more? Watch the animated video documentary of John Bemo’s early life

Since Mary Alice died shortly after childbirth, perhaps the Depew family told the mixed-blood Myrtle a lie in order to alienate her from her Indian relatives. At the time immersion in white culture was viewed, even by many Indians, as being in the best interest of the red man. Finding devious ways to control Indian lands and allotments was also a pastime among many whites. At the same time, interracial friendships, cooperation, marriages and births between Indians, whites and blacks did occur on the frontier much more frequently than is commonly believed. As to the motives of the individual whites who raised and married Myrtle, we can only speculate.

Myrtle married a hired hand, George Washington Webb on June 5, 1902. Although only 13 she claimed to be 14, then the legal age for marriage. He was about ten years her senior. Granny Depew lived with them. At the birth of her firstborn the midwife checked the afterbirth and predicted eight more children. Eight more followed, and they had nine in all; Ethel, Etta, Birdie and Bessie (who both died in childhood), Georgia, Roger, Otis, John and Dorothy. George died in 1955 in Oklahoma, and Myrtle in 1942 in California.

Ethel Webb Estel

Ethel Webb (married Estel) with children Barbara, David And Leo, following World War II.
The Japanese captured David on Corregidor and he spent four years as a prisoner of war.

The eldest, Ethel Samantha, my grandmother, was born in 1903 and included in the Dawes Indian Census. In 1905 Oklahoma struck oil, so the remote regions to which many tribes had been banished in the last century suddenly became a source of cash revenue for Indians — one of those jokes of history that we still laugh about. In 1907 the federal government deeded 120 acres to her, shortly before her 4th birthday, when it privatized tribal lands. As a child she became so used to the sound of an oil derrick pumping in the backyard that when she moved away, it took her awhile to get used to the silence.

She and her closest sister Etta briefly attended a government boarding school, which they disliked so much that when they returned home to recover from an illness they never went back. The sisters treated their Native blood very differently, Etta disliking any mention of it and Ethel passing along the family stories.

At 17 Ethel married Leo Arthur Estel, whose family came from Indiana, then moved to California’s Coachella Valley (also a center for later Web and Estel family migrations from Oklahoma.) They also lived in Hawaii and Ohio. Although he never finished the eighth grade, Leo eventually earned a doctorate and taught anthropology at Ohio State University. They had two sons, David and Leo, and one daughter, Barbara.

For awhile she and my grandfather ran a general store in the Coachella Valley. Then, like many wives, she had to manage alone while her husband and sons spent the Second World War overseas. If every person has one great passion, my grandmother’s was raising her children and grandchildren, and to her I owe much of my Native spirit, my moral center, and my ability to love. In January 2000 she passed away at the age of 96.

Barbara Estel Anderson

Barbara Estel (married Anderson) age 10.

Barbara Lucille, their daughter and my mother, was born in California in 1937. At 16 she married a traveling flimflam man, bore me at 19 and divorced at 20. She took me to Ohio where we lived with her parents, my grandmother performing many of the day-to-day chores of raising me until my mid-teens. Barbara also bore another son, Scott, in 1967.

In 1969 she graduated from Ohio State University and began teaching at the junior high level. In 1970-71 all five of us lived in Crownpoint, New Mexico while she taught at a federal boarding school for Navajos, but after a year she was asked to resign because of excessive absences. We then moved to the Coachella Valley, where for a number of years she taught in the mostly Latino public schools.

In the early 1970’s our family received some Creek judgment money from the federal treaty settlement, and I think it was around this time that my mother started investigating the family genealogy in a serious way. Eventually a series of nervous breakdowns and financial reverses ended her teaching career, and she was finally diagnosed as manic-depressive — which explained a great deal about her life to date.

In the 1980’s she began developing a spiritual practice, including Native American spirituality, and was eventually able to control her condition without the aid of medicines. When she discovered that she had advanced breast cancer, she elected to forgo the painful treatments needed to stop it, believing the quality of her life to be more important than its length.

Barbara and Bucky.

Barbara and her brother David (Bucky), 1950s California.

When she died in 1994 at the age of 56, her friends, my brother and I held a medicine wheel for her in San Diego, and then friends released her ashes in the mountains near Sedona, Arizona. Unbeknownst to me, she had applied for tribal citizenship some months earlier. Years later I found her Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizenship card among her personal effects. It was dated the month after her death.

Now who am I? My name is David Arv Bragi, a name that I chose and adopted as a legal name in 2001, replacing a birth surname to which I have never had any active family ties. Arv is the Muskogee Creek word for Nomad, and Bragi is the Norse God of poetry, reflecting of the two most prominent aspects of my ancestral heritage.

The history of my Native ancestors is the history of gradual assimilation. We can’t really blame them for wanting to adopt white culture, of course. Talamasmico’s father lost his life to liquor; Talamasmico lost his tribal coming-of-age to kidnapping; he and Harriet lost homelands and family to war; their son John Douglas lost both daughter and life itself to illness; Myrtle lost family ties, ethnic pride, even her birth name, to white fosterage. Whether steered by desperation or the winds of fate, each generation found safety and comfort in the same America that, failing to destroy us, decided to “civilize” us by stripping away all that we had, even our names.

Yet, as the winds turn with the seasons, in recent generations that process seems to be reversing itself. Not only my family line, but mixed-blood Natives throughout the country are rediscovering who we were and who we are. Our ancestors lived in a time of forgetting. Now perhaps we have entered the time of remembering.

Barbara at Navajo school

Barbara teaching Navajo children at a federal
Indian boarding school in Crownpoint, New Mexico, 1971.

By now my family’s Native blood is diluted and we have had little contact with tribal organizations. Yet for some reason this is the only ethnic part of our ancestry that my immediate family, which tended to insulate itself from the rest of the world, ever cared much about. When I was very young I was taught that I was part Muscogee Creek and Seminole and to be proud of it. Since childhood it has been a quiet part of how I see myself. Perhaps the best way to put it is, when I was young boy watching Westerns on TV, I rooted for the Indians.

Off and on, though, I seemed to almost “forget” that side of me. As a child my red, white, brown and black friends considered me white, my being part-Indian no more than a minor curiosity. As a teenager I watched mental illness tear apart the only family I’d ever known. As an adult I found “trendy” Native American spirituality among non-Natives to be shallow and embarrassing. For years I even thought my mother hypocritical for referring to herself as Native American on government forms, since she was only one-eighth Native, without ever connecting those feelings to how I felt about myself.

Then in 1985 my life changed forever when I married a wonderful woman and dear friend, Dolores J. Nurss. Also a mixed-blood Native American, her own struggles and triumphs walking in two worlds have helped inspire me to walk this trail of discovery myself. Together we try to respect the wisdom of our ancestors and keep some of the old traditions alive.

Barbara and David

Barbara and her son David (the author), Ohio 1960s.

Traveling through the more reflective years of middle-age, I feel the need to better understand the Indian living somewhere deep in my spirit. I don’t really look like a Native and for the most part wasn’t raised among Natives outside of my immediate family, most of whom have passed over. But I still have these old memories and stories and documents and photographs, and they all keep whispering to me over and over, “Creek, Seminole, Indian.”

So in 1998, following in the footsteps of my mother and grandmother, I enrolled in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. What this will mean to me and mine in the coming years I can’t yet say. But it feels strange now, being a citizen of two sovereign countries, sort of like walking along my beloved Pacific shore, the rustle of trees on one side, the thunder of waves on the other.

Copyright © 2001 by David Arv Bragi. All rights reserved.

David Arv Bragi was the editor of New Tribal Dawn and is the editor of the grail multicultural blog.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)

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4 comments for “Sail of Tears: John Bemo and his Seminole descendants

  1. Jeff Bemo
    November 30, 2014 at 11:42 am

    I still live on that property in Muskogee Ok

    • David Arv Bragi
      November 30, 2014 at 1:31 pm

      Hello Jeff! So you must know out mutual cousin Amanda.

  2. Rick Osborne
    April 7, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Hello David. I am your second cousin, Rick (Webb) Osborne. I am the first born son of the first born daughter of John Douglas Webb (your grandma’s youngest brother). My mother is Carole Webb (married Osborne). My son, Jeffrey (age 12) and I are awaiting our Creek Citizenship cards as I write this. I am excited about it. Maybe we’ll meet some day. I live in Sacramento. Good luck to you!

    Rick

    • David Bragi
      April 15, 2016 at 10:12 pm

      Hello cousin! So, you’re Johnny’s grandson? You should friend me on Facebook, you’ll get linked with numerous other cousins. I’m at www(dot)facebook(dot)com/david(dot)bragi

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