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Genealogical research is not only about building a family tree or proving tribal membership; it’s about creating a tangible connection to the past.
By Nathan Gunter
Published July/August 2012
According to family legend, George Walton was a sheriff in Indian Territory killed by a band of bank robbers. As such stories go, it has tantalizing elements: a Wild West setting, a heroic lawman cut down in his prime, and a violent denouement worthy of a John Wayne movie.
Dale Coate of South Dakota first heard the story about Walton, his great-grandmother’s first husband, from his uncle. Dale’s mother and uncle were born in Oklahoma and orphaned at an early age, and their grasp of family history was thin. Since retiring two years ago, Dale and his wife, Marj, travel full time. Their journey across America took them through northeastern Oklahoma in April, and because Dale’s elderly mother had always said she was of Cherokee descent, the couple decided to stop and do some research.
In an attempt to fill in some of the gaps, the Coates met with genealogist Gene Norris at the Cherokee Family Research Center inside the Cherokee Heritage Center near Tahlequah.
“We’d heard that George was a sheriff killed by bank robbers on his front porch,” says Marj. “I happened to mention that to Gene, and within thirty seconds, he went over to the shelf, pulled a book, and said, ‘Oh, here it is!’”
What Norris found in the book, Murder, Mayhem, Outlaws & Lawmen: Articles From the Indian Chieftain 1895-1900, was that Walton was never a sheriff. According to an October 15, 1896, story in the Vinita newspaper, a man who had “exchanged wives” with Walton hired a band of outlaws to kill him.
As is often the case, the real story proved to be more interesting than the legend, and the finding fueled a passion to learn more.
“Family research is a never-ending thing,” says Marj. “All the questions Gene answered brought up a hundred more.”
The Coates’ search had an additional advantage: Dale was able to locate his grandmother and great-grandmother on the Dawes Final Rolls, making him eligible to apply for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.
“The main reason we were pursuing our genealogy was that we knew there would be records available to us because of the Dawes Rolls,” Dale says. “But Gene added to our understanding of what we were pursuing and what the Dawes Rolls meant.”
Though Dale is excited about the opportunity to apply for tribal membership, the real payoff was the chance to share his family’s history with his mother, including the transcript of his great-grandmother’s interview with the Dawes Commission.
“My mother is ninety, and she knows so little about where she came from,” he says. “Being able to show her the testimony from her grandmother is quite valuable.”