The year after I was born, during the Viet Nam war, my dad went away. Dad didn’t speak of this time much – a few carefully selected stories, including one about USS Pueblo – but he did something that, for the time, was pretty uncommon. He bought a Super 8 movie camera, and he brought home movies
He brought few photos from that trip. But he brought back what might be the last video taken of Pueblo before she was captured, and pictures of a place in Hong Kong that he found beautiful (or maybe just exotically “different”) and fascinating for its history.
This beautiful garden had been created and then maintained by generations of the same family, each new caretaker adding his own mark, or the mark of his era, so that the garden formed a sort of history of the men who had tended it and the times in which they had lived.
This kind of history and continuity was fascinating to my dad. His own family was a little more scattered, his father a bit of a wanderer, and his dream was to build something more stable and continuous. His several-greats grandfather had been an Irish potato famine refugee. Patrick O’Moore, the family said, had landed somewhere on the east coast, married an eastern Cherokee woman, then moved west sometime after the “Trail of Tears” to be with some of her family members. They lived in Grove, OK, in the Cherokee area of the Indian Territories, until someone (likely my dad’s grandfather, but possibly a generation earlier) moved to Lawton, where most of the family remained.
Something about his transient early life made my dad crave the kind of continuity reflected in that ancient Chinese garden. In the 1980s – 20 years after his trip to Hong Kong – he bought land and built a house from the ground up, with the idea that it would be a ‘homestead’ for our family, something that could be passed on to his grandchildren and be a point of history and stability to them. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place set in 10 acres of land on a quiet point, where the deer and the elk walk up from the saltwater flats to drink from a natural spring. When dad died about a year and a half ago, he did so knowing that he had created a special thing, and made the dream of his life into a reality.
In the past few months, I’ve discovered that neither of the stories above – about the gardens or his family – was true.
Dad would have found that fascinating, and at first I thought it was sad that he didn’t live to look over my new discoveries with me, but – seen in the larger view – I think maybe it’s good that he didn’t. Those truths might have changed his view about the things he believed and built, and I think that would have been too great a loss.
The garden was called Tiger Balm Gardens, and it was a very unusual place. A wealthy Chinese businessman created it in the 1930s as a sort of tribute/introduction to Chinese culture for western visitors. In addition to the garden in Hong Kong, there was one in Fujian and another in Singapore, each attached to a sort of manor house where the members of this wealthy family resided. It was unusual for the gardens of such a house to be open to the public, and in addition to tourists, many locals visited regularly to enjoy the beautiful site. The tour guides’ patter was meticulous, and I am confident that dad wasn’t the only young sailor who failed to realize that he was looking, not at a centuries-old family garden, but at a 30-year-old theme park.
That’s not a bad thing, though, I think. The legend of Tiger Balm Gardens (named for the product whose profits paid for it – and which is still marketed today) is greater than its reality. It’s not only a story of the kind of family continuity that Dad craved, but also an opening to understand the history of a people and a region which was very different from his own. It offered many westerners a glimpse into a history and a way of thinking that they might otherwise not have seen, and undoubtedly influenced many to learn more.
While the story of Tiger Balm Gardens is not “factual,” its legend holds truths which carry greater weight. Or, I should say, “held” – the garden my father saw was destroyed in 2004 to make way for a housing development. I am glad to know the facts – and sorry that I will never know its truths first hand.
The other story – the history of dad’s family – was a little tougher to unearth. My grandfather was born in the Indian Territories – it wasn’t until a few years later that the area became the state of Oklahoma. Record keeping was not always similar to the rest of the United States, and a lot of archives were simply not online, so being far away made it a challenge to find anything helpful. When I did find records, they were often confusing or mismatched, and “using nicknames rather than real names” seemed to be a family tradition..
My grandfather was named, the family says, “Washington Lafayette Moore.” But his family called him “Fate” (“’cuz he was lucky,” Dad explained). I have never found a record of any type that lists this full name – even the census records from when he was a toddler list him as “Fate.” I did finally get hold of his social security app, which lists his name as “Fate L. Moore.”
His father is listed, alternately, as Robert W and Wat Robert (“Watson” was my father’s middle name, and seems to have been handed down). Fate’s mother seems to have been called Jean – but her name was Ida. Or Martha Ida… But Martha is also Wat’s sister’s name.
That Cherokee ancestor – whose name might have been Luna or Lura – does not appear on the Dawes rolls. But that wasn’t uncommon – white men married to native women often encouraged them not to register. After all, if you weren’t legally an Indian, and you were married to a white man, that more or less made you legally white, right? And as our nation rolled into native ‘relocations’ and civil war, being able to legally erase your not-whiteness could be beneficial.
So, there are all kinds of reasons that this story was hard to dig up or verify. As it turns out, the primary reason it was so challenging is because not a word of it was true.
Each year, more records become available online, and I periodically go back to check. This year, new records and some genealogical work done by others netted a treasure trove!
The reason I could never find the point where the family moved from Grove to Lawton is because it never happened. (Wat) Robert went to that part of Oklahoma directly from his birthplace – in Arkansas.
Well, OK. Grove was near the state line, and the Old Settlers (Cherokee who moved west before the Trail of Tears) settled there. Those boundaries were still evolving in that time period, and someone got it wrong.
Looking at the records in Arkansas, I found Robert’s mother, Clara living with her own parents and two children but no husband. (Robert was born in the early 1860s – a lot of husbands didn’t come home during the Civil War.)
A tiny trove of records revealed that Clara received assistance from the Freedmen’s bureau – an organization briefly set up to help freed slaves and poor whites who were devastated by the collapse of the plantation economy. What Wat’s mom black? Is that what all the concealment was about? Cherokee were known for their inclusion of freedmen.
The Bureau records declared Clarinda “Clara” Reed to be white.
Robert’s dad was white too. Although I only found one mention of him, I am confident he’s the right guy. His name was Elisha – the same name Robert gave to his own first son. The thing is – Robert was born in the early 1860s – which means his dad should have been the recently-arrived Patrick (O’)Moore.
The trail stopped at Elisha’s grandfather, a Civil War veteran born in Georgia near the turn of the previous century. Wherever our Moores came from, they came at least a half-century earlier than we thought they did. They moved to Oklahoma not to live with Cherokee relatives, but in an entirely different part of the state – and did so decades before that area was opened up to white settlers around 1890.
Looks like all the storytelling was designed to make our presence in the Indian Territories look legit.
So if that’s the case – who are all those very-not-white people in dad’s family pictures? And how did they get there?
I took one of those commercial DNA tests and it found 0% native blood. But then I learned that as a female, my ancestry information came from my mom. My brother agreed to take the same test, and see what it told us. 0% native, and a small percentage of North African descent. Hmm… perhaps they were concealing a freedman, after all.
Tribal affiliations are cultural, and there is no significant DNA difference between tribes. Even if there ever had been, the intermingling of forced relocation and generations of living in proximity would have erased it. Except…
It seems someone got it in their head to do some targeted testing on the Qualla – the Eastern Cherokee who never made the death march west. While they have still had generations to diverge, they are (arguably) among the least-changed tribes around.
This genetic testing showed that the Cherokee are visibly different, genetically speaking, from other North American tribes. In fact, their DNA looks more like some North African peoples than it does Native American.
I don’t know what all that means yet, and it will be interesting to see what we learn down the road. But I do know one thing: not a word of what my dad believed about his family history was accurate. Nothing about who he thought he was or where he thought his family came from was true.
As it does for many people, dealing with Dad’s death meant trying to find a way to resolve the unresolvable conflicts and hypocrisies that seem to be a part of parent-child relationships. I found my resolution in these two stories.
The story of his family – the things he thought he was, the things he thought he lacked – turned out to be a lie. A harmful one.
It created false claims of identity with a tribe that has long been targeted for such claims, possibly in an effort to legitimize taking land that belong to natives. And it left my dad feeling “lacking” in so many ways – missing things he thought his family had once had, but which had, in reality, never existed.
The legend of the Tiger Balm Gardens – almost wholly absent of facts – contained the most important truths – the things he wanted to be, and to create for those he loved. It became, in its way, a roadmap.
And somewhere between the Legend and the Lie, was the man that he became.
My brusque, Viet Nam sailor of a dad collected fine, hand-painted porcelain teacups and saucers. I remember being so surprised when I discovered that collection, packed away in a basement. When he wrote his will, he asked us kids to tell him what we wanted when he died.
I answered: “one of your teacups.” They were a symbol to me of the unexpected depths of emotion in this outwardly-hardened man.
When the day came to execute his will, I looked through his cups and saucers for something that could be a constant reminder of the man he was, and the dreams he rarely articulated to others.
I chose this one.