I was sitting in a restaurant, having lunch with my family in Macon, Ga., when my great-uncle Herbert, a genealogist by hobby, proceeded to retell our family history. I had heard it many times before, but this time there was a twist.
I had always thought that everyone on both sides of my family was Jewish, and most had been in the South since before the Civil War. But Herbert mentioned, very casually, that we had distant cousins in Richmond, Va., who were part Cherokee Indian.
Shocked, I pressed him for the story. He then informed me that Joseph Dannenberg, my grandmother’s great-grandfather, had an uncle, Nathan Baron Dannenberg, who had come to the United States from Germany in the 1820s, enlisted in the Army, participated in the Trail of Tears and fathered a child with a Cherokee princess.
That lunch was in June 2011. When I was in Savannah for Passover at my grandparent’s home, my grandmother and I got to talking about this story, which, by virtue of a chance encounter, she was able to verify.
Years ago, my grandmother was at a hospital in New Orleans, where I grew up, and noticed that the nurse’s last name was Dannenberg. She commented that it was an unusual name in the United States, and then the two of them got to talking. Eventually this led to a meeting between my grandma and the nurse’s husband, from whom she got her surname. This Dannenberg was from Oklahoma, where the United States settled the Cherokee as per the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
At this point, I knew that Nathan was an anomaly in American Jewish history, a far cry from the narrative of Ellis Island, Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Borscht Belt. But his story was more than different — it was troubling. His involvement in the Trail of Tears, or the forced relocation of Native Americans from the southeastern United States to what the government called Indian Territory, was hard to swallow. Of the 17,000 Cherokee that America’s government moved to Indian Territory, more than 4,000 died along the way.
Even though I found his story unsettling, I decided it was still one that needed to be told, as most of my family was unaware of it. So I returned home to Washington, where I now live, determined to reconstruct Nathan’s life myself. I joined Ancestry.com, scoured online message boards and sent numerous queries to my great-uncle, who had been researching this long before the Internet existed.
I went to the National Archives and contacted the Cherokee Heritage Center, in Oklahoma. An obituary in an Illinois newspaper led me to one of Nathan’s direct descendants, whom I contacted through his amateur radio club. To my dismay, he was senile. I also reached out to a rabbi in Oklahoma City, who told me it has always been assumed that Oklahoma’s first Jewish resident was a man named Bogie Johnson who arrived there in 1864.