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Eventually, I was able to piece together a timeline. I learned that Nathan was born in 1807 in Trendelburg, Germany, and arrived in New York in 1827. He served a tour of duty with the U.S. Army from May 1829 to May 1834, and from April 1835 to April 1838 he was stationed at Fort Gibson in what would become Oklahoma.
In May 1838, the Army began to round up Cherokee Indians in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina and Georgia, and it is assumed that Nathan was sent there to help the Army force them out. The Cherokee arrived in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, in March 1839. Right before this, in 1838, Nathan fathered a child, William Dannenberg, with a full-blooded Cherokee woman named Gracie, who died that same year.
Sometime around 1840, Nathan married Christine McPherson, a half-Cherokee woman. They raised their 10 children in Oak Grove, Okla., just one mile from Arkansas. In 1853, Nathan purchased land in Dutch Mills, Ark., where he became a prominent flour miller and an active member of the community. He also brought freemasonry to the Cherokee. According to an Oklahoma state-run genealogy database, Nathan’s Indian name was Daval, and census records indicate that he owned slaves.
The story of Nathan’s death is especially grisly. During the Civil War, he supported the Confederacy, as most Cherokee did. A group of pro-Union Cherokee, known as the Pin, fought with the U.S. Army and terrorized the settlers in the area around Dutch Mills. Word got out that Nathan had gold hidden away, so the Pin Cherokees captured him, tied him between two trees by his thumbs and tortured him for three days, trying to get him to tell where the gold was hidden.
They ultimately dismembered him and stuffed his remains into the hollows of two different trees. When his wife and two of their sons went looking for him, they saw buzzards flying around a tree; they found his remains and buried them. They discovered the second site soon after, so Nathan occupies two gravesites.
As I learned through the online message boards, Nathan’s descendants, many of whom still live in Oklahoma, are virtually all gentiles. Most of them, my great-uncle says, are unaware of their Jewish roots, and I did not mention Nathan’s Jewishness to any of my contacts unless they brought it up first.
While I was able discover quite a bit about Nathan, questions remain. I know that he was involved with the Trail of Tears, but I was unable to determine his exact role. I also wonder how it was that Nathan was essentially accepted into a community that he had been sent to forcibly relocate, and what his part-Cherokee descendants in Oklahoma think about his legacy.
For me, Nathan’s life sometimes felt like the well-crafted plot of an old Western, but the swashbuckling factor is overshadowed by his involvement with ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Learning Nathan’s story only reaffirmed what I already knew: that my family history is one of juxtaposed ethics and bipolar morality. My relatives include those who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and even owned slaves, as well as those who marched for civil rights and feminism. As a Jew who is staunchly social justice oriented, I still grapple with this inconsistency. It is not who I am, and not who I want to be, but it is where I come from all the same.
Allison Good is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy magazine and a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.