“And then he chopped all six of their heads off. He was a great man and the sheriff always knew he could count on Joe Franklin.”
My dad’s brown eyes were wide with excitement and surprise as he told me about the time his great-grandfather killed six outlaws at one time with an ax.
I was ten years old, it was a summer night. I sat at our old aluminum table, barefoot, bare-legged and skinny as a fence post.
“Just one more,” I said.
“Sissy,” Daddy retorted. “It’s done past your bedtime.”
That scene was played out pretty much every night of my childhood. I was always the last kid at the table. I always begged for just one more story, then one more and then one more. I never outgrew my daddy’s stories.
He told ghost stories and old time stories. He told stories about the first Irishmen in Kentucky and stories about when he was a kid, stories about Hank Williams and stories about coon hunting. My daddy had a story about everything, but my favorite ones were about Joe Franklin, my great-great-grandfather. In my dad’s stories, Joe stood larger than Davy Crocket or Sam Houston or Geronimo or Sitting Bull or Daniel Boone. Joe was the ultimate hero in my dad’s stories.
Although many factors in the stories we changeable and had him doing impossible feats, like single-handedly clearing out a “bad house” in Louisville or saving Daniel Boone’s life [never mind that they didn’t live during the same time period.] There were some factors that were consistent. For example, Joe always came from “Old Mexico,” and Franklin was always a name that Joe just took and my dad never knew his real name. Joe had always been stolen from his parents and he always came to Gradyville at thirteen years old and later married a “Dudley” girl. One other consistent factor in the stories was that his parents had been killed and he had been taken as a slave. Some of the stories had been told to him by his father, who also tended to “stretch” the facts until it was hard to tell legend from reality. But when I was ten, my dad asked me to make a very serious promise. He asked me to grow up and be a writer. He asked me if I would write the stories of his ancestors and in order to do that, he asked me to find the “truth” of his ancestors. So, since I was ten years old, I’ve been seeking to find out where my daddy came from, where I came from. I can’t write about people unless I know they existed and the hardest trail I’ve had to follow? Joe, the hero of my dad’s story. [Well, there was his great uncle, Henry Rogers, too, but that’s for another blog entry.]
Long after I made that promise, in 2010, my dad had been diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live. My siblings and I were taking turns staying with him and caring for him. I was there one night after dark, sitting beside his old wood stove. Daddy never had heat in his house and he heated his little trailer with a wood stove right up until he was too sick to stay in it. He sat in his favorite chair, a straight wood one with a back that looked like a ladder and a bottom made of hemp that he had put in that chair back in the 1970s. He looked at the pictures lining his walls, photos of his parents and my mom, photos of all his children and grandchildren. Daddy loved his photos. He loved his family. “Sis,” he said. “There’s a story I never told you before. And don’t you never tell this to nobody…” but here I am, about to tell it to my readers because it needs to be told. “Dad,” he continued, “once told me that Great-great-Grandma was living out West and she was raped by an Apache.” He turned back to me and said, “I never told nobody that before. My daddy only mentioned it to me once.” Then he was done. He never said another word about it. I couldn’t put the pieces together. I thought he had his facts wrong. My great-great-grandfather was born in “Old Mexico.” I kept thinking that he always used the word “old” to differentiate between original Mexico and New Mexico. I had found census records, stating he was born in Mexico City and some said “Old Mexico.” Even the newspaper articles I had found said “Old Mexico.” So, how could his mother have been living in Apache Territory? I had spent my life believing that my great-great-grandfather was descended from Aztecs or Mayas or some other Meso-American tribe. I learned everything I could about the Aztecs and Mayas. I learned to speak Spanish and a little Nahuatl. I read books, watched documentaries, constantly searching for clues to the past so that I could write the story that needed to be written.
Any time in my life when someone told me that I didn’t look “Indian” or “Native” I was secretly hurt, because I KNEW my great-great-grandfather WAS [I also knew my paternal grandmother had Cherokee ancestry. She wasn’t some fictitious “princess” or the product of a White wannabe, but that’s also a story for another post.]
I had done some digging and found census records and old newspaper articles about Joe Franklin. I discovered that his name had been Jose’ or Joseph Masilenia or Masinario [depending on the record] Pabilo, Pablis, Pablio [also, depending on the record]. I found his marriage certificate, signed with an X and a witness. His race was listed as White but his records were filed under “Colored.” I remembered a few years earlier that when nurses at the adult day care would ask my Great Uncle Junis about his rich skin tone and lack of hair he would respond that his grandfather was an Indian.
I had some relatives who told me that Joe wasn’t my real great-great-grandfather, that there had been some non-parental events. I hoped that wasn’t true. I realized that anything was possible, but I had grown up admiring this man. I didn’t want my childhood hero taken from me. To me, he was my Tecumseh, my Crazy Horse. He was my great-great-grandpa. Still, I made my dad a promise, that I would find the truth and so I set out to keep it, regardless of how it made me feel. I braced myself. Even IF Joe turned out to not be the start of my paternal grandfather’s line in Kentucky, I would still honor him.
Finally, after talking to a friend about DNA testing, I decided to bite the proverbial bullet and I spat in a tube for AncestryDNA and for 23andMe. I knew that there was a chance I’d get nothing, that all those genes I was looking for might be carried on the Y chromosome, or that Joe’s daughter-in- law may have been promiscuous. That was the rumor, but I took the tests anyway. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Prior to taking the test, I had a wonderful woman from another state contact me. Her name is Susie. Susie had stories to tell me that added to what I already knew and I am forever grateful to her [thank you, Susie]. And before that, there had been Helen Flatt, who taught in the Adair County schools and at Lindsey Wilson College, altogether she taught for more than fifty years. Mrs. Flatt had met Joe when she was a little girl. He had worked for her grandfather. She said he was definitely not from around here. He had brown skin and he spoke with an accent. She, like everyone else, attested that he was from “Old Mexico,” but Joe told his granddaughter, my grandpa’s cousin, that he was not Mexican. Other old timers that I talked to, who had known my grandfather’s family, also attested that he was from “Old Mexico.” He had handed down to my Great-Uncle Junis that he was a Spanish-Indian, which is what my grandfather told my brother. He also told my brother that he witnessed his parent’s murder and his mother’s being raped when he was ten and then the De Haro family took him in and raised him until he was around 13 or 14 at which time he met James Sexton. One of the few kinds of Native DNA that 23andMe can detect, to the best of my understanding, is Pima. I have now discovered a photo of Joe and records indicating that he was actually born in Arizona, not present-day Mexico. At the time of Joe’s birth in 1840, Arizona was still a part of “Old Mexico.” It was common practice for Spanish priests and owners of haciendas to take Pima and Maricopa concubines and sometimes, wives.
Now back to the DNA test, my 23andMe results indicate that I had both a full-blood Native American and a full-blood Iberian ancestor during the early parts of the 1800s, hence, I believe them to have been Joe’s parents. Is this absolute “proof” that Joe was Pima? No.He may have been Papago or Maricopa or even Apache, but the time, place and alliances at the time of his birth do point toward Pima. Was his mother a Pima who was raped by an Apache? I have no idea. Was his father a Spaniard or a Mexican? Who would have taken a ten-year-old boy for a slave then? Again, I have no true facts, only theories. I hope this is an indication that I’m finally on the right trail. When I ran my DNA results through a calculator from Standford University it showed Native DNA, Basque DNA, Spanish DNA and general Mediterranean (including North Africa, Southern France, Italy, Romania, Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, Northern India) and Near Eastern DNA coming from multiple directions, but I DO have a strong Melungeon ancestry, as well. So, that is expected. I also have ancestry from the British Isles, almost half. Now, throw in a little Slavic and West Asian with a pinch of Finnish/Russian and East Asian and you have–ME.
Soooo….why did I do this? What does it prove? I did it because my dad asked me to find the paper trail to his family, for his mother and his father. I did it because I’ve wanted to know since I was a little girl just where my family came from. I did it because in my heart of hearts I’ve always felt that Joe’s courageous story needed to be told. I felt that this boy’s story was the story of many people who lived during that turbulent time, who saw horrible things, but Joe’s wasn’t just a sad story. It’s also a story that shows humanity at both its worst and its best. James Sexton didn’t have to give an orphaned boy from another culture a new home, yet he did. He didn’t have to give him brothers, yet he did. And to show his gratitude, Joe adopted a new name, “Franklin.” It means “free” and it was the middle name of one of James’s sons, Joe’s adopted brother. Franklin–FREE–became a new name for a new life, for a new family, my family. Joe lived a long life after coming here. He met a girl who would become his wife, who would raise a family with him. If not for Jose Masilenia Pabila Franklin I would never have been born. Regardless of the DNA test results, even if it had not indicated that I am likely his descendant, I think I would still call him my great-great-grandfather. I believe his life mattered and I’m so glad he lived.
The legacy of a good person should be kept alive so that those of us who come after can look at that life and know what it means to really live. If we fail to learn from the past, from our ancestors, we are bound to destroy our children. Without yesterday there is no now. Without now, there is no tomorrow. That doesn’t mean we should live in the past, but neither should we let it be buried by mounds of time dust. It was my father’s stories that kept my ancestors alive to me, that made them more than a name on a forgotten sheet of paper. I have heard it said that in some ancient African cultures the most important person in the village was the story-teller. He or she, depending on the tribe, would beat a drum and to the beat of the drum, they would recite the history of their people so that the children never forgot what was valued in life. I do not tell my stories to the beat of the drum but rather to the rhythm of a keyboard, but my purpose is not different than those ancient African storytellers of so long ago or from the Vikings who used to sing of their deeds or the Plains people of America who painted the deeds of their people on skins. If we do not preserve the knowledge of our ancestors, it is lost and in this digital age of disconnection, maybe it is more important than ever to connect to our families, our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents, our children.