Genealogy in the Garden: Cherokee ‘Trail of Tears’ Beans

Tasha unearths a magical link in a handful of beans.

Credit: Tasha Nathanson

Last year, I combed through the offerings of a few heirloom-seed companies with an eye to planting some family history. Like Jack in the tales of old, I found the magical link in a handful of beans.

‘Trail of Tears’ beans are a heritage variety, grown long ago by Cherokee people and carried with them, tucked in hatbands and sewn into skirt hems, as they were force-marched out of their traditional Appalachian territory to make room for white settlers. Those Cherokee who were still alive by the time they reached Oklahoma planted their beans. I grew beans last year descended from those same plants. I grew them in honour of my great grandma, Lula Mae Skelton (pictured top left).

Great Grandma Skelton was Cherokee, though she did not take kindly to this being mentioned. The black-and-white photos of her nonetheless show her parentage clearly. To her I owe, among other things, a resistance to sunburn and a darker skin tone than my blue eyes would lead you to expect.

She was given up for adoption to a white couple when she was young. Her mother no longer felt able to look after both her and her little brother, so she kept the boy but gave away the girl. That was the first and greatest of many grievances Great Grandma held against the world.

It was not until mid-life that her brother, Lum, looked her up. It seems that not long after Lula was given away, so was Lum. Later, when he became old, in poor health and in need of care, he did more than look her up: he moved in with his widowed long-lost sister. As they had started their lives together, so did they end them.

I remember them both vaguely. They were living in a trailer in Ohio when my family visited them. Lum was deaf but had really big ears that stuck out. He made funny faces and did tricks with rubber bands to make me laugh.

I mainly steered clear of Great Grandma Skelton during that one and only visit. She was notoriously severe, having run her farm with an iron fist applied through punishments both real and imagined, the worst of these being the fear that grew from a glare that could curdle milk. During WWII, some of the scads of cousins, along with their temporarily single mothers, had sheltered there while their soldier-fathers made war far away. The cousins got into a fair bit of trouble and my mother – younger perhaps, more gullible for sure – got saddled with the blame for misdeeds not always entirely of her doing.

My mother had returned this one last time, bringing her own children with her across the continent to visit. During our stay, my mother conveyed to me a reticence through her many small signs of intimidation, her hesitations. I looked across the Formica table at the rail-thin, white haired woman and then looked down. That’s the only memory of my own I retain of her.

My kids think it is wildly exotic that they have a Cherokee great great grandmother. That makes them … um … either 1/16th or 1/32nd Cherokee, depending on whether Lula was full or half blood herself. (We know nothing of her father.)

I grow these beans as a connection to our family history and to keep a heritage strain of beans in use. And I grow them to eat, as well. They are tasty and prolific. As we tuck into a dinner of home-grown beans I can tell my girls of my one memory of Great Grandma Skelton and I can embellish that with the stories my mother told me of those war years on the farm, and then I can save and grow more beans.

As you plant this season or plan for the next, consider growing a family story seed. Look for something that reaches back into some branch of your family tree. Set out to create roots today that sink into your yesteryear. These are living connections to those who came before us. Eat your history.