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You Say Powhatan, I Say . . .
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I come from a family of thieves, drunkards, and misfits whose concept of “family” was to get the hell out of it as soon as possible and never look back. My Aunt Ruth, who paid five dollars cold cash for a “certificate of family ancestry, complete with coat of arms,” was the only one interested in our history, which according to the five-dollar version goes back as far as a nobleman who fought and died at the Battle of Hastings, presumably wearing a helmet with a black pigeon on top.

It must be true because the ancestry company included James Boswell as an ancestor. And every Boswell knows we’re related to the man, each and every one of us. He’s our birthright. (I’m just sayin’. When it comes to Jimmy, that’s how we roll.)

So it would be easy to choose James Boswell as my “most interesting ancestor.” But I’m pretty much a contrarian, so I’m not going to do that. Remember, there are two sides to every family, and the “other side” is usually far more interesting. They consisted of murderers, gunrunners, moonshiners, bank robbers, and the occasional red-headed milkman.

And one Native American, my great-great grandmother, a full-blooded Powhatan who stood six feet tall.

Aunt Ruth showed me her picture once, long ago, and no doubt told me her name, which I have forgotten. The photograph, a badly faded sepia tone, showed an extraordinarily tall woman in a long dress, dark hair tied in a bun, standing next to her husband, a rather short and round man wearing a fedora, his thumbs hooked in his suspenders. Not a smile between them, as if happiness were a foreign notion.

And then Aunt Ruth pulled the trigger. “So that means we’re related to Pocahontas, too.” And it must be true, because she paid another five dollars for the information.