The Bodines: Exchanging Heritage for a Chance at Freedom
Updated: Feb 1
The surname Bodine, or Bodin which was an early spelling, originated from France. It means bold friend. The Bodine line were defined as loyal, trustworthy, and prudent. They were generous, and tended to be deep thinkers. They lived life with an awareness of the divine, and they were deemed to be providentially blessed.
“Hence it will be seen that the Indian names are nothing, a delusion, and a snare.”
—Frank Terry, Native American boarding school superintendent
The Civil War wasn’t the only atrocity suffered on U.S. soil during this era. In May of 1830, Tennessean and President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, making it possible to forcibly remove Native Americans from their homelands. The Act has been referred to as a unitary act of systematic genocide, because it completely discriminated against an ethnic group—to the point of death—vast numbers of its population.
Even before this legislation, the plight of the Native Americans was not good. The spread of white man’s diseases—both intentionally and unintentionally—along with the white man’s desire for more land, had reduced native population by a whopping 70 to 80%!
Years earlier, in an effort to address the “Indian problem,” George Washington encouraged assimilation of the Native American tribes—adopting white man’s religion, speaking and writing English, adopting English names, etc. By the end of the early 19th Century most Cherokees adopted at least some white ways. They established businesses, farms, Christian churches, and a government similar to the United States’ government.
In spite of the capitulations of the natives, settlers in the deep South and Southeast—wanted that real estate. So they continued to encroach and squat on the natives’ land. They stole their livestock. They burned and looted houses and towns, committing mass murder. Settlers also pressured the government to forcibly remove Native Americans from the area.
With the passage of Jackson’s legislation, the Cherokee of North Carolina and Tennessee were the last of the tribes to be forced out. This was 1838. Suffering from exposure, disease, and starvation, about half the Cherokee—men, women, boys, and girls—perished along the Trail of Tears.
The conditions they suffered are heinously unimaginable.
With their backs against the wall, some of the Cherokee chose to hide in the wilderness in order to avoid removal. They renounced their heritage, attempting to hide in plain site.
The Bodine family had much at stake during this crisis. Married in 1823, Jefferson and Margaret, already had 3 young children (they would add 5 or so more). They were farming 140 acres in Wilson County, Tennessee, trying to survive the terrifying chaos all around them.
We are able to trace Jefferson's lineage, but who exactly was Margaret? There is no way to be certain, since by the time Sophia (my 2nd great-grandmother) came along in 1845, the family had grown adept at keeping the secret of her true heritage.
Generally, the Cherokee adopted (or were assigned!) English names similar to the natives’ birth names. Without knowing exactly what her birth name was, we’ll guess Margaret Peggy Ferguson was actually born Magaweti Wegi Wagusoni. (Romanized spelling).
There is no trace of who her parents might have been, or if they remained alive. However, in the midst of these unthinkable times, Margaret likely struggled with this “cultural transformation,” as President Washington had called it some years before. Not only did she have no choice but to keep her ethnic identity a secret, Cherokee tradition endowed women with a great deal of authority. In an instant, she had been stripped of her indepence, and was expected to be subservient to her husband. The bulk of her tribe had either been banished or had perished along the way, leaving Margaret no other support system. As white man’s ways seeped into the gaping holes of her former life, Margaret was thrust into a new role at a time when women were deemed inferior beings.
Beasley Mounds Site, Potential Homeplace for the Cherokee Wagusonis
Photograph by Carrie Bullock Fisher
Jefferson was her life now. But how did a white man of French European descent, come to marry a Cherokee woman?
To understand how big a mystery this is, we must remind ourselves just how different these two cultures were. Jefferson lived in a world where the male was autonomous, where children inherited their name and assets from the father. Margaret's world was exactly the opposite. As a Cherokee woman, she was powerful in her own right. She would have been used to addressing tribe councils. Her children should have received their name from her. In fact, Once Jefferson and Margaret were married, in the eyes of the Cherokee, their children would have been 100% Cherokee, because Margaret was Cherokee. It didn't matter that genetically they were half white.
Life had to be interesting with these two. They'd come from completely different value systems, different social systems, and very different beliefs. I'm certain this presented many challenges.
Intermarriages weren't unheard of, but both the white man and the Cherokee generally frowned upon them. Sometimes, these marriages were driven by the powerful force of love alone. Sometimes there were ulterior motives.
For Margaret, she might have seen marriage to a white man as a means to escape what had become a curse: the fact that she was Native American; ... a way to hide her true identity and escape the growing danger of being associated with a tribe.
If Jefferson were a religious man, he may have married Margaret to facilitate her conversion to Christianity. This was considered a viable tactic among certain religious zealots. He may have married Margaret in order to acquire land. More than one devious male figured out this means of exploitation: that by marrying a Native American woman, the land became theirs by right, without bloodshed.
There's no way to know for sure why, but there is evidence that just because Margaret married a white man, and just because she had to conceal her ethnicity, she never forgot that she had been a warrior and a healer. With the limited time she was with them, she instilled in her children a close connection with nature, and for her daughters to be strong mothers and producers for the household.
Jefferson and Margaret somehow survived the mass genocide of her tribe, yet their life wasn’t easy. Along with keeping the "family secret," they were also trying to survive the harsh and rugged time in which they lived.
Jefferson was deeded an undisclosed amount of land, presumably for service in the War of 1812. In 1833, he and his brother Isaac, inherited 100 acres in an area known as Beasleys Bend, along the Cumberland River from their father, John. They settled in and built a farm there.
Beasley's Bend above the Cumberland River
Photograph by Carrie Bullock Fisher
Jefferson didn't fare well. After suffering for 5 months from a chronic illness, he passed away at 45 years of age. Margaret, worn out from what historians have termed "a legacy of chronic trauma and unresolved grief" from the genocide of her people, passed a few years later. They left behind 2 young adult girls, 6 minor children, and not much else.
What Jefferson and Margaret couldn’t have envisioned, is that life would provide opportunity to the generations that would follow. Their family would outlast the suffering, find new opportunities—and more importantly—fulfill their own unique identities.
Jefferson and Margaret's children were left to fend for themselves, as best they could.
Nancy was the oldest, 26 at the time of her mother's' death. Within a year, a jury had been petitioned to "examine the sanity of her mind." At age 40 she was listed as a domestic servant. Later she was living with her younger sister, Sophia's family. There is no evidence she ever married or had children.
Sarah married in 1850. For a short time, Margaret, as well as all the Bodine kids except a brother, lived together with Sarah and her new husband on the farm. Sadly, Margaret passed after a few months, leaving behind 6 minors. One must remember, these young souls were not only dealing with more than their share of grief; they had to continue to keep their struggling farm and household going. Their survival depended on it, inexperienced though they were. Ongoing grief and intensive labor all but consumed them.
Sometime around this time, another mystery occurs. His name is Abbot Lester. Or Abbot. Or Les. His essence lives on, forever recorded as a black mark on the 1840 census:
From the 1840 Census, signifying the existence of 2 Bodine sons under the age of 5
Photograph by Carrie Bullock Fisher
The actual person, however, is harder to track down--the only hint of his existence a sad one. According to oral family history, Jefferson and Margaret had two sons (this verified through the above census). These sons would find themselves fulfilling the dreaded predicament of many brothers against brothers during the Civil War. But even before his dedication to the Union during the war, there's evidence that Abbot Lester had gone his own way. His convictions must have been strong, to lend his support to the very government who had caused such pain to his Cherokee mother's tribe. Generally, the Cherokee supported the cause of the Confederacy--mostly because of their bitterness toward the government. How the family must have agonized over the traumatic prospect of their two brothers facing off in vicious guerrilla conflict in such a heinous war. Did he survive the war? Sadly, the remainder of his story is lost to the ages.
Brother Thomas enlisted in the Confederate army, but was discharged 6 months later due to a "diseased tibia."
The remaining sisters went their own way, the youngest, Maggie, eventually making her way to New York, a destination that was just about unimaginable for her surviving siblings.
The next to youngest child, Miss Sophia Malinda Bodine was my 2nd-great grandmother.
By the time Sophia was 10, she was an orphan. Raised in a mixed-raced home, she was growing up “civilized," in a white man’s world. The relationship of the man who was appointed her and Maggie's guardian isn’t clear. Nor do we know if she was well-treated by this man. She was likely used as a domestic servant in order to pay her keep.
She got work as a housekeeper for another family in the area, until at 19, she married a Mr. Warfield. Sadly, fighting as a Confederate soldier, he was killed in the Civil War just three years later. She couldn’t even afford proper mourning attire, so she likely settled for dying her wrappers (homespun housedresses) in dark ink for the 2 ½ year customary grieving period.
Not long after Mr. Warfield's passing, she gave birth to their daughter, Nonie. This means that at 22 years of age, Sophia Malinda Bodine was an orphan, a widow, and a new single mother (she also lost at least two of her sisters during this time period).
She had certainly lived a lifetime of losses.
Whether it was love, or merely a means to survive, after a period of courtship, Sophia was the rare southern widow that remarried, to Mr. William Franklin Evitts.