As a descendant of Augustine Bearse, I have spent too many hours considering the questionable assertions in Franklyn Bearce’s famous manuscript and trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he has been presented as a Native American champion of Native American rights. His famous manuscript is so detailed and comprehensive concerning his ancestors that even its improbabilities might be true. I always ended at the question, what would cause Franklyn to lie about these things? If he was already identified as a Native American, why gild the lily? Why dream up a Rom ancestor who added nothing but interesting trivia to a Native American story? The absence of an evident reason to lie gave room to think that maybe his story was true, at least in part.
It is obvious that Franklyn’s immediate purpose was to prove his Native American credentials, whatever his ultimate motive might be. I finally gathered the courage to plow through his texts and tally up the degrees of “Indian blood” he cited for each ancestor. Franklyn used fractions as the U.S. Government still does, rather than decimals that are easier to handle precisely. His arithmetic was not always accurate but it was close. In decimal terms, taking his account at face value, Franklyn comes up as 43.8% Native American. Why is that important?
Identification as Native American takes different forms for different purposes. Social identification doesn’t require any specific degree of “Indian blood” but depends on physical or cultural appearances. Appearances can deceive. The Census Bureau accepts self-identification which can also be deceptive. For purposes of U.S. Government, State or tribal benefits, there are countless other definitions of “Indian.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs requires at least ¼ -- 25% -- proven Native American descent for some programs, 50% for others. Each tribe sets the degree of “blood” required for entry on its tribal rolls as a member. But with 43.8% “Indian blood” Franklyn should meet almost anyone’s standard for Native American recognition.
I refer readers to John Quinn Doer’s report of his research in message 172 of the Bearse Forum and message 82 of the Bearce Forum (Why doesn’t Genforum merge these two fora which obviously deal with different spellings of the same name?). He tells of Franklyn’s self-promotion as a proponent of Native American land claims and his ultimate failure to be recognized as Native American by the State of Connecticut or accepted as a tribal member by the Schaghticoke.
Franklyn’s purported oral history might have some honest mistakes as oral histories sometimes do, but Dr. Doer offers evidence that Franklyn’s stories of some of his closest ancestors – his mother, grandmother, grandfather – were knowingly false. Consequently, the Native American blood degrees Franklyn attributes to them are very dubious at best. If his mother in fact had no Native American ancestors, as it appears she had not, Franklyn’s degree of blood would drop to 20.5%. Dr. Doer notes also that Franklyn’s great-great grandfather Sampson May was listed on the 1820 census as “Free Black Male.” If Sampson was not a full-blood Mohican as Franklyn claimed, Franklyn’s Native American blood falls to 17.4%. And if Franklyn lied so freely about these close generations, how reliable could he be concerning generations more remote? Taking away all of Franklyn’s Native American ancestors about whom there must be serious doubts – including Mary Sissel -- Franklyn ends at only 7.4% Native American. The claims Franklyn pursued in behalf of the tiny Schaghticoke tribe were enormous, ample reason for him to covet tribal membership if they produced resources to divide. That would be motive enough for him to fabricate an elaborate Native American family tree: he desperately needed more ancestors of the right kind.
But what about the Rom angle? Franklyn might have wished to explain away some visible characteristic, perhaps inherited from Sampson May, that could have interfered with his public perception as Native American. Or perhaps he really had Rom ancestry which he feared might become rumored, detracting from the Native American persona he wanted to project. Either way, a remote exotic ancestor could provide him some plausible cover.
Here I’ll indulge in speculation that might seem as outlandish as Franklyn’s manuscript. In recent years there has been increasing research about Rom, and specifically about the “Black Dutch.” The latter were Rom from the German Palatinate who emigrated to America in the early 1700’s along with their German neighbors. Many settled down as farmers and tradesmen, especially in rural New York and Pennsylvania. To avoid the stigma attached to “Gypsies,” they called themselves Black Dutch and adopted German names. They often intermarried with Native Americans. According to Linda Griggs’ “Wayfaring Stranger” (http://sciway3.net/clark/freemoors/Patrin1.htm) two of the surnames they frequently adopted were Rau/Roe and May. A British researcher (http://www.fightgame.co.uk/gypsy_jive.html) notes that given names favored by Rom included “Sampson.” The name Sampson May should set off alarms in the minds of Black Dutch researchers. We don’t know what criteria the 1820 census taker used in deciding that Sampson May was a “Free Black.” If color was the primary factor, one should recall that 19th century writers described some English Rom as being so dark that they looked black. “Elisha” was also a favorite Rom given name, but it was very common in the general population in that epoch. The marriage of Sampson May’s daughter to Elisha Rau/Roe might or might not be pure coincidence. Descent from Black Dutch could explain why Franklyn would think of inventing a Rom ancestor too distant to be verified. He sorely needed Sampson to be Native American; shifting the Rom element to a more remote ancestor would kill two birds with one stone.
Franklyn apparently was at worst a venal confidence man or at best a sincere though overzealous Wannabe. His great achievement was to perpetrate a genealogical hoax rivaling the Anneke Jans – Trinity Churchyard scam of the 19th Century. With some regret, I’ll put his case in the red herring file.
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