Nashville (2). Joyful Humbug: Churchill’s “Indian Forebears”

Nashville (2). Joyful Humbug: Churchill’s “Indian Forebears”

Many of the Churchill fam­i­ly down at least through Sir Winston’s grand­son believed that Amer­i­can Indi­an blood ran in their veins. Remarks to the Churchill Soci­ety of Ten­nessee, Nashville, 14 Octo­ber 2017. Con­tin­ued from part 1….

“Mama is part red Indian…”

No excep­tion to the fam­i­ly belief (until she saw con­trary evi­dence) was Churchill’s daugh­ter Mary. “I remem­ber my daugh­ter Emma, play­ing with her friends,” Lady Soames recalled. “Sud­den­ly she warned them not to mis­be­have. ‘Mama, you know, is part red Indi­an, and if we are naughty she will go on the warpath.’” The Churchills had adopt­ed an old leg­end that Indi­an blood ran in their veins.

“Chief White Man’s” tunic, dec­o­rat­ed with strands from scalps and drops of blood. (Chartwell)

In 1963 the Nation­al Con­gress of Amer­i­can Indi­ans named Sir Win­ston Churchill “Chief Ba-ja-bar-son-dey,” which means “Great Leader of Men.” They sent him the bat­tle cos­tume and head­dress of a Sioux war­rior, “Chief White Man” suit­ably enough, from South Dakota.

The tunic is of buf­fa­lo hide. It bears the remains of ene­mies killed in bat­tle. Care­ful­ly pre­served at Chartwell, it has strands of attached black hair, most like­ly from scalps, but only a few drops of dried blood: Chief White Man was evi­dent­ly a dex­ter­ous scalper. (Chartwell’s devot­ed staff pro­vid­ed these pho­tos for my book. The arti­facts are too frag­ile for open dis­play and are care­ful­ly stored.)

The fam­i­ly held a firm belief. Their Iro­quois blood came from Sir Winston’s moth­er Jennie’s mater­nal grand­moth­er, Claris­sa Will­cox, who (like Jen­nie) had a dark com­plex­ion. Exact­ly how this tran­spired no one ever pre­cise­ly defined, but there was no doubt that they broad­ly accept­ed the idea. The rumor had a life of its own—perhaps because it was fun for the Churchills to believe.

“Damned cheek!…”

Ran­dolph Churchill, who began the great biog­ra­phy Hills­dale Col­lege is now fin­ish­ing, loved the sto­ry, and even embroi­dered it. Fly­ing once into Johan­nes­burg, Ran­dolph was incensed by an immi­gra­tion form ask­ing him to state his race—an impor­tant mat­ter in Apartheid South Africa. “Damned cheek!,” he shout­ed, and began writ­ing furiously:

Race: human. But if your object is to deter­mine whether I have coloured blood in my veins, I am most hap­py to be able to inform you that I do, indeed, so have. This is derived from one of my most revered ances­tors, the Indi­an Princess Poc­a­hon­tas, of whom you may not have heard, but who was mar­ried to a Jamestown set­tler named John Rolfe.

Churchill geneal­o­gist Eliz­a­beth Snell cut through all this joy­ful hum­bug when she revealed that Claris­sa Willcox’s moth­er, Anna Bak­er, was the daugh­ter of Joseph Bak­er and Expe­ri­ence Mar­tin, chil­dren of Eng­lish set­tlers, who mar­ried in Mass­a­chu­setts in 1760. Log­i­cal­ly, Mrs. Snell asked, do we accept fam­i­ly leg­end? Or do we accept “the sim­ple, forth­right facts as record­ed by Anna’s colo­nial fam­i­ly in their pro­bate records”?

Randolph’s insis­tence extend­ed to his son Win­ston. In the 1990s after he’d pub­lished a book of his grandfather’s speech­es, my wife and I drove Win­ston to see Plimouth Plan­ta­tion in Mass­a­chu­setts. There we encoun­tered an Indi­an (or a staffer dressed like one). Win­ston popped out of the car and intro­duced him­self. “You know,” he said, “we might be related!”

Back in the car I said, “Win­ston, you’re as Indi­an as my cat.”

“Nev­er mind,” he retort­ed. “It’s my sto­ry and I’m stick­ing with it.”

Tall Tales continue…

…when Churchill enters Par­lia­ment. As Pres­i­dent of the Board of Trade, he seals the fate of the Titan­ic. As Home Sec­re­tary he inter­feres with police bat­tling anar­chists in Sid­ney Street, sends troops to smash strik­ing Welsh coalmin­ers, and fights against Irish inde­pen­dence.

And then there’s the sil­ly canard that Churchill was a life­time oppo­nent of votes for women. Con­tin­ued in Part 3…

Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Real­i­ty is now avail­able in paper­back, with a low­er price for the Kin­dle edi­tion.  Click here.

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