Updated: Jul 25
By Molly Murfee
I am a ninth generation American, tracing one of the branches of my family tree that ultimately rooted itself in the land of southern Arkansas where I grew up.
While my paternal surname is “Murfee,” my mother’s patriarchally-traced lineage dates back to a William and Elenor Murphy, the “originals” who immigrated from Ireland in the early 1700s. At the time both Presbyterians and Catholics were persecuted by a dominating English Anglican government that had overtaken Ireland and undermined the people of those particular faiths with such acts as taking away their private land and barring them from holding public office. Poverty was rampant. The first wave of Irish immigrants to the new America began. William and Elenor left Ireland seeking religious freedom. They landed in Spotsylvania County, Virginia near the first permanent English settlement of Jamestown, established only a hundred years previous.
The second William Murphy, the “original’s” son, became an itinerant Baptist preacher, moving with the border of the frontier as it pushed incessantly west. He purchased acreage in southern Missouri in 1800 from a Spanish land grant, before it was even a part of the growing United States.
As subsequent sons and their wives – Richard Murphy and Susanna West, followed by George West Murphy and Elizabeth Clardy – made their way south to the alternatively swampy and pine-forested earth that has enveloped my family for six generations, they followed the line of American policy pushing and pushing and pushing Native Americans out of their home lands. As soon as that land opened up, my people moved in. When the Caddo of northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas were finally extracted from the fertile agricultural land between the Red and Ouachita Rivers in the early 1800s, my family migrated down, and has been there ever since.
Members of my family have thus been present for the American Revolutionary War of 1776, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the subsequent Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Trail of Tears of 1831. They’ve been present for the vast majority of the hundreds of broken treaties made with the Native Americans of this continent as Manifest Destiny got the better of reason and sense.
From what I can tell, my family was never directly involved in the eradication of native people from their homelands. They weren’t politicians or soldiers or government hired explorers. They had a simple need – that of land to build a home. But that seemingly innocuous desire was the driving force behind all the policy and war, especially when backed by a burgeoning country’s stockpiling of power resulting from the possession of land and all of its subsequent trading rights, new material goods and resources, and therefore – money.
I come from a long line of very kind and tender-hearted people on both sides. They were preachers, teachers, farmers and healers. They were apparently also adventurous and bold and strong to even conceptualize what they accomplished. I’m sure at times they were terrified.
It is so easy to distance – to think of pioneers, and Indian wars, and the extraction of native people from their home – as something that happened in a very faraway place. It is so easy to say – “that wasn’t me” – that was some distant person, in some distant past. It is so easy to not claim responsibility when your hands are not visibly soiled with the deed.
We don’t want to admit fault. We don’t want to air the dirty laundry of our ancestors. We don’t want to own any part of that very rotten part of our history – one built on genocide, forced acculturation and prejudice. The one with tendrils of greed and a feeling of being threatened that left us so blind, we absolutely forgot all sense of humanity.
While my ancestors might not have had a direct hand in the near annihilation of native people, did they stand on the sidelines and say nothing? Were racial slurs present behind the closed doors of their homes? Did they pressure those in charge to get rid of the Indians to make way for themselves?
I hope not. I hope they were kind and compassionate. I hope they were a friend to those in need, as I see current members of my family standing. But in truth I do not know. Culture is a mighty powerful blind when pulled so tight.
If we are to look seven generations forward and consider how our actions might impact those who follow us, we must also look seven generations back, claim the actions or inactions of our ancestors, and work to make it right. And so I therefore must admit, looking back on those nine generations, that I am an unwitting member of the white settler culture, that enjoys a peaceful home of the back of an unbearable amount of suffering.
Anyone in this country, indeed in this world, who is white or male or wealthy or owns a home or even has easy access to healthcare – any one or all of those combinations – has a privilege and a subsequent responsibility.
We cannot move forward with any wholeness until we unravel the impacts of our colonialism, both physical and cultural, buoyed on the wings of domination and near-eradication of other people, stepping on anyone standing in the path of our individual success.
None of us might have had a direct hand, but the dead can’t fix it now. As the generations following these atrocities, we must understand our history and admit our genetic fault. It is mortifying and horrifying. Claiming wrongdoing is not a popular cultural trend these days. We’re still all out for ourselves, taking care of our personal sphere, and to hell with our neighbor.
But we must reach outside of this false sphere of adamant independence, to help lift another up, so we might rightfully stand together as equals. It’s up to us to at least begin the long and entangled process of unraveling the destructive colonial trends upon which this country was built, and upon which the cultural tendrils of our current actions still follow.
Creative non-fiction and place-based author Molly Murfee specializes in nature and environmental writing cut with cultural and societal critique. Sign up for the Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her ongoing book project; field-based Writing & Connection Workshops; online advertising and syndicate column opportunities; and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.