Saturday, March 05, 2005

How a French Aristocrat Gave His Surname to a Cherokee Cowboy (Maybe) (Part I)

Bonnie Shoemake was my grandmother's name. I always associated her a little bit with Bonnie Parker because 1) obviously they have the same first name 2) they were both born in West Texas 3) in 1910 4) in the same sort of lower-middle upper-working class family 5) they were feisty, tough, and intelligent 6) they were very small (Parker four-foot-ten, "Granny" four-foot-eight) 7) they were both "flappers" in the Twenties, or what passed for it in that part of the world 8) they both knew how to use a gun 9) they even look a bit alike. (Photos to follow.) Of course, 10) Granny wasn't dumb or amoral enough to do any crimes or silly enough to fall in with a habitual criminal like Clyde Barrow was. She was a good woman and she married a good man. They weren't perfect, but they were good people, and we all loved them both.

Granny was born, as I said, in 1910 in Marathon, Texas, which you've never heard of because it's about as close to the middle of nowhere as it's possible to get. (You have probably seen Marathon in a movie; the deserty motel scenes in "Paris, Texas" were filmed there. I've stayed in that motel. It's not hard to find. It's the only one there.) Marathon is where you turn south off Highway 90 to get to Big Bend National Park. It's actually become a little foo-foo, there are a couple of art galleries and bed and breakfasts and stuff there now. In the old days, though, it was West Texas ranch country and nothing but. The Southern Pacific main line runs through there, and that's how John Frederick Aust met Granny.

Pappy, as we all called him, was a German. German was his first language, and he didn't learn English until he went to school. He was a skilled mechanic and worked on a series of railroads maintaining the signals; seems that he was particularly good with electricity, though he could fix or rig up about anything. He was working on the Southern Pacific in 1934 and that's where he met Granny and they got married and had my mom and my aunts and that is of course why I'm here.

Pappy was from Western Kansas; his grandfather and father had immigrated back in 1888 from a town called Illeschestic in a region called Bukovina that was then part of the Austrian Empire and now is in Romania. They were originally from Wurttemberg in southern Germany; what happened is that in the beginning of the 1700s the Austrians conquered a bunch of land in the Balkans from the Turks and, since it was vacant territory they needed to repopulate it. What they did was declare the area "the Military Frontier" and give free land to anybody with the guts to take it--you never knew when the Turks might come back. These Wurttembergers took the Emperor up on the deal and entire villages moved out east to Bukovina and similar places. Then, toward the end of the 1800s, word got to Bukovina that land was so cheap it was almost free in Kansas, and those entire villages packed up and moved again, this time to Ellis County and the high plains.

If you're European, you might be wondering why I know all this. The answer is paradoxical. We Americans are the descendents of people who moved, and our people often moved more than once, like Pappy's ancestors; you Europeans are descended from people who stayed home. Therefore, Europeans know where they come from, because their great-great-grandparents were from the same place as they are. Europeans don't make a big deal about finding roots because they just know automatically that they have them. Every American's roots, though, come from somewhere else and we don't always know where. This makes us curious, and it's why so many Americans are interested in genealogy.

Back to Granny. Granny's mother was named Virginia Alice Hovis, and everyone called her "Aunt Jennie". She lived until 1952, and my mother and aunts remember her very well. Aunt Jennie's family were poor white folk from the Mississippi hills, and we really don't know very much about them. Her father was a buck private in the Confederate Army, and he fought at Antietam, where he was wounded in the ankle and sent home from there. That's about all we know.

It's Granny's father's family that we know something about. Granny's father, Aunt Jennie's husband, was named James Lafayette Shoemake. He was very long-lived, born in 1875 and died in 1960; my mother and her sisters called him "Granddaddy Jim". Jim was a larger-than-life fellow, a guy who made an impression. People liked him, and they remembered him well. My mother's family still swaps Granddaddy Jim stories, and the fascinating thing is that every one I've been able to check out turns out to be true.

This looks like a good place to stop. The title's a bit of a teaser, isn't it?

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