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Southern Genealogy Yields Surprises

Log on to any number of American genealogy websites, especially those looking for Native American heritage and it won't take long to come across the name Morning Dove White.

Her name appears for two reasons: first, many Native Americans trace their ancestry through maternal lines, making her a great matriarch, and second, she is the great-great-great grandmother of Elvis Presley, the King of rock and roll.

The legend of Morning Dove White begins when the full-blooded Cherokee Indian marries a white man, William Mansell, in the early 19th Century. It's a tale Mike Palmer heard often growing up, because Morning Dove White is his paternal great, great, great grandmother. "The way I understand it is her last name 'White' comes from her Native American clan's relationship to the Americans, the white people that were here in the early 19th [century]." Palmer explains some Indians were friendly and others weren't so friendly to the Americans, "so the unfriendly Indians were called the red Indians, the friendlies were called the whites."

As the legend goes, Morning Dove and William Mansell moved to the Alabama frontier. There they prospered, becoming major landowners and prominent members of the community. Her knowledge of native herbal medicine is said to have helped many new homesteaders in a strange new land.

Genealogy researcher Julian Riley, who became familiar with Morning Dove White while tracing the Elvis Presley family tree, says there's no doubt she was extremely important in terms of surviving on the frontier. "In 1818, Alabama is still a wild country," he points out, "there's no hospitals, service stations and road maps. If you had a local Indian living with you, it could be a tremendous help, just telling you where things are located, where are the creeks, the rivers, where are the salt deposits, where do you get the right type of vegetation for whatever you might be needing it for. How do you do certain things? She would know the native way of doing things, plus she would know how to speak the language, so she could be an interpreter."

As Riley started to research Morning Dove's story, though, he says things just didn't add up. For example, her name. Morning Dove is an English name. Riley notes that not only would the Cherokee have spoken their own language with native names, they usually had one-word names. So he doubts she was a Cherokee.

More importantly, 'Morning' was Mansell's mother's first name, and 'White' was the name of nearby neighbors. He says these are good indicators that Mansell either renamed her or she chose an anglicized name.

And Riley says there are other inconsistencies. "There were no Cherokees in south Alabama, very unlikely that William Mansell rode 900 miles [1450 kilometers] to North Carolina to get a Cherokee Indian woman when they're all around him in south Alabama. Impossible that William Mansell ever married this Indian, two reasons: one, marrying as we see it, is not an Indian custom, and William Mansell already had a wife. She's living in Marion County, Alabama, the same time William is living there with the Indian girl."

Riley also points out that Mansell fought with General Andrew Jackson, later president Jackson, who was well known for waging war on the Indians. One of the way soldiers like Mansell would have been compensated for their service was with land and captured Indians. Riley suggests it is more than likely that Mansell, like most European Americans of the time, viewed Native Americans as second-class citizens.

"The most likely thing that happened," he concludes, "is that Morning White Dove was a refugee from one of the Creek Indian Villages that were being destroyed in Alabama. And for whatever reason - he liked the way she looked, wanted some domestic help - he just took her and took her home."

While there is no record that William Mansell married Morning Dove, they did have four children, three of whom survived. She died at the age of 35, most likely in childbirth, delivering their daughter Morning Dizenia. Like her mother, Morning Dizenia helped nurse people in her community, and she married the town doctor. Her older brother, John, would someday become the great great grandfather of Elvis Presley.

Morning Dove White's great great great grandson Mike Palmer admits he's always had his own doubts about the facts surrounding his legendary ancestor, but says that's what makes her so intriguing. "Who wouldn't want to claim her as kin?" he asks. "She's such a mystical figure. There are so few known facts that you can almost create her as you want, she can become whatever you want because so little is known about her and a lot of people I'm sure do that."

While researching the family tree can reveal long-kept secrets or inspire reunions with new-found family members, Julian Riley says, even if the search hits a dead end, it still gives families a valuable glimpse into the past. "Everyone needs to know where they came from. It can't change anything, you can't determine who your ancestors were. It's just neat to know who they were and what they did and where they came from and how they got here and maybe something about the trials that they went through getting here." And, he adds, it's always nice to find out you're related to someone famous.