Saturday, June 06, 2009

Prince among Gypsies or a chief of the Cherokees? (Part 1)


Tip your hat next time to Chief John Rinehart here just inside the gate, dead since 1881 and buried alongside the open road in January of that year. I wonder if his family and friends planted him so close to life and traffic on purpose because they were people of the road. There surely were prettier, quieter and more secluded places deeper inside the Chariton Cemetery if privacy had been a concern. We’ll never know.

And give the old chief’s family and friends credit while you’re at it for launching at his death a legend that seems to incorporate some of the longest-running tricks ever played on Lucas Countyans, tricks that resurrect whenever Rinehart’s memory is invoked. Coyote is at work here in the heartland thanks to that merry band of tricksters, Gypsies spliced to Cherokee.

But be warned that I can’t prove much --- neither Romani nor Cherokee genealogy is an easy road --- so I could be old Coyote, too, just messing around with a treasured legend --- that one about the Indian chief buried among us, a vicarious link between pale skins and noble red.

Attempts to find out exactly who John Rinehart was result in more questions than answers. Chief is probably a stretch, although there’s really no proof that he ever claimed the title for himself. There’s no particular reason to doubt that he was indeed Cherokee. What we do know is that he was loved and honored by a family that returned to Chariton for more than 50 years to care for his grave and now and then brought along the remains of other family members to be buried near him.


The legend begins with an article published in The Chariton Patriot of January 12, 1881.

“For two months past, five families of Cherokee Indians, some 30 persons in all, have been camped on the Chariton river, a couple miles from this city. On Monday, one of their number, Rinehart by name, a man of 40 years or more, succumbed to the fell destroyer and his spirit joined its kindred in the happy hunting grounds beyond the clouds. The party of which the deceased red man was a member left the Indian Territory two years ago and had traveled through Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota, Minnesota and thus far through Iowa on their way back home. They stopped here on account of the illness of Rinehart, whose poor health was the cause of the long trip undertaken by the company. Several days ago Rinehart realized the approach of death and sent for Rev. J. S. Reed who visited the camp and gave the dying man religious consolation. On yesterday afternoon the funeral took place from the Presbyterian Church, to the Chariton Cemetery where his companions had bought a lot and the red man was laid away to rest after this long wonderings. The party will remain in their present camp until warm weather.”

As the years passed, family and friends returned to Lucas County regularly to decorate John Rinehart’s grave. Occasionally, the body of a deceased family member was brought along and buried beside him. There may be as many as four additional graves on that lot, but only two can be accounted for.

On Oct. 29, 1897, The Patriot reported that, “Mrs. Rachel Rhinehart, wife of the Cherokee Indian chief who lies buried in the Chariton cemetery, died at Wheeling, Missouri, on August 30, 1896, at the age of 104 years. The remains were brought to this city the first of the week and on Tuesday afternoon at four o’clock were interred by the side of her husband. Rev. A. C. Ormond of the Presbyterian church conducted brief services at the grave.”

Many years later, on July 24, 1923, The Chariton Leader reported another burial under the headline, “Another Indian Grave: Body of Daughter of Chief Rhinehart Brought Here for Burial”:

“On Sunday afternoon, the body of Sahria Mason, an Indian lady, 98 years of age, and a daughter of Chief Rhinehart, was brought here and buried in the Chariton cemetery, where the remains of the old aborigine lie, together with other members of the tribe. You will see the new mound near the entrance. The services at the grave were conducted by the Rev. J.D. Pontins of the Christian church.

“The aged Indian lady had been living near the Minnesota line Her remains were accompanied here by a son and son-in-law. Local members of the Redmen Order acted as pall bearers. Her spirit is now with her ancestors beyond the flowing river.”

There were those who doubted the stories about Rinehart, of course, and some of that crept into the following report published during 1902 in The Chariton Herald. The headline reads, “Indians Visit Grave: Annual Visit of Red Men to the Grave of Their Chief in Chariton Cemetery.”

“A few of the Indians who have visited Chariton annually for the past fifteen years to hold services over the grave of their chief, Rhinehart, were camped near Chariton on their annual visit last Friday and Saturday, but omitted the customary grave ceremony, perhaps because they are growing too civilized to believe in it any longer. They departed on Saturday on their way to Miineapolis, where they will spend the summer in a cooler climate.

“It is generally believed that the principal one of the four Indian graves just south of the main gate in the Chariton cemetery is that of a noted Indian chief, but it is not so. The man was called a chief, and was named Rhinehart, but he was not an Indian. He was a Frenchman who married a full-blooded Indian squaw, probably the widow of a minor chief, and thereby became the chief of the little tribe. Fifteen years ago Rhinehart’s band was camped on the Chariton river, two or three miles from town, when he took sick and died. His family bought a lot in the Chariton cemetery and buried him here, and each year since then some of his Indians have come back to see that the grave is kept in proper condition. There are now three or four graves on the Indian lot, the newer ones being younger members of Rhinehart’s family or tribe, and it is saide that his widow is buried here. The other day when they were here, one of his daughters, a half breed who is almost white, was negotiating for a head stone for the grave of one of the children buried on the lot.

“The Indians who were here look fully as much like Gypsies as Indians, but they attend to their own respectable business which Gypsies do not. Rhinehart’s daughter is an intelligent woman, and is a member of the Rebekahs, while many of her tribe belong to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.”

For future reference it’s important to note this final paragraph, including a fair description of what Lucas Countyans thought they knew at the time about Gypsies.

And then take a look at the following report of what may have been the final pilgrimage to John Rinehart’s grave, published in The Herald-Patriot on May 3, 1934, 53 years after he died. The headline reads, “Granddaughter of Chief Rinehart in Lucas County to Decorate His Grave: Members of Cherokee Tribe Build Camp on River Near City.”

“Indians again are camping on the Chariton River.

“They are here to pay respect to the memory of a famed ancestor, Chief John Rinehart of the Cherokee tribe, and to other members of his family buried at Chariton cemetery.

“Members of the tribe have visited the cemetery here almost every year since Chief Rinehart died Jan. 2, 1881.

“Included in the group of 14 men, women and children living in tents southwest of Chariton is a granddaughter of the chief, Mrs. Dolly Friar.

“All members of the group are related. Their home is at the reservation in Tama, Ia. They have been in Missouri collecting herbs and will go back to Tama from here. They will stay here at least until after Memorial Day, when the graves of the chief and hisfamily will be decorated, and perhaps longer.

“One of the women at the camp is, according to Mrs. Friar, “expecting a little papoose.”

“We are certain to stay until after it arrives,” she said.

“It was Mrs. Friar who this afternoon told of the events which led to the burial of Chief Rinehart in Lucas county, far from his native Oklahoma.

“Mrs. Friar’s father was an Englishman who traveled through this section as horse buyer for the United States army. He married an Indian girl, daughter of Chief Rinehart. It was while accompanying his daughter and her husband on a trip through Iowa that the chief died and was buried here.

“His monument stands near the entrance to the cemetery, on the south side of the road. It was one of the finest monuments of its time. The inscription reads:


“Behold the pilgrim as he lies
With glory in his view,
To heaven he lifts his longing eyes
And bids the world adieu.

“Four other graves are on the Rinehart burial ground, said to be those of his wife, Rachel, who died Aug. 30, 1896, and children brought for burial in later years.

“Mrs. Friar’s father, Ephraim Joles, was well known to Lucas county’s early settlers, she said. He was a Mason and an Odd Fellow. In a spring wagon he once took Chief Rinehart’s wife from Oklahoma to Minnesota.

“To make a trip like that in those days one needed to know and be liked by everyone,” Mrs. Friar declared.

“Ephraim Joles died three years ago at the age of 94. He and his wife are buried at St. Paul.

“In spite of her English ancestry Mrs. Friar has most of the Indian characteristics in appearance. She is stately, young looking, with sharp cut features and coal-black hair. Today she was wearing an all-black ankle length dress. Her only ornament was a unique brooch.

“She knows the name and the purpose of each of the 165 roots, barks, teas and berries which the group sells for medicinal purposes.

“They have a license, she said, to sell al types of medicines, but sell none which have any habit-forming drugs or impure ingredients.

“We wouldn’t know how to handle such things. The medicines of which we know are those made by nature,” she declared.

“It is a pleasure, she said, for Indians to follow the old trails of their ancestors.

“The paths which they set are clean and pure. They did not rob. They broke no laws. They lived honest, good lives and we are proud of them.”

“Life in the camp seemed to be flowing on an even tempo. The women and children were sitting in the shade, and the men were at work, principally on their automobiles.”

This is a fine report by a reporter who obviously knew what he was doing and actually had invested a little time in research, but you’ve got to wonder just how much trouble Dolly Friar (actually Frier) had keeping a straight face when she informed him that a member of her party was “expecting a little papoose.”

Stay tuned for Part 2.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fine piece -- look forward to part 2.