By Mike Danahey
ELGIN Vaughn Pedersen recently received some family news he's been waiting at least six years to hear. For him, it was a matter of history finally being set straight.
"This was quite a present," the Elgin resident said.
Pedersen is a sixth-generation descendant of the Shawnee Indian chief known as Blue Jacket. Legend had it that Blue Jacket was a white man, Marmaduke (Van) Swearingen, who, after being captured by the Shawnee, joined them in their struggle against white settlement. The story goes he was thus named because of the coat he wore at the time of his capture.
But new DNA evidence shows almost certainly that Blue Jacket was in fact an American Indian and not white, as the myth had it.
What is known is that Blue Jacket was a mentor to Tecumseh, the famous leader of a most-ambitious Indian resistance movement. Blue Jacket also led Indian uprisings, and in a battle in 1791 along the Wabash River in Fort Recovery, Ohio, his charges killed more than 600 troops, more than the number George Armstrong Custer lost to Sitting Bull at Little Big Horn.
Pageant to note study
In the mythologized version of the Ohio battle, Blue Jacket/Swearingen winds up killing his white brother who is part of the army forces. But records show the brother actually died in Indiana in 1848, and that Swearingen disappeared about 1771. There also is evidence that a distant cousin of Marmaduke Swearingen was killed in the 1791 skirmish.
The myth is part of a pageant presented every summer in Xenia, Ohio, that has drawn more than 1 million visitors over the last 25 years. In light of the new evidence, the show's executive director, Lorrie Sparrow, recently told the Bellefontaine (Ohio) Examiner that the show will remain the same for this season, but a poster will be put up about the recent DNA findings.
The study in question will be published this fall in the Ohio Journal of Science. It is the result of tests conducted by researchers based at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and Technical Associates Inc. in Ventura, Calif.
The team collected DNA from six living male descendants of Blue Jacket and four direct relatives of Swearingen. The abstract for the research states that "barring any questions of the paternity of the Chief's single son who lived to produce male heirs, the 'Blue Jacket-with-Caucasian-roots' legend is not based on reality."
Pedersen started delving into his genealogy about 10 years ago, after his mother died. Using records from Chicago's Newberry Library and the National Archives, he traced her lineage, discovering that he was a sixth-generation descendant of Blue Jacket.
The research led him to retiree and history writer Robert Van Trees, a native of Fort Recovery, Ohio, who told Pedersen of the summertime Blue Jacket drama and what he felt were its inaccuracies.
According to Wright State professor Daniel Krane, Van Trees approached him about seven years ago to ask if the tools of genetic testing might be able to determine any ties between the Blue Jacket and Swearingen lines. Krane found the story a fascinating one and asked Van Trees to help find descendants of the two families.
Carlyle Hinshaw, an Oklahoma geologist and seventh-generation descendant of Blue Jacket, was of assistance in finding relatives as he had "done some updating of genealogy and developed a good data base." Blue Jacket's people were first resettled to northeast Kansas, then, after the Civil War, to Oklahoma to live with the Cherokee, Hinshaw explained.
While the 2000 book Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawnees by John Sugden goes into detail debunking the historical roots of the myth, the news of the DNA findings "straightens out my ancestry," said Hinshaw.
A letter to the editor Thomas Jefferson Larsh wrote to the Daily Ohio State Journal in 1877 may be the source of the myth that Blue Jacket was a white man, Pedersen said. And a biography of Blue Jacket by Allan Eckert published in 1969 furthered the tale of the two Swearingen brothers battling each other at Fort Recovery.
Hinshaw said that Blue Jacket was known as Sepettekenathe (Big Rabbit) in his youth and changed his name to Weyapiersenwa (Whirlpool) as an adult. As for how the Indian leader got the Blue Jacket moniker, Hinshaw said he has heard family stories about a French soldier who lived among the Shawnee who may have given the coat to Hinshaw's ancestor.
And Blue Jacket is listed among the Indian names on transactions with registered Pennsylvania traders on the Ohio River during the mid-1750s, Hinshaw noted.
In Blue Jacket's day, the British often would identify individual Indians by a characteristic, garment or something else to differentiate them, as they had trouble pronouncing the actual names, Hinshaw said.
Hinshaw explained that Larsh was the grandson of Marmaduke Swearingen's sister, Sarah. In his childhood, Larsh heard tales about Swearingen's capture by Indians. He became interested in their culture and had Indian friends, including the Rev. Charles Bluejacket.
Larsh gave his two daughters Indian names and named his son Blue Jacket. Larsh also came to believe that he and the reverend might be related.
While unveiling the truth beyond the myths has familial significance for Pedersen and Hinshaw, historian Van Trees took up the cause decades ago after meeting a Bluejacket.
Van Trees had heard stories of the white-man-turned-Indian-chief as a boy. In 1944, while serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps and flying from Pennsylvania to Missouri, he met a Marine, Sgt. Eugene Donald Bluejacket. The men got to talking and found they had Fort Recovery in common. Bluejacket told Van Trees that the stories he had heard were not true.
More than 20 years later, while visiting someone else at the Wright Air Force Base hospital, Van Trees saw Bluejacket again. He was there fighting a losing battle against cancer. Bluejacket reminded Van Trees of the fable once more and wrote Van Trees about it as well.
Van Trees took to tracking the truth in the late 1970s, visiting Indians in Oklahoma on business trips to start his research. After retiring from his job at an electronics firm, he devoted more time to the effort.
"It's been a labor of love," said Van Trees. "I did it for my own convictions."