By Noah Johnson
My family is as old as dirt when it comes to our history in the United States.
With our roots firmly planted in the American soil, my family has traversed throughout the country, from the Carolinas to the Deep South to the bright lights of Hollywood. We’ve been everything from traveling medicine men to outlaws to movie stars.
“This family has been in the United States for a long, long time,” said Rene Lighthouse, my maternal aunt.
My family’s roots date all the way back to mid-1700s emigrants from North Molton Devon, England. My great-grandmother’s maternal side dates can be traced to the Campbell clan in Scotland, where Neil Campbell immigrated to Cape Fear, North Carolina, in the early 1800s.
Thomas Jefferson Holder was one of those deeply rooted family members to whom my aunt referred. Holder was the husband of my great-great-grandmother Maddie Lee Williams. He presumably married Williams shortly after the death of his first wife, Flora Margaret Priest. Holder had six children with Priest before she died.
Of those six children, Elizabeth later became a stand-in actress for movie star Esther Williams.
Holder married the 23-year-old Williams when he was 51. They had four more kids of their own before Williams died of influenza some time between 1918 and 1919.
Family lore passed down is that Holder was a traveling medicine man who had an affair with a member of the Lumbee Tribe between his two marriages. According to Rene, the family’s genealogist, the tribe was distinct to North Carolina, the same area where Holder lived.
Taking it a step further, Lighthouse did a DNA analysis and found a link to a Lumbee family. Allegedly, this affair produced a daughter. Lighthouse likened the supposed daughter’s resemblance to that of my great-grandmother, albeit a little more darker toned. Even their names are similar; the daughter’s name was Lily Bell and my great-grandmother’s name was Netty Bell.
With a family history as deep and gnarled as my family’s, it can be difficult to keep the story straight.
“Family history, as it gets passed through the years, changes a little bit, but there is always some truth to it,” Lighthouse said.
Lighthouse has single-handedly taken on the project of mapping my family’s deep heritage, which is no small task. However, she said she hasn’t lost sight of her goal and takes her work seriously.
“This is an ongoing investigation.”