Village Creek

Illustration on a sign located at Village Creek State Park south of Wynne, Arkansas depicting the Trail of Tears.

Born and raised in Claremore, Geraldine Henson Birdsbill turns 100 this Sunday.

Her story, however, begins long before 1919, and has seen many triumphs and challenges.

The story, or at least the parts of it that can be pieced together by written records, begins in 1814 with a white man named William Henson.

William moved onto land vacated by members of the Natchez Tribe. He established a farm and married a full-blooded Cherokee woman named Margaret Blair. They had 10 children.

When the first of several removal treaties was signed in 1817, William signed up for a 640-acre allotment in Cherokee County, North Carolina, in his wife’s name.

“It is quite evident that Henson and his family wanted no part of removal to the Cherokee Nation West,” Geraldine’s daughter Jerry Bird Ford said.

In 1821, William opened up a portion of his land for a reverend to establish a Cherokee mission school. William could not read and write, and he didn’t want his children to suffer the same hardships.

The Cherokee Nation experienced many triumphs in the 1820s, including: creating an alphabet, writing a Constitution, electing their first principal chief, translating the New Testament into Cherokee and establishing the “Cherokee Phoenix.”

But, that same decade, President Andrew Jackson was elected into office and the process of forced removal was set into motion.

“All of the efforts of the Cherokees to maintain their independent government and to prevent their extension of state authority over them was to no avail,” Ford said.

William’s land was sold out from under him in 1838 and he and his family were forced to relocate to Tennessee. The lawsuit that resulted ended in only a small settlement, but it allowed them to move back to North Carolina, if not their old homestead.

The 1848 Mulloy Rolls listed William as an adopted Cherokee with his wife and six of their children, including Joseph, 28 at the time.

The Civil War came and went, impoverishing nearly all Cherokees left in the south; and while the Cherokee Nation won a lawsuit reclaiming some stolen lands, the Henson family could not afford the back taxes due on their property.

In 1869, Joseph took an offer to be removed and go west ahead of his family to establish a home for them.

In 1871, his name appeared on a letter written by an agent of the federal government to the Secretary of the Interior.

The letter stated that the agent furnished each with five pounds of flour, almost four pounds of pork, one pint of bean and a third of a pound of soap.

“Upon examination of the flour, it is found to be soured, caked and musty, so much so that it is unfit for use,” the agent wrote.

In 1881, his family followed. Allow they came by train, they still faced hardships and discrimination. Included were Joseph’s wife Salina, their grown daughter Lorena, and Lorena’s children, including her 10-year-old son George.

“During Removal, the Cherokee people were stripped of their life’s work, all worldly good, their families were broken and they experienced the ultimate despair of having to begin all over again in a new land with nothing to help them but faith and hope,” Ford said. “We are fortunate, in an ironic sense, that many records were kept concerning this family by the federal government.”

George was listed on the Dawes Roll and then moved to Claremore where he met and married Cherokee woman Florence Webb. They raised six children, including Geraldine.

“George seldom spoke of the old days in North Carolina, except to express his new desire to live the life of a white man,” Ford said. “Undoubtedly, this was the result of his unique life, the times in which he lived and the intense suffering he underwent by virtue of being born the wrong color.”

Geraldine graduated from Claremore High School in 1936 with accolades from being on the honor roll and the basketball team.

Later that year she attended and graduated from the Haskell Institute, now the Haskell Indian Nations University, in the commercial department.

Geraldine moved to the Navajo Reservation in 1937 to work for the Indian Service, which included the future Indian Health Service, and got reacquainted with Lawrence Birdsbill, who she met while attending Haskell. They married in 1939.

In 1941, Geraldine starred in an Indian tuberculosis health documentary titled, "Another to Conquer,” available online, which was shown internationally including during WW2 bombing raids in London bunkers.

Geraldine volunteered at the VA Hospital for 50 years and the VFW for 40 years, dressing as a clown to entertain veterans and brighten their days.

She R from Kirtland Air Force Base after 33 years as a secretary in 1974.

Her late brother Glenn Henson was Cherokee Councilor for the Cooweescooee District during the late 70s and early 80s.

“I believe that my mother is the only person now alive in the Cherokee Nation whose parent came to Oklahoma from Cherokee North Carolina on the Trail of Tears,” Ford said.

Geraldine’s 100th birthday celebration will be Sunday at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Catoosa.

Principal Chief Bill John Baker will be in attendance to present her with a handmade blanket.

District 14 Councilor Keith Austin said, “It is truly an honor to share this celebration with the family.”

“As a Cherokee elder who has seen so much before us, we can all learn so much from her,” Austin said. “I’m glad that she wanted to come back to the Cherokee Nation to celebrate her birthday with us.”