CLAY — Vickie Osborne Brown was 10 when she found the words written in her grandmother’s Bible: Seaberry Arms (Cherokee princess).
“I said, ‘Maw, are we kin to the Indians?’”
Her grandmother’s simple affirmative started the girl on a journey of sorts that she still travels as an adult.
James McComas, who grew up in Clay, was in his 50s before he found out. As his aged father lay dying in 1985, he told his son of their American Indian ancestry and how to document it.
Tap most anyone on the shoulder in Clay — particularly the Osbornes — and they can probably tell you when they found out about their Cherokee ties.
“They were making fun of my sister at school, saying she was black — only using a lot meaner words — so my Dad told her,” recalled Homer Osborne, 77. “And my Dad never talked about stuff like that.
“Back then, nobody ever wanted to be part Indian.”
Some still don’t.
Homer, who is very knowledgeable about the ancestry of Clay- area residents, is Vickie’s father. When Vickie ran a local beauty shop a few years ago, Homer would often stop by to talk. When he heard a customer’s last name, he couldn’t help but enlighten them about their lineage — often Cherokee.
“And a lot didn’t want to know it,” Vickie said.
Others have embraced it ... especially the ones who know Solomon’s secret.
Escape to the north
In 1838, U.S. troops were pushing the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in the hills of western North Carolina. They were to be relocated to Oklahoma to make room for white settlers. It was a harrowing, heart-wrenching journey, and many died in what would become known as the Trail of Tears.
By then, Solomon Osborne (about three-quarters Cherokee) and his bride, Seaberry, the daughter of a Cherokee chief, were fleeing north, choosing the northern Cherokee hunting ground over the dusty West.
(In all, about 1,000 Cherokees escaped the Trail of Tears. Today, their descendants are known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which is headquartered in Cherokee, N.C.)
Solomon and Seaberry, who took the white name Martha Arms, first settled in Tazewell, Va., where their cabin still stands and is on the National Historic Register.
But the constant fear of being found out by the government and its anti-Indian policies kept them on the move. They next settled in what is now Wyoming County, then Nicholas County, where Seaberry died in 1866, and lastly Clay County, where Solomon died in 1880.
Solomon and Seaberry had several children; Solomon and his second wife had several more. They were all bestowed with very white-sounding names, as the family continued to try to hide its past.
Together, they would go on to quietly populate a large portion of Clay and Nicholas counties.
When Homer Osborne learned as a boy that Solomon and Seaberry were his great-great-grandparents, he kept it hidden.
“You could be discriminated against, so I never told,” he said, although it was likely he was keeping a secret from at least a few others harboring the same secret. “I didn’t look like a Cherokee, so I got by.”
Solomon was a quarter English, which left him with lighter coloring, including reddish hair.
Some of the children of Solomon and Seaberry carried his lighter, English features, while others had darker coloring like their mother. That pattern carried on to descendants such as Homer, whose gray hair holds traces of red.
Today, few of the Osborne descendants carry unmistakable American Indian features. Some who do resemble their native ancestors add an air of authenticity to “Solomon’s Secret,” an outdoor drama performed in Clay for about 15 years.
‘One of us’
Solomon buried Seaberry in the vicinity of 20-Mile Creek near Belva, Nicholas County.
He kept her actual gravesite secret, but some of his descendants believe they know where she is buried because of carvings on a nearby rock.
The rock has an arrow, which they believe points in the direction of the grave; a cross, which shows that Seaberry embraced Christianity; and an A, assumedly for Arms.
The secret, the love story and the newfound pride in being Cherokee led a group of descendants, including Vickie Osborne Brown and Becky Shipley, a retired Charleston schoolteacher, to band together in the late 1980s and celebrate their heritage.
They started extensive genealogical research. They traveled to North Carolina and Tazewell, Va. And they turned a family reunion skit about Solomon and Seaberry into a two-hour outdoor play, which runs in conjunction with Clay County’s annual Golden Delicious Festival.
The performances now draw hundreds, including many wayward Osbornes who return for a taste of home.
What began for Vickie as words in her grandmother’s Bible has turned into a stack of letters from across the country and as far away as Egypt — all from people who hold connections to the Cherokee of West Virginia.
Those connections, now out in the open for most descendants, run deep.
“He’s one of us,” James McComas said recently, describing an old war hero with an Osborne link, however tenuous. (McComas’ grandfather married an Osborne.)
For much of the 20th century, being “one of us” meant keeping quiet. Now, the Solomon’s Secret group is proud to tell anyone who will listen. But will the enthusiasm endure?
“The children aren’t showing much interest,” Shipley said of the next generation of Osborne descendants. “We worry about what will happen next.”
For more information on the Osborne family or the play “Solomon’s Secret,” call Vickie Osborne Brown at 587-2925.
To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.