Sparks off the Wheel of Fortune

“Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you.”

Mark Twain

The family tree of virtually every American family descended from “non-elites” is riven with mysteries, questions, dead ends, and dubious claims of lineage.

By “non-elite”, we mean people with little access to the levers of power – levers which include noble ancestry, inherited wealth, presumed “whiteness”, good societal connections, access to higher education, etc.

The new President of the USA, Joe Biden, was born Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.

Even a casual observer would notice the unusual middle name, and anyone with a basic knowledge of European languages would guess the name to be of French origin.

And they would be right.

President Biden is well-known for his pride in his family’s Irish Catholic roots – roots which are, as with so many Americans, plentiful indeed.

His “Robinette” roots, on the other hand, derive from an apparently French Huguenot (Protestant) family who fled France for London during the early to mid-1600s, where they soon came into contact with members of the English Protestant Quaker faith.

In about 1682, these Huguenot-Quaker Robinettes followed many others of their faith to William Penn’s new colony in America – Pennsylvania.

If we are subscribers to the mythological version of American history (recently in the news due to the Trump administration’s release of the faux historical “1776 Report”), then the Biden family origin story finishes right there, in classic American style. The “melting-pot” merges decent Protestants “escaping religious persecution” with later Irish Catholics escaping famine and British colonial rule in Ireland.

So far, so virtuous, so white.

This is where a curiously American phenomenon comes into play, a thing this writer has learned through many years of research.

Some branches of immigrant families remain true to certain moral convictions, while some branches become seduced by the promise of wealth – easily increased wealth. The American institution of color-based chattel slavery made it possible for just one skilled man to multiply his wealth exponentially through the purchase of a slave or two.

Imagine being a skilled blacksmith, with a working farm, in 1750s Pennsylvania, Maryland or Virginia. Do you choose to pay the wages of two farmhands and two forge assistants for 30 years? Or do you choose to “buy” two “negro wenches”, who will cook dinner, hoe your garden, and clean your house, while “producing” multiple unpaid farm and forgehands for many years to come?

I have seen and read the ads placed in London newspapers from the time. Ads promising cheap land, and a life of comparative ease for those with cash for “starter slaves”.

Some (and I repeat some), Robinettes lost their footing on their faith, and chose wealth and greed instead.

They joined the ranks of the East Coast American “elites”.


I only know all of this because my own family is descended from altogether different stock. “Non-elite” stock.

“Sparks”, or “Old Mix Americans“.

I call my people “sparks”, as in the sparks thrown from an iron-shod wagon wheel, or sparks blown from a chimney, only catching fire somewhere far distant.

In this case, the sparks landed in Southern Appalachia, where many “Robinettes” can be be found among my own people.

The nature of 18th and early 19th century records makes it virtually impossible to track a clear line from 1800s Tennessee and Kentucky back to 1600s New England, unless one is lucky enough to find land titles, wills and other such documentation.

But here’s the bottom line. Many Appalachian Robinettes are deeply intermarried with other mountain families who are without doubt “multi-ethnic” – people referred to in some circles as “Melungeons“.

It is hard to know whether these people descend from Indians, “free people of color” and others who “borrowed” their surname from Quakers (who were on the whole very decent toward “non-whites”), or whether they are simply descendants of slaves and slaveholders. The answer is probably a mix of all of these possibilities.

But one thing is certain. Their trajectory in American history followed a very different path to that of the Bidens and Robinettes of New England.

Following this long history of disadvantage among multi-ethnic families, many of these “sparks off the elite wheel” are left clinging to little more than faith and a hard-won membership card in the safer community of “whiteness”.

Of course none of us can pick our family, whether we are born in a trailer park or with a silver spoon in our mouths. And while the sins of our forefathers most certainly have repercussions which echo down to the present day, we can excuse ourselves from fault – but only if we choose to recognise the repercussions of historical wickedness, and if we make a personal choice to evolve intellectually, morally, and socially.

I have no idea whether Mr. Biden is aware of all this. His words, his cabinet picks, his service under Barack Obama, point to a man who has at least some sense of social justice.

What really matters, is that people learn to appreciate and understand that our stories are intertwined and bound-up in ways we can scarcely imagine.

Image: A young Joe Biden

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