Unreliable Narrators

Conley Blankenship, 1828-1910, born Buchanan County, Virginia

Conley Blankenship, 1828-1910, born Buchanan County, Virginia


Those of you who’ve been following the Before We Were White podcast for a while will have noticed by now a thread running through almost every episode.

That “thread” is a contention that in America, perhaps more than in any other place, our surnames are NOT reliable indicators of our actual family history.

And in America, our surnames are even less of an indicator of our true ethnic background.

It has been pointed-out time and again by this blog and podcast that there are multiple ethnic groups in American history with good reasons to carry surnames unrelated to their ancestry.

German immigrants seemed particularly ready to cast-off, translate, or at least modify their surnames.

Many, many of the Smiths and Browns in the USA are in fact “Schmidts” and “Brauns”.

“Metzger” becomes “Butcher”.

“Gerlach” becomes “Carlock”.

“Demuth” is now rendered as “Damewood”.

Other non-English speakers also changed their names – either at their time of immigration, or over the course of time.

Gaelic speakers.  Welsh speakers.  Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, French, and Italian speakers.

Appalachia in particular is home to many such people: Goncalves people are now “Kingsolver”, Medaris became “Meadors”, Rémy has become “Ramey”, and Italian coal mining families with names like Bianchi turned into families now going by the name of “White”.

But it doesn’t stop with simply translating non-Anglo surnames into English or modifying a spelling.

Vast numbers of people in America were assigned a name, while others simply borrowed or assumed a new surname outright.

African-Americans are one such group, obviously.

But the vast majority of indigenous Americans, just like African-Americans, have “borrowed” surnames from the culture of colonisers and conquerors at various points in the past.

Last, but most certainly not least, are the “underground diaspora” peoples such as the Jewish and Romani.




It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of family trees now available online – the ones showing an unbroken genealogy going back to an original immigrant patriarch or matriarch during earliest colonial times – are speculative at best.

Why?  Because without an unbroken line of land documents, census records, wills, marriage licences, and death certificates, all cross-checked with DNA results, it is extremely difficult to be certain that we are not one of the millions who carry a “borrowed” surname.

Never mind the fact that perhaps 1 in 10 children born were/are the result of “non-paternal events”, otherwise known as hanky-panky outside of wedlock…

This is particularly true for people with deep roots in Southern Appalachia, a place which was a magnet for the poor, multi-ethnic and disempowered since long before the American Revolution.

Entire family lines were created there from endless liaisons between the undocumented – slaveholders and their slave “mistresses”, longhunters and their “unofficial” indigenous consorts, impoverished single or widowed women forced to trade “favors” for food and money…

Disentangling this often hard, brutal, foundational history from the ridiculously simplistic myth of “white Protestant” settlers has become pretty much my life’s work.

Southern Appalachia is not predominantly “Scots-Irish”.  Southern Appalachia is not “white”.

“Southern Appalachian” is a distinct mix, made-up of peoples from at least four continents.

“Southern Appalachian” – or perhaps “Old Mix American” – should in fact be considered an ethnicity in its own right.

After all, what is an ethnic group, if not a group of people sharing the same geographic space for centuries?

An ethnic group of interconnected kin, with shared mountain history, shared mountain food, language, religion, music, and culture?




If you look at the list of DNA results in the picture below, you will see the surname “Blankenship” – a name quite common in Southern Appalachia.  I’ve blurred-out all but two lines.


Contested male Blankenship ancestor

Contested male Blankenship ancestor


The two legible lines represent two men somewhere in America who did a DNA test, and both believe that their earliest immigrant ancestor was “Ralph Blankenship”.

One carries a typical Western European “Y” DNA haplo very much in keeping with the supposed origins of the “Blenkinsop” families of Northumbria in England.

The other man is genetically the member of a haplogroup very often associated with Jewish people, or at the very least, Middle Eastern people.

England, of course, had a small Jewish population in the 1600s, and perhaps 1% of English men today carry a “J” haplo, so it is not impossible that a Northumbrian Blankenship/Blenkinsop family’s males might have belonged to this typically Middle Eastern haplogroup – even way back then, before joining the American melting pot.

What is NOT possible, however, is that Ralph Blankenship, born 1662, was the carrier of BOTH haplos.

Someone’s family history is clearly wrong.

This is merely one surname from many thousands of Appalachian families who find themselves in the same situation.

There are a myriad of different reasons for these genealogical-genetic conflicts – individual, social, and historical – which we won’t go into here.

Getting back to the initial point of this post, surnames in America are unreliable narrators of genealogical and ethnic history, especially among the early American underclasses.


Jemima Hall née Blankenship, murdered by KKK in Letcher County, KY

Jemima Hall née Blankenship, murdered by KKK in Letcher County, KY


Does this even matter?

That depends.

Some of us couldn’t care less who our forebears were, or what ethnic groups they came from.

Some of us do care, because we love history, especially unexpected or revisionist history.

But there is another group of people who hate true history, because accurate and truthful history doesn’t chime with a mythology which they prefer, a mythology which serves their false self-perceptions and own narrow interests.

These are the people removing books from school libraries, the people going apoplectic over critical race theory.

But as every child knows by the age of 10, when we tell one lie, we have to invent another twenty lies to cover up the first one.

And eventually, our entire life, our communities, our very nation becomes a giant house of cards constructed of lies.

A nation needs to be built of much more solid stuff, if that nation expects to survive and endure.


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #genealogy  #GeneticGenealogy  #AppalachianNames





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