The Magic Dress of Harriet Surguine

Magic Dress of Harriet Surguine


When “Before We Were White” was chosen as the name for this blog and podcast, it was fully intended to be provocative.

After a couple of years, though, various messages and emails have made me realise that many readers and listeners are still viewing American ethnic history through the lens of “race”, as if talking about the time before we were “white” should ALWAYS mean that so-called “white” people were once “brown” or “black” people – or at least partly so.

And because most Americans with deep roots in colonial times DO have at least some ancestry from places other than Europe, and because they can rarely pinpoint exactly where this non-European ancestry entered their family tree, it is perhaps easiest for these people to stick with the old way of categorising people according to “race”.

So even the kindest folks, people without a racist bone in their body, people ready to embrace their mixed ancestry, continue to describe themselves in “racial” terms.

They will say things like “I’m mostly white, but with some black and native ancestry”.  Sometimes they actually specify an ethnicity, but this specified ethnicity is always European, even when their “Irish” or “German” ancestry often comprises only a minority fraction of their heritage.  Igbo, Choctaw, Bakongo, Shawnee, Wolof, Lenape – all of these ethnic groups remain an amorphous blob of “Black” or “Native”.

It is true that in America, cultural genocide and racism has made it much harder to pinpoint the ethnicity of our non-European ancestors.  But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Getting rid of “racialist” thinking demands that we learn to view humans in terms of their ethnicity or culture – NOT THEIR SKIN COLOR.

Getting rid of “racialist” thinking can and should happen even when we are talking about people who got lumped together in the past under the “lucky side” of the racial caste system.

So when we talk about the time “before we were white”, we also mean the time before utterly different groups of “whitish looking people” became “whites” in a legal sense within the American caste system.

Germans, Scots, Finns, Spaniards, Jews, Swedes, Armenians, Italians, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Poles, Czechs, Greeks, Majorcans, Cypriots, Berbers, Welsh, Romani, and many others were subsumed into the American “race” system as “white folks”, as if “white” were an ethnicity in and of itself.

By accepting the idea of a “white race”, we end up missing an opportunity to understand the real nature of who we are, and where we really come from…



Mountains around Hawkins County, Tennessee, about 1810

“One time as he came in home from loading, his daughter ask him to come in and see her dress which she had first pulled off. He did so and the dress seemed to light the whole room. Her dress had been sparkling for several nights. Harriet told him about it and he made light of her but when he saw it he never said a word. He first made one trip with his stock after that and took sick and died.”

(from lore passed-down by the “Surguine” family, supposed to be of mainly French origin)


Here are the surnames of some other Appalachian families of French origin:

Agee (Agie)
Alley (Allée)
Auxier (from German “Achser”, but present in French and German-speaking Alsace)

Bellew (when Anglicised, from French “Ballou”; not to be confused with “Bilyeu”)
Berrong (Beron)
Blue (Ballou)
Bobo (Baubeau)
Brashear (Brassieur)
Bundren (Bondurant)

Chardavoyne (Char de Voine?)
Chasteen (Chastain)

Dabney (d’Aubigne)
Damron (also “Dameron”)
De Busk (Deboske, de Busque?)
Debreuil (Paw-Paw French)
DeHart (de Haart, de Hardt – perhaps Dutch, Flemish, or Alsatian)
Delashmutt/Shoemate (de la Chaumette)
DeShon (Deschamps)
Dismukes (Des Meaux?)
DuPont (rare)
DuPuy (Manakin)

Faucheraud (rare)
Foret (Forêt)
Foure (Manakin)
Fountain (Fontaine)
Fugate (Fugett)
Fuqua (Fouquet)

Gevedon (Gevaudan)
Guerin (often “Geren” in Appalachia)

Hardin (Hardouin)
Hash (Heche)
Hazard (Hassard)

Jordan (Jourdan)

LaFon (LaFond)
Le Grande
Lemaster (Le Maistre)
Lovely (sometimes from “Lavallée”)
Loving (Lavigne)

Money (from both French “Monet” and Anglo-Gaelic “Munney”)
Mullins (sometimes from “Moulin”)


Oxshear (see “Auxier” – from German “Achser”, but present in Alsace)

Parton (Partain)
Perault (Manakin)

Ramey (Rémy)
Reno (Renaud)
Reynold(s) (sometimes from French “Reynaud”)
Runyon (Rongnion)

Sevier (Xavier)
Shamblin (Champlain)
Sublett (Soblet)
Surguine (prob from “Séguin”)

Tackett (Tacquette)
Terror (Tirard)
Tezon (Paw-Paw French)
Trout (Trautt; perhaps Alsatian)
Tunnell (Tonnellier)

Via (also “Viar”)

Whisenhunt (Visinand; found among French and German Swiss)
Wingo (Vigneau)


#beforewewerewhite #appalachia #ethnicity

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