Entries by Brian Halpin

The “Black Dutch” of Appalachia

  The German word for “German” is “Deutsch”, and in America, “Deutsch” got misconstrued as “Dutch”.  The so-called “Pennsylvania Dutch” or Amish and Mennonite communities are not Dutch – they are German. In the late 1600s and early 1700s – during the Nine Years War [1688-1697] and the Wars of the Spanish Succession [1701-1715] – […]

“It’s about the land, stupid!”

  1776.  You’re flat broke most of the time, and hungry half the time. A recruiting sergeant rides into your small town in backcountry Virginia. “Come and fight for a year or two”, says the sergeant. “Fight for what?” asks you. “For a new government.  Freedom.” “How much you paying?” asks you. “Food, a set […]

“Gypsy Queens” and Irish Travellers

  Tryphena McNeill, née Green, from an English Romanichal family of Greens and Bucklands, was married to Samuel “King Sam” McNeill, who seems to have been of Irish Traveller (Pavee) stock. The extent of intermarriage between these two itinerant groups is much debated, with outsiders often preferring to focus on ethnic difference rather than cultural […]


  Sally Shields was born in South Carolina in 1821, one of many children born to an enslaved woman and her so-called “owner”, a man named William Bryant Shields. Details are sketchy, but some form of human bond must have slowly developed between William Shields and his “consort”. Within a few years, Shields felt compelled […]

Frontier Philology

  The Cornett surname is attached to Appalachia and frontier-era America as certainly as bubble-gum to the underside of a roadside diner table. The fact is, no one really knows the deep origins of these Cornett folks.  The name itself can be found in France, Belgium, and many other places, including Scotland, where it arrived […]

God, Mammon, and Race Politics

  A kingpin of commercial American evangelicalism named Pat Robertson died this month. People born after the Boomer generation can probably not imagine a time before tele-evangelism, and its unholy trinity of The Bible, money, and politics. The reason for churches being exempt from various taxes goes back to ancient times, and stems from the […]

Unreliable Narrators

  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 […]

North to Alaska (remaster)

  By the end of the short-lived Klondike and Alaskan Gold Rushes of the late 1890s, the far northwest of the North American continent had been changed irrevocably. Over 100,000 prospectors had swarmed like a plague of locusts over the Yukon Territory and Alaska, bringing everything from pack animals to industrial river dredging machinery with […]

Francis Scott Key and Taking the Knee

  What is represented by kneeling? Subservience?  Obedience?  Humility?  Religiosity?  Divisiveness? It all depends on the witness, of course, and their angle of observation. What is the meaning of a clenched fist salute? Pride?  Solidarity?  Defiance?  Triumphalism?  Black anger? In America, as ever, meaning is only inferred and attached to gestures and symbols after checking […]