Appropriate Appropriation?

Archibald Stansfield Belaney aka Grey Owl

Archibald Stansfield Belaney aka “Grey Owl”


Meet “Grey Owl“, born 18 Sep 1888.

A one time fur trapper for Canadian companies, he eventually came to understand the great damage being wrought upon the natural world by unregulated commercial exploitation of natural resources.

During his life, he wrote numerous books, becoming a renowned early spokesperson for the conservation movement.  He was particularly passionate in his arguments for the protection of the North American beaver [Castor canadensis].

Grey Owl had French-Canadian, Mohawk, Ojibwe, and Métis wives and consorts during his relatively short life, and was father to at least 5 children.  His much younger part-Algonquian, part Mohawk wife Anahareo should probably receive credit for first convincing Grey Owl of the evils of commercial fur-trapping.

Grey Owl died aged only 49, his health badly compromised by alcoholism brought on by his experiences during WWI.

After his death in 1938, it was revealed that he was in fact not half-Scottish, half-Apache as he had always claimed.

He was Archibald Stansfield Belaney, of Hastings in Sussex, England.

It is worth considering people like “Grey Owl“, when we argue about cultural and identity appropriation.

Perhaps the motivation of the impostor is more important than the actual identity they assume?

Many, many of us try on new skins as we move through life.  Because our identities usually change incrementally rather than dramatically, it is often only late in life that we recognise our younger self as a complete stranger.

Would the world have listened to a damaged “Archibald Belaney” as he railed against environmental destruction?

Almost certainly not.

So whose crime is bigger?

The crime committed by an impostor with a profound love of indigenous culture and the natural world?

Or the crime committed by people so culturally bankrupt that they can only accept truth when it comes from an “exotic” outside source?

An outsider onto whom we can project our secret dreams and longings for something better?


#BeforeWeWereWhite #CulturalAppropriation #impostors #NatureConservation

American Ethnicities According to Wikipedia

American actress Barbara Hershey at a party in 1966

American actress Barbara Hershey at a party in 1966


As Stephen Stills once wrote for his band Buffalo Springfield in 1966:

“There’s something happening here,
what it is ain’t exactly clear…”

Posts by friends on social media can send this writer down some pretty deep rabbit holes.

Seeing a post about the 1970s film “Billy Jack” got me to thinking about the weird fascination in the USA with martial arts during that era.

This was the age of Bruce Lee.

This was the age of Elvis throwing kung fu moves on stage in a spangled jumpsuit.

This was the age of the TV series “Kung Fu“, with David Carradine wandering the Wild West as a disowned, half-Chinese Shaolin monk, kicking cowboy ass pretty much everywhere along the way.

With that explanation of my weird rabbit-holing thought processes out of the way, let’s press on.

This post isn’t about Kung Fu, nor is it about the Chinese influence on American culture and ethnicity.

Nope, this post is about celebrated American actress Barbara Hershey.  Why?  Because she was lurking just around a dark corner of the rabbit hole, as the ex-partner of actor David Carradine.

Naturally I had to click through.


Ms. Hershey was once considered something of a “kooky” hippy chick, but has grown old gracefully into one of the most respected talents of her generation.

Check out her relatively recent turn in Darren Aronofsky‘s psychological horror film “Black Swan“.

At any rate, as someone who writes about American ethnicities, the dark good looks of Ms. Hershey made me curious.  And yes, upon checking, she is of mixed-ethnicity.

Like most of the other creatives involved in the film “Black Swan” (Aronofsky, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Mila Kunis, etc.) Barbara Hershey has a Jewish background, being born “Barbara Herzstein” in 1948 Hollywood, California.

But once again, this post isn’t about the Jewish influence on the American entertainment industry – a subject which could fill a hundred posts.

This is about Barbara Hershey‘s mother, “Melrose Moore“, an Arkansas girl by birth.

This how Wikipedia describes the ethnic background of Melrose Moore:

“…her [Barbara Hershey’s] mother, a native of Arkansas, was a Presbyterian of Scots-Irish descent.”

Really?  How odd that the two “sources” for this assertion of “Scots-Irish” ancestry are just dead links to old celebrity magazine interviews.  Did Barbara Hershey mention Scots-Irish ancestry to an interviewer?  Who knows?  The sources cited stubbornly refuse to appear in any internet search.

No matter.  When you’ve looked through old historical records for as many years as this old dog, certain things leap out immediately.  Like the relations between certain places and certain surnames.

“Arkansas” and “Moore”, for example.

The Moore surname runs through the underground river of Old Mix American ancestry like a seam of silver ore.

And when we walk a path back upriver, what we find are ancestors of Barbara like the Farrars (don’t ask – worth a post on its own), and early Moores and Goodmans of colonial era North Carolina who migrated into Kentucky.  Not a particular point of interest, if we agree to buy into the “Scots-Irish” history of frontier America and Appalachia.

Except these Moores and Goodmans are enumerated in the earliest census records as “free people of color”.

Not only that.  There is not one single line in the maternal ancestry of Barbara Hershey which can be readily ascertained as “Scots-Irish“.  Not one.

This is not the first, second, or even hundredth time this researcher has seen this “phenomenon”.  It’s ubiquitous online.

Anyone see the film “The Revenant” with Leonardo de Caprio?  Based on the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass?

Some faceless “expert” on Wikipedia has decided that Hugh Glass was “Scots-Irish“.  WITHOUT ONE SOLITARY SHRED OF DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE.

“Glass” is a surname also found among German and Gaelic-speaking Irish immigrants, the latter of whom also often arrived in America from Ulster, although one rarely hears of it.  To presume that anyone arriving in America from Ulster during the 1700s must have been “Scots-Irish” is simply, utterly wrong.

But the point is moot.  No one knows the true origins of Hugh Glass, or if he even came from Northern Ireland…




Trying to keep a lid on “conjured history” would be a full-time job for an army of volunteers willing to play “whack-a-mole”.  Within 10 minutes of this writer’s editing of the Hugh Glass Wikipedia page to reflect actual facts, someone had jumped in and reasserted Glass’s “Scots-Irish” ancestry.

A paranoid or conspiracy-minded person might be forgiven for wondering if white supremacists actively “work” Wikipedia, inserting their preferred ethnic background into the biographies of many more American figures.

So the next time you see the term “Scots-Irish” anywhere in the context of American history, have a care.

As suggested at the start of this post –


“There’s something happening here,
what it is ain’t exactly clear…”


As it’s the Christmas season, I will ask a favor straight up.

This blog and podcast would love to dedicate itself full-time to sharing amazing stories – real stories, not propaganda – from American history, but the huge amount of work and research involved in this enterprise is currently going largely unremunerated, except for the generosity of a very small group of kind souls who have always believed this work is important.

If you regularly enjoy reading our blog posts, or listening to our podcasts, please consider supporting us at: (once-off PayPal donations) (monthly subscription) (once-off contributions)

If you don’t feel able to support this work financially, it cannot be stressed enough how your shares of our posts and podcasts have a real, tangible impact on growing our audience.

Love and peace this Christmas season, and look out for one more podcast episode this month!



#BeforeWeWereWhite #BarbaraHershey #JewishHollywood #ScotsIrish







Johnny Depp and the Gatekeepers

Actor and musician John Christopher "Johnny" Depp

Actor and musician John Christopher “Johnny” Depp


Is it any wonder that most “Old Mix Americans” eventually declared their heritage under simplistic or ridiculous “race” or color labels?

If there was ever any doubt that in the USA, “white” has always been a social category masquerading as a legitimate biological category, consider the following:

Why are Americans who claim mixed ancestry always on the receiving end of vitriolic attacks from all sides?

When public figures such as Senator Elizabeth Warren or Johnny Depp mention, claim, honor (or trade upon?) their ethnically-mixed ancestry, all hell breaks loose.

The American right wing howls, because as the inventors of “identity politics”, their forefathers decreed that the world is divided between Black, Red, Brown or Yellow Asian, and White pseudo-scientific “races”.

In this universe of the far right, to be “Black” means a person must be descended from the slaves of “White Folks”.

This is of course a caste or social rank thing…

To be “White” in this conjured reality, a person needn’t be “White” per se, in the sense of actual skin shade.  Being “White” means “not being provable or seen as descended from slaves“.

To be “Indian” requires a person to be frozen in time, to be a living relic of the frontier era and John Wayne films.  Again, ethnicity is defined in terms related to so-called “White Folks”.  “Indians” are symbols, icons.   Their symbolic meaning resides in their having been “worthy adversaries” for “White Folks” to excel against.

The American left is equally blameworthy, projecting all manner of neo-hippy imaginings and spiritual nature longings upon indigenous peoples.  This is simply an American version of what the great Palestinian writer Edward Said once described as “Orientalism”, in which the West projects its own innermost desires onto other cultures.  Modern “Indians”, at best, are allowed to appear in films, media, and memes always mouthing wise platitudes about “The Great Spirit/The Environment/Mother Earth” and other suspiciously “liberal” concerns.

This tragic deformation of history and culture – and this reductive attitude to ethnicity – makes exceedingly coarse men like Donald Trump call women like Elizabeth Warren “a little Pocahontas“.

This state of play also makes the left (and many American Indians) scream “cultural appropriation”, when anyone seen as “white” claims indigenous ancestry.

This is because as stated at the beginning of this post, “white” is a social category rather than a biological or “racial” category.  Racists only pretend that “race” exists in the scientific realm so they can act as Pontius Pilate, washing their hands of responsibility for the thing they’ve created to justify human wickedness.

Fake science becomes a sort of Deus ex machina. 

“We didn’t invent race!  Nature did.  It’s not our fault nature made some races inferior to others.”


In the USA, Johnny Depp and Elizabeth Warren are both considered pretty much “white”.

BUT BECAUSE IT’S A CULTURAL OR SOCIAL CATEGORY, NOT A GENETIC OR BIOLOGICAL CATEGORY, believers in “blood” race categories get extremely angry.

Consider this from Wikipedia:

<In interviews in 2002 and 2011, Depp claimed to have Native American ancestry, saying: “I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line. My great-grandmother was quite a bit of Native American. She grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek Indian”.

Depp’s claims came under scrutiny when Indian Country Today wrote that Depp had never inquired about his heritage or been recognized as a member of the Cherokee Nation. This led to criticism from the Native American community, as Depp has no documented Native ancestry, and Native community leaders consider him “a non-Indian” and a “pretendian”.>

What goes unsaid here is that Depp probably made no formal claims or enquiries about his folkloric indigenous ancestry, because he knows that he is not “culturally” Creek or Cherokee.

Are there plenty of “wannabe” Indians in the USA?  Sure.  But the more serious readers of history who note their indigenous ancestry are not the same as “wannabes” who practice a tawdry cultural appropriation.

And if self-appointed gatekeepers decide that “documented” indigenous ancestry is a pre-requisite for mentioning family folk memory, then half of Southern Appalachia will be forced to join the many multi-ethnic fools who claim “Scots-Irish” ethnicity.  And many do.

Depp is correct (even if by accident) in noting the historical fact of a large indigenous presence in Kentucky, even after “White” colonisation.  This writer has no idea whether Depp is aware of the likely “Black DutchCraft/Kraft family in his ancestry – people quite likely descended from German Sinti (Romani Gypsies).  His ancestry is also rife with Baileys and Coopers, families also quite likely to have English Romani roots.  This writer also suspects his Reno (Renaud?) and Whitaker people have roots in early mixed-ethnic Virginia and the Carolinas.

Whatever the facts of his ancestry, and whatever Depp’s motivations, he is quite correct in his assessment of the ethnic makeup of the old families of Eastern Kentucky, and it was the mixed-ethnic brown underclass traders, trappers, longhunters, and earliest squatters arriving in Kentucky and Tennessee from Virginia and the Carolinas who were most likely to intermarry with indigenous peoples.

American history is a mess.  Anyone who wants a simple version wants a bullshit version.


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #JohnnyDepp  #KentuckyHistory

The 80-10-10 Principle

Crawford Leith with unidentified men and children, including recently emancipated African-Americans

Crawford Leith with unidentified men and children, including recently emancipated African-Americans

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less and less certain of so many things.

One thing which has remained, however, is my belief in the “80-10-10 Principle“.

That is to say, perhaps 80% of humanity tend to be followers, blown to and fro by the prevailing spirit of the times.

Another 10% are actively and aggressively selfish, destructive, or downright evil.

The final 10% are those who actively stand in the way of selfishness and evil, while seeking to make the world a happier place.

The job of the “righteous 10%” is particularly hard, because such people are not naturally practiced in violence or ruthlessness.

That is what makes the “righteous 10%” all the more remarkable in their determination, perseverence, and courage.




Many, many of the earliest settlers in the 19th century Ohio Country – Hudsons, Leiths, et al – were determinedly anti-slavery. This did not make them saints as regards indigenous land rights, but at least they were clear-eyed about the evil of human bondage.

Never believe the apologists who say that evil “was just normal to everyone back then“.

It wasn’t.

Here is a wonderful photo from 1863 or 1864 Ohio – probably near the Crawford Leith farm, which also hosted a stop on the Underground Railroad.

One can see the simultaneous exhaustion and pride in the faces of people who knew that freedom isn’t free, and they were willing to pay the price.

This Christmas season I am thinking about all of the 10 percenters – from the women of Iran, to the front lines of Ukraine, and anywhere else that people are doing the hard yards.

#BeforeWeWereWhite  #CivilWar  #abolition  #emancipation

“Neither fish nor fowl…”

Left: Portrait of Lovey Saylor made with camera lucida; right: illustration of man using camera lucida

Left: Portrait of Lovey Saylor made with camera lucida; right: illustration of man using camera lucida


Historians and genealogists digging through 19th century documents and family records will often stumble across images of people rendered in a curious style.

These portraits are neither freehand drawings, nor are they early photographs.

These pictures were made using an old optical drawing aid called a “camera lucida“, patented in the early 1800s, but clearly a development arising from the much older “camera obscura” of the 1500s.

This apparatus essentially involved using a lens to project an image of the sitter directly onto a flat surface where paper or canvas was placed, allowing the artist to trace and shade the subject with no need to be looking up constantly.

This of course allowed the artist to produce quite accurate images at greater speed than by conventional drawing or painting.

Because the camera lucida was also quite portable, artists were not bound to work by appointment in a workshop or studio.

Itinerant artists were thus able to offer relatively true-to-life portraits for a price well below that of oil or watercolor paintings, in the comfort and privacy of the customer’s home.


#BeforeWeWereWhite #ArtHistory #portraiture #CameraLucida

When Women Kill

Three women from Wise County, Virginia brought before court on murder charges in 1934

Three women from Wise County, Virginia charged with murder [1934]

Any American with deep, pre-Revolutionary War roots in British colonial times must understand that their surname may bear only a tangential relation to their actual ethnic history.

While it is obvious that many African-Americans carry assumed “Anglo” surnames, there are many other non-Anglo peoples who did the same.

Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, French, Basques, Welsh, Scottish and Irish Gaelic speakers, South Asians, Jews, Romani, and of course, indigenous peoples.

It is important to cross-reference genealogical records such as birth certificates and census data with documentation found in court records, photographs, descendants’ DNA, newspapers, etc. if we are to  gain a proper understanding of any ancestor’s ethnic background.

#AmericanHistory #OriginOfSurnames #AmericanEthnicities #genealogy

History, Heroes, and Dentures

George Washington's dentures

George Washington’s dentures


Friends and other people often ask me “What’s this thing with you and history?”

As if history is for fusty old geeks or weirdos – something to lump alongside stamp collecting, or being a Goth after the age of 50 (no offence intended to philatelists or middle-aged fans of The Cure).

When I was about 14 years old, my junior high school had try-outs for the annual school play.

That year, the play was a musical called “Let George Do It“, a typical piece of heartland American fluff purporting to tell the life of the first President of the USA, George Washington.

I went to the try-outs, and got “first stand-by”, or understudy.

My older brother got the actual part.  Any middle-kid with an older, more senior sibling will know how that felt…

Our school was in Phoenix, Arizona, and our school productions always went on the road.  That year, we were going to perform in a most unusual place.

The Hopi Indian Reservation in NE Arizona.

The distance between 1978 and 2022 is huge, and only the wisdom of age eventually made me look back with a combination of shame and horror at what American kids were indoctrinated, trained and employed to do back in the day.

Like some insane scene from a David Lynch film, we children were dispatched to impoverished Indian reservations as an all-singing, all-dancing propaganda corps for telling the vanquished all about the wonderfulness of their conquerors.

A breathtaking level of coarse and arrogant hubris, utterly impervious to irony.

George Washington was notorious for suffering from bad teeth.  By the age of 57 he was left with only a single tooth – a tooth which was removed to make way for the dentures which he wore for most of his latter years.

American schoolchildren of my generation took it as a cultural touchstone or piece of historical iconography that George Washington had wooden teeth.  This “factoid” was as true as the story of Pocahontas‘ deep infatuation with Captain Smith

This is the weakness, the failure, of pseudo-history and foundational mythology.  By being so specific in their construction of a false history, the bluffers inadvertently reveal their hand.

The only reason American schoolchildren were taught about “wooden dentures”, was because the reality was too brutish and nasty for “The Father of a Nation”.

You see, George Washington wore dentures made from teeth extracted from animals and the mouths of his slaves – living and dead.

Unlike the purveyors of the “wooden teeth” story, historians rely on documentary evidence when constructing biographies.

And it’s all still there, in the letters and accounts of Mr. Washington himself.

May 8, 1784:

[paid 6 pounds 2 shillings to]

“Negroes for 9 Teeth, on acc[oun]t of the French Dentis [sic] Doctr Lemay [sic].” 

Of course, this sort of living cannibalism practiced by the wealthy upon the poor and disempowered is still with us today – whether it be the black market in organs, or the use of “surrogacy farms” in poorer countries, where young women are paid a relative pittance to carry and bear children for wealthy westerners.

A certain type of people need gods and heroes.  And it is those people who are most likely to bend facts and commit violence in defence of what they believe their gods and heroes represent.

In reality, gods and heroes are simply reflections of how some people wish to see themselves, and how they wish the world worked.

Ideologies always cause more pain and death than facts.

This is why facts matter, and it is the reason I “do” history.

©2020, revised 2022


#BeforeWeWereWhite #GeorgeWashington #slavery #dentures

The Forgotten History of the Oregon Trail

Multi-ethnic family including Kalapuya, Oregon, circa late 1800s

Multi-ethnic family including Kalapuya, Oregon, circa late 1800s


Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of America’s past is the history of westward migration.

Who exactly rode west in those wagons?

There was almost no colonisation effort on the western American frontier which didn’t begin with squatters and “outsiders”.

Squatting was a tricky game – people had to squat lands not yet formally claimed or controlled by the British (and later USA) establishment, but these same lands had to lie in borderlands and contested areas where indigenous control had been sufficiently weakened to make successful attacks on squatters and intruders less likely.

By “outsiders”, we might mean people who actively wanted to remove themselves from mainstream society or traditional political structures of government.

Such outsiders were often part of non-mainstream religious communities such as the Moravians, “Dunkards“, Primitive Baptists, Quakers, Mormons. and many others.

Such religious groups sometimes had money, sometimes not, depending on the particular situation.  Sometimes they purchased land, sometimes they squatted land.

Sometimes they married amongst their own, sometimes they took partners from other ethnic groups.

Another more common category of “outsiders” were those people not driven by religion, but families and groups simply too poor to purchase officially surveyed or officially “claimed” land, people who saw land-squatting as a way to improve their lot in life.  These people had not always rejected “respectable” or “elite” society – more usually, it had rejected them.

This mostly impoverished group of outsiders often included various free but “non-white” communities who felt unsafe as color-based slavery began to be enforced under the law in more developed areas with functioning judicial systems.

The borderlands, badlands, swamps, forests, mountains, and hollers of the frontier became the province of these people, along with sundry renegades, former Tories, outlaws, runaway servants and slaves.

These “free people of color” have traditionally been construed by American historians and anthropologists as “bi-racial” or “tri-racial” groups, because slavery based on “race” or skin color demanded that people should slot into one of just three or four legal categories of “color” or “race”.

American historians and anthropologists have thus been co-opted into playing along with the intrinsic absurdity of clear racial categories.  If a term is widely used for long enough – especially in law and legalese – people act as if a “white race” or “black race” actually exists in reality.

But what did people call a brown person with a half-Scottish, half-Cherokee father, and a half-Jewish, half African-American mother?

Were they “bi-racial”? “tri-racial”? or even “quadri-racial”?

And how did they fit into America’s mostly binary legal system?  Were they “white” or “black”?

This is not some random imaginary scenario – such complex intermarriages were common on the early American frontier.

A single “outsider” family in a place like Hawkins County, Tennessee, or Cumberland County, Kentucky in the 1790s might have ancestors from five continents, of ten or more ethnicities.  Children in this one family might range from red-haired and blue-eyed, to black-haired and black-eyed, with a range of skin tones.

Spare a thought for the child born into such a family, who took-after the “wrong” grandparent…




But there are another couple of “outsider” groups who squatted and colonised the leading edge of the American frontier – and they are almost never mentioned.

These two groups were:

1) Dispossessed Eastern Indians, and

2) Old communities of Métis – groups formed by centuries of interaction between Spanish, French, German, Jewish, Romani, African, and Scottish/Irish/Welsh/English frontier trappers, prospectors, traders, miners, longhunters, and indigenous Americans from Canada to Mexico.

Many eastern tribes had been on the move west (and to points north and south) ever since the first colonisers arrived in the 1500s and 1600s.  These migrations were too many and too complicated to go into here, but some were large enough to have a real impact on the demographic make-up of entire regions.  Many of the earliest “pioneers” of the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas were in fact Lenape (Delaware Indian) families from back east.

As for Métis communities, I would highly recommend that readers search the internet for the terms “Métis” and “Half-Breed Tracts“, in order to understand just how common these mixed-ethnic communities actually were.

Anyone who listened to our recent podcast episode Sun Bonnets and Bootstraps will have learned a little about these groups, and their interaction with Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s family in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In a way, these so-called “half-breeds” and Métis were really just a specific, but related branch of the free people of color already discussed above.

Which brings us finally to the point of this post – The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which was intended to open-up the Oregon Territory for settlement, and led directly to the famed “Oregon Trail” which started-off in Missouri.

“Settlement” is a more slippery word than “colonisation”, because it allows the user to sidestep the implications of colonialism – the violent dispossession of land from its rightful inhabitants.

The earliest “American” settlers in Oregon arrived mainly as squatter “outsiders” in advance of the Distribution – Preemption Act of 1841.  This was followed by the Organic Act and Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which was the most generous “homesteading” act in American history, running for five years from 1850 to 1855.  At its inception, earlier squatter and claimant families which included a man and a wife were entitled to claim and gain legal title to a full square mile of surveyed land – a claim equivalating to 640 acres.  Even women and widows were allowed to become registered land owners in those otherwise patriarchal times – and in their own name!  Individuals were entitled to claim half this amount of land – 320 acres.

There can be little doubt that this federal “generosity” was intended to encourage a land rush which would overwhelm the local indigenous population, essentially sparing the US government the need for direct (and expensive) military intervention.

As always in America’s past, the land-hungry underclasses would be used as “shock troops” in frontier regions, and a blind eye would be turned to wholesale massacres by well-armed (but not well-regulated) local militias.

I invite anyone to read about the Willamette Valley and The Rogue River Wars – if you can stomach stories of outright depravity against innocent men, women and children.

Only once the underclasses had done the “dirty work” and cleared the land of natives, did the bigshots arrive from back east – the lumber and land speculators, with the non-indigenous population of Oregon Territory increasing by around 10,000 each year between 1850 and 1855.

Fidgeters and sceptics might at this point be wondering what land grants in Oregon have to do with non-white “outsider” communities farther east?

Let’s read the eligibility requirements for the actual Donation Land Claim Act of 1850:

[each claim be] “granted to every white settler or occupant of the public lands, American half-breed Indians included, above the age of 18 years, being a citizen of the United States, or having made a declaration according to law of his intention to become a citizen.”

Let that sink in. “American half-breed Indians included…”

Such a clear legal provision can mean only a few things:

1) Loads of American “pioneers” in Oregon arriving from Appalachian, Southern, and Midwestern states during the 1830s and 1840s were not seen as “white”.

2) The American government was trying to encourage its undesirable and “expendable” multi-ethnic underclasses to remove to points farther west, weakening tribal structures by incorporating them into the landholding, tax-paying mainstream “white citizenry”.

3) The American government was letting its less desirable and more “expendable” multi-ethnic underclasses do the dirty work of ethnic cleansing in the name of Manifest Destiny.

There will of course be people who argue that this was a case of the American government becoming “progressive” and color-blind in its land acquisition and distribution policies.

Yeah, right.

Tell that to the ethnic groups explicitly excluded from availing of 19th century Oregon land grants, such as free (but clearly African) people, or Hawaiians.

Most of all, tell that to people such as the Kalapuya of Oregon.

Never heard of them?

Of course we never heard about them.

People ban certain kinds of history books from American schools.

And that is exactly how Truth, “Bad Things”, and the story of entire peoples are made to disappear into the distant fog of our silence or ignorance.


And our own conjured reality remains safe, for a time…


#BeforeWeWereWhite #OregonHistory #Métis #Kalapuya

Covid, Cotton Mather, and Cultural Cross-Pollination

Cotton Mather, Puritan minister and pioneer of smallpox inoculation

Cotton Mather, Puritan minister and pioneer of smallpox inoculation


Regular followers of this blog will know that as a history geek, I never neglect an opportunity to frame today’s events through an historical lens.

Which is why, upon the occasion of receiving a Covid-19 booster vaccine, my mind wandered back to the 17th century…




Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister in late 17th and early 18th century colonial New England.

He was also a mover behind the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

In hindsight, we might be tempted to judge harshly, and call him a superstitious fool.

But Mather was operating largely within the knowledge and understanding of the world available to most Anglo-American Protestants at the time.

I’m less inclined to give him a “pass” as a slaveholder – after all, Quakers and others at the time were loud-spoken in their denunciations of human bondage, so no, slavery wasn’t just considered “normal back then” by everyone.

But even Cotton Mather, believer in witchcraft, was able to set aside at least some of his preconceptions, when faced with new evidence.

You see, a slave who Mather named Onesimus (from Hebrew scripture, of course), was an African with experience in the treatment of smallpox – a disease which was then ravaging European, African, and Native American populations.

The European introduction of smallpox and other European diseases to America is believed to have killed up to 90% of Eastern indigenous Americans, who had virtually zero natural immunity to these new pathogens.

During one particularly severe smallpox outbreak, Onesimus suggested that Mather try using an African method for protection from the disease. That method, improved over time, is what we would later call “inoculation”.

Cotton Mather was wise enough to set aside his sense of cultural and intellectual superiority, and listen to his “servant”.

Mather opened his mind to EVIDENCE.

If only modern anti-vaxxers possessed the humility and wisdom of a witch-hunting preacher from three centuries ago…


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #CottonMather #Onesimus #smallpox #puritans #SalemWitchTrials

The Mechanics of Colonialism

Map showing forts, settlements, and migration routes into frontier-era Tennessee and Kentucky

Forts, Settlements, and Migration Routes into Frontier-Era Tennessee and Kentucky


During the 11th and 12th centuries, in an age before gunpowder, the Normans were able to conquer England by constructing forts (motte-and-bailey “castles”) on newly occupied land.

The exact same method – colonisation by fort-building – was employed in Southern Appalachia by land-hungry Americans in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War.

Settlers were not entering a wilderness.  They were entering lands with existing communities, trade networks, farms, and towns.

This is why the Americans who followed the first trappers and longhunters had to build “stations”, blockhouses, and forts along the trails and rivers by which they were entering and intruding upon land belonging to others.

With the advantage of an almost inexhaustible source population, gunpowder and firearms, this American-style “motte-and-bailey” system of occupation took far less time than the earlier, but similar, Norman subjugation of England.

This system can be seen in action to this very day, in places like the Levant, where illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land (the equivalent of Appalachian longhunters and squatters) are eventually fully supported by the coloniser’s military installations and a judicial system weighted in favour of the coloniser.

But enough of comparisons and analogies.

Here is a map I made as an aid in understanding the mechanism of early American colonialism.

With the exception of  some scattered Spanish and French communties (which were often mostly Métis), every single place on this map was land still belonging to non-European Americans at the time.


#BeforeWeWereWhite #AmericanHistory #Appalachia #AmericanFrontier