Revisiting the Other 9/11

Mountain Meadows Massacre - 19th century print, edited

Mountain Meadows Massacre – 19th century print, edited


The human imagination, while boundless, also seems to prefer a world with boundaries.

Religious fanatics are “over there”.  Massacres are perpetrated by external enemies.

Wild-West pioneers were “white”, Indians were “red”, and slaves were “black” – right?  Boundaries.

The investigation of history, and American ethnic history in particular, requires us to accept that such a drawing of clear boundaries is in fact impossible.




9/11.  Two worlds collide.  On one side, citizens of the USA.  On the other, an oppressed group claiming to represent a purer form of religion, answerable only to God and His Prophet.

By the end of this day, the lives of many, many innocent men, women and children will be cut brutally short.

September 11. The year? 1857.


In early September that year, multiple wagon trains reached Mountain Meadows in Mormon-controlled Utah Territory, carrying non-Mormon settlers on an arduous trek from Arkansas to Southern California.

Ten years earlier, in 1847, Brigham Young had begun leading the religious followers of New York native Joseph Smith from Illinois to Utah, along with their slaves.

Joseph Smith himself had been shot dead alongside his brother Hyrum while serving as mayor of a Mormon-majority town in Illinois in 1844.  An angry mob had forced their way into the jail where the Smith brothers and others awaited trial after declaring martial law and ordering the destruction of a local printing works which had published a newspaper critical of Smith and the Mormon religious “project”.

At the time that Brigham Young (a loyal lieutenant of Joseph Smith) and his “Latter Day Saints” entered the Great Salt Lake Basin, Utah was still part of Alta California, an old Spanish province which had come under Mexican governance following the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain – a long-running conflict which had ended with victory for the Mexicans back in the 1820s.

Many of these Mormons had fought in the Mexican-American War (which was still ongoing in 1847), and chose to see land in Old California as legitimate “spoils of war”, where they might plant a new “Zion”.


By the time the Baker-Fancher wagon train passed through Utah ten years later in 1857, the local Mormon populace was in a state of heightened, vigilant paranoia following two decades of violent persecution back east, and the recent thundering “Reformation” led by their theocratic leader Brigham Young.

A doctrine of “blood atonement” for moral laxity was being regularly preached in Mormon churches, a doctrine in which the wages of sin would now be death…

Almost all representatives of the US Federal government, including judges and US marshals, were fleeing Utah at the time, in immediate fear for their lives and safety.

President James Buchanan responded by ordering an army expedition to the Utah Territory, in order to crush what he deemed to be a full-scale rebellion against US hegemony in the lands annexed from Mexico in 1848.

Adding gunpowder to the mix were the rumors circulating among the Mormon community that a wagon train heading their way included men implicated in the murder of a Mormon back in Arkansas.

This was the volatile cauldron awaiting the Baker-Fancher settlers from Arkansas…


Sunday, the 6th of September, was a day of overwrought public oratory at Mormon services around Utah.  In Salt Lake City, Brigham Young chose the occasion to declare that the Almighty himself

“recognized Utah as a free and independent people, no longer bound by the laws of the United States”.

In Cedar City, meanwhile, another member of the Mormon hierarchy, Isaac Haight, told those gathered at the morning service that he was

“…prepared to feed to the Gentiles the same bread they fed to us.  God being my helper, I will give the last ounce of strength and if need be, my last drop of blood in defence of Zion.”

That same Sunday evening, the Fancher party and others crossed over the rim of the Great Basin and encamped at the place called Mountain Meadows…


The next morning’s quiet peace at the meadows was shattered by gunfire.  A child who survived the attack later recalled:

“Our party was just sitting down to a breakfast of quail and cottontail rabbits when a shot rang out from a nearby gully, and one of the children toppled over, hit by a bullet.”

The shots came from forty to fifty Mormons disguised as Indians, along with some of their Paiute allies and trading partners in the Indian slave trade.

The well-armed emigrants returned fire, and the ensuing gun battle developed into a drawn-out siege.

After five days, the Mormons approached the encircled wagons under a white kerchief of truce.  The thirsty and desperate Arkansas families were marched away under guard toward Cedar City, with an agreement that no one would be harmed, provided the party agreed to give up its stock, wagons, arms and stores, and remove themselves from Utah immediately.

Less than a mile down the road, a signal was given, and over 120 unarmed men, women and children as young as four years of age were shot, stabbed, and beaten to death as they ran screaming, trying to escape.

Without the dignity of proper burial, the half-eaten and naked corpses of women and children were visible to passers along this road for months after the event…


Just 17 children, all under the age of seven, survived the bloody massacre, to be taken in by local families for a couple of years, until finally reunited with family back home in Arkansas.

Only after two decades, and much legal horse-trading, did one solitary man eventually stand trial for his part in the outrage.

John Lee was duly executed by firing squad.




Many, many of the Arkansans murdered in Utah came from Johnson and Carroll Counties in Arkansas, at the southern end of the Ozark Mountains.  Many had only been there for one or two generations, and many had roots in Eastern Tennessee.

And a great many of them were far removed from the cinematic images of doughty, “white Anglo-Saxon” pioneers in covered wagons of Hollywood fame.

How do we know this?

I myself might have never heard the dark tale related above, but for my own connections to the multi-ethnic Bunch families of Appalachia – people sometimes referred to as Melungeons.

One of the victims of the Mountain Meadows Massacre was a 22 year old girl named Armilda Miller Tackett.  Armilda was the niece of one Samuel Thompson Allred, the husband of Anna Bunch, who is in turn a cousin of mine, and President Barack Obama‘s fourth great-grandmother.

Needless to say, my son was faced with looks of sceptical incredulity as a young boy when he told his Irish language teacher here in Ireland that Barack Obama was his 8th cousin…

In an intriguing footnote to history, Mr. Obama came under some heated and howling criticism during his presidency for daring to mention the Christian extremism of the Crusades 1000 years ago in the same breath as Islamist extremism.

But he need not have reached so far back for his analogy – the Christian extremism above took place within the memory of my own great-great-grandmother, on US soil.

“But they were Mormons, that doesn’t count!  It’s a sect.  Most mainstream Christians didn’t do such things.”

Today’s Muslim extremists are mostly Wahhabists.  It’s a sect.  Most mainstream Muslims do not do such things, either…

Perspective is a helluva thing.


© 2015 Brian Halpin, revised 2022


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #mormons #MountainMeadowsMassacre #UtahHistory #MormonHistory

They Worked the Mines

Sometimes a flawlessly written song gets a flawless performance.

Patty Loveless, a Kentucky girl, has tinkered with the lyrics a little bit in her cover version – the original songwriter’s words are somewhat more immediately personal and autobiographical.

First released in 1997 by singer-songwriter Darrell Scott (who is also a sublimely gifted and much-in-demand session musician), the song deals with the despair and hope of people born in Southern Appalachia – particularly Harlan County, Kentucky – during the past century, when a community largely self-reliant for generations was inexorably forced into a newly emerging economy controlled by land and coal barons.

When people hear songs as hauntingly evocative as this, it is almost natural, and certainly the norm, to perceive such music as a continuation of old mountain traditions, and to view these traditions in terms of the “received understanding” of their roots and heritage.

The commonly received understanding of mountain and “Old-Timey” music is that this music arrived in Southern Appalachia with a group called the “Scots-Irish“.

This perception is essentialist, simplistic, and in many regards just plain wrong.

The music carried into the Appalachian frontier during the late 1700s was the combined result of a hodge-podge of traditions, the first and foremost being the “broadside ballads” of the 1600s and 1700s.  Broadside ballads were the pop charts of their day – lyrics printed on large posters hung in taverns and inns, with well-known “airs” or tunes recommended to accompany them.

These lyrical ballads were not especially Irish – in fact the most popular broadsides tended to originate in Scotland and Northern England.  It is probably most correct to view this music simply as the pop music of the entire British Isles during the 1600s and 1700s.

As to the instrumentation and playing styles of the tunes which accompanied these ballads, just about everything got thrown into the mix.  Donegal style fiddle, Cherokee and Shawnee beats and percussion, African banjo, Scandinavian-derived dulcimer – as well as musical styles brought by Jewish and Romani peoples.

That’s right. There were even Jews and Gypsies in early Appalachia.

Awareness of this historical ethnic complexity is important, because there are clear socio-historical reasons for so many Appalachian people choosing to claim a “Scots-Irish” identity – even when this identity is largely exaggerated, or even demonstrably spurious…

After the American Revolution, all things English had fallen into disfavor.

This is why “Charlestown” in South Carolina is now known as “Charleston”, or places once called “Middlesborough” became “Middlesboro”.  This had nothing to do with American illiteracy.  It was a conscious attempt to distance and differentiate the new nation from its recent past and English identity.

The archetypal back-country or frontier American in post-Revolution times wanted to be seen as being both “white” and Protestant, but not English.  So “Scots-Irish” became the ideal identity for the pioneers, settlers, squatters, and colonisers on the edge of the newborn USA.

There were certainly plenty of Northern Irish “Scots” in 1700s Pennsylvania who DID take the long gray trail south into Virginia and the Carolinas, eventually fetching-up in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.


For every “Scots-Irish” settler, there were at least two English-descended people.  And three Germans.  And Welsh.  Scots and Swedes.  New Amsterdam Dutch.  And of course the Finns (the ones who actually invented the log cabin).

But perhaps most of all, were the myriad “people of color” forged in the barbarous years of the 1600s in Virginia and the Carolinas.  The “brown people” of Portuguese, South Asian, Jewish, Romani, Malagasi, Shawnee, Creek, Choctaw, Saponi, Cherokee, Catawba, Gullah, Tuscarora, Angolan, Senegalese, Moorish, Turkish, Spanish, Minorcan, Seminole, and other descent.

The people who can only be discerned when we look past the essentialist tale of a “Scots-Irish” Appalachia.

I usually try to avoid writing about living people.  But I doubt that someone as thoughtful and gifted as Darrell Scott will mind it being pointed-out that many of the people who once sweated blood in Harlan County, Kentucky – Scotts, Hensleys, Blantons, Brocks, Heltons, Halls, Osbornes, among others – are the inheritors of a complicated and incredible history, far richer and surprising than most can even imagine.

The singer in the video here, the peerless Patty Loveless, is herself a descendant of similarly multi-ethnic mountain people like the Bollings, Moores, and Sizemores.

Country music is not just a “white thing”, hard as some try to make it so.

But I reckon Mr. Scott, Ms. Loveless, and a lot of other mountain folks already know this.







You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive

Darrell Scott

In the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky
That’s the place where I trace my bloodline
And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone
“You will never leave Harlan alive”

Well my grandad’s dad walked down Catron’s Mountain
And he asked Tillie Helton to be his bride
He said, “Won’t you walk with me out of the mouth of this holler
Or we’ll never leave Harlan alive”


Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking
And you spend your life just thinking how to get away

No one ever knew there was coal in them mountains
‘Till a man from the northeast arrived
Waving hundred dollar bills, he said “I’ll pay you for your minerals”
But he never left Harlan alive

Well Granny, she sold out cheap and they moved out west of Pineville
To a farm where Big Richland River winds
And I’ll bet they danced them a jig, and they laughed and sang a new song
“Who said we’d never leave Harlan alive?”

But the times, they got hard and tobacco wasn’t selling
And old Granddad knew what he’d do to survive
Well he went and dug for Harlan coal and sent the money back to Granny
But he never left Harlan alive


Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking
And you spend your life just thinking how to get away
And the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking
Spend your life diggin’ coal from the bottom of your grave


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #appalachia #CoalMining

Before We Were White: Naming Names, The Slaveholders, Part 1

Slave Cabin on Samuel Brashear farm, Tennessee

Slave Cabin on Samuel Brashear farm, Tennessee


We are currently living through hyper-tribalistic times.

I will go out on a limb, and say I do not expect certain tribes to follow this blog, ever – however much I wish they would.

Yet no tribe is immune from what might be called “the allure of truthiness”.

Whether leftist, conservative, liberal, red, blue, green, religious, secular, or neo-fascist, many now pick a “side”, and then buy wholesale into the entire package of dogma or orthodoxy associated with that tribe.

When our own gang says something which aligns with our ethos, and sounds like it SHOULD be true, we tend to take that information on board without too much scrutiny.

Example: “Most people accused of witchcraft through the ages were herbalists and midwives who were viewed with suspicion and hostility by The Patriarchy.”

It would be hard to find anyone familiar with second-wave feminism who does not accept the foregoing statement as a matter of orthodoxy.  It just sounds like a “truth”.

Except it is not.  When we carefully sift the historical evidence (court transcripts, etc.) we find a very different picture.  People, especially in rural areas, did NOT tend to get rid of valued members of their communities.

Indeed, herbalism and midwifery were two skills which often transcended “racial” boundaries in early colonial and frontier-era America.  In Appalachia, “granny witches” and midwives were very often women of color or indigenous women of relatively secure social standing.




On the subject of slavery in America, it is extremely interesting how both ends of the political spectrum come to a mutual agreement on some things, for entirely different ideological reasons.

Almost all “white” people tend to agree that slavery was part of “elite” society.

Those on the left will point to the Confederacy’s mobilisation of the white underclasses in order to protect the interests of elite slaveholders.

Those on the right will continue to claim the Civil War was about “states’ rights” in the face of northern aggression, not slavery.  After all, slaves were only held by a minority of the population, right?

This commonly held view, that slavery was solely part of southern plantation society, à la Gone With the Wind, is utterly wrong.

Once cotton replaced sugar cane and tobacco as the primary slavery-enabled cash crop, it is true that the largest INDIVIDUAL slaveholders in America were found in the Deep South.

But slavery ran its insidious tendrils through every layer of society.

In regions where agricultural land was unsuited to plantation-style cash crops, individuals might have held fewer slaves per farm or business, but they still utilised the labor of the enslaved in a myriad of ways – building, carpentry, blacksmithing, cattle herding and droving, roadworks, milling, cooking, spinning, etc.

And when an Appalachian slaveholder, for example, found himself hard-up for cash, slaves were simply rented-out, as one might hire-out a threshing rig.

After years of sifting through records, it has become clear to this writer that slavery was not the province of elites only.  Slavery was far more widespread and extensive, even in so-called “poorer regions”, than most people have ever imagined.

I have decided to regularly post the surnames of slaveholders with particular links to so-called “poorer regions”.

Perhaps 90% of the people represented by these surnames were the holders of less than 10 enslaved people – and usually holding less than 5 people in bondage.

The sharp-eyed will compare these slaveholder surnames with the surnames of “people of color whose descendants are now white” which I’ve already begun posting.

The sharp-eyed might then be tempted to jump to certain conclusions.


This story gets waaay more interesting before it gets finished…



Abernathy (from Scottish “Abernethy”)
Abshire (some lines apparently a corruption of German “Hübscher”; see also “Hipsher”)
Adkins (also Atkins)
Aiken (also “Aken”, “Akins”, et al)
Aldridge (sometimes interchangeable with “Eldridge” or “Aldrich”)
Almond (see also “Allman”, et al)
Anderson (also “Annison”; often interchangeable with “Henderson”)
Anno (“Anneau”?, “Agneau”?)
Austin (rendered sometimes “Alston”)


Ballance (perhaps a softened plosive variation of “Palance”?)
Bare (usually from German “Baer” or “Behr”)
Baugh (see also “Bach”, and in Appalachia, “Back”)
Bean (sometimes a foreshortened form of “MacBean”)
Beatty (sometimes rendered as “Baty” or “Beatie”)
Beavers (often an Anglicised patrynomic of German “Bieber”)
Benge (sometimes given as “Bench”, and sometimes misrendered as “Bunch”)
Biggerstaff (variation of English “Bickerstaff”)
Birdsong (perhaps Anglicisation of “Vogelsang”?)
Blackmon (sometimes also “Blackman”)
Blagrove (often a corruption of “Blackgrove”; also “Blagrave”)
Blevins (possibly Anglicised patrynomic of Welsh “ap Blethyn”)
Blewitt (also “Blewett”)
Blissard (also “Blizzard”)
Bobo (origin unclear, perhaps from French “Barbeau”)
Bolling (also Boldin, Baldwin, Bowlin, Bowlen, Bowling, Bouldin, Bolin, Bolen – could “Bowline” be original source of this name?)
Boswell (rarely given as “Bazel”)
Bouldin (also Boldin, Baldwin, Bowlin, Bowlen, Bowling, Bolling, Bolin, Bolen, perhaps “Bolton”)
Bower(s) (sometimes patrynomic of German “Bauer”)
Branham (often rendered “Branum” in Southern Appalachia)
Brashear(s) (from French “Brassieur”, and in rare cases a corruption of “Bradshire”)
Bratcher (apparently at times a corruption of “Bradshire”, “Bradshaw”, and “Brashear”)
Breeden (also “Breeding”)
Brewer (sometimes Anglicised version of German “Brauer”)
Brittain (also “Britton”)
Brown (often from German “Braun”)
Broyles (patrynomic of German “Breule”)
Buckaloo (misrendering of Anglo-Scottish “Buccleugh”)
Buis (usually of French or Dutch origin))
Bumpas (French)
Bundren (perhaps a corruption of “Bondurant” sometimes)
Bushong (perhaps from French “Bouchon”, probably sometimes via circuitous route from “Beauchamps” through German Alsatian variant)
Butcher (often an Anglicisation of German “Metzger”)
Byars (sometimes “Byers”)


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #appalachia #slavery #slaveholders

Before We Were White: Naming Names, Part 1

Multi-ethnic American family with horse team and wagon

Multi-ethnic American family with horse team and wagon


This is as good a day as any to re-iterate and to clarify the aim of this page/podcast.

There are many excellent Facebook groups and online resources dealing with the history and genealogy of various communities who are now commonly referred-to as “people of color” – whether of indigenous, African, or other ancestry, free and unfree.

Most of the members of these groups would consider themselves, their family, and much of their community as having been “people of color” throughout their time as participants in American history, right up to the present day.

Not everyone uses the term “person of color”. Some use a more specific ethnic self-descriptor like Choctaw or Gullah.  Most still use the old social divisions of “Black”, “Indian”, and “Asian”.  Still others prefer to describe themselves as “multi-racial”.

What all of the foregoing have in common, is a broad agreement that they are in some respect not part of the social category called “White”.

As someone who has lived mostly outside the “Indian”, “Black”, or “Asian” experience, it is not this writer’s place to comment on the choice of self-identity made by people whose shoes I have never walked in.

People will self-identify as whatever group they feel a part of.

This writer was born and reared among the community most usually called “White Evangelicals” by sociologists and commentators in the mainstream media.

All of these people tend to agree on the origins of these “White Evangelicals”.

This is because almost every Wikipedia page, and almost every mainstream American history source, offers the same background sketch for these people.

“The American frontier was settled by people of English, Scottish, Welsh, German, and Scandinavian ancestry, but most of all, it was settled by the Scots-Irish.”

And that’s that.  Colonisers, pioneers and settlers in North America were all northern and central European Christian “white folks”.

“Indians” were just an obstacle to “white” advancement, and any people of color were slaves.

Simple, right?  “Indians”, “Blacks”, and “Whites”.

Except that this entire story is a fabricated nonsense, with no basis in the actual historical record.

How does a start-up podcast created by some random person with a website and a Facebook page earn the right to be so dismissive of accepted history and received wisdom?

By going to the primary and secondary documentary sources, and reading.  And then reading some more.

Reading until their very social life is in danger of becoming like their obsession – history.

This website, this social media group, and this podcast, are about the multi-ethnic roots of those Americans – usually part of the underclasses and working classes – who are descended in varying degrees from “people of color”, but are now usually seen, categorised, or self-identifying as “White”.

Why on earth should this matter?

The 2016 USA presidential election has stoked old embers, and “whiteness” has become part of the public agenda in a way not seen for decades.

Those who believe in “whiteness” or indeed, “white supremacy”, are feeling emboldened, and they are back on the march.

Until this concept of American “whiteness” is seen as absurd, and demonstrated to be utterly ludicrous, there will be room for social divisions based on a ridiculous public belief in “race categories”.

Two people greatly admired by this writer died during the past couple of years – Brent Kennedy and James Nickens.

Both were deeply involved in challenging “received wisdom” about the nature of early American ethnicity.

James Nickens focussed primarily on the Virginia Indians, and the outrageous “scrubbing” of their continuing legacy from American history.

For his part, Brent Kennedy once published a list of surnames, intended to act as a research guide for “not-quite-white Appalachians” trying to understand their multi-ethnic roots.  Brent was largely responsible for bringing the so-called Melungeon people of southern Appalachia to wider attention.

Now that the two lights of Brent and James have been extinguished, it falls to all of us to carry the fire.

I am not qualified to continue the work of James Nickens, but do feel able to add to the work begun by Brent Kennedy.

Following over 15 years of research, I have compiled a database of over 250,000 Americans with roots in pre-1800s North America.

It is this database which informs and underpins much of the material found in my blogs and podcast episodes.

Starting today, with this post, I will begin to share my own list of surnames drawn from this database – surnames clearly associated with the multi-ethnic history of frontier America.

What sets these lists apart from the names found among other multi-ethnic communities, is that every surname on these lists represents a family now usually seen as “white”, even while having multiple ancestors who were clearly DOCUMENTED in some way as having been perceived as “non-white”.

These lists will eventually be greatly expanded, as we add appendix lists based upon the maiden names of spouses, partners, concubines, and consorts in households once explicitly enumerated as “black”, “mulatto”, “free person of color”, “Indian”, or “all other free”.

Today’s list includes surnames beginning with the letters “A” and “B“.

Anyone with information which would add to this list is welcome to comment and share.


Abernathy (also Abernethy; Scottish)
Adkins (also Atkins)
Aiken (also Aken, Akins, et al)
Aldridge (sometimes interchangeable with “Eldridge” or “Aldrich”)
Amyx (unclear whether French Occitan patrynomic of “Amic”, or German patrynomic of “Amick” – possibly both if of Alsatian provenance)
Anderson (also “Annison”; often interchangeable with “Henderson”)
Archer (also Archerd)
Armentrout (likely from from German “Ermentraudt”)
Arter (Arthur)
Asbury (often “Asberry” in Appalachia)
Austin (rendered sometimes “Alston”)
Auxier (often rendered “Oxshire” or “Oxsheer”)
Ayres (also Ayers)


Bare (usually from German “Baer” or “Behr”)
Bass (sometimes rendered “Bays”)
Bean (sometimes a foreshortened form of “MacBean”)
Beatty (sometimes rendered as “Baty” or “Beatie”)
Bench (sometimes given as “Benge”)
Benge (sometimes given as “Bench”, and sometimes misrendered as “Bunch”)
Biggerstaff (also “Bickerstaff”)
Bilbrey (sometimes “Bilbury” or “Bilberry”)
Blevins (possibly Anglicised patrynomic of Welsh “ap Blethyn”)
Blissard (also “Blizzard”)
Bolling (also Boldin, Baldwin, Bowlin, Bowlen, Bowling, Bouldin, Bolin, Bolen – could “Bowline” be original source of this name?)
Bolton (possible original name source of many “Boldin” and “Bolen” families)
Bone (possibly from German “Bohn”)
Bouldin (also Boldin, Baldwin, Bowlin, Bowlen, Bowling, Bolling, Bolin, Bolen, perhaps “Bolton”)
Bourne (see also “Burn”, “Burns”, et al)
Bowers (sometimes Anglicised patrynomic of German “Bauer”)
Bowles (also “Boles”)
Bowman (sometimes from German “Baumann”)
Branham (also rendered as “Branum”, “Brannum”)
Brashear (from French “Brassieur”, and in rare cases a corruption of “Bradshire”)
Brewer (often an Anglicised translation of German “Brauer”)
Brown (often from German “Braun”)
Burch (also “Birch”)
Byrd (sometimes “Bird” in Appalachia)


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #genealogy #names #EthnicHistory

Malagasy Mountain Folks?

Contemporary Photo of Young Malagasy Woman

Contemporary Photo of Young Malagasy Woman


It is simple human nature to see what we are expecting to see.  Atheists or Buddhists do not tend to see the face of Jesus in the patterns on burnt toast – we are all conditioned by the culture around us.

This tendency carries-over into our understanding of American history.  We see what our education prepares us to see.  We have been told so often that early Americans were “white”, “black”, or “Indian”, that like Cinderella’s stepsisters, we try to squeeze everything into a proverbial glass slipper.  When the “tri-racial” slipper doesn’t fit, we try to force the issue.

A case in point…

With the advent of inexpensive autosomal DNA testing, many, many Old Mix Americans with deep roots in pre-Revolution British America have discovered small percentages of Southeast Asian and Oceanian in their DNA results.

Some Southern Appalachians who self-identify as being the descendants of Melungeons (a group recently discussed in this blog) often have a higher amount of these SE Asian and Oceanian admixtures than Native American in their DNA test results. And yet many still disregard these clues, or try to squeeze them into the “glass moccasin” of Native American ancestry.

Is it possible there were other “olive-skinned” peoples in colonial America?  People with Southeast Asian and Oceanian DNA?

Yes. The Malagasy of Madagascar.


Without going into exhausting detail, Madagascar is one of the largest islands in the world, lying about 250 miles off the southeast coast of Africa.  Madagascar was only settled by humans during the past 1,500 to 2,500 years, by people from the Sunda Islands of Malaysia – almost 4,400 miles to the northeast, in a feat of long distance exploration only rivalled by later Polynesians.

These Oceanian peoples were later added-to by subsequent waves of immigration which included Arab traders in the 10th century, Bantu peoples from the African continent a century after the first Arabs, with people from Southern India near Sri Lanka finally arriving perhaps another hundred years after the Bantu.

This cultural melting-pot was left to simmer and bubble away for three or four centuries, until the age of European exploration, with the Kingdom of Portugal establishing a presence in the early 1500s.

As ever with European colonisation, the Portuguese presence was not benign.  Almost immediately, Malagasy people were made into a tradeable commodity, transported as slaves to every corner of the Portuguese Empire, from the Bay of Bengal to Brazil and the Caribbean.

But the Portuguese did not confine their international trade to places under Portuguese control.

Not when the American English had money to spend…


“From 1719 to 1725 more than 1,000 Malagasy slaves arrived to the Commonwealth of Virginia through the ports of Rappahannock and York rivers.

The Prince Eugene of Bristol came into York River district of Virginia on May 18, 1719 carrying 340 Malagasy; the Mercury of London arrived at the district of Rappahannock River on May 17, 1720 with 466 Malagasy; and were followed by the Rebecca Snow, the Gascoigne Galley, the Henrietta, and the Coker Snow.

The Prince Eugene, Rebecca Snow, and Gascoigne Galley apparently made directly from Madagascar for Virginia, where the Prince Eugene had sold her licensed cargo in 1719.

The Henrietta stopped in Pernambuco, Brazil before continuing to Barbados and Virginia.

Three of the Madagascar vessels arrived in Virginia over a period of only six weeks, entering at York River as follows:

The Gascoigne Galley with 133 slaves, on May 15, 1721;
the Prince Eugene (on a second trip) with 103 slaves in June, and
the Henrietta with 130 slaves later that month.

Platt states that the total number of Malagasy brought into Virginia between 1719 and 1721, comes to 1, 231 when the 340 slaves brought on the Prince Eugene‘s previous voyage and the 466 brought by the Mercury in 1720 are counted in.” [Platt, 1969]




Is it possible that the straight black-haired Malagasy of colonial-era America sometimes chose to refer to themselves as “Portuguese”, in reference to the empire which held dominion over their homeland?

If so, the Malagasy would not be the first group to do so. This researcher has viewed innumerable primary sources in which Sephardic Jews, Angolans, Angolan Lançados (slave traders of mixed Portuguese-African heritage), Brazilians, South Asians from Goa, and Iberian Ciganos (Portuguese Gypsies) have all chosen to self-identify as “Portuguese” at various times in the past.

Amazingly, some African-American folklore still preserves memories of their familial descent from “Molly Gaskie” people.

It has also been written that northern Georgia and Alabama were home to people known as “Madagaska Creeks“.

Of course, there is also the old self-descriptor used by the so-called Melungeons of Southern Appalachia.  “Porty-ghee“.

Overly self-confident American anthropologists with too little foundation in history have tended to dismiss the historical claims of Portuguese ancestry or heritage made by rural multi-ethnic communities, asserting that these self-identities were simply an attempt to deflect from African ancestry in a world hostile to “blackness”. To a certain extent this was no doubt true.  But this says far more about the traditional American Protestant problem with the nuances of complex identities.  People can hold simultaneous identities based on their religion, ethnic group, citizenship, etc.

If a Malagasy, Romani, or Jew in the 1600s was asked “What are you?”, they certainly didn’t reach first for a “racial” or “color” identity.  Race and color were an Anglo-American construct, a way of categorising and assigning people into three simple groups: free, unfree, or “savages”.  A part Portuguese, part African, part Arab person with parents from Madagascar was hardly going to identify in their frontier community as “black”.  Calling themselves “Portuguese” was less a deflection, than a choice to put forward that part of their self-identity least likely to bring them and their family to harm.

As regards the multi-ethnic communities of the Appalachian mountains, only more research will tell to which group(s) of Portuguese many were referring.

One of the “core” or archetypal surnames associated with the Melungeons is the surname “Goins“, first appearing in early 1600s Virginia. Most researchers have tried to squeeze this name into being a variation of the Irish surname “Gowan”, even though almost every variation of the name – Gowen, Goen, Going, etc. – appears to be an attempt to render a long “O” sound.  The Irish name “Gowan” is pronounced with an “ow” sound, as in “Ouch!”, coming from the Gaelic surname for “smith” or “blacksmith” – “gabha”.  This is where we get the surname “McGowan”, meaning “son of the smith”.

Various branches of this family can be found scattered from Appalachia to Louisiana and Texas, and family members have returned DNA results showing a range of origins including both West African and Romani.

Neither ethnic background is incompatible with a simultaneous claim of Portuguese heritage.

And perhaps most odd of all, is the fact that – as far as this writer is aware – no one has ever put forward a possible connection to any similar Portuguese surname.

Like “Goiense“?


© Brian Halpin, 2015 (revised and updated July 2021)


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #appalachia #madagascar #malagasy

The Melungeons

Elizabeth "Betts" Goodman, often called "Melungeon"

Elizabeth “Betts” Goodman, often called “Melungeon”


Much of my interest in the hidden multi-ethnic past of America stems from a strange discovery made many years ago.

While doing research on my first “official” genealogy, I began to notice an unfamiliar word being applied to ancestors on both sides of my family tree.


This came as a major surprise. While I was certain that our family was not wholly European – based mainly upon the very dark complexion of my maternal grandfather – we had always been told that his appearance was due to his Cherokee ancestry.

A great deal of my earliest genealogical investigations were centered on a fruitless search for these Cherokee ancestors.

So when numerous online sources used the word “Melungeon” to describe some of my dark-hued family, I was all ears.

By the early to mid 1800s, the word Melungeon was already being used in parts of southern Appalachia as a socio-racial slur aimed at non-enslaved mountain people who were “not quite white”, “not quite black”, and lived somewhat on the periphery of “respectable society”.

These people called Melungeons tended to be found in the more remote “hills and hollers” of Virginia, West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and East Tennessee.

By the late 1800s, these people were considered enough of an ethnic curiosity that outsiders began to speculate on their origins, even conducting informal field visits and penning pseudo-anthropological articles purporting to explain Melungeon history.

There is always a dollar to be had where there is a “mystery”, and a veritable industry grew from people’s efforts to supply the final word on the question “who are the Melungeons?”.

For the past 150 years, these mountain people have been variously described as Portuguese, Black Dutch, Blackfeet Indians, Gypsies, Turks, free African-Americans, and even Phoenicians.

During the latter half of the 20th century, anthropologists tended to congregate around the view that Melungeons must be “tri-racial isolates”, meaning that they are supposed to be the descendants of an early intermingling of African-Americans, indigenous Americans, and “white” Europeans.

Highly-selective DNA projects were commissioned (by genetic genealogists, NOT scientists or trained historians), and these “studies” received national and international attention as they announced their claimed “proof” of Melungeon origins.

But the anthropologists and genetic genealogists alike have been hobbled by what I call “The American Problem”. That problem is a fundamental belief in “race”.

Trying to solve the “mystery of the Melungeons” in terms of America’s mostly binary race system is like describing Tex-Mex cuisine or country-western music as “bi-racial” or “tri-racial”.

Is “Mexican rice” a combination of only Spanish European, indigenous Mexican, and African cooking traditions? The answer is “sort of”, but only if we ignore that the Spanish borrowed many of their cooking traditions from Moorish Spain, and the Moors themselves had learned rice cultivation and cookery from other Africans – and from the Arabs who had brought it from Persia to North Africa. Oh. And let’s not forget the even earlier introduction of rice to America by the Portuguese, who had learned how to cultivate and cook it from both Africans and people from their trading colonies on the Bay of Bengal (modern Bangladesh).

Country-western music is commonly seen as an African and European musical intermingling. And once more, this is only partly true. Country-western music would seem unthinkable today without the sound of steel and western guitar. Yet steel guitar is a recent import from the Hawaiian Islands. Western guitar borrows heavily from Spanish guitar, which in turn finds its traditions in the Gypsy, Jewish, and Moorish communities of Spain.

These analogies are imperfect, but they serve to illustrate that matters of ethnicity are fluid and complex. Just as food and music are never just “black” or “white” traditions, people themselves are never just “black” or “white”, and complex ethnic communities are never simply “bi-racial” or “tri-racial isolates”.


It is said that the first known use of the term “Melungeon” was in 1813. The word “Melungins” is claimed to have appeared in the minutes of a Primitive Baptist church then located in Scott County, Virginia. Two female church members were in apparent dispute, with one accusing the other of “harboring them Melungins“.

Because the original pages of these church minutes are missing, and we are forced to rely on a series of transcriptions, this earliest “record” is contested by some.

What is beyond dispute is that the term Melungeon began to be used openly in print between the 1840s and 1880s – almost always to disparagingly refer to mostly impoverished rural dwellers of mixed ethnicity from Virginia and Tennessee who had had the audacity to become involved in local and state politics. This period also coincided with new voter suppression legislation being directed at poor “whites” and free people of color.

For reasons too numerous to outline here, this writer is inclined to accept the record transcribed from the Stoney Creek Baptist Church minutes.

1813 is “modern” in terms of English. “Harboring” meant pretty much exactly what it means today – to offer a place of protection or shelter. There are other meanings, but the context of “harboring Melungeons” is pretty self-evident.

A woman is accused of giving shelter/protection to a group of people presumably considered persona non grata among a church congregation and community.

Who needs harboring, normally? Runaway slaves and indentured servants, criminals, or deserters from war.

We can probably eliminate the first category (runaway slaves), because we know what people called runaway slaves.

We can also discount the second possibility, because there is no reason to call thieves, rustlers, or murderers “Melungeons”, unless of course they were a very specific kind of thief, rustler, or murderer. There is in fact a Romani word for wine-seller which sounds similar to “Melungeon”, but this seems a stretch to this writer.

Which brings us to number three – deserters from war. In 1813, the young USA was once more embroiled in war with the UK, only 30 years after the end of the American Revolution.

Every war in history had its share of deserters, and with wars in colonial America being waged on the edge of a mountainous wilderness, desertion was especially common.

As regards the American Revolution in particular, most American schoolchildren are encouraged to imagine their “patriot” ancestors as militias comprised of “white” yeoman farmers. The truth, as always, is much more complicated.

Yeoman farmers were among the soldiers least likely to “stay the distance” over an eight year conflict – they had a lot to lose in leaving their farms and families unprotected and unprovided-for. So the Continental Army’s enlisted ranks were filled with immigrants “straight off the boat”, and with men and boys from the poor backcountry underclasses hoping for cash or land bounty rewards in exchange for their service. Many will be surprised to learn that these backcountry militias were often augmented by mercenaries and soldiers from other countries – especially France, without whom the Americans would have almost certainly lost their Revolutionary War.

So when we think about deserters from this particular conflict, we should bear all of the forgoing in mind…


Which brings us neatly to the hundreds of free Creole Haitians and others from Martinique and Guadaloupe who served at the Siege of Savannah – aka the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue.

After the Siege of Savannah, many of these Haitian free persons of color were brought north for the Siege of Charleston, where they fought in a brigade alongside militias raised from rural Virginia, and alongside Spanish soldiers.

The Americans of course lost the Siege of Charleston. Presumably the surviving Virginians who were not captured made their way home. History is almost silent on the fate of many of these Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, but we do know that the French elites pretty much reneged on the promises made to these men, with at least some shipped to Grenada after the fall of Charleston.

History is also largely silent on the fate of many “Black Loyalists”- escaped slaves who had gone over to the British side to fight, in hopes of gaining their freedom.

It is almost impossible to believe that, faced with military defeat and broken promises, that at least a good few of these men (most likely carrying arms) did not desert. It would have made sense for them to join, or at least follow, their fellow brigade members north to Virginia.

This is where it gets tricky. As the war began to swing in favor of the Americans, one cannot imagine a more difficult situation for all free people of color.

It seems doubtful that many “white” Americans would have been able or willing to discriminate between actual free African Americans, “Black Loyalists” on the run, and erstwhile Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue.

And even if the Chasseurs could have made clear that they had fought FOR the Americans, they would have still been seen – at least by some – as deserters.

In an odd twist to the plot, less than 10 years after the end of the Revolutionary War, a wealthy French mining magnate named Tubeuf arrived in the region around Scott County, Virginia, hoping to lay claim to thousands of acres of wilderness land already inhabited by multi-ethnic mountain people, a place where people were already handling snakes in their churches over 200 years ago.

If any Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue or their children were living along the Clinch River, we can imagine what they whispered to their neighbors regarding French elites.

While it is entirely plausible that Tubeuf himself coined the term “Melange” in reference to the “mixed” people inhabiting the mountains he was hoping to mine/exploit, it seems unlikely that local people who were at best suspicious, and probably outright hostile to his grand designs, would embrace his French language in the space of only a year or two.

Tubeuf would in fact be found murdered soon after…

So. We have a number of free people of color lying-low in the remote mountain regions of Virginia shortly after the American Revolution, and with the outbreak of the War of 1812, they are certainly a group of men likely in need of “harboring”.

It is clear that this argument relies on much speculation, even if the dates, locations, and events align perfectly.

But still. If the word “Melungeon” truly came into first use between say, 1780 and 1810, then it seems at least interesting that the Haitian Creole word for “mixed” is “Melanje”.

Of course, French proper also has the word “melange”, but the word for “mixed” when referring to people of mixed ethnicity is more usually “mixte” or “métis”.


None of the forgoing is intended to suggest that Melungeons are all descended from Haitian Revolutionary War soldiers. This is simply one origin theory for a term which over time came to be applied to “non-white-looking” mountain folks in general, just like the words “cracker” and “redneck” once referred to specific groups of people, before becoming more generalised terms.

Years of research following my first encounter with the word “Melungeon” has revealed an unimaginably rich ethnic tapestry in early American history, and many of the families once called “Melungeon” as a slur are far more than “tri-racial isolates”, and they are most certainly not a mysterious “lost tribe”. There is no “Melungeon Gene”, whatever the online snake oil DNA test salespeople might try to claim.

These southern Appalachians carry heritage from five continents, with ancestors from Minorca, India, Wales, Sephardic Jews, Finland, West Africa, England, the Azores, France, Madagascar, Romani Gypsies, Poland, Armenia, Ireland, Portugal, Indonesia, Germany, the Caribbean, Scotland, Brazil, and of course from many indigenous tribes such as the Shawnee, Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Nansemond, Lenape, Catawba, Tuscarora, Mi’kmaq, and others.

In other words, southern Appalachia and Melungeons represent the real face of early American history, before white supremacy forced multi-ethnicity into the shadowlands.

Just one more tantalizing point. The Virginian militiamen at Charleston were drawn largely from around Amelia County, just down the road from Louisa County – the origin of old historical Melungeons like “Spanish Peggy Gibson”.

What a delightful coincidence, as the Virginians and Haitians had fought alongside a regiment of Spaniards at the Siege of Charleston…


© Brian Halpin, June 2021


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #melungeons #appalachia





The Underground River: Case 1, Will Geer, actor

Will Geer as Grandpa Walton

Will Geer as Grandpa Walton


As a child growing-up in small-town Missouri, weekends spent “out in the country” visiting grandparents were special treats.

Saturdays were spent fishing, climbing cherry trees, chasing grasshoppers and lightning bugs, or just sitting on an old rail fence beside the smokehouse, talking to “Bessie”, the ancient, blind, retired milk cow.

Sundays always began with a giant breakfast of bacon and pancakes before church, after which us kids were free to run wild again until Sunday dinner was served on the long wooden tables under the shade tree on the front lawn beside the dirt road.

After dinner, kids were sent away from the eating tables, so the older folks could talk in peace.

Once or twice a year, grandma would stand up at length from the dinner table and announce something which never failed to scare the bejeezus out of the younger kids.

They were bringing “The Table” down from the attic into the living room. Anyone interested in doing a “table rising” should head indoors now…




It might seem strange to say so, but the life of Queen Victoria cast a shadow reaching deep into the heartlands of 1970s rural America.

There has always been a weird tension at the heart of American identity, with the nation founded on a rejection of class and nobility, while nursing a well-hidden sense of class insecurity.

This is why the American working-class insists on calling itself “middle class”.

It is also probably the reason for America’s lingering, pervasive inability to put racism behind itself once and for all. A damn good argument could be made that when Americans threw-off the yoke of aristocracy and privilege, they merely stepped into the newly available position, making themselves the “new nobility”, while lording over an indentured or enslaved underclass.

But again, behind it all, a sort of “national impostor syndrome” lay constantly lurking behind the noisy bravado.

It is why 19th century English writers like Charles Dickens could tour the USA, and be celebrated like any modern superstar.

It is why British royalty is an ongoing obsession, and “royals” like Prince Harry, and Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson (from the preceding generation), can leverage the happenstance of their birth into a fine living on the USA media circuit.

But I digress from the first point. No British royal ever left a deeper impression on America than Queen Victoria.

Almost everything used to signify social class other than money – worldliness, education, or “quality” – in 20th century America was a clumsy aping of Victorian manners, fashions, and attitudes to everything from table manners to sex.

This social and class anxiety is also why children of my generation were scolded for having our elbows on the table at eating times. It is why we were told that “ain’t” isn’t a word. It is why working-class people bought cutlery sets with special fish knives, thinking them a sign of refined gentility.

Queen Victoria’s taste (or her German husband Albert’s) is why we have Christmas trees indoors to this day.

A Victorian Anglo-Irish clergyman invented the “Rapture” idea still embraced by millions of Americans today.

The Victorian obsession with spiritualism – communication with the dead – would have normally been seen as The Devil’s Work by American evangelical Christians. But once it was embraced by Queen Victoria herself, the American desire to be in tune with upper-class trends outweighed any religious reservations.

And this is why the oldest folks in southern Missouri were still holding séances and “table knockings” in the 1960s and 1970s.




Once “The Table” had revealed its secrets from The Other Side, it was put away for another few months, and the old folks would drag every chair available to a place near the sofa and TV. Children would sprawl on their bellies, chin-in-hands-elbows-on-the-floor at the feet of the grown-ups.

Time for the Sunday episode of The Waltons.

For those born later than the 1960s or 1970s, it is almost impossible to overstate the cultural significance of this TV show, which was set during The Great Depression and WWII- era rural Virginia.

The Waltons spoke to a rapidly suburbanising working-class and lower middle-class America whose parents had come from mostly rural backgrounds. The stress of The Cold War, and the strife of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism and the “hippy movement” had left this first truly suburban generation dreaming of a return to some simpler, mythical past.

Parents watched The Waltons to vicariously re-live what they believed had been lost, and they made their children watch it, in order that the new generation might absorb some “old timey” values and morals.

But like fish knives and table-risings, much of what we believe about our past and ourselves is shown through a lens of our own longings.

We believe what we want to believe.

It was with all of this in mind, at a remove of 50 years, that I was unsure whether to burst out laughing, crying, or cheering this week while researching the ethnic origins of the real-life family upon which The Waltons was based (the Hamner family), as well as some of the actors who portrayed the fictional Walton family.

The much-beloved Grandpa of the series was played by the late Will Geer, a gentleman of mostly German ancestry, with the usual “people of color” joining his melting-pot along the way via the Rippey family (a prize for anyone who can locate the source of that surname…?)

At this stage, I am more surprised when Americans DON’T have a family of color in their ancestry – so no particularly big deal there.

What surprised me more was that our 1970s Sunday morality hour at grandma and grandpa’s house was being performed – at least in part – courtesy of a man who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his communist leanings.

And there was even more to “Grandpa Walton” than his decades-long commitment to the American Labor Movement and other left-wing causes.

For many long years prior to marrying his eventual wife, Mr. Geer had a much-loved boyfriend.

If my folks had known, I suspect “The Table” would have ended-up in the TV screen.


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #The Waltons #TableRising #WillGeer #GrandpaWalton

The Hollywood Scrub

Iva Bernice "Blanche" Caldwell Barrow [top], actress Estelle Parsons as Blanche Barrow [bottom]

Iva Bernice “Blanche” Caldwell Barrow [top], actress Estelle Parsons as Blanche Barrow [bottom]

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were ripped to death in a hail of automatic rifle and shotgun fire on a dusty road in Louisiana in May of 1934.

Their bloody end was befitting the wider American sense of mythic justice still common today – “live by the sword, die by the sword”, or “an eye for an eye”.

In this distinctly Protestant reality, every human being makes a choice to do good or evil.  Wicked thoughts germinate in the minds of the ungodly, until springing one day, fully-formed, into wicked actions.

Believing that evil deeds are SOLELY the product of individual decisions allows an unjust or unequal society to wash its hands of any responsibility or stake in the deeper root causes of drug abuse, social dysfunction, violence, and crime.

American “road gangsters” like Bonnie and Clyde were not born bad.

Few human beings ever are.

But an ugly story of the grinding, crushing poverty of a lonely, fatherless girl during The Great Depression (first married at 15), or of a young boy brutalised and raped while in the US prison system, is hard to leverage into a story arc which will fill cinema seats.

The American entertainment industry never sleeps, and never lets a sleeping dog lie.  The glamorisation of lives lived in the fast lane is a Big Dollar.

So three decades after their deaths, Hollywood gave us Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde.

This sort of glossy retake on history was not new. After all, one of the earliest cinema hits back in 1915, “Birth of a Nation“, was a three hour recruiting advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan, managing to magically transform racist vigilante thugs into heroes.

So again, nothing really new.

But the story of people like Bonnie and Clyde provides an extra twist.  You see, once the American pop culture machine decides to rehabilitate or glamorise a story, something else often begins to happen.

People in the story begin to turn whiter.

This phenomenon has existed for decades in The Western film genre – with its morality tales of courage always starring taciturn “white guys”.  Serious historians of course know that the majority of cowboys were Mexican, Native American, and African-American.  But for most of the 20th century, this minor detail didn’t matter. The point of The Western was to function as little more than a stage on which to hang propaganda and justification for the largest land grab seen since the age of Alexander the Great.

But if post-western, post-Indian Wars lawmen are going to send large numbers of men to spray a fusillade of bullets into the “bad guys”, then those “bad guys” need to be worthy, cunning, dangerous, “equal” adversaries – not desperate, messed-up young kids.

I was thinking about all this while preparing a new podcast episode, and wondering why Clyde Barrow‘s sister-in-law, Blanche Barrow, was played in the 1967 film by a medium-built, 40-year-old, blonde, Anglo-Swedish actress from Massachusetts named Estelle Parsons (who is, in fairness, a fine actress and still going strong at 93).

You see, the real-life partner of Buck Barrow was neither blonde, medium built, nor of Anglo-Scandinavian ancestry.

Iva Bernice “Blanche” Caldwell was a black-haired, multi-ethnic girl from Oklahoma who never weighed over 100 lbs in her life.  Perhaps even more to the point, she was born to a 15-year-old mother married to a 39-year-old man, and was only a teenager herself when she hooked-up with Buck Barrow.  The day that Bonnie and Clyde were shot down, Blanche was still only 22-years-old.

It’s not easy to glamorise or garner empathy for skinny, part-indigenous American kids from Oklahoma who get involved in crime.

Stories of the American social system failing impoverished, multi-ethnic brown kids just wouldn’t be “Hollywood”.  And besides, poor brown kids and poor white kids making common cause or raging against “The Man” is a VERY BAD LOOK in terms of “The American Dream”.

Modern Hollywood is beginning to improve as regards reflecting the real face of America.

But when things go historical, all hope for an accurate reflection of the past can be cast aside.

It seems there is nothing which cannot be appropriated, sugar-coated, scrubbed, and turned into money.

Not even peoples’ real identities, real stories, and real ethnicities are safe.


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #BonnieAndClyde #BlancheBarrow #whitewashing

Lauren Boebert, Anthropology, and American Gun Culture

US Congresswoman Lauren Boebert

US Congresswoman Lauren Boebert


Is anthropology a legitimate “science”?

Or is anthropology more like history?  A personalised interpretation of data, where the things we see are often merely the things others choose to reveal?  Or perhaps the things we were looking for in the first place?

What true inferences can be drawn from studying the cultural behaviours of various peoples?

Does the field observer bring too many of their own cultural biases (or personal baggage) to the table for any true understanding of another culture to be possible?




In the 1970s, a British (later naturalised American) anthropologist named Colin Turnbull created a sensation with the publication of two books – The Forest People, and The Mountain People.

Both were based on his field work in Africa during the 1950s and 1960s among the Mbuti and Ik peoples of Zaire and Uganda, respectively.

His description of one group as essentially generous and “good”, and the other as selfish and “bad”, was based on a deeply inadequate understanding of the events (both recent and historical) which were shaping their lives at the time of his visit.  Mr. Turnbull seemed more interested in using “primitive peoples” as a backdrop to a morality lesson, than in understanding their cultural habits within any broad and deep context.

While the methodology of anthropology, and the ideas of individual anthropologists, have come in for regular criticism, the discipline itself remains alive and well.

And one thing remains almost universal.

There is almost always a vast cultural, experiential, and educational chasm between those doing the “studying”, and those being “studied”.




In the developed world, we turn an acute anthropological eye on the communities near us, and around us, rather infrequently.

When we DO apply anthropological descriptions and critiques closer to home, this field of study is more usually called “social science”, and the academic lens is usually trained on communities experiencing social problems – problems such as lack of education, poor health care, crime, domestic violence, drug use and poverty.

Due to the exigencies of minority communities in the USA, it is almost always minority ethnic groups who find themselves the subject of dissertations and theses.
When so-called “white people” find themselves under the magnifying glass, it is usually due to some sort of externally-perceived sense of their “exotica value” or “otherness” – Appalachians and Cajuns spring immediately to mind.

And yet, the most important group/community in the USA today (in terms of how their group outlook bears upon the larger body politic) is rarely examined – or rarely discussed beyond superficial caricature and mockery by those standing outside.

I am talking about self-identified “White American Evangelicals”, a group comprising roughly 1 in 10 American citizens.




When we look at the problems affecting many minority communities, it has become almost automatic for the social sciences to point out historical disadvantage in order to explain current issues.  Racism, slavery, Jim Crow, red-lining, lynching, misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, land appropriation, lack of access to education or business loans – the list of reasons for the current social status of African-Americans, Latinos, indigenous Americans, women, LGBTQ+, Romani, and others has been well-documented, if not universally accepted.

And yet, although many “White American Evangelicals” experience many of these same social problems – low educational attainment, drug and alcohol addiction (see the meths and opioid crises), poor career prospects, domestic violence, et al, we do not tend to search for socio-historical causes as with other groups.


The most glaringly obvious answer is that because this group does not see itself as being “disadvantaged”, they are not treated as such.  Even when this group does perceive itself as “disadvantaged”, they tend to blame those even lower on the social scale, or they blame a nebulous and unspecified group of “elites”.  Indeed, this writer suspects – based on his own upbringing – that this group would be outraged to think that their “culture” would be considered a subject worthy of study in terms of “social problems” or “social dysfunction”.

Another reason for a lack of interest from social scientists probably lies, quite frankly, in many of the unattractive traits associated with this demographic – whether fairly or unfairly.

A dislike or mistrust of science and the college-educated.  A religious literalism.  A love of “gun culture”.  A nativist and jingoistic sense of what is “American”.

But surely, if anthropology is a legitimate discipline, we should also apply it to those people nearest to us?

When a nation is fracturing into tribes no longer able to communicate with one another, when one tribe is violently assaulting the institutions of democracy, it becomes clear that we no longer have the luxury of “just living in separate worlds”, or, in modern parlance, “echo chambers”.

It is high time we asked the question, straight-up.  Who are “White American Evangelicals”?

Where did they come from?  What do they want?  Why do they love what they love?  Why do they believe the things they believe?  Why do they do the things they do?

Is there even an answer to these questions?




During the first weeks of the new Biden administration in Washington, D.C., I have found myself mesmerised by the sound and fury being generated by every utterance made by the freshman congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.

I have also involuntarily found myself “code-switching” in my head.  For those not familiar with the term, “code-switching” is a thing long familiar to people who must straddle two different worlds, socially, emotionally, and intellectually.  African-Americans have been doing it for years – assuming one attitude and mode of expression in a mixed work environment, while assuming another while feeling “at home” among close friends and family.

Code-switching can arise with “white” people, too, and often in reverse.  This writer was raised by “White American Evangelicals”, but has lived most of his life away from the social milieu of his early years.  On a day to day basis, I no longer sound and act like “my people”.  In my own case, this was not really a conscious decision – it just happened following years of travel.

But I can always spot one of “my people”, and the antenna begins to bend, turn, and adjust, retuning itself to the old channel, the original social code.

Both Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are “my people”, even if, in so many ways, I wish it weren’t so.  But I understand where they are coming from, quite literally.

Far beyond her immediate upbringing, there are decades of reasons to explain why Ms. Boebert acts the way she acts and does what she does.

There are centuries of cultural reasons for her belief that a gun can make her “free”.

I know, because behind “my people” there is also a history, an ocean, of social problems and malignancy based in “race” issues, poverty, disempowerment, and familial dysfunction – all poorly-disguised by the Sunday born-again Hallelujahs! and Amens!

I doubt that Ms. Boebert would acknowledge any of this, because the very essence of “White American Evangelical” culture is based on a denial of victimhood, a denial of disempowerment.

This denial of victimhood is usually lauded as a sign of “bootstrap culture” and a deep pride in self-reliance.  This is only superficially true.  The full truth runs much, much deeper.

This visceral denial of victimhood has historically allowed “poor whites” and “not quite whites” to put some clear water between themselves and the other underclasses they once lived alongside and among – the “fully colored” underclasses.  The kind of people with the least power in America by almost every metric.

For centuries, a denial of disempowerment and a loud self-assertion of individual agency, was always the first and most important part of “becoming white”.

And for the “not quite white” underclasses looking to cross over into “full whiteness”, the years between The American Revolution and post-Civil War Reconstruction would be the most crucial.

After distancing themselves from people of color, nothing, absolutely nothing, would separate these newly “fully white” people from “colored” people as much as the right of the “fully white” to carry arms.

The rewards which accrued from this right were clear, tangible, and substantial.

A man (or woman) with a gun or rifle could squat indigenous land and hope to survive anti-settler raids.  A man with a gun or rifle would be able to feed his family by hunting when crops failed.  A man with a gun or rifle could take part in any number of community actions requiring a firearm – defense of settlement forts, slave raids, skirmishing with bandits, slave patrols, posse and militia service, and more.

Even more significantly, war veterans received land grants and land bounties for their “service” in fighting the almost ceaseless wars against various “enemies” – Powhatan, French, Cherokee, British, Creek, Iroquois, et al.

In short, a man with a gun or rifle had access to resources, land, and economic improvement in a way denied to African-Americans, indigenous Americans, and various other “people of color”.

But if a man of mixed ethnicity or indeterminate “color” had stood beside a “white man” and covered his back during an Iroquois raid on the fort protecting their collective wives and children, this man of color was often extended the “benefit of the doubt” regarding his “whiteness” in 1775.

So in a brutally real and tangible way (especially during the era of Manifest Destiny), the right to carry arms offered a shot at “freedom” and prosperity to a range of people usually denied the privileges of “whiteness” – frontier bandits, fur traders, longhunters, outright murderous ruffians, and people of mixed ethnicity – almost all of whom were people of little or no formal education.

The step up from simple “freedom” to actual “respectability” would eventually require additional participation in other communal activities like fort building, bridge and road construction, tax-paying and voting.

But more than any of these things, “respectability” and “whiteness” was acted out publicly through a “profession of faith” and through regular church attendance…




A nation of people raised from the cradle to celebrate individualism and self-determination might be shocked or even disgusted by anyone presuming to “explain” their behaviour, beliefs, culture, or social status in terms of their deep socio-ethnic history or in anthropological terms.

And yes, it is true that at some level “we are all individuals”, as the crowd in the Monty Python film memorably chanted – in unison.

And yes, we CAN indeed often escape our culturally determined identities and mark out our own destinies.

But history almost always tells another story.  Most people tend to be swept along by forces they do not even recognise or understand.

If we can claim to “explain” current social phenomena in minority communities in terms of socio-economic history, then we can, and should, do the same for “white communities”.

To understand people like Lauren Boebert, we must also understand the foment of pre-Revolutionary South Carolina, and Florida’s changing of hands from indigenous culture to Spanish culture.  From Spanish to British, back to Spanish, and eventually to “American” control.

We must look to the multi-ethnic underclasses from South Carolina – both “Tory” and “Patriot” – who fled or emigrated to colonial Florida.  We must examine the social legacy of those who later took part in the decades-long, brutal Seminole Wars there.

We must check the signatures, and more often “marks”, on petitions seeking government sanction, approval, and assistance for the extermination or “removal” of the earlier inhabitants of Florida.

We must view the earliest land, court, and census records, and see for ourselves just how many of these Florida immigrants – settlers later called “Florida Crackers” – were once enumerated and named in records as people other than “white”.

Only once we have done this, can we begin to understand people like Congresswoman Boebert, and the time before many of her people, my people, were socially constructed as “white”.

© Brian Halpin. 2021


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #LaurenBoebert #GunRights #FloridaHistory #WhiteChristianEvangelicals

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