Frontier Philology

Dog-trot house with shake shingle roof

Dog-trot house with shake shingle roof


The Cornett surname is attached to Appalachia and frontier-era America as certainly as bubble-gum to the underside of a roadside diner table.

The fact is, no one really knows the deep origins of these Cornett folks.  The name itself can be found in France, Belgium, and many other places, including Scotland, where it arrived during the Middle Ages along with Norman (French Viking) warlords.

The first American Cornetts appear in the historical record in 1700s colonial Virginia, almost never with any documentary trail back to the Old World.

Later bearers of this surname carry Y DNA (male ancestor) markers from many different lands and wellsprings – a state of affairs only too common in a country where so many families carry surnames “borrowed” from the Anglo cultural ascendancy.

Many years of research into the social/ethnic history of Appalachia have led this writer down paths which have induced a full range of reactions – from outright horror to utter admiration.

So when I first read of a “bad” man named Samuel Cornett who was “married” to a certain Polly Davidson (around the turn of the 1700s and 1800s in Letcher County, Kentucky) my mind was open.  If there are two sides to every story, then every Appalachian story has at least three sides.

Many of these early non-indigenous settlers and colonisers of Southern Appalachia are named in various records as slaveholders.  This is a story rarely told – the sheer number of people piling into mountainous Indian lands with a few slaves in tow.

The received wisdom of most Americans is that slavery was a “Deep South thing”.

That slavery was only for big cotton plantations.

Large southern plantation owners were certainly the individuals most likely to hold the largest numbers of slaves, and this fact has led many apologists for “The Rebel Cause” to assert that slavery never really took root in mountain country, that slaveholding was confined to wealthy elites.

This assertion is wrong.

While the mountains of southern Appalachia had far fewer large slaveholders than the Deep South, slavery was still widespread.

The issue of exactly who was enslaved is somewhat complicated by the fact that Virginia and the Carolinas were among the earliest states to move legislation against their “free colored” populations.

By the time of the American Revolution, Virginia and the Carolinas had seen nearly 200 years of inter-ethnic mixing between non-enslaved African-Americans, South Asians, Atlantic Creole “Portuguese”, mixed-ethnic Caribbean peoples, Catawba, Saponi, Pamunkey, and other indigenous peoples, Brazilians, Jewish adventurers and merchants, and Romani peoples from Germany (Sinti), France (Manouche), and the British Isles (Romanichal).  Not to mention peoples from the Dutch East Indies, Madagascar, or the Barbary Coast of North Africa…

So.  When we look at a man like Samuel Cornett in 1820s Eastern Kentucky, listed as a slaveholder, we need to take the existence of these Old Mix Americans into account.

Oftentimes the “slaves” enumerated as the “property” of a household were actually part of mixed-ethnic frontier families, and only enumerated as “slaves” because inter-ethnic marriage had been made illegal under various pieces of repressive legislation.

Samuel Cornett might have been “brown” or “white” himself.  Of single ethnicity or multi-ethnic.

Samuel Cornett would not have been the first to blur the lines between outright slavery, forced concubinage, and common-law marriage.

These are all things which this writer tends to bear in mind when reading accounts of lives on the American frontier.  Weighing all of the evidence to hand, Cornett does indeed seem to have been the holder of at least four or five slaves.

What really caught my eye was the family lore telling how Samuel Cornett‘s wife/consort Polly Davidson contracted “consumption” – tuberculosis – and spent her last couple of years kept in a “pen”.

Needless to say, this seemed like one of the most horrifying pieces of historical detail one might stumble across.

For years I kept a special file on Samuel Cornett, his name under an ugly dark cloud in my imagination.

The slaveholder who locked his sick wife in a shed.

But this man is why every single tidbit of random knowledge from life’s rich tapestry is worth learning.

You see, Southern Appalachia is home to its own culture, with its own words and ways and food and building traditions.

Southern Appalachian innovation created the “dog-trot cabin” – two small cabins separated by a narrow gap, but covered by a single roof.

An ingenious way to manage temperature in an age before central heating and air conditioning.

Two compartmentalised cabins are easier to heat quickly in winter.  Two compartmentalised cabins with a narrow gap encourage the “Venturi Effect” in summer heat, in which any wind passing through the gap is cooled, helping to cool both cabins, while affording the perfect covered, shady, and cool place to sit out-of-doors.

A pleasant place for man and dog alike…


Dog-trot cabin, Thornhill Plantation, Alabama

Dog-trot cabin, Thornhill Plantation, Alabama


But most important to this story, the two separate rooms of a “dog-trot cabin” were known as…”pens”.

So simple historical documents can be read in at least two utterly different ways, depending on the level of knowledge we possess, and the lens through which we choose to view the past.

In one, we have a brutal slaveholder who kept his suffering wife/concubine locked away in a shed.

In the other, we have a multi-ethnic family trying to survive, and a woman with tuberculosis living in the cabin beside her family, in an effort to halt further spread of sickness.

Maybe before deciding how to look at things, we should consider a couple of final details.




It is said that shortly after Polly Davidson‘s death, Samuel Cornett went fully insane…

Family folklore tends to have little good to say about Samuel.

He is said to have abandoned one wife (and children) back in Virginia.

Without diaries or letters, we are unlikely to ever know why.  He may have been an abject, worthless family man.  His first wife may have been screwing around.

Men and women in early Appalachia often parted ways on grounds of adultery – which was committed by men AND women.  The records are myriad.

We do know that many of the people casting aspersions on his character and mental capacity were people with an interest in his property.

We know that some of these people – including members of the family he left 30 years previously – sought to disenfranchise Polly Davidson‘s children, calling them “illegitimate”.

We know that Samuel Cornett pushed back against this, describing these “illegitimate” children in affectionate terms.

So was Samuel Cornett a cruel, vicious disgrace of a man?

Or was he being vilified by a former family and community scandalised by his “taking-up” with an Indian or African-American woman?

All of the above?

We just don’t know.

But one thing we do know.  Keeping a wife in a “pen” in the early 1800s did not mean what it means today.


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #appalachia  #slavery  #ethnicity  #AmericanEnglish

God, Mammon, and Race Politics

Bible with cash inside

God and Mammon


A kingpin of commercial American evangelicalism named Pat Robertson died this month.

People born after the Boomer generation can probably not imagine a time before tele-evangelism, and its unholy trinity of The Bible, money, and politics.

The reason for churches being exempt from various taxes goes back to ancient times, and stems from the church’s historical role in caring for the sick, elderly, and poor.

The last hundred years has seen the governments of developed western nation states largely taking-over this social role of churches – especially in multi-cultural and more secular countries.

The nature of American history, with colonisation and warfare taking place almost continuously for centuries (far from large urban centres), made religion very much a “do-it-yourself” affair.

Religion in frontier-era America was about more than personal faith.  It would be impossible to overstate the role religion played in people’s social lives as a marker of “civilisation”, or as a way to signify that a person was worth “taking account of”.

In a world of war, disease, crop failures, slavery, droughts, floods, tornados and casual violence, to “profess faith” was about more than seeking salvation.  It was the surest route to acceptance into any “decent” community, and the easiest way to elevate oneself socially in the eyes of others, regardless of one’s relative wealth or poverty.

The atmosphere along the frontier fostered generations of rough men and women, many of whom didn’t care for the pieties – let alone the rules and strictures – laid down by Hard Shell Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Methodist circuit riders, and other such representatives of late-stage Calvinism.

The rowdiness, violence, heavy drinking, gambling, and debauchery of such folks happened to coincide with the Age of Enlightenment, with its focus on secular rationalism.

Instead of blaming violence, immorality and licentious behaviour on social, political, economic, and environmental factors, various religious leaders blamed secularism and rationalism, and began to rail and fulminate against widespread “ungodliness”, and the decline of traditional Christian faith.

The most vocal of these religious leaders began to launch regular “revivals” and camp meetings meant to bring stray sheep back into the fold.  The biggest such periods of revivalism are known in American history as the “Great Awakenings”, and these periods of theatrical public preaching and intense religious fervour incubated mass movements such as Mormonism.

In the aftermath of these revivals, a certain type of person quickly realised they could have their cake and eat it.  Even the roughest illiterate man from the backwoods could memorise some Scripture, have a voice that carried, claim to be “sanctified” and call himself a preacher of the Gospel.

From Eastern Kentucky, to the Ozark Mountains, to Bleeding Kansas and on to the mining camps of the Old West, both settled and itinerant lay preachers – whether literate or non-literate – performed marriages and baptisms, spoke words over the dead, and were welcomed into people’s homes for dinner.

It was precisely these sorts of preachers and their followers who would eventually morph into the early 20th century American Pentecostalist or “Charismatic” evangelical movements.

Pat Robertson, while officially a Southern Baptist preacher, was very much informed by Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on a world in which miracles, signs and wonders, and other supernatural phenomena are believed to be real and present in the lives of the faithful.

Such supernatural phenomena might include the overt display of “spiritual gifts”, such as “speaking in tongues”, serpent handling, prophesizing and faith healing, and among many, a firm belief in imminent “Rapture” and Armageddon.

With the power being wielded by the “white” evangelical voting bloc in America today, it would be natural to think these people were followers of a very old strain of American Protestantism.

Not so.  Today’s “white Christian evangelicals” have very little to do with old style Calvinism, and everything to do with very recent forms of “do-it-yourself Christianity”.

The concept of “Rapture” never figured in Christianity until an Anglo-Irish Church of Ireland minister named Charles Nelson Darby went rogue, left his church, and started preaching it during the mid to late 1800s.

And almost all of the current faith trappings of American evangelicalism were late 19th and early 20th century inventions/innovations, with much current “orthodoxy” actually born in one small church in Los Angeles in 1906.

The age of radio, cinema, and TV arrived just in time to turbo-charge these local revivalist crazes, and a generation later – just like the travelling preachers of yesteryear – men like Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell appeared at the door, ready to get their legs under everybody’s table for a free Sunday dinner.

By now, most people paying even the slightest bit of attention will know about the hypocrisy, the bigotry, the jet airplanes, swimming pools, infidelities, and swanky cars.

But this is Before We Were White, and we like to leave our readers with something they might not already know…


The voting bloc known today as the “white evangelical base” was pretty much solidified during the late 1970s and 1980s by a TV preacher man called Jerry Falwell, Sr, whose movement “The Moral Majority” joined American evangelicalism at the hip with Ronald Reagan‘s GOP.  It is hard to resist drawing parallels between Reagan’s background in Hollywood, and the acting skills of tele-evangelists…

To understand the social milieu from which Falwell arose, here are a couple of quotes from the years leading-up to the Civil Rights Movement, in which Falwell addressed the issue of desegregation:

“If Chief Justice (Earl) Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line…”

“…the true Negro does not want integration…he realizes his potential is far better among his own race.”

In old age, Falwell eventually rowed back from his abhorrent position on segregation, but continued to pander to bigots with a variety of other poisonous interpretations of Scripture, up to and including his infamous blaming of the 9/11 attacks on:

“The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way…I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'”

Earlier in this post, I noted how “professing faith” was an important step toward “respectability” in America’s earliest days.

This was just as true for indigenous Americans and African-Americans.

In the eyes of much of “white” America, to be indigenous American or African-American was already seen as carrying “the mark of Cain”.  If such people were also non-Christian?  Why, that would lower these people to the level of savages, or even simple beasts.

Of course, while those who suffered under the American racial caste system might become Christian, the one thing they couldn’t become was “white”.

Or could they?

Well bless my cotton socks.

Mr. Falwell’s racism and bigotry seem strange (or not?) when we realise that one of his great-grandparents on his mother’s side was a woman named Judith Goins.

A woman descended from the Goins folks who were free PEOPLE OF COLOR from Buckingham County, Virginia.


©2023 Brian Halpin, Before We Were White


#WhiteEvangelicals  #televangelists  #PatRobertson  #JerryFalwell

Unreliable Narrators

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Metzger” becomes “Butcher”.

“Gerlach” becomes “Carlock”.

“Demuth” is now rendered as “Damewood”.

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

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

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

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

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

African-Americans are one such group, obviously.

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


Contested male Blankenship ancestor

Contested male Blankenship ancestor


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

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

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

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

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

Someone’s family history is clearly wrong.

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

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

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


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

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


Does this even matter?

That depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #genealogy  #GeneticGenealogy  #AppalachianNames





North to Alaska (remaster)

Two Laplanders wearing traditional dress milking reindeer, Port Clarence, Alaska,1900

Two Laplanders wearing traditional dress milking reindeer, Port Clarence, Alaska,1900


By the end of the short-lived Klondike and Alaskan Gold Rushes of the late 1890s, the far northwest of the North American continent had been changed irrevocably.

Over 100,000 prospectors had swarmed like a plague of locusts over the Yukon Territory and Alaska, bringing everything from pack animals to industrial river dredging machinery with them.

Entire virgin forests were clear-felled along rivers to make boats for transporting equipment.  More timber went to building shanty towns, boardwalks, and sluices.

The rest was firewood.

Fish, birds, and other wildlife was exterminated along entire river systems – rivers, streams, and creeks which had been muddied and polluted by industrialised mining, while thousands upon thousands of other wild animals were shot-out or trapped-out to feed miners and other gold rush opportunists.  Tailors, blacksmiths, guides, carpenters, cooks, saloon-keepers, criminals, pimps, and of course, prostitutes…

By the time most of the prospectors had upped-sticks and left for warmer climes after the gold rush, local tribes such as the Han, Tagish, Tutchone, and Tlingit had been left reeling – from disease, the introduction of alcohol into their communities, and worst of all, the breakdown of old trade networks and the near extermination of much wildlife in many areas – wildlife which had traditionally sustained them for centuries, for millennia.

Added to this catastrophe was the 19th century Pacific whaling industry, which did for indigenous coastal dwellers what gold miners had done to the northwestern interior.

Enter a Coast Guard captain from Georgia named Michael Healy – runaway son of a slaveholding Irishman from County Roscommon and his “consort” Mary Eliza Clark – an enslaved woman who was eventually freed.

Healy, a man beset by his own demons and no stranger to the bottle, nonetheless saw the hungry and impoverished plight of the Alaskan Inuit, and being a fundamentally decent man, determined to help them in some way.

Long story short, having seen the reindeer herders of Siberia on his many travels aboard ship, Michael Healy suggested to Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the Commissioner of Education in Alaska and a Presbyterian minister, that the Coast Guard might replenish devastated wildlife stocks by transporting entire herds of Siberian reindeer to Alaska by sea.

The Inuit might be taught to become self-sufficient herdsmen rather than hunters, the reasoning went.

Jackson bought into the idea, and funds for the project were raised through private and government sources.

The first reindeer arrived, with Siberian herdsmen brought to Alaska as instructors.  These Siberians soon departed due to cultural differences with the Inuit.

And so began one of the strangest episodes of immigration in American history.

Families and groups of Sámi people from Scandinavia (the people formerly known as “Laplanders”), reindeer experts par excellence, were brought to Alaska instead.

This time all parties got on well, the project took proper root, and the Alaska Reindeer Service was born.

Perhaps the natural amity between Sámi  and Inuit should surprise no one, as the Sámi, just like indigenous Americans, had experienced ethnic discrimination and cultural genocide in their rightful and ancient homelands.

The attitude of Siberian reindeer to all of this remains unclear…


#MichaelHealy  #AlaskaHistory  #MixedEthnic  #Inuit  #Saami  #reindeer

Francis Scott Key and Taking the Knee

Colin Kaepernick kneeling with San Francisco 49ers team-mates during the national anthem

Colin Kaepernick kneeling with San Francisco 49ers team-mates during the national anthem


What is represented by kneeling?

Subservience?  Obedience?  Humility?  Religiosity?  Divisiveness?

It all depends on the witness, of course, and their angle of observation.

What is the meaning of a clenched fist salute?

Pride?  Solidarity?  Defiance?  Triumphalism?  Black anger?

In America, as ever, meaning is only inferred and attached to gestures and symbols after checking the ethnicity and skin colour of the person using them.

“Respect the flag” and “Respect the national anthem” are phrases used ad nauseum by a certain American sub-culture, a sub-culture which has loaded their own meaning onto a piece of cloth and a tortured melody.

“Respect the flag” and “Respect the national anthem” actually mean “See what I see, feel what I feel, believe what I believe”.

People who wrap themselves in the red, white, and blue do not want to allow others to ascribe their own meanings to the symbols around them, because such free-thinking might leave the back door ajar to the storm raging outside the cosy confines of the home kitchen.

This national anthem now so deeply-imbued with patriotic meaning only became the “national anthem” in the formal sense in 1931.

Most American schoolchildren know that the words to the song now called The Star-Spangled Banner were written by a certain Francis Scott Key, after he witnessed the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry near Baltimore, Maryland in 1814, following the British overnight bombardment of the fort during the War of 1812.

Francis Scott Key.  Patriot.  End of lesson.

But wait.  “Angles of observation”, and all that.

What do many “white” Christian nationalist flag-wavers claim to loathe the most?  Liberal East Coast elites?  High-falutin’ lawyer types?

When it comes to Francis Scott Key, they can start ticking those boxes.

The music to this “sacred” anthem was actually lifted from a drinking song once popular in fancy English gentlemen’s clubs.

And Francis Scott Key would have been plenty familiar with “fancy” things, as he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth into a well-to-do East Coast planter family.  Mr. Key enjoyed his excellent view of Fort McHenry not from inside the fort alongside the soldiers, but from the deck of a British warship where he had been enjoying the finest of wines while negotiating the exchange of some prisoners, including a physician friend.  In fairness, Key had already done a brief stint with a local militia, but common soldiering wasn’t really his thing.

Francis Scott Key was a lawyer.  And a slaveholder.  And much like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, two elitist hypocrites from the generation preceding him, Mr. Key often expressed his dislike of the cruelties perpetrated within the institution of slavery.

But Key didn’t actually disapprove of slavery, he merely disapproved of slaveholders who were less benevolent than himself.  Mr. Key often represented (at no cost) abused slaves petitioning for their freedom.  But his benevolent “great white father” hand-wringing did not stop his law practice from helping so-called “good” slaveholders to reclaim their “property”.  Mr. Key used the niceties of American law to help bring runaway slaves to “justice” – that is to say, back into their legally sanctioned condition of lifelong servitude.

A law firm’s books must be balanced, of course.  Fine wine isn’t cheap.

While he was outwardly a devoutly religious man, Francis Scott Key fought strenuously against the abolitionist sentiment taking root within his religious circles.

Mr. Key would have been able to accept the end of slavery, BUT ONLY IF ALL FREED SLAVES WERE ABLE TO BE EXPEDITED OUT OF AMERICA AND “BACK” TO AFRICA.

By the end of his life, Francis Scott Key‘s vociferous opposition to abolition was so pronounced that he was actually perceived as a dangerous sympathiser with the southern cause.  And while we cannot pick our relatives, it is interesting to note that Mr. Key’s sister Anne married a certain Roger Brooke Taney in 1806 – the man who would go on to be the Chief Justice who penned the infamous “Dred Scott” decision of 1857 which helped to hasten the start of the Civil War.

Here are his words:

“It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”

In other words, supporters of slavery, while claiming to be Constitutional “originalists”, felt that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of contemporary attitudes and views.

This also shows that social conservatives can, in fact, be weirdly “progressive” in their interpretation of the Constitution – when it suits them.

Put even more clearly, the US Supreme Court ruled that since the majority of voting Americans had decided over time that African-Americans were “not quite human”, it was therefore constitutionally legal to withhold any “human rights”.

I have no idea whether the foregoing has informed the men and women “taking the knee” during the national anthem in recent years.  Probably not.




But one thing is certain.  Symbols are powerful, and symbols are loaded with dreams, presumptions, and yes, hatreds.

Why should Colin Kaepernick and others like him be expected to “respect the flag”, or to “respect the anthem”?  Why?  When did this flag and this anthem really begin to represent ALL Americans?

1865?  1964?  Yesterday?  Ever?

The American flag and national anthem are symbols often most beloved by those who do not respect Mr. Kaepernick, his community, or his community’s right to social justice, free speech and legitimate protest.

The biggest flag-wavers of all believe THEY are entitled to storm and vandalise the nation’s capitol on the basis of fake grievances, knowing their “champion” is prepared to pardon their violence.

Meanwhile, a silent minute or two on bended knee to highlight real social injustice causes spittle-flecked rage.

But hey.

Betsy Ross sewed a flag.

And Francis Scott Key was a patriot.

End of lesson.


#TakingTheKnee  #FrancisScottKey  #BlackLivesMatter

Abraham Lincoln: The Early Years

Abraham Lincoln, circa 1846

Abraham Lincoln, circa 1846


Photo of a certain lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, perhaps 35 years of age.

About the year 1846.

At the time, about 1 in 50 residents of Sangamon County, Illinois were enumerated on US census forms as “free people of color”.

The ratio of those enumerated as “free colored” – as opposed to “white” – in these 19th century census returns tells only a small part of a broader ethnic story.

Only a fraction of families with members who were mixed-ethnic, or “people of color” at this point in American history were actually enumerated as such.

If the head of household was seen as “acting white” (voting, paying taxes, serving on juries, owning property, attending church), local census enumerators were unlikely to insist on noting the brown complexion of a man or his wife.

Or the particularly dark skin of three of his eight children…

Many of these mixed-ethnic families living in places like southern Illinois had moved north during the early and mid 1800s to avoid the increasingly repressive laws being passed in states like Tennessee – laws intended to disenfranchise mixed-ethnic voters.

It is very common today among apologists for “The Southern Cause” to claim that Abraham Lincoln only signed the Emancipation Proclamation reluctantly, as a tactical move in order to weaken The South, and that his only real interest was in preserving The Union.

This is forgetting that Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer before he was a politician.  He was not stupid.

This smart lawyer from Kentucky, earning a crust in Sangamon County, Illinois, had a clear feel for The Long Game.

Those who have listened to our recent podcast episode How Lovely Are Thy Branches, will have learned a little bit about Abraham Lincoln‘s complicated ethnic back story.

Mr. Lincoln used his razor-sharp awareness of the subtleties of case law to help some of these multi-ethnic Illinois citizens avoid legal troubles in the years just before the Civil War.

Trouble which arrived because certain racist Illinois citizens and lawmakers began to find creative ways around the state’s 1848 anti-slavery constitution.

This “trouble” involved attempts to strip all civil rights from free persons of color – the right to own property, the right to attend schools, the right to vote, the right to state citizenship.

Even more terrifying for free people of color was the constant fear of violence or being kidnapped outright by thugs and sold “down the river” into slavery.

If Lincoln moved with legislative caution as president (as regards slavery and the rights of people of color), it was not due to any latent racism or lack of empathy on his part.

Lincoln was himself part of Old Mix America, and he knew it.

And as a man trained and experienced in law, while proceeding with compassion and steady wisdom, he also had an acute awareness of the practical limitations of power.

A saint?  No.

The mass hanging of Dakota prisoners of war the day after Christmas 1862 was an outrage, and a permanent stain on American history.

Lincoln could have refused to sign the order.

But it is likely that Euro-American coloniser militias would have then promptly withdrawn political support for Lincoln in the middle of a Civil War, and probably launched their own local war seeking the outright extermination of every Indian in Minnesota.

I’m not wise enough to know whether, on balance, Lincoln’s presidency made the world a better or worse place.  But in his youth at least, he did seem to advocate for some of those being chewed-up by a white supremacist Manifest Destiny.

No, Lincoln was not a saint.  But then, who is?

Was he about as good as the USA is ever likely to get from a leader?



#BeforeWeWereWhite #AbrahamLincoln #SystemicRacism

Sing and Swing

Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, 1920s

Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band, 1920s


The two earliest distinctly American music forms – country music and the blues – are usually presumed to be a clear evolution of “white” and “black” musical traditions.

In other words, country music is presumed to find its ultimate origins in European music, while the blues are presumed to be rooted in African culture.

Regarding country music in particular, some people go even further, and attempt to pin its origins in specifically in the Protestant communities of 1700s Northern Ireland.

I’ve already written elsewhere and at length as to why this is a belief without foundation, so we’ll skip that argument for now.

Today, let’s throw another cat among the pigeons.

What if the blues didn’t originate in Africa at all?

Before anyone spits out their coffee, thinking it might be my intention to rob the blues from the early African-American musicians and singers who played and sang it, catch a breath and read on…


Let’s travel back in time to 1920s America, after the First World War, but before the Great Wall Street Crash of ’29.

The recording industry was still in its infancy, but showing signs of the boom to come.

Ethno-musicologists began to traipse into the mountains, swamps, and other rural places of America in order to document and collect old-time American folk music before it could be drowned under the oncoming tidal wave of record industry-produced “popular music”.

This was the golden age of field recording, and it was the first time that many of America’s city dwellers got to hear “Old Time” or “Blues” records, instead of marching bands and la-la-la songbirds and nasal crooners.

It is an old truism that people tend to see and notice the things they are looking for in the first place.  I have often said that Buddhists do not tend to see the face of Jesus on burnt toast.

The same could be said of music history.  People hear what they are expecting to hear.

Some of these early field recorders (like Alan Lomax), were magpies, eager to record and collect just about anything.

Other early field recorders of American folk music came looking to “collect” specific things.

Recorders like Cecil Sharp were specifically looking for connections between Southern Appalachian ballads and traditional English folk songs, hoping to draw a line of cultural continuity between musical traditions largely disappeared from an industrialised England, and a living tradition still clinging-on in rural Appalachia.

These folk historians, field recorders, and music enthusiasts did not say “Let’s just record everything we hear, and let others figure out where it came from”.

Even the most enlightened and sympathetic musicologists carried certain presumptions about the origins of the music they were documenting in the 1920s – whether it was the music being played and sung by “white” mountain folks, or by African-Americans.

Most of these early recorders and collectors of “black music” in particular just presumed that African-American musical traditions could – and should – be traceable back along a river with its ultimate source in Africa.

So these early recorders and collectors of “negro music” tended to focus on collecting music which THEY perceived as being distinctly “African-American music”, BECAUSE THEY HAD NO OTHER REFERENCE POINT FOR IT.

This act of unconscious “curation on the hoof” is why old-time ballads were more often recorded in Appalachian homes, and the blues were more often recorded in the Deep South.

This is also how “old-time” or “hillbilly” music (later called “country” music) came to be seen solely as “white” music, with the blues seen solely as “black” music.

If early field recorders of American folk music had chosen to simply record EVERYTHING being sung by “black”, “white”, and “brown” folks, a different picture might have emerged – one in which the lines between musical genres were far more fluid and blurred, with multiple styles being sung and played by all ethnic groups.

America being America – a nation built on capitalism and a racial caste system – music soon became a marketable and controllable commodity, and musical forms had to be slotted into “racial” categories in order to be marketed to their “target audience”.

Under the American binary race system, the music of the rural hinterlands and heartlands had to be clearly divisible into a European tradition, and an African tradition.

But that’s not how music works, and has never been how music works.


Let’s set aside for the time being the old-time ballads and blues laments which were being sung into a can for field recorders, and ask ourselves a question.

What would any of us – black, white, or other – sing or play into a microphone for a stranger who came asking for an old song today?

Would we sing the oldest one we knew?  Our favorite?  The one best suited to our own voice?  The one we remembered all the verses to?  The one our old fingers could pick on a banjo or guitar without stumbling?

As a child of the 60s and 70s, most of the songs I might be able to belt out today at a drunken karaoke night were written or performed by people like Sam Cooke, Waylon Jennings, or Simon and Garfunkel.

Does this say anything concrete about my ethnic background?

Of course, I have had access to far more musical variety than rural dwellers of the 1920s, but still.  Did the choice of music played and sung by people – even then – really say anything concrete about their ancestry?

So let’s leave aside “party pieces”, and ask what was actually happening on the ground during the 1920s – at county fairs, at medicine shows, in dancehalls and roadhouses…

What was being played and recorded in the 1920s by less self-conscious rural people when they felt unconstrained by ethnographers or researchers?

The answer would be mostly folk songs, ballads, gospel music, blues, rag and ragtime, swing, and early jazz.

And if we look back now – again with no agenda – and ask which ethnic groups were playing and recording all this music during the 1920s, what would the answer be?

The answer would be EVERYBODY.  Black, white, brown, or red.

Now, I can hear some people already saying “Okay, sure.  But you’re still talking about a mix of “black” and “white” musical traditions.  Blues music is still a “black” tradition, and country music is still a “white” tradition.”

Not so fast.

Ask yourself this.

Does the western swing music of Bob Wills or the yodelling of Jimmie Rodgers REALLY have any parallel in the ballad and folk traditions of the British Isles?

Can anyone, anywhere, actually demonstrate a clear similarity between southern blues and any traditional musical forms of West Africa?

Maybe, just maybe, the thing which nudged both African and European musical traditions into a distinctly “American” space was the 400-year-long influence of indigenous American music.

Chants.  Call and response.  Was the “chicka-ching” of indigenous dance the inspiration for swing?  And if it was, the very essence of jazz is “swing”…


This is not the place to recount the decades in which Euro-Americans shared a common physical and cultural space with the Cherokee, Choctaw, and other tribes in North Carolina, East Tennessee, Mississippi and North Georgia.

The decades before “The Trail of Tears” and wider Indian removal to reservations.

This is also not the place to explain how the Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw (often as slaveholders), left an indelible cultural and genetic imprint on African-American peoples for centuries.

But this IS the place for asking why almost no one remembers that early blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) were part-descended from Choctaw people.

It is also a good place to mention that musicians like Howlin’ Wolf thoroughly idolised singers like Jimmie Rodgers.

Finally, it is a good place to ask why Choctaw Indian musical groups like Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band were making proto-western swing music in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, years before Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys made the genre famous…


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #history  #ethnomusicology  #swing  #jazz  #folk  #CountryMusic  #IndigenousMusic

Social Media and Before We Were White

Mastodon logo, large

Mastodon logo


In light of the ongoing deterioration in the corporate-owned social media landscape, Before We Were White blog and podcast has:

1)  Shut down its Twitter account altogether

2) Begun a winding-down of activity on Facebook

3) Begun adding podcast audio and bonus content to the Before We Were White YouTube channel

4) Established a profile and presence on the Mastodon open-source micro-blogging network


The problems with Twitter since its takeover by Elon Musk are well-documented.  Those interested in a deeper understanding of moral hazard and Facebook might consider reading this essay by multi-award-winning journalist Carole Cadwalladr.

At any rate, thank you in the first instance for being here, on this website.

You can also find us on Mastodon at this link:


Looking forward to hearing from you soon!



Lisa Marie Presley and Ghosts of the Past

Lisa Marie Presley in 1990, and members of her father's Smith and Mansell family

Lisa Marie Presley in 1990, and members of her father’s Smith and Mansell family


Thinking about the untimely demise of Lisa Marie Presley has brought to mind all of the speculation found online over many years regarding the ethnic origins of her famous father.

Elvis has at various times been said to have had Cherokee, English, Choctaw, Jewish, German, Romani, Scottish, French, Dutch, or Danish roots.

This broad range of purported ethnicities reflects the difficulty in trying to untangle the genealogy of anyone with deep ancestry among the American underclasses.

A few people have pulled me up in the past regarding the use of the term “underclasses”, perhaps believing that the term carries some sort of value judgment.

This is not the case.

“Underclasses” refers to those people who, often through no fault of their own, struggled to gain a foothold in society – whether in terms of education, economic success, social acceptance, or access to the various levers of power.

One thing in American history was always a stone cold fact.

Being seen as anything outside “respectable white Christian” society was a ticket to nowhere.

The climb from “white trash”, “colored”, or “mulatto” into respectability was often a generations-long project.

The very first step in this project always began with religion.

Many evangelical Americans like to believe that America has always been a devout Christian nation, yet large swathes of its “white” underclasses share early roots among communities who practiced a myriad of religious faiths.   We are speaking primarily, but not exclusively, of indigenous and “black” communities here.

Think about it.

For people of color, a profession of Christian faith was the absolute bare minimum required in order to even be considered human.

For dirt-poor “white folks”, a profession of Christian faith cost no money, and instantly elevated a person into a position among “a more decent class of folks”.

The long – and not always successful – journey towards self-respect, education, and economic security could now begin…

The raw charisma and talent of Elvis Presley allowed him to leapfrog the generations it usually took most people of his background to reach “respectability”.

Maybe the jump from poor Mississippi underclass to international stardom was simply too much for a simple man to process.  Maybe trans-generational troubles caught-up with his daughter, too.

This is all just musing, because no one can be inside another person’s head.

But one thing is certain.

Having indigenous American, Romani Gypsy, African-American, Jewish, or any other “non-white” ancestry in early American history was not a good starting point for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

#BeforeWeWereWhite #LisaMariePresley #ElvisPresley #RagsToRiches

Music Without A Color

In the Pines, an American folk song first recorded in 1926 by Doctor Coble “Dock” Walsh, old-time banjo player from North Carolina.

Most folks agree that this song (also known as Where Did You Sleep Last Night) is a mash-up of at least two or three older ballads including Black Girl and The Longest Train, both thought to have been written sometime around the 1870s.

Probably made most famous by Lead Belly in the 1940s, the song has also been notably performed by bands such as Nirvana, during their MTV Unplugged session in 1993.

This song and recording is particularly interesting, because it was recorded before record companies had split old time music into genres, in order to market it to specific audiences – with some music identified as being “by whites” and “for whites”, and other music identified as being intrinsically “black”.

Before the Great Depression, there were no clear lines separating folk songs, blues songs, dance tunes, murder ballads, western swing, or songs of the Gospel and salvation, and the rural poor who enjoyed this music came from all ethnic groups – including American Indian peoples.

The music of Huddie William Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly, is a case in point.  For much of his career, Lead Belly would have been heard singing folk songs – the same folk songs which would later be marketed as “hillbilly” music, and even later, as “country music”.  Between marketing and the tastes of later music enthusiasts, people in the 1960s and 1970s came to see singers like Lead Belly primarily as blues singers.  English rock bands of the 1960s – who were huge fans of American blues recordings – had a huge hand in this, often citing artists such as Lead Belly and Howlin’ Wolf among their influences.

So much so, that when Kurt Cobain introduced this song during Nirvana‘s unplugged session, he wrongly credited Lead Belly as its writer, presuming the song to be a vintage blues number.

The ballad has been variously interpreted as being a song about infidelity, retribution, tragic death, or brutal lynching – its opacity probably part of what makes it so haunting.


In the pines, in the pines where the sun never shined
And I shivered when the cold wind blow

Oh, if I minded what Grandma said, oh were would I’ve been tonight
I’d’ve been in the pines where the sun never shined, and then shiverin’ when the cold wind blows

The longest train I ever saw went down the Georgia line
The engine, it stopped at a six-mile post, the cabin never left the town

Now darling, now darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shined and I shivered when the cold winds blow

The prettiest little girl that I ever saw was walking down the line
Her hair, it was of a curly type, her cheeks were rosy red

Now darling, now darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines and I shivered when the cold winds blow

The train run back one mile from town and killed my girl, you know
Her head was caught in the driver wheel, her body I never could find

Now darling, now darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shine and I shivered when the cold winds blow

The best of friends has to part some time, then why not you and I

Now darling, oh darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shine and I shivered when the cold winds blow

Oh, a transfer station has brought me here, take a-money for to carry me away

Now darling, now darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shine and I shivered when the cold winds blow


#ethnomusicology #DockWalsh #LeadBelly #Nirvana