No One Gets Out of Here With Clean Hands

Still visible ruts from wagons on the Trail of Tears, Cross County, Arkansas

Still visible ruts from wagons on the Trail of Tears, Cross County, Arkansas


The Cherokee of Southern Appalachia (well, some of the Cherokee), made a deal with The Devil, and lost.

I have already written elsewhere that history is a dance between our unwritten stories, our handed-down folklore, and the things people actually wrote down at the time events were unfolding.

The “art” of history is the way we choose to interpret these sources, and how much weight we choose to give one source over another.

I am almost 60, have read voraciously every day since the age of five, and have yet to find any group of people anywhere who are fully truthful about their past.  This applies especially to peoples who have regularly engaged in warfare, and even more especially to peoples who have engaged in colonialism or the slave trade.

Over 6,000 years ago, people were already fiddling with the historical record, trying to make their monuments look older than they actually were.


An attempt to legitimise their occupation of land.

A way to claim that “We have a RIGHT to be here. Look! Our ancestors have ALWAYS been here.”

It is vanishingly rare for any group to simply steal another’s land, or take another’s freedom, without trying to concoct some outlandish justification.

This is of course proof that bad people know, have always known, that what they do is wrong.




Seeing indigenous Americans through our post-modern neo-hippy eyeglasses reveals nothing to us about real history.

The tribes and nations of North America before European contact were not some monolith.  They were not all living peacefully in a state of grace with their neighbors and Mother Nature.  They made war, and they made mistakes, as humans do.  They were as varied as people anywhere else in the world at the time, much as the culture of medieval England was utterly different to that of medieval Greece.

And the Algonquian peoples of Eastern North America were utterly different to, say, the Comanche of the American plains.  The former did not torture or rape female war captives.  The latter did.

Which is to say, ultimately, that American Indians were not childlike innocents living in some universal social utopia, nor were they simply victims lacking any personal or communal agency.   Like the Britons facing the Romans, the Romano-Britons facing the Saxons, or the Saxons facing the Vikings, the peoples of pre-European America had to make some serious decisions…

Back to the Cherokee.  While some groups of Cherokee like the Chickamauga battled European encroachers throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s, right to the bitter end, others read the runes of the future, and decided that in order to survive as a people, they would need to abandon many of their old ways.  Because they were already a semi-settled farming people, these Cherokee sought to integrate their culture, at least partly, to the culture of the incoming “whites”.

Part of this deal with The Devil included embracing the institution of color-based slavery.

Having embraced (or at least accepted) much of European-American culture, and with intermarriage between both communities widespread, the Cherokee had perhaps some cause to feel some optimism for their future as a people.

Their optimism was misplaced.  Human greed is endless, and the excuses for greed are infinite.

Colonisers wanted land.  Cheap land, free land.

The concocted racist justifications which let American colonisers get rich off the labor of African slaves were employed again, this time to rob the Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Cherokee of their homes.

It’s very odd how flag-waving “patriots” and humans in general conveniently forget the ugly details of colonisation.  People have a silly, vague idea that “roaming Indians” were just somehow “moved on”.  Nothing is said of brutal, often drunken US militia kicking down doors, burning down houses, driving the elderly, women and children (often of mixed ethnicity) into squalid, disease-ridden, overcrowded wooden stockades, like cattle, to be held in what can only be called concentration camps.  No one ever mentions that the Cherokee were not cleared from a “wilderness”.  They were removed from actual houses, in towns with shops and schools, and the usurpers got to move onto well-tended Cherokee farmland, and into their actual houses.




Mainstream history does usually mention this illegal removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral homelands in the Deep South and Southern Appalachia during the late 1830s.

But it is worth noting that this removal of people to less desirable lands, mainly in Oklahoma, was illegal.

And by illegal, we don’t just mean “immoral” – we mean ILLEGAL, as in US Supreme Court ILLEGAL.

Most have heard of this “Trail of Tears“, and most see it rightly as a foul blot on American history.

The Cherokee dealt with The Devil and lost.

But even the Cherokee never lost as much as the African-American slaves of the Creek and Cherokee, who were made to trudge that same “Trail of Tears”.

Funny how THAT tragedy is almost univerally forgotten…


#BeforeWeWereWhite #TrailOfTears #cherokee #HistoryOfSlavery

Yes Virginia, There is an American Culture

Repeat an idea often enough within a cultural space, and people will eventually assume it must be true.

In Southern Appalachia, the pre-eminence ascribed to “Scots-Irish” cultural influence – especially as regards music – has been repeated so often that people have come to take it “as Gospel”.

These constantly repeated American assumptions have even created a “feedback loop”, in which modern Northern Irish Protestants take it as given that their culture is “Ground Zero” for the culture and music of Appalachia.

This “Scots-Irish equals Appalachia” nexus is simply untrue.

The music played in the inns, taverns, ordinarys, public houses, and indeed the brothels, of colonial America was largely the product of 17th and 18th century English and Scottish broadsheet balladry.

A song like this – I Wish My Baby Was Born – used in the soundtrack to the Civil War-era film Cold Mountain (and thus seen as exemplary of “old-timey” mountain music) has clear roots in early 17th century English ballads about girls in English ports lamenting their sailor sweethearts who “love ’em and leave ’em”.

This Northern English and Scottish music would of course have informed and influenced the music of Northern Ireland – after all, 17th century Ulster was being colonised by Englishmen, Scots, and Welshmen.

But to see this music as quintessentially “Scots-Irish” is a nonsense.

A song perhaps first heard in a dockside tavern in Bristol, England way back in 1630 might have travelled along many, many tracks and byroads before ending-up in the hills along the North Carolina/Virginia border. The song could have reached America via sailors from any port in England, Ireland, Wales, or Scotland (and probably arrived via multiple routes).

So just because one Appalachian family claiming “Scots-Irish” ancestry was known to play a certain old folk song or fiddle tune, does not in any way make that song or fiddle tune particularly “Scots-Irish“.

17th century fiddle tunes and popular ballads were quite literally the pop charts of their day – not some ancient “proof of ethnicity”, fossilised in amber.

The Ulster Irish were just one of many ethnic groups bringing the same “pop music” with them on their colonialist voyage along the American frontier…

The Gaelic still spoken by some Highland Scots – to this very day – DID actually originate in Northern Ireland (Dalriada) during the Middle Ages, but no one would dream of calling the traditional culture and music of today’s Scottish Highlanders “Irish”.

The idea of profoundly mixed-ethnic Appalachians citing one or two remote ancestors from three centuries ago (along with a 17th and 18th century musical style which spanned the entire British Isles) as evidence of a clear present-day “Scots-Irish” ethnicity, is simply ridiculous.

Music, food, and language change to suit their surroundings, much in the way St. Nicholas has been transformed over centuries to match the needs of Slavs, Germans, French, English, Dutch, and Americans.

Sometimes it really is correct to just call some things “American”, and accept the multi-ethnic history which goes with it.

If there has to be an original wellspring for old time music, it will be found closer to Knoxville than Belfast.

#BeforeWeWereWhite #OldTimeMusic #ethnomusicology